Nothing mirrors the development of agriculture and the rural communities which thrived on it more than the evolution of the timber-frame barns which
dominated the landscape for more than a century.
“As you go around the countryside you can literally tell which areas were settled first by the types of barns that were built,” states Liz Samis of the Mapleton Historical Society.
“I think the (barn) stories are very important, because that’s the history of the community,’ says June Macdonald of the Town of Minto Heritage Association.
Both organizations are doing their part to preserve the history of what Samis refers to as our “rural cathedrals.”
The Minto Heritage Association has produced two volumes of a picture-laden historical tome called The Barns of Minto Township, as well as arranging exhibits, story-telling sessions and other activities built around barns and farming life.
The Mapleton Group has organized a barn tour of some of the most intriguing of their area’s barns.
Both groups realize the old-style bank barns that we’ve grown up with are fast disappearing and are taking a pro-active approach to ensure the history is recorded and remembered.
“We haven’t spent much time gathering articles, we’ve been writing about it,” says Macdonald.
The Minto barn books grew out of a display the heritage association staged at the Harriston-Minto Heritage Gallery in 2005. The well-attended event provided plenty of feedback which indicated the organizers’ interest in barns was shared by many.
“As we spoke with the visitors, we realized there was a lot of nostalgia, but also a lot of history of the community that people wanted to share,” said Macdonald. “People just love their barns!”
The barn books contain photos, along with a brief history of the barns, farms and families involved, of as many of the barns as the group could record.
“We knew before we finished the first one that we’d be doing a second one,” recalls Macdonald. The first volume is in its third printing of 100; with probably about half the third run still available for purchase. The group printed about 400 of the second volume, with a number of those still available at the Town of Minto Administration Centre, North Wellington Co-op, the Wellington County Museum and Archives and several other locations.
As a general interest heritage association, the group also promotes and preserves other elements of history, but it continues to take advantage of opportunities to explore barns and farming lore. On November 7, the association will hold a storytelling session, featuring author Mabel Williamson. Williamson, who grew up in the Keady area is the author of Barn Stories – A Social History of Farm Life. Williamson will tell stories from her book during the free event, from 2-4 p.m. at the Drew Hall , but participants will also be invited to “come and tell their stories,” says Macdonald, noting that the association wants to gather all the information it can before memories fade and records disappear. For more information on the storytelling session or The Barns of Minto contact June Macdonald at 519-338-5833.
Major Barn Styles
There were three major styles of barns that were transplanted across the Atlantic:
Swiss/German: These barns were built with one end against or into the hillside from which access to the mow was gained. Livestock were housed below the mow. When this barn moved across the Atlantic, this barn was turned 90 degrees so that it ran lengthways along the hill. Then the English frame type with its main entrance along the side became the prefect style for crop storage above the ground level stable area. This marriage of styles became known as a bank barn and was a well copied pattern. Bank barns often have a bank of earth built up to the doors, which is locally is referred to as the barn dump.
English: This barn also known as the three- bay barns was the most common barn built in Ontario. At first these barns were crop storage facilities and the centre bay was a ground level drive through threshing floor with the doors located midway on either side. Unthreshed grain would be stored in the mows and would be threshed on the centre bay floor. After 1820, the agricultural economy changed to the three-bay barns and livestock stables were added.
Dutch: This barn was most common in New York and New Jersey on lands settled by Dutch immigrants in the 18th and 19th century. The threshing floor runs lengthways within the barn and the doors were on the ends of the barn. This allowed horses and wagons to drive in and out without having to turn around and ensured a breeze to help in the threshing of the grain. Few of these barns were built in Ontario.
Mapleton Barn Tour
Over a century ago, when many of the existing timber frame barns were built settlers had little money, so buildings were built with available materials, mostly found on the same property. Labour was another major hurdle and farmers held work “bees” helping each other as the timber frame barns seen today replaced the log barns that were often put up first.
“That was the only way they could do it. They had to work together,” states Floyd Schieck of the Mapleton Historical Society. Built frugally out of necessity and utilizing materials at hand, these barns none-the-less have stood the test of time.
“Here they are lasting 150 years some of them, whereas the engineered barns they are building today are lasting 50,” he marvels.
In order to educate and foster interest in barn traditions, the Mapleton group came up with the idea of a bus tour of historically significant barns in the area. Set for October 2, the tour featured five barns and one log cabin. At each of the barns, unique features were explained as well as some barn terms and information on how these barns were built. At one barn built in 1883, turkeys are now being raised in a barn meeting the needs of today’s modern consumer. Another barn although newer in age has a different construction and style and is located on a century farm. On a local dairy farm a new barn is being built alongside an older barn with a unique beam and other features on the inside. A barn built in 1867 with a communion cup and carafe cut into the barn boards on the end is also on the tour. This barn is owned and operated by an old order Mennonite family and inside this barn is a unique scarfe joint (an elaborate joint on beam on a barn floor that joined two beams together). At the next farm, the focus is on the evolution of haying systems, including a system in which horses were used to pull the hay up into the mow.
Schieck points out that researching older barns often reveals evidence of adaptations in haying systems. In some barns, an elaborate system involved using forks and a trolley-style device which ran across the top of the barn to deliver hay to the mow. Later, rack lifters picked a wagon load of loose hay right off the axels and raised it so workers could fork the hay into the top of the mows as they filled up.
The tour was set to finish up in the way the building of many of the original barns was often celebrated – with an old-time barn dance at the farm of Reg and Liz Samis. The couple has restored a century-old barn on their property, even though it’s not needed for their cash crop operation.
“I couldn’t bear to see it falling apart so I said we either have to tear it down or restore it,” says Liz.
The Samis Barn, which is decorated with displays of antique farming equipment, has been used for wedding receptions for both the couple’s daughters and some friends.
“We wanted to create a venue where people can come together and visit, which we don’t do much anymore.”