This 200-Year-Old Barn in Tennessee May Just Be a Middle Finger to the State

the 200 year old top heavy barn in cades cove

Why do top heavy barns like this one in the Smoky Mountains exist? It may have very well been by design, to avoid taxes (photo by JimVallee/iStockPhoto)

Tennesseeans have a long history of outrunning the tax man. And this barn may have been designed to do just that.

As someone who grew up visiting Cades Cove, I took for granted one of the Cove’s real treasures. I thought the funny barn on Tipton Place was something you’d surely see on farms around the country. First of all, I didn’t realize its roots were so local. I certainly didn’t realize that it may have been a way for the Tiptons to stick it to the man. 

There’s a barn on the Tipton Place in Cades Cove in the Smokies. Its’ design draws from elements that reach back through rural Pennsylvania into Germany. But its style is unique for a variety of reasons. Not the least of which it may have been built to circumvent property tax laws. 

the tipton place barn in cades cove
Some believe cantilever barns were built that way to stick it to the tax man. The claim is that – at the time – property tax laws were written so that you were taxed on square footage on the ground. So, the Tiptons – and other farmers like them – would be taxed for the two foundational cribs and not the massive barns above (photo by ruthannburke/iStockPhoto)

What is a cantilever barn?

A cantilever barn is a dual-level structure with an overhang that is principally found in Blount and Sevier counties. They look something like a car up on a hydraulic lift. At the base are two log cribs used for crop storage or as livestock pens. The upper level – which is essentially a whole barn – rests on top of the two cribs. There’s usually some kind of road or path that runs under the barn and between the two cribs, which serve as the foundation. 

The loft on the upper level is used for storage of equipment or hay. Also, the road or path between the cribs made it convenient to unload hay from wagons into and out of the loft. In later years they were used for drying burley tobacco. They were popular in the region from the 1870s with second or third-generation farmers on fairly remote sites. A farmer in Cades Cove couldn’t make multiple runs into Townsend or wherever. Residents needed extensive storage. And so the cantilever – whose design may have had partial roots back in Germany via Pennsylvania – allowed for storage while giving protection to livestock. 

In the rainy mountains of the Smokies, the cantilever roof funneled water away from stored items, and the elevated area allowed for airflow. Keeping crops and hay dry and ventilated helped avoid spoilage. And livestock not being kept in the storage cribs could seek shelter under the overhang. The downside to the design? Well, as you can imagine having such an extensive overhang could lead to some instability in extreme weather or if not properly kept up. 

a smaller barn in cades cove
There are two cantilever barns in Cades Cove. The smaller one is at the Cable Mill, located about halfway around Loop Road near the visitor center. The other is at Tipton Place, located on what I call the backside of the Loop, past the Lawson Cemetery (photo by m-kojot/iStockPhoto)

How it may have avoided taxes

Was the cantilever barn built on the Tipton Farm – or other places in Appalachia – done to thwart the tax man? It’s hard to say. Friends, I am an intelligent man. Good playing along at Jeopardy. I used to be a menace at Trivial Pursuit. I nearly single-handedly ended the traditional holiday trivia battle between the local Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs. But I am afraid I can’t speak intelligently on property tax laws in the mountains of the late 1800s.

However, there is a rumor, an idea, a suggestion that the cantilever barns were built that way to stick it to the tax man. The claim is that – at the time – property tax laws were written so that you were taxed on square footage on the ground. So, the Tiptons – and other farmers like them – would be taxed for the two foundational cribs and not the massive barns above.

Now, if this were true, in theory, you could have built massive skyscrapers in the mountains and only been taxed for the first floor. I find it unlikely. I think the various advantages of airflow and crop protection outlined above are a far likelier motivation than taxes. However, the mountain people have never been fond of revenuers, so you never know. 

“I think the various advantages of airflow and crop protection outlined above are a far likelier motivation than taxes. However, the mountain people have never been fond of revenuers, so you never know.” 

– John Gullion, TheSmokies.com
a sign at cades cove near the barn
A sign at Cades Cove reads “In the early 1900s, family farms covered the valley. Self-sufficiency was the rule in those days. But most people made use of the mill, the country store and the blacksmith shop. The buildings assembled here represent part of a typical mountain community” (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Where to find the barns

In the “Tennessee Encyclopedia” entry on cantilever barns, Marian Moffett writes that it was originally thought the barns were a feature of the Southern Highlands. And later spread across North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. However, Moffett’s research indicates that the barns are far more specific to a certain area of Tennessee than the larger highlands. Moffett says only six of the barns were found in Virginia and three in North Carolina. Her research – in the 1980s – found 316 cantilever barns in Tennessee. Of those, 183 were in either Sevier or Blount counties where I grew up. May this is why I didn’t realize they were so special. 

Now, back to the location of the cantilever barns in Cades Cove. There are two of them.

The smaller one is at the Cable Mill, located about halfway around Loop Road near the visitor center. The other is at Tipton Place, located on what I call the backside of the Loop, past the Lawson Cemetery.

If you ever make it over to the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, TN there are also two cantilever barns there. 

Necessity is the mother of invention. Rural mountain farmers in the late 1800s and early 1900s needed plenty of storage. They also needed a way to keep crops dry and ventilated. They needed a place to keep their livestock away from the elements. And maybe, they needed a way to give a little gotcha to the tax man. And so, with a variety of influences, some enterprising farmer came up with the cantilever barn, a design that flourished in East Tennessee in particular. 

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