Ontario Barn Preservation

Preserving Old Ontario Barns in the On-Line World: PART 2 OF 5, What’s an old barn, and why are they difficult to document?

Ontario Barn Preservation

By Hugh Fraser, OBP Director

This blog appears throughout November and December 2020 with the following topics that build upon each other. They explore some reasons why barn databases may have failed in the past, how OBP is trying to find ways to make it simpler, and to enlist a small army of people to do the work. If something in the blog sparks your good ideas, leave us a message by adding a comment below.

Part 1 of 5: Introduction

Part 2 of 5: What’s an old barn, and why are they difficult to document?

Part 3 of 5: Creating a consistent database

Part 4 of 5: Creating an informative database

Part 5 of 5: Creating a secure, centralized and sustainable database

What’s an old barn?

People on the other side of the planet laugh when we in North America talk about ‘old’. But ask seven people when they think a barn should be considered ‘old’ (in what we currently call Ontario) and you will get seven or more opinions. Were old barns built:

  • Before 1825 when most wood was hewn, and few barns were built in Upper Canada, or
  • Before 1850 when railroads were just being built and Ontario was called Canada West, or
  • Before 1875 when the livestock industry started to take off in the new Province of Ontario, or
  • Before 1900 when there was a new-fangled thing called an internal combustion engine, or
  • Before 1925 when virtually all farmers still used real horses for horsepower, or
  • Before 1950 and huge changes in agriculture after WW II and the movement to cities, or
  • Before 1975 when vast numbers of baby boomers started large, specialized farms?

There are good arguments that all dates make sense, but it depends on one’s perspective and where the barns were built, because Upper Canada (1791 – 1841), Canada West (1841 – 1867) and Ontario (1867 – present) were built by settlers of European decent at varying times as areas opened up. However, most barn lovers would agree that the older the barn, the more important it is to find ways to document it because these are the barns that are usually the most under threat from extinction.

Why is difficult to get good information on old barns?

Those who know old barns, understand no two are alike. They come in different sizes, have different construction methods, use different wood, were built by different people with different ideas for different purposes, were built with the local environment in mind, and a multitude of other reasons.

In a perfect world, barn ‘experts’ would visit every barn, measure, photograph and record them and put the information into a searchable database. Unfortunately, there are simply too many old barns out there and there really are not any barn experts who understand all the nuances of all the old barns out there in rural Ontario. More importantly, there simply isn’t enough time, nor resources to do it. The only way to get the information is to start with a database system that is flexible enough to add new types of barns and construction methods as they are discovered, then train a small army of people to do the necessary work. This is not an easy task, but we at OBP believe it is doable.

The ultimate goal should be that each barn in the database has enough information about it that people in the future could completely reconstruct that barn in a virtual way with drawings and photos down to the last detail. Of course this is a lofty goal, but why not set the bar high? Imagine your descendants in the year 2100 ‘walking around’ your barn that no longer exists in the real world. There is no doubt in my mind that in the future, there will be software that will do this very simply, probably on an app on whatever type of communication devices there are in a few generations.

Next time, we will explore how to create a consistent database about old barns.

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