Ontario Barn Preservation

Durham Barn

There are many untold stories about barns in Ontario as the history of those buildings and people who knew about them fade away but there are clues left behind.

This barn, in Grey County, three kilometers south east of Durham, has a checkered history. It’s a spacious 48 foot by 60 foot timber frame structure, with an 8 foot forebay, or overhang at the back. One of the three cedar posts that hold up the forebay extension is almost 36 inches in diameter and all stand on huge flat rocks instead of modern cement footings.

The beautiful adzed frame inside has a surprise—many of the timbers have notches that are not being used, large 10 inch mortises and brace holes—in other words, the timbers are from another barn that had been taken down and recycled to build this one. It was fairly common back in the 19th and early 20th centuries to take down a barn and either use some of the timbers to build another one or simply use the whole frame again. What gives this barn away as to its date of construction are the rafters, or roof supports– they are round poles, dating it as built during the 1800’s. By the next century there were plenty of sawmills and milled lumber to use for the long rafters.

The five bent frame is made up of a variety of woods, from white ash girts, cedar braces to maple and beech posts. Another clue dating the barn to the 19th century is the flooring. Inside the granary some of the floor boards, traditionally hemlock, are almost 24 inches wide, a time when large trees were still available. The double threshing floor is made up of thick wide hemlock, each floor 18 feet wide with single 16 inch and wider 2 ½ inch thick boards with another one inch layer underneath.

Another oddity with this barn is that there was a straw barn attached at the back, which I was hired to take down. The frame was also a used one, but the barn, with a 19th century stone foundation, was never fully completed. There were no stables ever built and the sleepers above, or floor supports, were roughly hewn from a variety of trees. What made it a poorly built addition was the frame itself, using undersize timbers and bad connections which eventually made the roof, also constructed from undersized rafters, sag.

A past owner that I knew loved the large spaces inside and the high ceiling stables below, installing patio stones in the stable floor, which he used for storage and a workshop. In the mow, the large vaulting posts and girts inspired him to build elm stairs used from the straw barn, up to the top of the granary, with chairs and a table and a small balcony and plenty of used windows overlooking the back of the barn’s sweeping fields and forest in the background. To keep the dust down and be able to sweep the main floor easier, he varnished the floor making the wide 100-year old boards sparkle under the many lights he mounted inside. What makes it dramatic are the numerous used windows he picked up and installed in the mow which gives anyone a panoramic view of fields and far off forest. There are colourful Tibetan flag banners hanging from the girts, brought back from his travels, and Christmas lights along the posts, giving a party atmosphere to the large space. For fun and frolic there is a ping pong table, foosball table, bicycles and tricycles to ride around inside, and a music system, resonating well inside the large wooden space. Most people who enter the space are immediately awe struck by the frame’s grandeur, the clean space now there to admire, with 19th century heritage hitting you smack in the face.

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