Alt. E Lajoie Thatch Roof Long Barn In Saint Urbain Charlevoix County

Traditional Barns in Quebec:    Part 2 of 2  

by Arthur Plumpton, member of OBP

The genesis of nineteenth century traditional barns

            Part 1 looked at the traditional agricultural architecture based upon imported technology that adapted to the Canadian climate slowly over the 135 years since Champlain’s first barn in the early 17th century, replacing thatch roofs with cedar shingles on half timber barns and adding horizontal (square log construction) as well as vertical framing for some animal stables.  In the last half of the 18th century and at the beginning of the 19th, significant changes were made to how barns were designed and built. 

A Quebec long barn in St-Pierre village, Île d’Orléans, repurposed for a vegetable producer, photo by the author.

Factors in the evolution of Quebec barns and some others

            Although I am not sure about the specific order of their occurrence during the last decades of the 18th century, I believe that three factors influenced the design of Quebec barns after the French colony, and in some cases in other regions in influencing barn development.

            One factor was the development of an open skeletal frame structure, in which the prior half timber and infilled outside wall was replaced by one in which the roof supporting timber posts between sill and roof plate beams were more widely spaced, with infill clay or rubble replaced by horizontal girts and angled braces, to which vertical wall planks could be nailed to form the side and gable end walls. The open framing was being implemented elsewhere during the late 18th century and was possibly known to Quebec barn builders. 

            In 2019, we requested Université Laval architecture students and their professor of vernacular architecture to survey nine heritage barns of the evolved architecture on Orléans island and to produce scale models for the purpose of future conservation discussions with the barn owners. The scale model of a barn and shed on our property, shown in Figure 5, was produced by three student architects of professor André Casault of Laval University for his course on vernacular architecture. 

Figure 5 – Open whole timber framing of the author’s French barn and 19th C bakehouse (Scale model by G.Couture, S. Girard and Z. Guay-Hébert)

            The small French inspired barn (34 x 31 feet), using an open skeletal timber framing not unlike that of the basic English barn, was originally windowless with just a central door on the front gutter wall that led to the mow or threshing floor set between two side bays for storage of animal fodder or grain. We restored the fully braced king post roof structure and supporting lower frame with the aid of a traditional timber framer in 2000, subsequently the adjoining shed that once served as a bakehouse until the village bakery first opened its doors in 1917. 

            A second factor of change, specific to Quebec agriculture, was incited in the late 18th century by the long and cold winters and more difficult access to separate farm outbuildings and a desire to increase the size of the existing low and narrow small gable roof barns. The resulting multifunctional gable roof “Quebec long barn”, linking together formerly independent farm buildings of differing functions, allowed the farmer to carry out most operations within the comfort and security of a single barn building.  

            In Figure 6 we see the long barn of Mrs. Plante and her brother that is located in St-Pierre village of Île d’Orléans. 

Fig. 6 – Plante family multifunctional long barn and house in St-Pierre village, photo by the author.

Figure 7 shows the former disposition of several separate functions grouped together under one roof of the Plante long barn, including an aviary (a more recent addition), dairy room, farm equipment space, cowshed, horse stable, piggery and threshing floor between wheat storage areas.

Figure 7 – Mrs. Plante’s long barn at St. Pierre, Île d’Orléans

            The third factor in the evolution of barn building in Quebec, and elsewhere, was the beginning of merchant agriculture near the end of the eighteenth century, first stimulated in Quebec by the trade of linen to England.  The early Quebec long barns were of only modest height to the roofline (about 9 to 11 feet), the steep roof (45 to 53 degree pitch) occupying significantly more height than the underlying frame, with most of the operations conducted at ground level.

            As the needs of the growing urban populations for increased food including milk products arose between the start and middle of the 19th century, the Quebec long barn gained about a metre or more of additional height, permitting the use of the expanded upper level for additional animal feedstock storage,

            One such barn not far from the bridge at St-Pierre, Île d’Orléans, shown in Figure 8, was rehabilitated by the owners of a black current winery, as an “Economuseum” and winery bottling facility.  It can be visualised before restoration in the photo on page 73 of Jon’s book. The owners, Ann, Catherine and father Bernard Monna, recipients of many medals for wine production, are keen supporters of island agriculture and heritage.

Figure 8 – Rehabilitated long barn at Monna and daughters winery in St. Pierre, Île d’Orléans, photo by the author.

            Although the enlarged Quebec connected barn continued to be built into the very early 20th century, the heyday of the long barn that evolved from early French colonial design did not extend beyond the 19th century. 

Increasing the efficiency of barns and stables

            Beginning in the mid 19th century, agricultural news from the USA proposed to the Quebec farmer and to his Ontario contemporary important space and maintenance advantages of a new gambrel roof barn.  By 1900, this greater volume per footprint new form was preferred by many farmers. That of Figure 9, a gambrel roof barn (of rare Mansard roof style, a 16th century innovation that found acceptance in house design in Quebec in the late 19th century), once a dairy farm on Ile d’Orléans, presently houses a stable for a few horses and a few goats. 

Figure 9 – Late 19th century gambrel roof (Mansart style) longbarn at St-Pierre, Île d’Orléans- of lower height than many gambrel roof Ontario barns, photo by the author.

            Modified height Quebec long barns and the more frequently altered English barns, with added second floors under their gable roofs, were another solution for additional space. The late 19th century importation of the round (Shaker) and octagonal barns initially promised operational advantages, but likely didn’t surpass two dozen constructions throughout the province, their initial popularity (including the fact that the devil could not hide in the Shaker barn corners) quickly finding disfavour in view of higher material and maintenance costs and complexity of construction.

Figure 10 – Last surviving octagonal barn of Letourneau and Hébert family in St-Jean, Île d’Orléans, photo by the author.

            As in Ontario, massive timber post and beam construction began to loose its adherents by the mid 1800s with the arrival of the simpler to construct Chicago “balloon frame”, industrial nails and roofing materials, and mechanised saw mills, with only more remote rural areas continuing traditional post and beam barn building until the fourth quarter of the 19th century.     A more recent typical gambrel roof barn (Figure 11) of industrial facture and in Ste-Famille village, provided good volume for fairly large herds, but was later converted from housing livestock to horses.

Figure 11 – Early 20th century gambrel roof barn in Ste-Famille, Île d’Orléans, photo by the author.

            The gambrel roof barn and the additional story English gable roof barn are common to both Quebec and Ontario, while the connected barns are a unique Quebec structure. 

Common to all these heritage barns still standing is the imposing challenge of maintaining, restoring and repurposing them to assure their sustainability.  On-going, whichever side of the provincial border one dwells.   

(Introductory photo: Lajoie thatch roof long barn in Saint-Urbain, Charlevoix county, by the author)

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