The view of rustic barns is one of the greatest pleasures of a countryside drive. They stir fond childhood memories of my grandparents’ farm and inspire my storytelling. I am fortunate to live in an agricultural region dotted with this historic architecture. After a windstorm felled a neighbouring barn, I began to reflect on the life expectancy of these treasured buildings.
I recently enjoyed a conversation with Jon Radojkovic, president of Ontario Barn Preservation (OBP). Along with board members and regional representatives, he devotes himself to documenting and protecting Ontario barns constructed prior to 1959.
“The Ontario Barn Preservation is dedicated to preserving our heritage barns. We are a not-for-profit organization. Heritage barns are not only beautiful pieces of architecture and craftsmanship, they contribute to our rural landscape and as they disappear Ontario’s landscape is permanently changed. Ontario Barn Preservation provides resources, advice, connections, events, and services to preserve our barns.”
There is no government funding to help refurbish heritage barns. Ontario Barn Preservation hopes the government will one day agree to match donations received. Heritage home owners may receive government funding for refurbishments. Purchase clauses prohibit future owners of these homes from altering historic features. In the case of heritage barns, such clauses would unfairly challenge farmers because renovations may be required to accommodate the evolution of their income stream. For example, a farmer whose barn shelters horses, pigs, and cattle may one day switch focus to beef production alone. Stables, a heritage barn feature, would need removing in favour of “loose housing”.
Part of the OBP mission is to “work with agricultural organizations, local provincial and federal government officials to develop policies that promote barn preservation”.
“Old barns are like cathedrals inside,” says Jon. “They were built on the same principle as a church. The timber frames are so impressive and beautiful, hand marked by axe and adze. Each timber has those marks. We are human and when we see something handmade, we feel more empathy for it than for something made on a machine.”
Most barns inspected by OBP are timber constructions of an 1830s through 1914 vintage. The end of World War One brought changes to the way barns were built. Returning soldiers migrated to cities for work and rural labour forces shrunk. Stone masons became fewer and large trees, ideal for squared timber, disappeared. Gone were the barn-raising bees where 50 friends and neighbours offered their labour for free. Prepackaged barns could be bought from Sears or BT Barns. Kit barns could be shipped by train and built by four or five labourers.
Weather phenomena is an enemy to barn preservation, but certainly not the only one. The biggest problem OBP field representatives see is water entering spaces between barn ramps [made of earth, stone or rubble] and barn foundations. In winter the water freezes and exerts damaging force against these stone foundations. The problem can be avoided by installing eavestroughs on barn fronts. Heritage barns often had eavestroughs made of wood.
Over the years, nails holding old steel roofs in place will loosen and increase the likelihood of wind and water damage. A good set of binoculars will allow nail inspection from the ground. Missing barn boards allow moisture to enter and land on timber frames. Large timbers, notched and held in place by wooden pegs, will rot as will floors. Increased wind damage will also occur to the opposing wall.
Old hay left along outer edges of a threshing floor can gather moisture and encourage rot. It also attracts pests like raccoons, rats, and porcupines, the latter of which will gnaw away timbers and floorboards.
Vigilance is key to preservation. A few hours spent with mortar and a trowel, filling cracks on the inside and outside of a barn’s stone foundation is time well spent. In heritage barns, large round cedar posts may rot causing the mow floor to bow. “It’s a complex system of support,” says Jon, “meaning for example that roof lines are affected by rotten posts in the stables 40 feet below.” In the 1920s, those posts were set in place and the cement floor was poured around them. To check for rot, poke a screwdriver into the cedar below cement level.
“Individually, it is difficult to preserve old barns,” says Jon. “As an organization, we are hoping to raise awareness about the importance of preservation and educate people and how to do it.” Ontario Barn Preservation directorship is comprised of individuals expert in timber framing, farming, architecture, agriculture, engineering, journalism, photography and history. New members are always welcome; barn ownership isn’t a requisite to joining.
OBP offers lectures, classes, tours and an approved list of technical consultants and qualified barn contractors. Director Hugh Fraser teaches barn preservation at the University of Guelph. President Jon Radojkovic has authored two books about barns and offers workshops like the one shown below.
Many thanks to Jon Radojkovic for spending time in conversation with me. These details will permeate my future writing. I’m grateful for the chance to share the good works of Ontario Barn Preservation in hopes that the information reaches stewards of heritage barns.
To learn more, visit:
Jon Radojkovic: Purchase links to Barns of the Queens Bush and Barn Building: The Golden Age of Barn Construction appear here.
July 14, 2022 at 1:00 pm
Gwen, I took a real estate course on property evaluation years ago. Part of it was about farms and, of corse barns. As farmers stopped using bank barns ( the kind with block, stone or rubble foundations with a ramp up to the main floor or built into a bank so as to access the main floor while at the other side was a pen or corral for the animals housed in the basement) the barn foundations started to degrade. This was due to the animals no longer being there to warm the barn foundation so winter took its toll.
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July 14, 2022 at 5:25 pm
Hello Dave, this is so interesting and heartbreaking at the same time. During my conversation with Jon, he mentioned that a lot of heritage barns are falling into disuse because farmers are focusing on cash crops instead of livestock. The information you’ve shared casts that fact into a whole new light. Incidentally, I once visited a historical farm in ireland. The house and barn where often built is one long building separated by a stone wall so the family could capitalize on the heat that radiates from the animals. I haven’t thought about that for a long time. Thanks for jostling that memory.
July 22, 2022 at 4:06 pm
My parents lost a barn to fire in 1947 and all the rebuilding was done the old ways, cement poured by hand, timbers raised with the “Ho heave ho” and many men fed on the lawn by the local women.
July 22, 2022 at 4:13 pm
Hello Eileen, I’m so sorry your family went through that experience of fire. You’re telling of the events is painting such a picture for me. I can picture all those people coming together. My own grandparents had a similar experience, although I’m unsure of the year. Fires of that nature must have been very common. Thanks for taking time out to share this memory.