In the small town of Arcadia, along Route 66 in northern Oklahoma, stands a round barn. Built in 1898, it has lasted over a hundred years, partly due to the tourist itch for interesting sights while travelling the Mother Road (Route 66 has an abundance of pilgrim folklore shrines). Round barns were popular in the Midwest in the 1890’s, but this one was considered a real marvel of construction. Mr. William Odor, for obscure reasons, built Oklahoma’s only truly round barn (most round barns are actually octagonal) by soaking native oak boards while still green and using a special jig to bend them into long beams. He worked alone and never revealed his carpentry secrets, or so the story goes. The barn has an upper level that was used as a dance hall by the local community.
My tour guide at this eccentric roadside attraction was a local resident, in his 80s, tall and thin, wearing a cowboy hat. He told me with pride that his family had been among the original settlers of Oklahoma, known as “Sooners” because they had been in such a hurry to stake a claim on the land when the government had first opened the territory up for settlement.
I asked him why anyone would go to the trouble of constructing a round barn. He said that the fierce tornadoes that rip through the Midwest can’t do as much damage to a circular structure, since the wind doesn’t have a flat surface to blow against. I thought that was a good answer, but being as curious as I am, I asked him why all the barns in the Midwest weren’t round. He wasn’t too confident about his explanation to that one, but he said people just weren’t used to building round barns, they didn’t have traditional knowledge, and the people who knew how to build them just didn’t pass on the skill.
I was suspecting something deeper here. One of the things that’s hard about being a “tourist,” someone who is only in town for a day or two, is that it’s difficult to get local people into your confidence. But this old man seemed to like me well enough, and after hesitating, he admitted that round barns served another purpose. “The devil can’t catch you in one,” he remarked, “because he can’t trap you in a corner.”
Now that really got me thinking! Something strangely Faustian was afoot here: a workman with strange abilities who kept to himself, a dance hall inside a bizarrely round barn, and the devil. But despite several more questions I tried to ask him, he seemed to get embarrassed by his disclosure of local folklore and quit talking. The pastoral tranquility of the rolling hills of Oklahoma would keep its darker secrets to itself.
So I’m left wondering: why would the devil try to trap anyone in a barn? Why would someone build a round barn out of fear of the devil? Is their some connection between the devil and the destructive tornado?
Does anyone reading this have a theory?