Lost Architecture: Pelster House Barn
Pelster House Barn
Traditions can take many forms. Those that remind us of our German heritage can be anything from a children’s fairytales to old buildings. And a building that can teach us about traditions brought to this country by the early emigrants, and which gives us a glimpse into the ‘Old World’ is very special. German born William Pelster built his housebarn on a rolling hillside in Franklin County Missouri in the true fachwerk tradition that his ancestors had used for centuries. Both the building style and the building purpose give us insights into German lifestyles long forgotten.
Friedrich Wilhelm Pelster (1825-1908) had emigrated in 1842 from a village near Osnabrück, in Hannover. A seventeen year old son of emigrant of Phillip Friedrich Pelster (1793-1873) had purchased the family farm which lies south of New Haven on the Missouri River. The area is filled with similar stories and families, as Franklin County was over fifty percent German born families by 1850. Today it is often referred to as the Missouri Rhineland and retains much of its German-American flavor.
A housebarn, which can be referred to as either a Wohnstallhaus or Einhaus, is a single building that combines the typical structure of a barn while providing living space for a family as well. These dual purpose structures provided homes for generations of Germans. They were often a response to the need to shelter a family and its livestock quickly and in close proximity (for safety) to each other. They also could provide a place for the harvest as well. But the need to safely blockade all of ones possessions can grow old. And the desire to refine ones lifestyle to more modern standards (especially for the women) caused the dissolution of such building practices.
The Pelster housebarn reflects a typical middle or southwestern German building style combined with north European construction techniques. Fachwerk is a building method where a structure that is only half-timbered is nogged-in or filled with another building material such as brick or stone. The timbers are only half of the timber providing a framework that forms the grids or blocks of a building that make up the sills, posts, beams, and studs. This huge ‘framework’ is in turned finished with its space filled with brick or other native building material. The idea is similar to early American method of filling the cracks between the logs with noggin in a log cabin, only on a much broader landscape. Originally many of the emigrants from the Osnabrück area built their homes in the blockbau or log construction similar to the Anglo Americans already living in the area.
According to Howard Wight Marshall in The German-American Experience in Missouri published by the University of Missouri in 1986 “the dozen of so housebarn-like structures that survive – there were never many – are located in Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Texas.” Midwest housebarns are unusual examples of settlers with some very special motivations. A true housebarn is not just a house with a barn attached. The whole structure is one concept, a home both for the fruit and livestock of the farm and the family thereof. Since usually such measures were only taken in the initial phase of setting up of a farmstead, these buildings were soon abandoned for what could be considered ‘better’ living arrangements.
However the Pelster housebarn is atypical in this respect. The chronology of the settlement shows that Wilhelm Pelster built a home and barn separately first, and then erected his housebarn. Perhaps this is one reason that the building survives in the 21st Century. While the ideas of the German-Americans were to reject this type of building traditions and anglicize themselves, Pelster chose to embrace it. And while there are several theories as to why the Franklin County farmer chose to do this, the decision was definitely a personal one for Pelster. His one concession was to hide the actual fachwerk and framing style of the building with weatherboard. And so the building appears on the landscape as simply a huge farmhouse complete with a front porch. Only after entering the building is one able to admire the beautiful construction.
Inside the dwelling portions of the house, which are on several levels, the walls are covered with the typical plaster and beaded board fashionable in the day. There are cabinets, double hung windows, floors, and furniture similar to any home. But to enter the next level of the dwelling one re-enters the huge central hallway known as the Diele which is more like what we consider appropriate in a barn. There one climbs the staircase and returns to more rooms decorated and used in typical fashion as bedrooms.
The central hallway has a traditional wooden threshing floor, but we have no evidence to believe Pelster used it for such. In that respect he was a progressive farmer who had the latest American improvements, including the area’s first mechanical corn binder in the area.
On the exterior the building was originally painted yellow when most farmhouses, fachwerk included, were painted white. Today it is weather beaten but still strong, straight and tall. It is a testament to a German emigrant who became an American farmer without forgetting his past. The building represents techniques long forgotten and nearly lost. And its image to this day symbolizes how a building crafted of old world German techniques can remind us of our heritage and thus another tradition not be lost.
© 2002 Dorris Keeven-Franke