Monday, November 26, 2012


This was an article I wrote for the local paper, and I thought I would post it even though it reads a little differently. 

In its day this classic Grey County, Ontario, timber frame barn was said to be the biggest barn in the county.
This was a big achievement as there were many big and tall barns built in the late 19th century made from the thick hardwood and pine forests where there were plenty of big trees. 
Originally built by John Blyth in 1886 in former Normanby Township, south of Durham, this barn served Blyth’s 225 acres adequately. He became the MPP for the region under the Conservative banner in 1879 but suddenly died in 1895 at the age of 45, leaving his wife and nine children.
His sons James and John took over the farm and they reshaped the barn to what it looks like today. Many farmers during the early 20th century were expanding their operations, building additions to their barns or even moving neighbouring ones to be joined to their existing barns.  The Blyth children added another 20 feet to the overall length, making it almost 100 feet long, but it was the roof and sides that was quite an accomplishment. The old roof and its supporting timbers were taken down and another new set of posts and six roof purlins were assembled, raising the roof higher to over 50 feet and almost 60 feet if the foundation height was added. It was incredible how these old heavy timbers and pole rafters were first taken down and new ones erected without our modern cranes, but using the skills acquired with blocks and pulleys and by the use of gin poles. It was at this time, when some of the first rafters were being put up and men were at the top that one of them announced he could see Lake Huron, a distance of 58 kilometers.  
The Blyth’s were specializing in shorthorn cattle, but pigs were also kept in the stables under the small straw barn, which was unchanged since it was initially built. It was a busy time providing feed for the livestock.  Turnips were grown on a six acre field for feed and each one had to be pulled out by hand in cold November days and then hauled into the barn. Part of the back of the stables, a section 10 feet wide and the length of the barn was converted into a root cellar for this important feed supply. It worked so well that a silo was not built on the farm until the 1970’s.  To make the turnips into small chewable bits for the cattle and pigs, they were put through a “pulper,” which was operated by turning a large handle, a difficult manual job. But the dirtiest harvest work was threshing hard peas, which was also used for feeding cattle and mixed with oats for feeding pigs. The peas were cut with a mower bar that had a special attachment, which cut and then rolled the peas and stems into a bundle.  There was always a lot of dirt left over on the stems and pea pods and threshing the crop became very dusty work.
This farm operation used so much grain that it used to take three days to thresh the crop. The massive grain bins used to store the grain measured 35 feet by 42 feet, with two doors leading to ten huge bins. When the crop was harvested by reaper binders, the sheaves were brought into the barn and stored there until the threshing crews came. There were so many sheaves in the east part of the barn that they reached the top plate of the barn, about 35 feet.
The stable floor was different than most as it was made from short logs of cedar standing on end and then the spaces in between filled in with sand. It was quite durable, did not get muddy like a dirt floor but was harder to clean as the shovel would hit the tops of the cedar as they were a bit uneven.
The structure still stands today, a show barn to the expertise of timber framers of the 19th and early 20th centuries and can be seen on Concession 2 just west of Highway 6.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Head Stands on Barns

I was going through some of my archival photos and had forgeotten about this one. Yes, there are five men up there, three of which are standing on a 10 inch purline plate 40 feet in the air. That's scary enough, but two of them are doing headstands on the same 10 inch plate! The photo is from about 1900 when timber frame barns were still being built. By then expereinced crews of framers had notched and raised dozens and dozens of barns and probably became quite comfortable walking high up on timbers. Those days are gone now and even with  new timber frames today, many safety lines would be needed to be even up on a purline.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


He showed me the pile of firewood he had split, a long line along the fence row. He had also cut down those trees earlier during the winter. What was amazing was that this man, Clayton Henry was turning 90 years old.
Clayton had grown up in Keppel Township, known locally as “Stony Keppel,” just west and north of Owen Sound, Ontario, on a peninsula between Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. Clayton’s  grandfather had taken the 300 acres out of the crown late in the 19th century.  The story was that when Clayton’s grandfather came he saw huge four foot diameter trees and thick soil. Alas, when he cut the trees to make fields, he found out that what he perceived as good earth was mainly a thick layer of decomposed leaves, and underneath were stones and boulders with patches of good soil. They first built a log barn and house, and when Clayton’s father took over he built this large timber frame barn in 1912.
Clayton was born in 1922, walked 3 miles to school and began working at a neighbor’s sawmill at 14. To clear the fields of large boulders, which was a lifetime of work, Clayton remembers building large fires around some of the huge boulders, keeping the fires going day and night for two or three days. When the boulder was hot enough, they would throw large amounts of water on it and invariably the boulder would crack, making it easier to move the pieces off the field.
When Clayton’s father was killed while felling a tree, he took over the farm until 1981, when Clayton’s wife died. He told me he just didn’t want to stay there any more; everything reminded him of his wife. He moved a mile down the road, built himself a small house, and ran a sawmill business until just five years ago. The farm was sold and re-sold, sometimes being used as a hunting and drinking camp until the present owner purchased it for the wildlife and nature. Unfortunately, the barn was not kept up, the roof leaked, and one day last year, a strong wind blew out one side. It’s slated to be taken down next month, the great timbers to be sold as flooring and new house accents.
Things have changed around Clayton, more development, a paved road. When I asked him what was the biggest change he had experienced, I expected, “people landing on the moon,” or “computers,” but no, keeping to his own local nature, he answered that, “people didn’t want to neighbor with you anymore.” That says a lot.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Washego Ontario Barn

English barns are found from New England and the mid states to Ontario, and this little barn is a pure example of one, near Washego, north of Orillia in Ontario. Richard called me up one day to inspect it, and give him some advice on how to repair this 140 year old vintage.
This region is the northern extent of farming in this area, with the rocky shield popping up its stone outcroppings everywhere. A few pockets of good land lie here and there, otherwise it’s trees, rivers, stone and more trees.
The barn is a typical 36 foot by 54 foot English style barn, which was originally built on the ground and then moved onto a stone foundation 40 years later. That’s when livestock farming became more popular, as the area residents had more cash to buy meat. It’s a 4 bent frame, all pine from the back of the farm, with hand adzed timbers and round poles for rafters. All the horizontal girts all one piece, 10 inch by 10 inch and 36 feet long. The threshing floor is three inch thick tamarack with the two bays on either side originally used for hay/straw and grain stook storage.
There was no granary built inside, but there was a separate small building next to the barn, that was built to store the grain.
The main problem with the barn was the two foot thick stone foundation. At the south east corner, water had run in from the natural slope of the land, and after many decades, collapsed about a five foot section. The good thing was that the bottom sill plate of the barn was good all the way around. This meant that the stone could be taken out without the frame collapsing, as the plate was still locked into the corner with the other sill plate and the tenon from the post above. Richard is eager to get this part fixed and is already planning on building up the foundation again with cement blocks.  A few new barn boards and some repairs to the stable supports and the barn will last another 100 years.