The old round barn was falling apart back in the 1940s when Norval Ralstin was growing up on a nearby farm.
“It’s always been standing out there pretty lonely,” said Ralstin, who grew up with the white barn always part of his landscape.
Today, there will be plenty of company both inside and outside the wooden walls of the architectural wonder, as the barn celebrates its first 100 years.
As a boy, Ralstin remembered people wondering why the old barn was round. There was a barn on every farmstead in Kiowa County, he said. However, they were all the standard shape. Round barns were another story.
“Everybody talked about it,” Ralstin said. “It was built round to resist the wind. Plus they could open it up and there would always be a breeze, no matter what direction the wind was blowing.”
The imposing 50-foot-tall structure was built for Henry W. Fromme in 1912. The German immigrant wanted it to house his 28 draft horses and a box stall for his registered Percheron stallion, which he imported from France.
Along with being wind-resistant, it was an efficient use of space — and it took less lumber to construct the 70-foot-diameter structure than an average barn, Ralstin said.
Back in 1912, the barn cost a hefty $8,000 to build.
“Today it would have cost about $190,000,” Ralstin said.
It’s always open, and visitors are free to wander around the barn and view the 14 trapezoidal stalls where the draft horses came in to eat and be harnessed for work. Feed would come from a granary in the center of the barn.
When visitors climb into the hayloft, the fine craftsmanship is revealed in the tongue and groove pine flooring that makes a circular design up to the tip of the roof.
“The barn was built by hand saws,” said Beverly Ralstin, Norval’s wife. But she points out that even back in 1923 they had 32-volt electricity inside the barn.
“If you stand in the center of the hayloft floor and speak, it echoes,” Norval Ralstin said.
Visitors get a bonus if they hang around until sunset and listen to the utter quiet as the sun sinks into the western Kansas horizon.
Soon after the barn was built, the tractor replaced the horse on the farm and the round barn became just another place to store hay.
Because the structure stands out for miles, during World War II it served as a landmark for training bomber navigators.
By the 1980s, Phyllis Birney received the barn and one acre of land from her husband as a 15th wedding anniversary gift. She worked to have the Fromme-Birney Round Barn listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its architectural significance.
In 1995, Jerry and Jeff Koehn restored the barn through a Heritage Trust Fund Grant. Then in 2008 it was voted one of the eight architectural wonders of Kansas.
“You can see why,” said Norval Ralstin, who still lives in the neighborhood and sees to the care of the barn.
The Kiowa County Historical Society owns the barn, and it is funded through donations.
Bob Neier, who grew up in the area and serves on the historical society committee, noted an interesting angle about the round structure.
“The barn housed the power source of the farm in 1912 with the 28 draft horses for pulling the farm machinery,” Neier said. “One hundred years later, a new power source for the region, a new wind farm, is just east of the barn. This shows how times have changed and the beauty of the old and new side by side.”