Traditional Barns in Quebec:     Part 1  of 2            

by Arthur Plumpton, member of OBP

You may have wondered about the architectural similarities and differences amongst heritage barns in Canada and the perspectives for their preservation  The objective of Part 1 of this article is to review the early development of French inspired barns in the neighbouring province of Quebec and their implications for later barn development. Part 2 will describe the various factors that altered barn design in the late 18th century, how they led in Quebec to a unique long barn type and to forms of barn building inherited from British and American models.  If you have a copy of Jon Radojkovic’s comprehensive book “Barn Building” (Boston Mills Press, 2007) you will see in the chapter “Quebec long barns” the type of barns I will talk about in Part 2.

            Although the function of the barn is similar from region to region, their architecture differs, particularly for those buildings derived from earlier styles. 

            While holidaying this past autumn in PEI, I was surprised to see high pitch gable roofs on barns and secondary agricultural buildings, as well as on older houses. Are these forms of barn architecture similar to earlier barns in Quebec, influenced by models imported by early French settlers to PEI, or are they related to the not dissimilar simple gable roof design of the English barn of the 1750-1800 period?

            Like Ontario, Quebec experienced in the mid 20th century a period of significant modernisation of livestock agriculture, affecting the then existing dairy, bovine, swine and poultry farms.  More efficient and sanitary barns and stables, larger herds, and technical advances including automation left many traditional operations unable to compete and existing barns facing a mitigated future.  More than 62,000 active dairy farms operated in Quebec in 1966. Only 10,400 remained in 1996, and half that number exists today.

            Overall dairy production volume did not decline, but the traditional farms either abandoned animal presence altogether, found secondary uses for the barns, or ceased their maintenance and use.  The landscapes throughout North America became rich with these eloquent ghosts of the past.

            A Quebec long barn, derived from earlier French barns and belonging to Mr. Jacques Canac-Marquis of Ste-Famille village, Île d’Orléans, is shown in Figure 1.  

Figure 1 – Early Quebec long barn of Mr. Canac-Marquis in Ste-Famille village, Île d’Orléans, photo by the author

Mr. Marquis told me that the 144 foot long structure with its fully braced king post was built in the latter decades of the 18th century, initially possessing a thatch roof. The thatch roofing has since been recognized in France as having been beneficial to interior aeration, but Quebec lacked the quality reed found in England and France, excepting a single exploitation near Trois-Rivières, and the harsh winter conditions reduced the life of thatch roofs, inciting more economical cedar shingles (not unknown in the former French period) and tinplate roofing. 

            The Canac-Marquis barn is one of twenty on the island that we visited with the collaboration of the regional municipality in 2020 to undertake with architecture students structural health analyses necessary if future rehabilitations of the barns are considered.

Early farm architecture  

            The traditional farm architecture imported by the first settlers from the north of France was adapted as vernacular architecture in the French colony, based on local traditions, materials, environment and needs.

            If you live near Midland, Ontario, a visit to the reconstituted “Mission of Saint Marie to the Hurons” (a project of the University of Western Ontario) allows a glimpse of traditional half-timbering (In-filled post and beam frames) and palisade types of barn and stable construction that were known to the French missionaries sent from Quebec to the Georgian Bay region in 1638.   

            Similar traditional methods from Normandy were used by Samuel de Champlain and Guillaume of Caën in 1626, to construct the first known Canadian barn. Erected downstream from Quebec City at Cap Tourmente, the 60 foot by 20 foot thatched gable roof half timber barn with infill of unaltered clay, exploited on site, and set between vertical posts at about 3 foot intervals, was built to protect the settlement’s cattle and to store hay during winter.

            Such ancient architecture originated in the Neolithic era, was applied in ancient Rome as “opus craticium” and later in Medieval France. The appearance of Champlain’s first barn, confirmed by impressive archeological research conducted in 1992-93 for Canada Parks, is depicted by artist Francis Bach in Figure 2 (Photo courtesy of la Musée de la Civilisation, Quebec City).

Figure 2 – Artist Francis Bach’s representation of Canada’s first barn and site, from archeological and historical records.

Barn building in New France

            Together with early square log construction of stables that provided better insulation and comfort for the animals, and the few rare stone barn exceptions in Quebec that were affected by frost formation on the interior walls and deemed to be less healthy for animals, half-timbering continued to dominate barn building for the next century and a half in New France.

            Figure 3 shows two thatched roof half timber barns or sheds at the end of this period, accurately depicted in 1787 by the British military artist Thomas Davies near Chateau Richer, about 20 km east of Quebec City. Local infill materials, including clay and rubble or crushed stone, substituted the wattle and daub construction of the half timber buildings of Medieval Europe.

Figure 3 – Two thatched gable roof barns or stables, adjoining dwellings at Chateau Richer, Quebec (Painting by T. Davies, 1787).

            Few original half timber structures have survived in Quebec.  Those remaining, like the 1732 Lamontagne house in Rimouski (Figure 4 is a contemporary image), were initiated or conserved mainly as residences.

Figure 4 – Infilled half timber 1732 house of architecture similar to the better built barns of the time, photo by the author

Often with minimal or no foundations, the more primitively constructed early wooden barns bore poorly the ravages of winter, and those imposed by “scorched earth” military strategies of European countries in the 17th and 18th centuries, both of which accelerated their disappearance.

            The French farming practice originally implanted in Quebec was to erect separate buildings for stables, barns, milk houses or dairy buildings, bakehouses, piggeries and chicken coops. Rather than disposing the buildings within a courtyard adjoining the farmhouse, as in France, the notarial records studied in the mid 20th century by the noted Quebec ethnologist and historian, Robert-Lionel Séguin (His book on barns is but one of more than 20 that treat  rural life), showed that the habitant dispersed the buildings at different distances from the dwelling, which is a practice that has continued since the 17th century, although pre 1800 farms were devoted mainly to the needs of the farm family and perhaps a few close neighbours. 

            As described by the 19th century Toronto economist John Mavor and his mentor and initiator of Quebec sociological studies, Léon Gérin, a farmer who lived along the St. Lawrence River valley or other waterways was able to better assure the survival of his family in winter by fishing and occasional hunting. 

            In Part 2 of this article, we will consider three factors that contributed to the innovation of the Quebec long barns, and to other barns of the period, their evolution in the 19th century, and their place among newer imported barn models.

(Introductory image: Long barn of Mr. Claude Gosselin beside the St. Lawrence River at St-Jean, Île d’Orléans, photo by the author)

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