Zimmerman Barn

Originally published in the Fall 2004 issue of the Iowa Barn Foundation Magazine.
Written by Jan Olive Nash, Iowa City, historian, senior principal, and managing member, at Tallgrass Historians, a cultural resources firm, works with the Iowa Department of Transportation to identify, understand, and document significant historic structures threatened by highway projects. Federal law requires the department to survey, evaluate, and mitigate damage done to the nation's cultural resources in road-building activities. Jan did a lengthy and beautifully written document on the far-reaching history of the Zimmerman barn in Plymouth County. Here she shares some of her interesting findings with us. Highway engineers manage to work around many historic structures, but this one could not be saved and was torn down to make way for Iowa Highway 60 improvement.

The circa 1900 Henry A. Zimmerman and Antje Johnson Wiltz Zimmerman barn is located in Plymouth County in the northwest corner of the state, situated along a set of railroad tracks near the banks of the wide, clear Floyd River. This part of Iowa is flat, given to broad vistas of distant horizons, and effectively marks the entrance to the high Dakota prairies to the west. The barn served a 230-acre farm that sprawled across both sides of the tracks and the Floyd River. The setting was a good choice for Henry A. Zimmerman and his wife, Antje Johnson Wiltz Zimmerman. It was well watered, rich with pasture, and favored with access to the railroad right outside their front door.

With its location close to Sioux City, Plymouth County attracted settlement earlier than the counties to its north. As early as 1856, a few farmers of American and German background filtered in but growth was slow. Fredonia Township recorded its first claim in 1868 on the same land that later became the Zimmerman farm. At the end of that year, construction of a railroad from the east reached the "St. Paul Junction" (Le Mars town site) and suddenly northwest Iowa was connected to the rush of settlers headed west. The county's population rose dramatically until about 1895 when it stabilized. New settlements to northwest Iowa included the Dutch in nearby Sioux County and the well-known Close brothers' efforts to build an English farming colony from the late 1870's to the late 1890's.

By the end of the nineteenth century, German Americans and German and East Frisian immigrants were settling in large numbers in the northwest counties. East Frisia is a region of northern Germany along the coast of Europe that, together with The Netherlands, is often called the Low Country due to its low-relief topography in relation to the North Sea. Parts of the Frisian region are Dutch; other areas have a German culture and heritage.

Changes in European agriculture and urban industrialization led to the huge emigration from Germany in the last half of the nineteenth century. The western regions had a more independent peasantry, in contrast to eastern Germany where large estates had developed. Emigration from northwest Germany, especially, was among the heaviest in the country largely because by law the farms could not be divided among children. Land agents and the personal letters from friends and family already relocated to the U.S. meant a clear choice for many landless German families. The migration stream between Germany and the U.S. that numbered in the thousands in the 18th century grew to the millions by the 19th. German immigrants arriving in the U.S. between 1821 and 1900 topped 5 million. Peak German immigration occurred between 1881 and 1890 with nearly 1.5 million arrivals, outpacing the previous peak of nearly one million reached in the decade before the Civil War.

The Zimmermans arrived during the first mass migration prior to the Civil War and lived in Illinois for several decades. In 1895, however, the couple joined the stream of German immigrants headed for Iowa where large numbers intended to farm. Henry A. Zimmerman (1837-1925) had emigrated from Germany-specifically Ostfriesland or East Frisia-in 1854 as a teenager of only 16. Whether he traveled alone or with relatives is unknown, but family emigration was typical of the northern European pattern, as was Henry's relatively educated status since he could read and write. Zimmerman became a naturalized citizen in 1860 at the age of 20, and served in the Illinois Infantry during the Civil War. In 1866, he married Antje Johnson Wiltz (1849-1913), a young woman of 17 from the region of Hanover, Germany, not far south of East Frisia. They continued to live in Illinois, where they had at least four of their eight children. The last child for whom records could be found, Henry Jr., was born in 1885 in Illinois.

In 1895, after at least 30 years in Illinois, the Zimmermans moved to Iowa where they purchased a Fredonia Township farm from Charles H. Kluckhohn, a Le Mars merchant and German native himself. What prompted the Zimmermans to each leave Germany as young people or to uproot from an established home in Illinois to relocate in Iowa will probably never be known. By the time the Zimmermans relocated to Iowa, they had lived a long time in the United States and surely considered themselves American. The desire for an improved economic situation via owning new land or better land or simply more land was likely a strong factor. Agricultural statistics in northwestern Iowa consistently show farms there were larger there than those in eastern and central counties. By 1895, the northwest counties were moving toward a grain-livestock pattern, planting more oats and corn and raising more cattle and hogs for the nearby Sioux City slaughterhouses. Dairying was also becoming well established. In 1900, milk production supported dozens of local creameries and the northwest counties were gripped in a sort of "creamery craze."

The barn built around 1900 by the Zimmermans on their new Fredonia Township farm mixed old and new building techniques. It combined traditional elements like heavy-timber framing and mortise-and-tenon joinery-perhaps remnants of a childhood spent in the Low Country-with modern technologies and materials like dimension lumber and machined nails. And while its exterior form resembled the cattle feeder barns that became ubiquitous in the central Midwest, its doors and windows, interior floor plan, and construction methods are clearly not those of the modern cattle feeder barn. The core area under the central roof ridge was framed with sawn 6-by-6 uprights resting on concrete footings, while progressively lighter timbers were used towards the perimeter of the barn where side walls were framed with dimension studs. The central hay mow, with its dirt floor, was open to the roof ridge and completely ringed by an elevated platform loft. Enormous amounts of hay could be stored in this barn. Dutch doors and high drop doors of varying sizes gave livestock and people access to the interior as well as permitting delivery of hay to the mows from wagons located outside. Low-roofed sheds on three sides of the central core provided ample room for livestock shelter, whether dairy cows or horse teams.

In many respects, the Zimmerman barn was similar to the Old World "Gulf House" or "Frisia hay barn" of northern Germany. A European dairy belt had developed between the 1600's and the 1800's in this cloudiest, coolest part of northwestern Europe where pasture and hay grew well but wheat and other row crops did not. The shift towards bovine dairying, coupled with the decreasing importance of grain crops, created the need for the Frisian hay barn. Coined the "Gulf House" in 1936 by K. Junge for its "cubic interior storage space," the barn began as a four-post square form, which was later expanded by adding bents. An open central area, in which corn and hay were mounded floor to roof ridge, was surrounded by aisles on three sides and living quarters on the fourth. German scholars theorize that the Frisian hay barn/Gulf House originated in Hollandic West Frisia and spread through the Oldenburg and Hanover areas of East Frisland and on up the right side of the Elbe to North Frisland along the coasts of Holstein and Schleswig up to Denmark. The Gulf House/Frisian hay barn was in widespread use by the middle of the 19th century when the dairy belt was becoming dominant, the marshes of the Low Country were being drained, and Henry Zimmerman was booking passage on a ship bound for America. The connection between Henry's childhood in rural East Frisia in the 1840's and 1850's and his construction 40-plus years later of a barn with a central, earthen-floor hay bay surrounded by three aisles of livestock shelter, in a corner of Iowa enveloped in a creamery boom and well-populated by other East Frisians just seems too much for coincidence. And though this single building cannot make a definitive link between a vernacular European agricultural structure and an Iowa barn of the late nineteenth century, it can strongly suggest some sort of connection to be studied.

In many ways, the mixed traditional and modern nature of the Zimmerman barn reflects the transitional state of agriculture in Iowa at the end of the nineteenth century, as well as the transitional location of the state itself within the nation's agricultural zones. At the end of the 19th century, this barn in this place at this time was at the nexus of change. The name of its carpenter has been lost, but its owner-the one paying the bills and using the barn upon its completion-was a mature agriculturalist nearing the end of his working career. Born in a European country with centuries-old traditions of farming and rural living, Henry and Antje Zimmerman finished their productive lives in a new country, in a freshly settled rural countryside, looking toward a future of agribusiness consolidations and increasingly remote urban markets, rapidly advancing food-processing technologies, and farming with the horsepower of the tractor rather than the horse power of the four-legged hay-eating variety. Western Iowa lacked the rainfall, the 80-acre farms, and the hardwood forests of Eastern Iowa counties, but it was not quite the "West" either, despite the presence of stock farms called ranches and cowboy hats on Sioux City packinghouse workers. The Zimmerman barn and farm were at the intersection of change from multiple perspectives.