So you have one of Ontario’s heritage barns and you’d like to know how old it is.
Well, did you check the municpal office for a copy of the building permit? No luck eh.
It’s hard now to even imagine how it was possible, but it did happen and right here in Ontario. The largest, most inspiring and most durable man-made structures on the rural landscape were designed and built without engineered drawings being approved and without any permits being issued. Hard to believe.
Further, these unapproved barns were not a blight upon the countryside and they did not destroy the rural charm and aesthetic but exactly the opposite. They are universally considered attractive and seeing them is often the highlight of a countryside drive.
When trying to determine the age of your barn, the best evidence is a document, especially those issued by local governments. But building permits are relativly recent creations and unfortunately no official documents were routinely issued documenting the date of construction of the thousands of heritage barns that dot Ontario’s rural landscape. Engineers and architects were undoubtedly involved in the design and construction of some barns but the majority built before 1960 were built by rural folks who were often farmers with some experience at building barns. The best of these builders were known as barn framers or master builders and were highly respected in their rural community.
All of this is to say, that when trying to determine the age of your barn the first place to look is the local government offices, especially the assessment office. In our own case, there was a hand- drawn farm map, sketched by the pioneer’s son, on file, describing each building and the date of construction. We were lucky but the assessors assured me that type of document is a rarity.
Photographs are documents and often barn raisings were photographed as they were significant community events. Finding a photo of your barn raising that is titled and dated is again a frustrating task. Many simply have a note “barn raising” or “our barn being built”. But if you can find them they are great historical records for dating your barn.
Do not overlook rural organizations or local weekly newspapers that may have collections of historical photos and stories. The Federated Women’s Institutes of Ontario collected individual farm histories and rural happenings in extensive scrapbooks known as Tweedsmuir History Books. There is a copy in my rural community that has the history of many individual farms and occasionally tells the dates that the barns were built. Older farm folks in your community can usually direct you to someone who knows the location of the Tweedsmuir History Books. Our local original is kept in a fireproof safe in our rural Community Hall.
Having exhausted, or grown tired of, the document search it’s time to have a careful look at the barn and see what it can tell you about its birthday.
ROOF STYLES AND HAY TRACKS:
Many will try to tell the barns age by looking at the roof style. “Gable roofs are old and gambrel roofs are newer”. Some truth to this, but not always reliable. Those two styles embrace the majority of Ontario’s heritage barns but….roofs can mislead. They are often raised, lowered, replaced after a wind storm etc. Many very old barns have gambrel or hip roofs that are replacements for original roofs. Hay forks, slings and harpoons became common on farms in about 1880 and they depended on having a wooden or metal track high in the barn to raise the hay into the mows. This allowed much higher barns to be built or often to have existing barns have the roof raised. So roof styles and hay tracks are a good indication only.
Roofing material can be another good ageing tool. Most barns in Ontario now have metal roofs but many older examples started life with wooden shingles. If the roofing boards are close together then chances are the barn started life with wooden shingles which in Ontario usually means White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis). And if you can get a close look at the boards, especially the top side, you will see nail hole patterns consistent with wooden shingles.
Wooden shingles were still commonly applied on barns in 1920 but by 1950 steel roofing was the norm.
Corrugated steel roofing does not automatically mean the barn is relatively new as that roofing material has been around since 1820.
Poles? Trusses? or Post and beam? And if post and beam, hand hewn or sawn? If sawn, what kind of saw marks and are the beams pine or perhaps hardwood? Old growth or second growth timber?
These barn frame details will give you some indication of age.
Post and Beam are usually the oldest and they can be of various cultural influences, usually reflecting the ethnicity of the settlement pattern in your area. English and Penn-German barns dominate the Ontario types. The material and how it’s prepared for building are more important than cultural influence of the barn. The older the barn the greater the likelihood that it was built with material from that farm or one very nearby. The multiple family barns that I grew up with in Northumberland and Peterborough Counties were all made from White Pine timbers as that species was widespread on the drumlins and moraines. Parts of southwestern Ontario in particular are built with hardwood timbers as that was what was available .
Most early barn timbers were hand hewn using a broadaxe but occasionally sawn timbers are found on very old barns and indicate that there was a sawmill very close. Saw marks on the timbers can help with aging. Circular saws which leave a nice arc on the rough surface first appeared in about 1860 so barns exhibiting those marks were built more recently than those featuring straight across marks which came from relatively older sawmills. I have a couple pieces of timber with the latter saw marks which came from a building constructed in Northumberland in 1820.
Generally hand hewn timbers date from before 1914. Pole and plank frame buildings generally were erected after 1900.
Perhaps the best evidence inicating a barns age is the type of nails used in the construction. Blacksmith-made hand wrought nails were the only nails available until the late 1700’s. Machine cut square nails, initially with hand wrought heads, became available in about 1790. Entirely machine made square nails were being produced by 1815. Wire nails (round nails) started to be manufactured in about 1880 and had pretty much replaced square nails by 1900. The trick when using nails to age a barn is to be certain that you are looking at an original part, not a recent addition or repair. Look at the nails on the north side of the barn. That’s where the lumber sheeting lasts the longest in our weather patterns and where the original boards and nails are still most likely to be found.
In Ontario’s climate, barn boards deteriorate most quickly on the east side of a building, on the south second and on the west third. A quarter of an inch per 100 years is the often quoted rate at which pine boards on a barn disappear from weather scour. The knots erode much more slowly so board age can be roughly estimated if you knew the thickness when installed. My experience indicates that is pretty accurate, but only for the east facing wall of the building.
The width of boards used in barn consrtuction is a great general indicator of barn age if you know when settlement occurred in your part of Ontario. Boards of 14 to 18 inches in width in a barn near Lake Ontario indicate a construction date of around the middle 1800’s or earlier, while boards of that width in a barn along the north shore of Lake Huron, where I now live, indicate a construction date of the late 1800’s.
FOUNDATION AND STABLE WALLS:
Very early barns were often “ground barns” (ground level access to threshing floor and mows) where the stable was built into one end of the barn rather than under the entire barn. Those ground barns usually had a low stone wall for a foundation to keep the timbers from rotting when contacting the soil.
Barns with full lower level stables, built when livestock became more important(after 1850), generally had stone walls for the stable. By 1920 poured concrete had replaced stone as the stable wall material of choice. This is another clue to barn age but again not definitive. I know of a small farm building of poured concrete from 1888 and a stone wall barn stable built in 1951.
PERIODS OF FARM PROSPERITY:
The oldest known barn in Ontario, built in 1809, is the Dalziel Barn at Black Creek Pioneer village in Vaughan . We dream about finding older barns through our barn registry and perhaps this blog will help that quest.
Barns that were meant to be the final barn on a farm were usually the second or maybe the third barn built. The preceeding structures were temporary until relative prosperity arrived.
Between 1800 and 1880, when most early southern Ontario final version barns were built, farmers saw 8 agricultural depressions that totalled 25 years. They were 1810-’12, 1819-’25 ,1834-’38, 1846-’49, 1857-’60, 1864-’65 and 1873-’78. Barn building generally did not occur during these years. If your barn pre-dates 1880 then it was probably built during one of those 55 non-depression years. Some of those years were very prosperous. The Crimean War 1854 to ‘56 created a tremendous boom in Ontario agriculture and many large barns were built then. Perhaps yours was one of them.
In summation I believe the best evidence are documents and the second best are nails. I and other directors are available to offer advice on aging your barn. See our website.
Will Samis, director, Ontario Barn Preservation.
“Garages, barns and attics are always older than the buildings to which they are attached.” Leonard Cohen