A “barn burner” is an event, often a sports contest, that is very exciting or intense.
The earliest known use for this meaning is from the Omaha World-Herald, 13 May 1934.
However, nearly a 100 years prior to this, “barn burner” had a specific meaning in US politics. The Barnburners were radical, men who were thought to be willing to destroy all banks and corporations, in order to root out their abuses.
John Russell Bartlett, in his 1848 Dictionary of Americanisms, provided a lengthy quote from the New York Tribune, which explained that the name “alluded to the story of an old Dutchman who relieved himself of rats by burning his barns which they infested.”
The more conservative party was referred to as the Hunkers, who were the relatively pro-government faction. They opposed the Barnburners, and favored state banks, internal improvements, and minimizing the slavery issue. They may have been called Hunkers because they were interested in a hunk of the political spoils, or because they hankered after elective office. Nothing much has changed, has it?
A little later on, American wildcat oilmen used the word barnburner to describe a gusher oil well.
Like many words, “barn burner” changed from being a term for a radical faction of politicians and now describes some exciting event. It also morphed from being one word to two words.
I don’t care whether it’s one word or two, but I must say I find an gushing oil well far more exciting than a political cat fight.