In Search of Barn Folk Art

by Claudia Smith

I have been photographing, studying and collecting oral history about the old barns of Lanark County and eastern Ontario for many years. This first blog is about my investigation of the rich heritage of gable-end folk art.

In Search of Barn Folk Art

          Many of the historic log stables and barns still found in Lanark County, just west of Ottawa, have geometrical designs sawn into their grayed, gable-end boards. The most common cut-out design is the enigmatic, intricate diamond cross whose intriguing symmetry features a middle diamond or a tipped square with a decorative triangle or square at each point. Most are found in one or both gable ends of old log barns, some dating as early as 1840 and on timber frame barns dating from the mid to later decades of the 1800s. Several examples have been found in one or both peak ends of gambrel roofed barns.

Photo 1  Four extended diagonal saw cuts made the centre diamond and small cuts were sawn across the end of each of the point-end extension cuts to make the four triangles to complete the design.

          The cutting of the diamond cross was most often done at the seam edge of the gable sheathing boards while a few have been found that were cut from the centre of a board. The gable-end boards may have been cut to length on the ground and the design sawn out before they were nailed into the gable, with the matching halves together at the seam. Possibly the design was cut when the boards were in place. 

          Diamond crosses are found singly, in side-by-side pairs, in triangular groupings and most commonly, in an array of five. When examined carefully, differences in workmanship, signs of weathering and wear by bird activity are evident.

Photo 2  Very little is known about the symbolism of this design. The ancient motif has been found on a fifth millennium B.C. Chinese bowl and on an eighteenth-century Quebec quilt.
Photo 3  This small log stable in Lanark County is the oldest barn that I have found with a diamond cross. It is thought to be an original pioneer building from the 1830s.
Photo 4  A mid-1800s log English barn with a diamond cross.
Photo 5   An array of  five diamond crosses cut on the seams with the top cross showing signs of bird activity. In the decades around the turn of the 19th century, the many barns built by the Ireton Brothers in Lanark County had this “Ireton Trademark” diamond-cross pattern sawn in their gable ends.
Photo 6   This set of diamond crosses was found on a barn along Highway 7 between Carleton Place and Perth.
Photo 7  A set of four delicate diamond crosses was found at both gable ends of this relocated log barn.
Photo 8  Sometimes the designs are accompanied by a date. These two diamond crosses high in a shiplapped gable end have the date 1861 in drilled holes above them.

Photo 9   This barn is falling in but the cut-outs are still crisp and look beautiful with light streaming in through them.

           The origin of the diamond cross and its symbolism on farm buildings is lost from living memory and documented information is almost nonexistent. Speculation abounds: Did the diamond cross have religious significance for the person having the barn built? Did they have a profound meaning to the barn builder? Were the designs meant to bless or celebrate the harvest or the beasts housed within the barn or indeed the land itself? Were they purely decorative?

During my research these possibilities have been shared: 

  • They were sources of light or ventilation in the loft. (But some say, “Not very big to be of much use.”)
  • They were a barn builder’s trademark signature. (But the pattern is found in too many counties in Ontario to be strictly a particular individual builder’s mark.)
  • They were called “pigeon holes”, thought to let birds in and out of the haymow. (Perhaps a barn swallow could slip through one of the holes of the design – but not a pigeon unless the design was enlarged by pecking.)
  • They were openings to draw swallows to the building to protect it from lightning strikes and assure prosperity.
  • They were owl holes to let barn owls in to assist in pest control. (But many in eastern Ontario are not big enough for an owl to enter)
  • They were hex symbols to protect stored crops.
  • They were masonic symbols.

          Thomas F. McIlwraith author of Looking for Old Ontario said, “The diamond cross is not functional other than to let air pass through…. [It] remains one of Ontario’s mysteries.”

to be continued ….

2 thoughts on “In Search of Barn Folk Art

  1. I was told that when you’re filling the barn with hay, you’ll often have birds inside the barn that are trapped unless they have an outlet at the top. I think the openings are large enough to let a pigeon escape if it is motivated enough.

    1. Hi Emma,
      Sorry to take so long to reply. Thank you for your addition of information re the gable-end cut-outs. If birds came in a loft door or from the threshing floor panicking birds might be able to force their way out. Perhaps that is how some are broken.
      Do you have any photos of cut-outs that you have observed?

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