In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

The Barns of the St. John River Valley: Maine's Crowning Jewels

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Landry barn, Saint Francis, 1974
Landry barn, Saint Francis, 1974
Gambrel roofs are also known locally as colm-casse, or broken comb. Acadian Archives

Another feature that marks Aroostook County barns as distinct, according to Don Perkins, is the prevalence of gambrel roofs, which he credits to “a combination of ethnic influence and the region’s [comparatively] late settlement” (Perkins, 2012, 106). He adds,

Most of the gambrel-styled barns in Maine were built after 1900, generally making the feature a dead give-away to the barn’s age, especially in the southern part of the state. The design gained much popularity between the first and second world wars. It appears Aroostook County may have started using this design a little earlier than the rest of the state (Perkins, 2012, 109).

Perkins cites Dan Deveau on potential origins of gambrel roofs in the region: “Many of the Acadians who settled here were skilled shipbuilders,” and some barns in the area displayed ship’s knees. Deveau points out that many of the region’s barns resemble upturned boats, especially when examining their framing. Early on, the Acadians built gambrel-styled barns, while those from Quebec typically built regular (gable) roofs.” Deveau explained that “lots and lots of loose hay led to the creation of this roof style” (Perkins, 2012, 109, 114), as the additional angles create more space under the roof.

Many of the barns use hand-hewn timber and braces, with no flared posts or English tying joints. The large pines that became wide barn boards in more southern barns are not so present in northern Maine, so smaller boards of spruce or fir are much more commonly seen building materials (Perkins, 2012, 111).

The Madawaska Twin Barn

The barn that is unique to the Maine side of the St. John River is the Madawaska twin barn, “a large structure consisting of two parallel sections joining to form an ‘H’,” when seen from above, and “never connected to outbuildings or the house” (Konrad and Chaney, 1982, 64). Victor Konrad and Michael Chaney posit that these barns are “a symbol of French Canadian culture, adopted during the period between the 1880s and 1930s when French Valley residents were eager to assert their Franco-American identity.” The architectural style “presents an alternative to the New England connecting barn which prevails in the rest of agricultural Aroostook County,” but also in the rest of the state and even beyond (Konrad and Chaney, 1982, 64-65).

Gambrel roof twin barn, Hamlin, 1991
Gambrel roof twin barn, Hamlin, 1991
This barn was burned down in 1991 due to arson, barely a week after this photograph was taken. The barn was quite ornate compared to others of the region, as seen with the large, curved windows near the roof line.Acadian Archives

The twin barns were a practical innovation that revealed a distinct cultural heritage:

These barns served the rapidly growing demand for enclosed and protected space on the St. John valley farm . . . the need to accommodate the substantial storage requirements of a variety of potato cultivation and harvesting equipment . . . Interior storage also provided the opportunity to make necessary repairs and to tinker with the machines during the snowbound winter months. The connecting portion served the need for enclosed access between sections and usually had additional granaries, feed bins, and occasionally pens for smaller animals like pigs and chickens (Konrad and Chaney, 1982, 66).

The twin barn idea most likely originated in Quebec, rather than directly from the Valley’s architects, and probably spread through interactions with Quebec migrants. However, only isolated examples of twin barns exist outside of the broader Fort Kent and St. Agatha region. It appears that the twin barn was both specifically needed in the St. John valley and accepted as a distinctly French adaptation to agricultural requirements—increasingly industrial ones—in a potato growing area. Other regions did not have the same factors, nor the same solutions; English cultural regions added more and more connecting barns, but the French of the valley took another route.

Konrad and Chaney conclude that the Madawaska twin barn is the product of two distinct cultures with well-developed traditions and symbols of their own, French and English. This architectural result is significant because it fused strong and distinctive elements of these two cultures and additionally represents a leap away from tradition. St. John Valley farmers could claim both their ties to French tradition and their acceptance of modern American farming practices consistent with the English majority in Aroostook County and beyond - a blend that, much like l’Acadie, represents a whole larger than the sum of its parts.

Twin barn, Frenchville, 1991
Twin barn, Frenchville, 1991
This barn boasts a large addition for equipment storage. It is the only twin barn featured in this exhibit, or found in the scope of its research, known to remain standing as of 2022.Acadian Archives

Most twin barns are gone today. Still, barns are cultural icons that showcase the history and culture of a region and its people. This includes the good and bad. In the St. John River valley, the barns represent the primarily Acadian and Quebecois immigrant, hard-working agricultural background of the settlers of the last few hundred years, but at the same time symbolize settler colonialism in Maliseet territory. This raises the issue of cultural heritage but also ethical land stewardship, Indigenous sovereignty, and a different understanding of land rights and usage than currently prevails. For these reasons, these architectural features deserve greater study.

* In 1787, a surveyor general mapped the region based on Maliseet guidance and created a 3,700-acre reserve at Madawaska (Mateweskok) for the Maliseet nation. The next year, an Acadian petitioned the Quebec government for land at Madawaska. A committee member pointed out that this land request “may encroach on the land set aside for the Maliseet.” In 1790, settlers received a land grant at Madawaska. The 1790 grant plan reduced the size of the reserve. In 1792, the Maliseet Nation petitioned New Brunswick for a grant at Madawaska. They obtained land at Ekwpahak, farther south (Madawaska Maliseet First Nation).

This exhibit was curated by University of Maine (Orono) graduate student Joey LeBlanc, in partnership with the Acadian Archives at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, as part of a Franco-American Digital Archives internship during Summer 2022.

Doty, C. Stewart. Acadian Hard Times: The Farm Security Administration in Maine’s St. John Valley, 1940-1943. Orono: University of Maine Press, 1991.
Dubay, Guy F. Chez-Nous: The St. John Valley. Augusta: Maine State Museum, 1983.
Konrad, Victor A. “Against the Tide: French Canadian Barn Building Traditions in the St. John Valley of Maine.” American Review of Canadian Studies 12, no. 2 (August 1, 1982): 22–36.
Konrad, Victor A., and Michael Chaney. “Madawaska Twin Barn.” Journal of Cultural Geography 3, no. 1 (September 1, 1982): 64–75.
Madawaska Maliseet First Nation. “History & Culture,” (accessed September 26, 2022).
Perkins, Don. The Barns of Maine: Our History, Our Stories. Charleston: The History Press, 2012.