Sunday, July 28, 2013


I’ve been repairing, inspecting and generally interested in historic timber frame barns for about 25 years, so one day I was rubbernecking down a small concession road north of Ravenna, Ontario, in the Beaver Valley and unbelievably, an 8-sided barn came into view. It was the first time I had ever seen one in Bruce and Grey Counties, but there are many in the USA and some in Quebec.
There was a for sale sign in front of the long driveway and no one seemed to be there so I took a few photos from the road and later called up the real estate agent. She gave me the name of the owner, who had lived there over 40 years but now had retired and moved in with his children in the big smoke. He gave me the scoop and allowed me to go into the barn to take more photos. I find most farmers who I have talked to about their barns, really hospitable, many just saying, “go into the barn and do whatever you like, I have work to do.”
This unique barn was originally built in 1892 in the heart of orchard country. It’s of post and beam construction, notched and pegged with large timbers, mainly pine and white ash, cut down on the farm. The roof is a lattice work or round rafters with a hip or joint in the middle. The science behind being 8-sided was that as semi-round, the cattle would be tied up in a circle in the stables, around a central feeding chute. The farmer would simply feed the livestock going around to each cow instead of up and down aisles, as in regular rectangular barns. As well, cows could be milked easier and manure gathered by going around and out without having to back up a wagon, or wheelbarrow.
In the mow where the hay and straw were kept, a horse and wagon could come into the barn unload and keep going around and out without having to back up the horses. That was the theory anyway, but the long time owner of the farm, told me a different story. “It was terrible, the stabling arrangement was a nightmare,” he said. During the winter the manure froze and during the warmer months it was difficult to gather up as there was not enough space behind the cattle.
Still, for me as a historic building, it’s quite unique in the way it was constructed. The rules about raising a barn in the late 19th century, would be thrown out with this type of structure, as each bent would have to be raised and secured until the all the eight sides were up, making it an integral structure able to support itself.
It was purported that the original owner liked working with cement, as the barn foundations are all poured concrete, unusual for its time. His love of this material was exhibited uniquely as in 1902, he built a new two story house, all from concrete.
As the farm enterprise expanded the barn could not hold enough livestock or hay and straw. Two rectangular timber frame additions were built, the first in 1930 and the second in 1939. Orchards were planted when the farm was first settled and apple storage was need and as more trees were planted and the need for two more barns further arose.
The old owner told me there were two old pear trees planted 100 years ago and still semi-producing.  As I walked around the back of the barns I spied two gnarly trees, the pears were Flemish Beauties, brought over by the original owner when he settled the farm. Amazing, to think in this day and age when apple trees are up up-rooted every few years to suit the market that two living pieces of history are still surviving along with a historic barn, both from the same era.

Unusual Barn and Contents

I got a call a few weeks ago from a local farm lady. “You want to see our barn, it’s unusual, I think you’ll be interested,” she said in that direct local way.
Well, yes, it was different in many ways. On a sunny day I drove up the long driveway in Bentinck Township, north of Hanover, Ontario, with the barn half hidden by Manitoba Maple trees. There was Orval and Marion Becker, 83 and 81 respectively, sitting in their driveway on lawn chairs waiting for me.
They had purchased the farm in 1954, for $11,500, from the Patersons, who had taken the land out of the crown in 1855, making the Beckers only the second family to own it.
The Beckers started out farming in the traditional way , a mixed farm operation—milk cows, beef, chickens, eggs, pigs-- and crops that fed the livestock and a large vegetable garden that fed the family. “We had everything we needed at one time,” Marion said. Soon Orval purchased another two adjoining farms and expanded his operation into beef, milking cows and up to 800 laying hens.
The home farm had an unusual barn. The main barn was a 40 foot by 60 foot timber frame built in the 1880’s while the attached straw barn, 30 by 50 feet, built a few years later, was a little different. Because of the steep slope where the original barn was constructed into the bank, the second barn’s stables, were lower the main barn’s. And, it used to be a drive through barn, meaning two main doors that a horse and wagon could go in one side and come out the other, so at one time it was on ground level. Now one set of main doors are eight feet in the air! When Orval decided to go into the egg business, he built another floor in the straw barn to house his hens, with the windows still evident near the peak of the barn, making it a three-storey barn.
In about 1980 Orval sold all his commercial livestock and began a cash crop business. Although he was very busy at certain times, planting and harvesting, it left some time open for a passion he had, collecting antique vehicles.  As I entered the main barn I was met with an amazing sight—the barn was full of antique cars of every description, and parts piled high in every corner. There was his first car he bought, a Model T Ford, and there was his favourite, a 1928 Erskine, so named after the Studebaker president. “People ask me what did you get all this junk for,” laughed Orval. When others heard of his collection they brought over their antiques and soon Orval had a part time business repairing antique cars and finding parts for customers. There is a field of cars behind the barn and two more driving sheds full.
When I asked him why he didn’t begin to sell some of those valuable vehicles , he told me he didn’t know where to begin. “Now everything I got makes me a prisoner to what I have collected.” 
This year Orval had a local Mennonite repair his main barn as the gangway foundation was caving in. “You have to decide whether the barn is an asset or a liability,” he said.  He laments the fact that so many are not being maintained and are falling down.