In Search of Barn Folk Art (continued)

My name is 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 is a continuation of a preceding posting about my investigation of the rich heritage of gable-end folk art.

Other Gable End Cut-Outs

          The carefully sawn diamond cross is not the only cut-out to be found in the gable ends of barns. Triangles, rectangles, tipped squares, diamonds and hearts are part of a rich rural folk heritage that is found in many areas of Ontario. Other gable-end symbols include a crescent on its rounded back, a bowtie effect with two triangles, and a configuration of three triangles with the top triangle having a diamond shape on its peak. Various configurations of up to nine small squares or triangles have also been documented.

          I was told about a pair of wine glasses or perhaps communion goblets that once graced a gable end and a crossed hay rake and fork with an intricate and unusually delicate diamond cross were carved into a gable featured on page 188 in The Barn A Vanishing Landmark in North America by Arthur and Witney.

          Whether the shapes were functional, a farming family’s whim, a barn-builder’s mark, or the initials of the owner and the date of the barn, it takes a quick eye to catch a glimpse of cut-outs as you pass in your car.

          The significance of many of the cut-outs may be lost to memory but spotting one of these obscure, historic relics as you drive country roads adds the delight of discovery to a country drive. Look high in the gable ends of old barns and if you are lucky you will see a cut-out or by chance discover a new configuration.

Photo 10 Will Samis, with Ontario Barn Preservation, shared this photograph of an owl hole cut in his grandfather’s circa 1860s barn near Coburg.

Photo 11  The Love family had a heart design in the gable of their mid-1800s log horse stable. The board was preserved when this building on my farm in Lanark County had to be dismantled.

Photo  12  A unique design from a small barn near White Lake, Renfrew County.

Photo 13  A crisp, tipped square with circular saw marks on the board that had been protected from the weather for over 110 years. The circular saw was not invented until after 1860 so the marks are a clue to dating the barn.   

Photo 14  A date sawn in a gable-end board to mark the erecting of the barn.

Photo 15  The tidy initials and date were made with a series of drilled holes.

Photo 16   This unusual design on a barn on Wolfe Island near Kingston was blocked from the inside to prevent birds trying to peck it larger. Starlings use any opening in sheathing boards to make their nests.

Photo 17  Sometimes the original configuration was lost when a hayfork track was put in place.

Photo 18  Sometimes just a remnant of a design is evident because the original geometry was lost when a board came off in a storm or rotted off its nails. Luckily the loose board on this barn is not lost and could be nailed back in place to preserve the historic design.

          I would be delighted to hear of any gable-end designs that you have on an old building on your farm or that you have discovered. Photographs and anecdotes accompanied by the township and county can be sent to so that the variety of Ontario designs can be documented.

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