by Randy Bagg, University of Guelph
In my first blog (published July 19th), I outlined the efforts of the Ontario Barn Preservation group to create a survey to document old barns in Ontario. We are now in the beta testing stage of the survey, with a few participants to fine-tune the information collected. I was heartened to see the positive response to this survey on the OBP Facebook page. This response highlights how barn owners and barn enthusiasts feel about barns. They are much more than the physical structures. Barns are full of memories and stories that are crucial to our individual well-being and imperative to celebrating our rural history in Ontario. I firmly believe that we need to record and preserve the stories of that history.
Last year I was fortunate to take another History course at the University of Guelph, which focussed on transcribing diaries in the Rural Diary Archives at the University. This Archive has over 200 Ontario diarists from 1800 to 1960. I spent time transcribing the diaries of a Mennonite ancestor of mine in York County and a Guelph area purebred Aberdeen Angus breeder who was a contemporary of my grandfather. However, the most exciting diary for me was that of Forbes Moir Jr.. Forbes came to Ontario from Scotland in 1858 with his parents. He kept a diary from 1884 until he died in 1914. He recorded key farm events, the prevailing weather, and his social and political activities. His entries are typically brief and focused on facts rather than his personal feelings. He farmed on the 4th line of Garafraxa Township in Wellington County, just east of Fergus. Forbes’s farm was mixed between crops and livestock, typical of agriculture in late 19th century Ontario.
As part of my History course, I analyzed Forbes’s diary entries from 1885 to 1892. I learned that cooperative farm activities with neighbours were crucial to the farmers of that era. These farmers cooperated in threshing, harvesting grains and hay, ploughing, and slaughtering animals for food. From Forbes diary, it is evident that these activities established a social network and a sense of farming community. My analysis revealed that Forbes spent 41 days per year on these cooperative activities with approximately 25 other neighbouring families.
The one activity which I think is interesting to barn enthusiasts was “barn raising.” In the seven years from 1885 to 1892, Forbes participated in 20 barn raisings. This number points to a period when building new barns was essential to the developing agriculture in Ontario. We can imagine the farm families coming together for a day of cooperative work to build a neighbour’s barn. Unfortunately, Forbes does not provide any details on the barn raisings other than the farmer’s name building the new barn. Family names mentioned by Forbes who built barns include Thompson, Robinson, Richardson, White, and Milne. I do not know if any of those barns still exist today, although I would suspect that at least some are still standing. I have on my “to do list” to drive the Garafraxa Township roads someday and look for “old” barns.
The Rural Diary Archive course taught me that we need to preserve the historical stories of rural Ontario. I believe that the OBP barn survey will be a tremendous tool to accomplish the goal of preserving not only the barns but also the stories about those barns. I encourage everyone to participate when the survey becomes available for general distribution.
For further information on the Rural Diary Archives, please see https://ruraldiaries.lib.uoguelph.ca/. Transcribers are always welcomed.