By: John C. Carter
The late American author and historian Eric Sloane is well known for his written works dealing with reverence for the past. His books have helped to provide a record for future generations to better understand the way our 19th century ancestors lived. As he has correctly pointed out, barns as a part of our built heritage have been neglected or overlooked, and at best they remain a curiosity for many in urban settings. In his writings, Sloane’s underlying theme concerning the importance of rural roots was succinctly and directly spelled out; “In the beginning all civilized American farms and all Americans were farmers who believed that farmers were the founders of civilization.”
Such a thesis cannot however be restricted by international boundaries. The same was true in pioneer Upper Canada, which found its beginnings in similar rural patterns. The magnitude of this phenomenon was echoed in an editorial published in the January 15, 1873 edition of The Canada Farmer, which noted;
“Agriculture in its several branches has been, and is now, the foundation on which rests the entire industrial fabric of Ontario. On its prosperity all classes depend – and with a good crop or a bad one, business operations, the abundance of money, and the social comforts of our whole people rise and fall, as do the waters of the sea with the flow and ebb of the tide.”
Today we might consider this statement to be somewhat odd. Things however do change, and by the mid-1980’s, the importance of an agricultural foundation to society had rapidly declined from what it once was. Urbanization and industrialization rapidly replaced the rural existence of our past. As farmlands disappear before the onslaught of subdivisions, highways and industrial parks, and urban sprawl, and rural living more and more takes on the modern concept of “Estate Residential Zoning,” a part of our past quickly disappears. In this march towards “progress,” we are rapidly losing the last physical vestiges of our former rural society with the demolition and destruction of barns, outbuildings and farmsteads, which once played an integral part in the built fabric of our province.
As we drive along the concession roads and highways of Ontario, the number of abandoned farms, crumbling outbuildings, and collapsed barns and silos*, present us with a stark visual reminders of our vanishing past rural heritage. Can we really comprehend the architectural importance or the societal and historical significance that these structures once played? Can we truly empathize with the struggles that our relatives experienced in designing and building these massive wooden structures? Do we recognize the true social importance of barn raisings, or the position of esteem that an expert barn framer** held in the community, when his skills were called upon and required in the erection of farm buildings?
For folks who were intimately involved in this process or for those who were fortunate enough to have relatives relate their experiences orally, the importance of the barn still holds merit. This select segment of today’s population would probably agree with the comments made by period author Byron Halsted, who stated the following, in his 1881 book entitled Barn Plans and Outbuildings. He wrote that;
“The proper and economical erection of barns and outbuildings requires far more forethought and planning that are ordinarily given to their construction. A barn once built is not readily moved, or altered in size or shape…Barns can be pleasing objects, and impart an impression of comfort and completeness upon all who see them.”
For the majority of Ontario’s population which have been raised in an urban environment, or were born too late to appreciate or comprehend this statement, barns do not command such a place of importance. However, luckily for me, I’ve had an affinity for such structures since childhood. I was fortunate to grow up in Waterloo County, and had the opportunity there and in Bruce County (where I spent my summers at Sauble Beach in Amabel Township), to watch barns being constructed and to learn about various types of rural built heritage, during many countryside rambles with my family.
How can we define a barn? Originally the word meant “a place for barley.” It combined the old English words bere (barley) and ern (place). However this type of structure was little used in Europe until the 1600’s, and one of the first recorded dictionary definitions, listed a barn as a “place for laying up any sort of grain, hay or straw.” At this early juncture, the definition did not include a structure as we know a barn today. By 1770, this ground storage hole had come under a roof, signalling many changes and adaptations in the evolution of modern day North American barns. In the 1770 edition of Kalm’s Travels, the author noted that; “In the northern states of America, the farmers generally use barns for stabling their horses and cattle, so that among them, a barn is both a cornhouse or grange, and a stable.” By 1856, Webster’s Academic Dictionary described a barn; “As a building for storing hay and grain, also for stabling.”
In Upper Canada, the pioneer stage of agricultural development, dictated that the first barns built would be a log stable for oxen with a loft above to store the first returns of a meagre harvest. As the settler’s position in life improved, and more land was cleared, other buildings would be added to the farmstead. Eventually as more permanent and larger farm houses were built, original log dwellings were often converted into “cabin barns.” The evolution in farming continued. In the 1851 Report of the Secretary of the United States, it was stated that; “The science of Agriculture is yet in its infancy, and great minds are now directed to the study and development of its true principles. Experiments are in progress to ascertain the qualities of different soils; the comparative nutritive properties of different animal and vegetable productions; and the utility and efficiency of various manures.”
These advances would also influence the state and position of farming in Ontario. This was reflected in Peel County farmer John Lynch’s 1856 comments in an award winning essay, which was published in the initial volume of the Journal & Transactions of the Board of Agriculture of Upper Canada. Lynch opined that;
“The advantages of agriculture is the most conducive to health, both of body and mind, is too generally known and acknowledged…To conclude, the pursuit of agriculture may be considered as desirable to the higher classes, or the affluent, as a source of healthful recreation, and rational enjoyment; profitable to the middle classes as the best means of acquiring and retaining a competency; and necessary to the lower classes, as affording the means of subsistence, and almost the only pursuit by which they can ever hope materially to improve their condition.”
A panacea for all, according to Mr. Lynch! He added that; “The advantages of Agriculture as a pursuit may be considered as national, and individual. Nations have generally flourished in proportion as Agriculture has been encouraged and fostered, and the decline of Agriculture and of the State, have in many cases been closely connected. If Agriculture is of such advantage to nations in general, it must be of the most vital importance to Canada, which can never be a prosperous country except by agriculture in the first instance. And Canada has many natural advantages for agriculture. Upper Canada, especially, will compare favourably with most countries.”
Various stages of development in Ontario farming also resulted in the construction of different buildings. From the pioneer period of subsistence, through the period of wheat monoculture, to mixed farming with an emphasis on crop and livestock combinations, the technical and economic changes that occurred in the evolution of agriculture were reflected in the different forms*** and functions of barns. Because of this, barns have a special significance beyond their monetary value, as symbols of an earlier way of life. They can be considered as large artifacts which reveal much about the farming operations for which they were built to accommodate.
As farmers prospered, larger barns (usually of frame construction) were constructed. Often, stone foundations were added when original structures were raised up off the ground. Cattle were mangered on lower levels, while upper storeys contained mows and threshing floors. Beginning in 1854, prices of rural real estate began to climb. Improved farms could increase in value form 25-50%, and many farmers were astute enough to profit from this inflationary trend by erecting better farm buildings. The Report of the Ontario Agricultural Commission for 1880, indicated that 54% of the province’s farmers had first class barns, stables, and sheds. This apparent prosperity was evident throughout the province. One example echoed the situation occurring in many other locales. The editor of the 1880 Belden’s Illustrated Historical Atlas of the Counties of Grey and Bruce wrote; “Bruce being essentially an agricultural community – yet they have kept pace with the local wants and requirements of the people, and now form no mean factor in the general aggregate of material wealth.” On a local level, Bert Jackson wrote in his remembrances of growing up at Spring Creek, that in 1899, his father built “…one of the largest barns ever to be raised in the county of Bruce.” Things obviously were good for the Jackson clan in Amabel Township at that point. However, increased property values resulted in additional new expenses for many farmers. The Farmers Advocate noted that in an effort to protect their capital investments, most farmers were carrying fire insurance on their buildings. Fire insurance provided a hedge on disaster for farmers, and was certainly a boon for insurance companies.
With the advent of mixed farming in the late 1870s – 1880s, a spirit of optimism was generated in the Ontario farming community. Exports of cattle and sheep to the British Isles and the United States brought in additional and enhanced revenues. Many farmers transferred these profits into the construction of new barns, and in the improvement and expansion of existing facilities. By 1880, the development of an extensive railroad network throughout the province, along with technological advances in shipping methods and refrigeration, along with the creation of substantial urban, city-centred markets, resulted in the specialization of Ontario agriculture. As a direct impact, specific dairy, fruit, corn and tobacco regions developed. With these changes, different barn types appeared, serving some of these new needs (i.e. Erie Shore and Wisconsin barns). The climate for farming appeared to be rosy. It resulted in the following positive statement being published in the 1937 Beatty Brothers Limited Farm Book; “Canada’s great industry – Agriculture – is forging ahead. The production of quality live stock, dairy meat and food products has rapidly improved and greatly increased in volume in recent years, and with it the farm barns and stables. No country on earth has greater need of them.”
The next time that you take a drive along back country roads and rural concessions, slow down and take the time to observe, document, and record existing rural architecture. A helpful method for doing this is to use the categories for 19th century barns, which have been developed by Ontario geographer and historian Peter M. Ennals. The six types of barns that he identifies are the Central Ontario, two-bay, raised two-bay, Pennsylvania (Penn/German), Erie Shore, and Wisconsin. While some of the earliest barns in Ontario do not fit into these categories, and many others combine features of two or more types, still 90% of the 19th century barns remaining in Southern Ontario fit into one or another of these classifications.
Have fun doing this. Please share what you record and document with your local historical society, community libraries and archives, and of course Ontario Barn Preservation. Be sure to return often to the sage advice offered by Eric Sloane, that;
“… barns are the shrines of a good life and ought to be remembered.”
*The first upright silo recorded to have been built in North America, was by Fred Hatch, of McHenry County, Illinois, in 1873.
**For information about master barn framer Joseph Wrightson of Glamis, Bruce County, Ontario, refer to an article published in the May 20, 1936 edition of the Paisley Advocate.
***Polygonal buildings including round, 8, 10, and 12 sided barns, originated from the ideas of American author and phrenologist Orson Squire Fowler. His belief in and promotion of this architectural shape, was spelled out in his 1849 book, A Home For All. See the only two 12 sided barns in Ontario, located at Sowerby, in the Municipality of Huron Shores. One is now used as a museum/community centre, and the other is a private residence. The first (Corduke’s Barn), is open to the public during the summer months, so please drop in for a visit.
Bibliography & Suggested Readings:
Eric Arthur & D. Whitney. The Barn, A Vanishing Landmark in North America (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1972).
Sheila Ashcroft, “Barns: Canada’s Vanishing Rural Landmarks,” Canadian Heritage (Fall, 2003).
John C. Carter, “Barn Raising,” Community Heritage Ontario News (December, 2002).
John C. Carter, “Barn Raising, Not Razing: Thoughts on preserving our vanishing rural heritage,” Architectural Conservancy of Ontario Acorn (Fall, 2014).
John C. Carter, “Saving Our Vanishing Rural Heritage: Some Strategy to Ponder,” Bruce County Historical Society Historical Notes Yearbook Edition (2014).
George W.J. Duncan. A Few Old Barns (Willowdale, Ont.: Ontario Historical Society, 2019).
Peter M. Ennals, “Nineteenth-Century Barns in Southern Ontario,” The Canadian Geographer (1972), v. 16.
Hugh Fraser. Swing Beams of Niagara: Stories of 50 Barns Built in Ontario Circa 1819 to 1884 (St. Catharines,Ont.: self published, 2019).
Wilbert Jackson. Memoirs of a Huron-Bruce Farm Boy (Sauble Beach, Ont.: self published, 1986).
Jakob Karl. “The Abandoned Farm,” The Canadian Magazine (May-October, 1895), v. 45.
John S. Moore, “Old Barns and How They Were Built,” Early American Life (August, 1983).
n.a. “A Constructive Genius,” Paisley Advocate (May 20, 1936).
n.a. “In the Cathedrals of the Fields,” Canadian Heritage (August-September, 1984).
Jon Radojkovic. Barn Building: The Golden Age of Barn Construction (Erin, Ont.: Boston Mills Press, 2007).
Jon Radojkovic. Barns of the Queen’s Bush (Port Elgin: Brucedale Press, 2002).
John I. Remple. Building With Wood (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967).
Scott Simmie, “Castles of Country Canada Creak in the Wind,” Toronto Star (January 4, 2003).
Eric Sloane. An Age of Barns (St. Paul, Minn.: Voyageur Press, 2001).
Eric Sloane. Our Vanishing Landscape (New York: Funk & Wagnells, 1955).
Dr. John C. Carter is a Research Associate, History & Classics Programme, School of Humanities, University of Tasmania, a director of Ontario Barn Preservation, and the Peninsula Director for the Bruce County Historical Society. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.