Learn about Urbana’s round barn


Editor’s note: The author of this story, Dr. Robert Kroeger, will visit the Champaign County Historical Society Museum, 809 E. Lawn Avenue, for a fundraiser on April 10, 2024. Kroeger raises funds with his barn paintings and books for historical societies throughout Ohio and Indiana. He will spend an hour telling intriguing barn stories about both conventional barns and round ones (far less than one percent of all barns built) during the fundraiser.

By Robert Kroeger

Contributing writer

Most Ohio counties aren’t lucky enough to have a round barn, yet Champaign County has two, including one of the country’s most remarkable. The round barn at Nutwood Place was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

As old barns vanish from rural landscapes, so do their stories, forgotten memories of pioneer families in America. Round barns – by definition either circular or any polygonal shape without a right angle – were and still are far less than one percent of all barns built. Even in their heyday, which lasted from about 1890 into the 1920s, most farmers continued to build traditional rectangular barns. As such, round barns are rare birds and are seldom seen outside of the Midwest. Most of this article comes from the book Round Barns of America.

Why Nutwood? Well, Webster defines nutwood as any nutbearing tree or its wood. In the early 1800s when this farm’s history began, plenty of nutbearing trees dotted the Ohio landscape, such as chestnut, walnut, oak, and hickory. Though William Ward founded this farm, the title of “Nutwood Place,” likely named after such trees, was penned by the second owner, Absalom Jennings.

Ward, a native of Virginia, served as an officer in the Revolutionary War, and both educated and business-saavy, he made the most of his father’s and his own war service land grants. After moving to Maysville, Kentucky, he used the grants to claim land that had been axe marked by Simon Kenton, the legendary frontiersman, who, unfortunately was basically illiterate and never bothered to register his claimed land. However, Ward and Kenton became business partners and, though this partnership – between an educated and refined gentleman and a rough-cut frontiersman – may have been unusual, by 1810 the two had amassed over 25,000 acres of land.

As early as 1788, Ward and Kenton began exploring the Ohio Country, still hostile territory, and made claims in the Mad River Valley. By 1799 Ward led six Virginia families to settle this area and in 1805 he traveled to Chillicothe, then the state capital, to appeal for a new county, Champaign, taking land from Greene and Franklin counties. After the county was established, area settlers might have approached Ward about making Urbana (a town he named) the county seat, which he also successfully campaigned for. He laid out Urbana and donated proceeds from the sale of every other lot to support the development of the town. Ward built a brick home on this farm, where he and his wife raised their children. He died on Christmas eve, 1822.

Decades later, another Ohioan purchased the farm. Absalom Jennings, born in 1815 on a pioneer farm in Clark County, Ohio, began work in the harness trade when he turned 15, after moving to Urbana. He eventually started his own harness and saddle company, selling goods in Marysville for four years before moving to New York in 1844. Not content again to be an employee, Jennings joined forces with a partner to launch a company that made hats, caps, straw goods, and fancy millinery. It must have been wildly successful – since Jennings began buying and racing trotters. In those days everyone wore a hat.

Despite his financial prosperity on the east coast, Jennings yearned to return to his native Ohio and, in 1856, he purchased the William Ward farm. Three years later at the age of 41, he sold his New York City business, and, according to his obituary, “brought with him a number of fine horses to put on the farm.” And, though retired from his hat company, he decided to enter the horse business. Yes, he loved horses and he built a barn to house them, raise them, and watch them run.

And what a barn it was. Brimming with money – presumably from the sale of his business, possibly from investments, and perhaps from the horse trade – he commissioned a young Charles Theodore Rathbun (aged 28 in 1856) to design this brick barn. Rathbun was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1828, two years after the Shakers built their round barn, which he must have been familiar with during his youth. After working in New York City for an established ecclesiastical architect, he returned to Pittsfield to work as an architect on his own. It’s possible that Jennings might have seen his work and mentioned his idea about a horse barn in Urbana. Regardless of how he met Jennings, Rathbun went on to design many impressive buildings in the second half of the 19th century in New England, including a farm complex in 1868 for the Massachusetts Agricultural College (today’s University of Massachusetts).

Let’s go back in time and pretend to eavesdrop when Rathbun may have shared the concept of the Shaker barn with Jennings. Maybe their conversation went like this, “Absalom, I have the perfect idea for a barn for your horses. Let’s model it after the round barn near where I grew up. We can put an observatory at the top for you to watch your horses run on a track around the barn.” What a good sales pitch that would have been! However, though this architect did a masterful job, finding carpenters to construct it must have been a challenge.

Finished in the autumn of 1858, the barn cost $23,000, which equates to well over a million dollars today. To put that into perspective, some of Jennings’s horses were valued in the thousands and their stud fees in the hundreds. Apparently, this harness apprentice had become a prosperous businessman and horse breeder. And what a barn it still is.

Nearly 100 feet in diameter and approximately 286 feet in circumference, the barn, fortified with 180,000 colorful bricks, rises to a peak of 51 feet. At the top – in a large observatory, reached by a wooden circular winding stairway – Mr. Jennings was able to watch his horses running on the one-mile track he built. According to the barn’s current owner, timbers were hand-hewn, connected with mortise and tenon joints, and rested on 17-inch brick ledges along the barn’s perimeter.

Another rarity was the roof – 6,700 square feet of tin – which was not only expensive but unusual in the 1860s, a time when most barn roofs were covered with wooden shakes. The 30,000 feet of oak timbers, 11,800 feet of flooring, and a cistern that had a capacity for 300 barrels of water ensured that the racehorses were well cared for. According to Rathbun’s plans, six granaries were to be placed on the second floor, which was to be two-inch oak, planed.

But why a circular barn? The only existing such barn at that time, though there may have been others lost to history, was located in western Massachusetts – the Shaker stone barn. Did Rathbun or Jennings know about the round home built in Boston in 1856, the residence of the inventor Enoch Robinson? Had Jennings seen railroad roundhouses? The nation’s first railroad started in Baltimore in 1827 as the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, with a goal to head westward to reach the Ohio River. And rail lines from New York to Ohio had roundhouses, which might have inspired this round barn design.

Besides training and breeding racehorses and Jersey cattle, Jennings had other business interests, eventually expanding the farm and testing new varieties of crops. In the late 1800s Nutwood was recognized by Ohio’s state agricultural college for its “adaptability for every kind of agriculture.” Though his oval racetrack, where his trotters paced as he watched from high in the barn’s observatory, is gone, its memory lives on in one of the nation’s most impressive round barns. Absalom Jennings died in 1895.

And even though this iconic round barn was finished before the start of the Civil War, none followed its example. Even after New York’s Elliott Stewart spread his fondness for the octagonal shape in 1875, circular barns didn’t become popular until Wisconsin’s Professor King publicized them in the 1890s, 30 years after Nutwood.

The historical legacy of both William Ward in founding this county and making Urbana its seat and Absalom Jennings in building this barn is being continued by current owners, who plan to restore this national gem. They’ve also kept up the 1815 farmhouse, preserving yet another page in Ohio history. The farm is located on private property and not open to the public.


Some of this article is excerpted from the book, Round Barns of America. Artist and author Cincinnati-based Robert Kroeger raises funds with his barn paintings and books for historical societies throughout Ohio and Indiana. He can be contacted via email at [email protected]. He will be doing a fundraiser for the Champaign County Historical Society on April 10, 2024, which will feature him telling barn stories and signing his barn books, Historic Barns of Ohio and Round Barns of America.


https://barnart.weebly.com (barn essay-painting site)


Historic Barns of Ohio – book published in March, 2021, https://www.arcadiapublishing.com

Round Barns of America – book published by Acclaim Press (November, 2022) https://www.acclaimpress.com/books/round-barns-of-america/

Dr. Robert Kroeger, a native of Youngstown, practiced general dentistry from 1977 to 2010, when he retired. He and his wife Laura also live in Cincinnati, where they enjoy spending time with nine grandchildren.

He is a second-generation artist, though, unlike his father Francis, who held an art degree from Notre Dame, his professional art career blossomed later in life. Though he did not immediately follow in his father’s footsteps, Robert’s career as a dentist allowed him to study color values and facial esthetic principles in smile design.

Dr. Kroeger is the author of Historic Barns of Ohio, a book that features a barn, its painting, and its essay in each of Ohio’s 88 counties.

He has also written two books on dentistry and seven books on golf in Scotland, England, Wales, and Ireland, including To The 14th Tee, The Links of Wales, The Golf Courses of Old Tom Morris, Golf on the Links of Ireland, Golf on the Links of England, Complete Guide to the Golf Courses of Scotland, and The Secrets of Islay. This is his second book on old barns but hopefully not his last. He can be contacted via the website, www.barnart.weebly.com.

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