Rural cathedrals: the beautiful old barns of Hastings County

"Local Barn in Black and White," Dave deLang

“Local Barn in Black and White” is what Queensborough-area photographer Dave deLang – whose amazing work I’ve praised before, notably here and here and here – calls this gorgeous photo. The barn in question is near the corner of Declair and Rockies roads northeast of Queensborough. You can see more of Dave’s work, and contact him about it, through his posts on Flickr, which are here. (Photo courtesy of Dave deLang)

“Nobody builds barns anymore,” the chap at the rustic antiques place between Madoc and Belleville said to Raymond and me.

I can’t remember how we’d got onto the topic of barns – this conversation took place quite a few months ago – but I do recall how startled I was by his statement. The man went on to explain what he meant, and I realized I had noticed the phenomenon he was talking about without really noticing it, if you know what I mean. That phenomenon being: these days farmers who need new structures for storing crops or equipment, or the other things that barns are used for, are installing the semi-circular fabric structures – are they maybe called “coveralls”? – that now dot the rural landscape. Here’s an example:

Modern barn, Highway 62

And here’s another:

Modern barn, Ridge Road

I’d seen these structures without realizing that they are the modern-day equivalent of – and actually, I guess, replacement for – the beautiful 19th-century wooden barns that one can still find throughout Hastings County, and especially in our North-of-7 area. The photo by our friend Dave deLang that’s at the top of this post (and that Dave very kindly gave me permission to use) is easily the most beautiful example I have to show you, but here are a few others in photos by yours truly:

Tokley barn

The Tokley barn, Declair Road, Queensborough.

Cassidy barn

The Cassidy barn, Queensborough Road east of Queensborough.

Shaw barn

The Shaw barn, Keller’s Bridge Road north of Eldorado.

Queensborough Road barn

Another Queensborough Road barn, east of Queensbororough.

With the exception of my sojourn of a little over 15 years in Montreal, barns have been a part of the landscape of my life since childhood. Now that Raymond and I have moved permanently from Montreal to Queensborough, barns are once again something I see every day, passing by them on my way to and from town, and work, and so on. You see them without seeing them, most of the time; but every now and then – like when the antiques guy made that stark announcement – you realize what an important part of our history and landscape they really are.

It takes a lot of work to build a big wooden barn. We’ve all heard of old-time barn-raisings, when all the neighbours in a rural area would get together to get the job done in one or two sweat-soaked days, the men and boys working in teams to get that huge building up and the women and girls working in teams to produce the giant joints of roasted meat and gallons of mashed potatoes and endless pies needed to fuel that hard manual labour. Whether that’s how the barns that I see every day were built, or whether it was more commonly done by just the family members and a smaller group of helpers over a longer building period, I don’t know – and I’d love to learn more about that, if any of my readers have some knowledge or even experience on that front.

McKinnon barn

The McKinnon barn (Queensborough Road west of Queensborough) under a glorious late-afternoon sky.

What I do know is that we should not take these huge and wonderful buildings, these monuments to the agricultural life and to the people who lived and worked it in the earlier days of this region, for granted. I am happy to say that many of the old barns in the Queensborough area are well-kept-up and still used. Some others have started to crumble, and they can be magnificent even as they fall into ruin.

Either way, they are a lot more interesting to look at than their modern-day equivalents.

18 thoughts on “Rural cathedrals: the beautiful old barns of Hastings County

    • I agree, Elinor. It’s so easy to take great architectural (and historical) landmarks like that for granted. It’s when one hears from people like you, who live in places where old barns are not, that one realizes how fortunate we are.

  1. Before I went on a photography excursion to capture images for the “Barns and Bridges” show at the Heritage centre a few years ago I had not notices how many barns in the area are crumbling. Someone at that show told me that barns don’t begin to crumble until they are no longer occupied. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s interesting to think that the warmth and moisture of a stalls full of horses, cows or steers and a few barn cats, or a sty full of pigs is needed to keep a barn alive!

    • That is really interesting, Pauline, and I will nose around to see what some of my farmer friends know about that theory. Maybe it is true. I rather hope it is. Hey, you may have noticed that one of the barns I took a picture of on Queensborough Road is one that you photographed (way better than me) a while back – we bought a card featuring that beautiful photo at The Food Company in Tweed a couple of months ago, and it was the inspiration for this post!

  2. Really cool page/blog. Nice to see the appreciation for the old barns in the Hastings area. We have one near Madoc, On that unfortunately is hard to make use of. It has been raided and treated poorly by people who trespass or farmers in a “rush”. It more or less takes a community to keep these barns alive, or families with lots of support. Due to severe weather exposure on wood, that can only perform with structural integrity for so long, any repairs are labour intensive and costly.

    • Hi William, and thank you for your kind words and your story about your own local barn experience. I agree that keeping up an old barn, especially one that hasn’t been treated all that well over the years, is a huge challenge. There is one near us that has been slowly falling down over the past several years, and there’s really nothing the owners can do about it – it’s a huge danger even to go inside it. It’s too bad to see these beautiful old buildings slowly decay, yet I suppose it’s the nature of life, isn’t it? It makes one more grateful for farm families who have taken good care of their barns over the years they’ve used them.

  3. Also very interesting are the diamond cross barn cut outs found on some barns in Hastings County. Are now enigmatic in terms of original purpose and meaning … seemingly forgotten over time.

      • You can find the attached article on JSTOR. The author references Hastings County as “hotspot” for these symbols. The Diamond Cross: An Enigmatic Sign in the Rural Ontario Landscape , Thomas F. McIlwraith, Pioneer America, Vol. 13, No. 1 (March 1981), pp. 27-38.

      • Thank you so much for this information! (Readers, the article gpolan refers to can be found here; you have to create an account with JSTOR to see the whole thing – which I am about to do.) I’d never heard of JSTOR, a great resource for academic and scholarly articles, until you shared this, so thank you for that too!

  4. Hi Katherine. This symbol is also found on barns in New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, New York, and Ohio to name a few US states. Sometimes as singles, or in twos or threes. Likely a cultural transference element from early European settlers, that some associate with a German influence (speculative). Characteristic of the earliest of barns in Ontario early to mid nineteenth century until about 1900. Original meaning and purpose seemingly forgotten in our time but must have been more common than we realize now.

    • Nothing intrigues me more than a sentence like “Original meaning and purpose seemingly forgotten in our time.” Figuring out what that meaning was is a challenge that I hope someone will be up to!

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