When we look at century old barns in Ontario, it’s a wonder how they built these massive structures without any kind of modern machinery we take for granted today. Well, they did, with just hand tools, rope, horses and community strength, especially when it came time for the barn raising.
During the last half of the 19th century in Ontario, thousands of barns were built as the pioneer farmers went from subsistence living, log cabins and barns to clearing more land and needing a larger barn to house hay and straw with stables below for the livestock, all in one building.
The farmer, who didn’t have a lot of cash on hand, but plenty of stone and wood on his land, used what he had. Stone that he gathered from clearing fields was used for the foundation and massive trees were utilized for everything else that a barn was built from, even cedar shakes for the roof.
Once the foundation was built and a floor laid down, usually hemlock, it was time to raise the bents that a master framer and the farmer’s neighbours notched and joined with hardwood pegs. The bents were made from whatever type of trees the farmer had on his land–maple, beech, hemlock, pine, ash, oak and even butternut and black walnut. Usually these were cut down during the winter, sometimes squared up with adzes and axes in the bush and dragged back with horses to the site of the barn.
The big day for the barn raising was an amazing community event, both socially and work-wise. Hundreds came, small children excited and running around, young romances made, and preparations for the meals that day which began days before.
Here is a list of food prepared from the History of Normanby Township (Grey County) for 175 men involved in the barn raising: 115 lemon pies, 500 doughnuts, 15 large cakes, 3 gallons of apple sauce, 3 gallons of cornstarch pudding, 16 chickens, 3 hams, 50 pounds of beef, 300 light rolls, beet pickles, pickled eggs, 6 pounds dried prunes, 1 large crock of stewed raisins, 5 gallon stone jar white potatoes, 5 gallon stone jar sweet potatoes, and cucumber pickles (makes me hungry just thinking about it)!
On top of the barn foundation the men were getting ready to raise the first bent. Some men sat on the bent as they were going up with it, so as to be up there when it was raised and ready for the next one.
Here is an excerpt from a barn raising which unfortunately I can’t find the source for, but if I do will add to this article.
The head carpenter needed to get the 60 or so boys and men a little riled up first.
It was a big timber frame bent they had to lift, the first one, made of beach some maple, hemlock and cedar for the braces.
“You’ve got a big lift now, she is a misery heavy one,” he said as he stood facing everyone in front, leaning on a barrel, hammer and other tools hanging from his leather pouch.
“We’ll do it in two lifts, up to your breast and then you’ll take a breath”.
“Is everyone ready?”
“Yes!” They replied in unison.
“Say it when you are riled up”.
“YES!” they responded.
“Now up, breast high!” he shouted.
It was a massive timber frame bent, heavy, the men grunted to get it up breast high, and then propped it up with five foot left over timbers.
After a minute or so the head carpenter shouted, “Get your pike poles and place them”.
Some put their shoulders into it while others pushed with the pike poles and slowly the cumbersome structure lifted beyond the reach of hands with great difficulty as those with pike poles bore the brunt of the massive weight, while slowly moving forward.
“Put your backs into her, boys, ‘cause if it falls on ya, it will kill the lot of ya!”
Finally it stood erect while other men wrapped the ropes and nailed lumber that went up with the frame to the already installed floor to keep the frame in one place.
That was the first bent, most barns had four, so that there was a threshing floor in the middle and two bays on either side for the hay and straw and a built-in granary to one side. This most common configuration gave either a 36 foot by 56 foot or a 40 foot by 60 foot barn.
By sunset the frame was up and it was time for the second meal, after lunch, and time for a dance to live fiddle music on the floor of the barn, with the timber frame and twinkling stars above.
Jon Radojkovic, Chesley
Note: Archival Thamesford photos donated by Tom Dennison of St. Catherines