Vol. III, No. 1, Summer 1989
by Claire F. Blackwell
Tucked away on a hillside in rural Franklin County, in the heart of the "Missouri Rhineland," stands a structure of great importance in the history of German settlement in Missouri, the Pelster housebarn. A rare surviving example of a house and barn combined in one structure, the housebarn provides a unique opportunity for understanding the German-American experience in Missouri.
Constructed by Lutheran German immigrant Friederich Wilhelm (William) Pelster (1825-1908), the housebarn was designed to shelter the Pelster family, livestock, and farm activities under one roof. The housebarn form and substantial Fachwerk construction are a reflection of old-world traditions, and as such, provide a concrete statement of German cultural identity. However, while strongly based in conservative tradition, the housebarn also reflects adaptation to new-world conditions, preferences, and materials. For these reasons, the Pelster housebarn is a strong symbol of the Missouri-German immigrant spirit, the spirit that strove to maintain strong ties with past roots while embracing the advantages of the American frontier.
The Pelster family was part of the wave of German immigrants who sought refuge or fortune in America during the period between 1832 and the mid- 1850s. Economic and political upheaval, social turmoil, and religious persecution were among the reasons for emigration; many of the emigrants were attracted to Missouri as a result of travel guides published by Gottfried Duden and others in the 1830s, which painted Missouri in glowing, if overly romanticized, terms. Emigrating from the village of Dissen,* near Osnabruck, Hannover, in northern Germany, Philipp Friederich Pelster arrived in Missouri in 1842 accompanied by his wife Maria Katherine and their sons Rodolph and Wilhelm. They purchased land from the United States government near Port Hudson in Franklin County.
As was common practice among German immigrants, the Pelsters constructed a temporary log
dwelling before embarking on the construction of a more permanent, and more Germanic,
Fachwerk structure. The loghouse remains today, along with a substantial, double-crib log barn.
William undoubtedly participated in their building, but eventually he set off to find employment at a clay mine or brick factory in St. Louis. (According to family tradition, he made the 60-mile trek on foot.) He was 32 before he accrued enough wealth to purchase his own land in Franklin County in 1856, about four miles west of his father's property.
Like his father, William first built a temporary log dwelling. While that structure no longer remains, evidence of its foundation was located by researchers from the Missouri Cultural Heritage Center ca. 1982. The archaeological remains suggested that it was a two-room dwelling situated on a hillside, with a stone foundation under the northern half.
No written documentation exists to confirm the date of construction of the housebarn. According to oral tradition, construction was begun on the eve of the Civil War, interrupted by a Confederate raid, and completed after the war. County tax assessment records, which show an increase in William Pelster's property value in 1867, would seem to corroborate the post-war completion theory.
Pelster's first wife, Katherine Wilhelmine, died before construction of the housebarn. He married again twice (Maria Stockkamp and Rebekah Kruetzer), and raised a total of ten children. The housebarn was occupied by Pelster family members for more than sixty years.
An intriguing question is why William Pelster decided to build a housebarn for his permanent homeplace. Although common in Germany, the housebarn as a type rarely survived the transposition of European culture in America. In Europe, where a long tradition of housebarn construction existed, where land and construction costs were high, and where consolidation of farm enterprises in one structure may have been desirable for reasons of practicality and security, housebarns were common. The situation was much different in America. Abundance of cheap land, availability of timber, and a general taste for freedom and comfort augured against the survival of the housebarn. Social pressures likely contributed as well, for non-Germanic settlers may have frowned on the peasant custom of human and animal cohabitation.
If other housebarns were built in Missouri, they have not survived. In fact the Pelster housebarn is one of only a dozen or so remaining in America. Housebarns of varying form and construction have been identified in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, and Texas. The Pelster housebarn has closest affinity with the Wisconsin examples, which were built by German immigrants to Dodge and Manitowoc Counties. Notably, the Lutze, Zimmel, and Langholf housebarns are of half-timbered construction; however, only the Lutze housebarn is sheathed with sawn weatherboards. In contrast to the Pelster housebarn, which was intended as a permanent dwelling, the Wisconsin examples were built as initial structures and later abandoned upon the construction of detached dwellings.
While Pelster's choice of the housebarn form was atypical, his decision to build with heavy timbers was more predictable. Many German settlers in Missouri built temporary dwellings of horizontal log construction, but they invariably selected masonry or half-timbering for their permanent homes. Known in Germany as Fachwerkbau, half-timbering was common there from medieval times until the nineteenth century, when it was introduced to America during the successive phases of German immigration. Used only by Germans, Fachwerkbau in Missouri was never assimilated into the mainstream of building traditions and thus remains a distinguishing feature of Missouri German structures.
The Pelster Housebarn is a fine example of Fachwerk construction. Massive, white-oak timbers, hewn to desired size and shape with a broad axe, form the framing. All joints are expertly mortised, tenoned, and secured with wood pegs; no nails are used. Insulation for certain areas of the structure is provided by noggings of limestone and plaster laid between the framing members. In keeping with old-world traditions, each section of the frame bears a chiseled Roman numeral, designating its place in the structure. Pieces were undoubtedly laid out on the ground and assembled. Then each section, or "bent," was raised individually braced, while the next bent was assembled on the ground.
Although constructed basically in the Germanic tradition, the Pelster housebarn exhibits certain features which reflect an adaptation to the Missouri climate and way of life. For example, the practice of sheathing buildings with weatherboarding was uncommon in Germany, primarily due to the shortage of lumber there. The practice was common in Missouri though, probably as a result of both the severity of the climate and the availability of timber. The Pelster housebarn was obviously built with the intention of weatherboarding, for nogging was not used between the timbers in the house section and was not continued to the full height of the barn section.
The design and siting of the Pelster housebarn also reflect an adaptation to the demands or preferences of American life. Rather than occupying valuable flat land, the structure is located on a hillside, with the lower level banked so as to provide maximum benefit from the southwestern breeze and to clearly separate the animals from the family. The exterior of the house section incorporates a cut-out porch, sheltered under the main roof and supported by turned posts. (The original porch design, as shown in early twentieth-century photographs, featured chamfered posts and a lattice-work railing.) The combination of hillside siting, weatherboarding, visible porch, and gabled wagon entrance creates a distinctive appearance not found in other housebarn construction in America.
The tradition of combining house and barn under one roof is of primitive ancestry. Examples are found in the British Isles, Germany, Holland, Switzerland, and Italy. In the 14th century in Holland and northern Germany, structures were built to shelter humans and livestock together, often without benefit of partitions between living and stabling areas. Known in Holland as the los hoes and in Germany as the Hallenhaus, this type was longitudinally oriented, with the house section occupying one end and the barn section the other. Wagon doors on the gable end of the barn section led to a central threshing hall. This basic type, with regional variations and modifications over the years, was still being built in northern Europe in the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries.
In Switzerland and the southern Alpine region of Germany, housebarns assumed a different form; these structures were often banked into the slope of a hillside, with the ground level serving as a stable. While the rear wall of the stable was insulated by the hill, the front was oriented to receive maximum benefit from the sun and wind. The upper level contained the living quarters, storage areas, and threshing hall, which was reached via an inclined ramp. In some cases a hay loft was added on the third level.
The Pelster housebarn has much in common with the latter type. It utilizes the slope of a hillside to advantage and is comprised of a complex arrangement of interior levels. Current research suggests that the Pelster housebarn may combine a southwest European plan with a northern European construction technique. However, considerable research remains to be done in the area of comparative analysis.
The Pelster housebarn measures approximately 60' in width by 53' in depth. The half-timbered superstructure rests on a massive stone foundation, 24' thick, which is fully visible on the west (rear) elevation and almost completed banked into the hillside on the east (front) elevation. The half-timbered construction is masked completely by weatherboarding. According to family history, the exterior weatherboarding was painted a dark yellow.
A steeply pitched gabled roof covers the structure, sloping down on the east elevation to shelter a porch on the south (house) end and an enclosed storage area on the north. The center of the primary elevation is marked by a gabled wagon entrance, measuring about 10' in height and 6' in width, which extends through the main roofline. The roof, originally of split shingles, was reputedly the first in Franklin County to be reroofed with galvanized metal. The interior of the housebarn consists of four separate levels, divided into special-use areas to accommodate the Pelster family, livestock, agricultural activities, and storage of produce and farm equipment. The southern third of the structure contains the family living quarters. Access to the primary living space, which consists of two twenty-foot-square rooms and a narrow kitchen at the rear, is gained from the front porch on the east. Two low-ceilinged bedrooms are located on the second floor (third level), accessible only from a stairway in the barn, and a food storage cellar is found in the basement (first level). Family history suggests that the front room of the first floor was the "parlor," where visitors were welcomed, and that the middle room served as family living space and bedroom. Cupboards and wardrobes served for storage space, in lieu of built-in closets, and clothing was hung from two poles suspended from the joists in the upstairs bedrooms. Separating the house section from the grain and hay storage area is a broad central hallway or Diele. The two-story Diele is approached through the double wagon doors on the east. The floor is constructed of tongue and groove planks, originally fastened with wooden pegs. (Nails have been added more recently.) Traditionally, the Diele would have been used for threshing as well as unloading hay from wagons. It is uncertain whether the Pelsters used the floor for threshing; apparently William Pelster was not averse to adopting more modern farm technology. In later years the Diele served for equipment and automobile storage.
To the north of the Diele on the second level are located grain storage areas; a hay loft is located above the granaries at the level of the second-floor bedrooms of the house section. A fourth level consists of another hay loft stretching across the southern two-thirds of the structure.
Livestock (cows, horses, and mules) were stabled and fed in the lower level, which is banked into the hillside. According to the Missouri Agricultural Census, in 1870 Pelster had six horses, five milk cows, four other cattle, twenty-four sheep, and eleven swine. The efficiency of the housebarn as a stable is belied somewhat by the reminiscences of grandson Alfred Pelster, who recalled that there was never enough room in the barn for all of the animals.
Preserved largely by virtue of its splendid isolation in rural Franklin County, the Pelster housebarn is an important feature of the cultural landscape and a remarkable example of Missouri-German craftsmanship. Strongly rooted in European tradition the housebarn is not only an expression of ethnic identity, but a symbol of the fierce independence and creativity of its builder William Pelster.
Despite the attention and involvement of these organizations, the future of the Pelster housebarn
is far from secure. Representatives of the Missouri Alliance for Historic Preservation and the
Department of Natural Resources are discussing an agreement that would provide for interim
acquisition of the housebarn under Missouri's Historic Preservation Revolving Fund, allowing
time for cooperative development of protective strategies. Readers are invited to sent suggestions
or contributions to the Historic Preservation Program, Missouri Department of Natural
Resources, P.O. Box 176, Jefferson City MO 65102.
Bergey, Barry. "The Pelster Housebarn: A German-American Landmark in Missouri," Gone West., vol. 1, no. 3 (summer 1983), pp. 5-11.
Marshall, Howard Wight. '"The Pelster Housebarn : German Vernacular Building Traditions in Early Missouri," The German-American Experience in Missouri, eds. Howard Wight Marshall and James W. Goodrich (Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri-Columbia, 1986), pp. 60-83.
Tishler, William, and Witmer, Christopher S. 'The Housebarns of East-Central Wisconsin,' Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, II, ed., Camille Wells (Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1986), pp. 102-110.
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