Here, my rural friends, is a mystery for you to solve

Cooper Road - Madoc, ON

See the diamond-shaped opening not far below the roofline of this barn (which happens to be on Cooper Road not far from Queensborough)? What do you suppose it was put there for? Would you believe that apparently nobody knows for sure? And so we have a mystery for you to solve. (Photo courtesy of Greg Polan)

I’ve said it before and doubtless I will say it again: readers of Meanwhile, at the Manse come up with the most interesting things. This time, it’s a mystery that needs solving.

I’d like to say I’m putting on my Nancy Drew headscarf yet again, but actually I don’t think Nancy could solve this one. Not the Hardy Boys either. They’re all a little too urban for this one. This particular mystery has to do with an unusual design element in some 19th-century Hastings County barns, and why it might have been put there. The detectives we need are people knowledgeable about farming history and traditions in our part of the world. Detectives: I know who you are. And I want to hear from you!

As does reader Greg Polan, who got me going on this fascinating line of inquiry.

It began with a post I did earlier this year about the beautiful old barns that dot the landscape in the Queensborough area. A few months after it appeared, Greg posted a comment:

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

Well! The words “enigmatic” and “seemingly forgotten over time” are enough to grab my attention. Intrigued, I asked Greg to elaborate, and he steered me to a scholarly article on the barn mystery that was published back in 1981 by Thomas F. McIlwraith of the University of Toronto, who is now emeritus professor in U of T’s Department of Geography and Planning. I’ll tell you more about the interesting contents of that article in just a bit.

Greg also sent some more information of his own:

“This symbol is also found on barns in New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, New York, and Ohio, to name a few U.S. 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-19th century until about 1900. Original meaning and purpose seemingly forgotten in our time but must have been more common than we realize now.”

And then he told me this:

“There are a couple of good examples along Cooper Road if you look for them.”

Wow – that’s close to home! Cooper Road is just a few miles west of Queensborough.

And then Greg was kind enough to email me some photos he’s taken of the diamond cutouts on barns in this area. The one at the top of this page is one of the Cooper Road barns he refers to; here are some more of his photos:

Sidney Township - Hastings (2) - April 2017

A barn in southwestern Hastings County’s Sidney Township that has three of the mysterious diamond cutouts. (Photo courtesy of Greg Polan)

Hastings County barn 2

Another Hastings County barn with the diamond cutouts. (Photo courtesy of Greg Polan)

Vermilyea Road - Sidney Twp - Hastings County - Nov 2017

A barn on Vermilyea Road, Sidney Township. (Photo courtesy of Greg Polan)

County Road 35 West of Campbellford - Nov 2017

A barn on Northumberland County Road 35 west of Campbellford. (Photo courtesy of Greg Polan)

Hastings County barn 1

It looks like the diamond cutouts have been filled in and painted on this Hastings County barn (Photo courtesy of Greg Polan)

Let me tell you a little bit about Greg – or actually, I’ll let him tell you a bit about himself – and then I’ll share some of the various theories that Thomas F. McIlwraith puts forward as to why these curious shapes were added to some 19th-century barns. I asked Greg if he had a connection to this area, and he sure does – one that goes way back:

“My connection to Hastings [County] goes back several generations as my mom was a Burris (as in “Burris School”) and my great-grandfather was Jackson Burris, who owned the 200 acres now bordered by Highway 62, Public School Road, Hazzards Road, and Cooper Road. [Note from Katherine: this is the site of our much-loved, and recently saved from closure, Madoc Township Public School!] I grew up in Belleville and now reside in Acton, Ont. I still have family in the Hastings area and I visit the area as often as I can.”

Pioneer America

Pioneer America, the journal in which the scholarly article on diamond crosses appeared.

Okay, let’s move on to Prof. McIlwraith’s 1981 article in the journal Pioneer America. It’s entitled The Diamond Cross: An Enigmatic Sign in the Rural Ontario Landscape. You can read the article in its entirety if you click here and register (it’s easy and free) for an account with JSTOR, which is an online repository of scholarly articles. But since I’ve already done that, I’ll try to bring you what I think are the highlights. I’ll start, however, by quoting most of Prof. McIlwraith’s first paragraph:

High up in the gabled ends of hundreds of century-old barns throughout Ontario appear, one or more at a time, small diamond-shaped openings with triangles on the corners, sawn through the board siding. The diamond cross first registered with me during fieldwork in Simcoe County, Ont., in September 1971. Since then, it has been an enduring blossom in my rural Ontario landscape, long defying interpretation, yet offering a path to deeper awareness of the cultural landscape of the province.

And then he provides these observations and reflections based on his extensive research:

  • The barns with the crosses were built between 1858 and 1904.
  • More than half of all the diamond crosses are single ones, but they also show up in pairs and “less commonly in groups of three, four and very occasionally five.”
  • Southern Ontario – the Grand River area and “an arc extending from the Lake Huron shore south of Goderich eastward through to the Kingston area” – is “the heartland” for the phenomenon, but the diamond crosses also appear in several U.S. states, as Greg noted – though not, interestingly, in New England.
  • Theories about a functional use for the diamond-cross cutouts include:
    • Allowing access for pigeons. (Unlikely, Prof. McIlwraith notes, since farmers consider pigeons pests.)
    • Allowing access for swallows and owls, more acceptable barn birds – but Prof. McIlwraith says there is no evidence that this is the reason for them.
    • Allowing light and ventilation – though Prof. McIlwraith says that the diamond crosses “are not really very useful for either purpose,” mainly because they are so small.

Overall, on the theory that the diamond crosses were installed to be useful in some way, Prof. McIlwraith concludes: “As far as admitting birds, air, or light is concerned, the chance of functional explanation for the design seems to be virtually nil.”

He then looks into non-functional (i.e. decorative or symbolic) explanations, and tells us that the “diamond cross is a design of great antiquity,” citing examples from a Chinese bowl from the fifth millennium B.C. and artifacts from Africa where it is believed to be a fertility symbol. But what’s the link (if any) between that symbolism and Ontario barns? That’s the mystery. The professor notes that plain diamonds are easy to cut into planks, and thus many barns have diamond shapes (as well as, occasionally, stars or squares). But “it takes an extra effort to extend the diagonals, punch out the side triangles, and notch the other triangles top and bottom. This effort makes the ordinary diamonds distinctive, creating a shape not generally encountered. It simply is not reasonable to suggest that so many farmers cut these openings in their barns to apply a nonfunctional embellishment without some common external influence.”

But what was that “external influence”? A now-forgotten decorative or even spiritual tradition brought to the New World from the Old by early settlers?

Neither Prof. McIlwraith nor, as far as I know, anyone else has the answer to that question. The good professor concludes his study eloquently:

The diamond cross seems to be as old as Ontario settlement, although it was widespread only about the middle of the 19th century. There are secrets yet to be discovered regarding its diffusion and acceptance; they could tell us a good deal about the mixture of social backgrounds in Ontario, and the degree of local mobility. Today, rural residents talk knowledgeably about rail fences and stone piles, but the diamond cross has left barely a trace in the consciousness or study of life in rural Ontario. The modesty of the diamond cross is so very characteristic of the unostentatious nature of the old Ontario landscape. Its decline is a matter of forgetting rather than of rejection, an expression of the progressive adjustment of immigrants from the Old World to living in the New.

The notion of a rural tradition that has now been utterly forgotten fascinates me – and makes me hope that maybe it’s not forgotten after all; that maybe someone out there can shed some light on why there are diamond crosses in the barns of Hastings County and elsewhere.

I’ll let Greg Polan have the last word, and remind you, dear reader, of your mission to help solve this mystery:

“I’m just fascinated about how something that was once relatively common in old rural Ontario (and as it turns out in many U.S. states as well) has simply been forgotten about. I would be very curious if your readers can share some insight into their purpose and meaning.”

Okay, folks: the ball is in your court!

A late-fall cornucopia from out Queensborough way

LOL Halloween 1

I just can’t even begin to tell you how great Halloween was this year in Queensborough – first and foremost because of the amazing multimedia “spooktacular” mounted by the new owners of the historic Orange Hall, Jamie Grant (performing here) and his wife Tory Byers. On behalf of all the trick-or-treaters and their parents: huge thanks, Jamie and Tory!

The short and chilly days of November are most definitely upon us. The sun sets before 5 p.m., there is snow in the forecast for this week, and we’re in the sombre time leading up to Remembrance Day. Soon enough we’ll all be feeling a little cheerier because of the Christmas lights and ornaments that will appear; but right at the moment, it’s perhaps the gloomiest time of the year. Which means it’s time for me to bring you some cheery late-fall news from Queensborough!

First up: My report on Halloween – the second annual Family Halloween Party at the Queensborough Community Centre (held Saturday, Oct. 28) and then the big night itself.  Regular readers will probably recall that I gave you a heads-up about all this (not to mention an invitation) in my most recent post. Well, I am happy to report that Halloween in Queensborough was a huge success!

Raymond and I were unable to attend the Saturday-night party due to a longstanding commitment in Toronto that evening. Fortunately, however, some of the 60-plus people of all ages who attended and had a bang-up time shared their photos with me. I’ll in turn share some of them with you; you can find more on the Queensborough Community Centre’s Facebook page. Here goes:

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And then there was Halloween itself! Here at the Manse we had the largest number of trick-or-treaters since our arrival in Queensborough, which was very exciting. As usual we had the Manse looking pretty Halloweenish, thanks largely to Raymond’s pumpkin-carving skills. Here it is before night fell; note scary monster (Raymond wearing his anti-blackfly hood) lurking in the doorway!

Manse Halloween 2017

And here’s the Manse after dark:

Manse after dark Halloween 2017

But of course the highlight of Halloween 2017 in Queensborough – as predicted in my last post – was the amazing multimedia show put on for trick-or-treaters at the former Orange Lodge. New owners Jamie Grant and Tory Byers absolutely outdid themselves with many hours of work to put together a Halloween extravaganza in the historic building. Here are a few images:

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And then there was the onstage entertainment, courtesy of a well-disguised Jamie Grant. Amazing!

Okay, so that’s Halloween wrapped up. Can’t wait for next year!

Now on to the latest proof that deer-hunting season is something that people who’ve lived in the city for many years (such as Raymond and myself) really need to get their heads around. I’ve written before (that post is here) about making the rookie error, not long after we bought the Manse, of inviting some friends for dinner in early November. Doh! That’s hunting season, Katherine – when men from North of 7 are not available for dinner parties, because they’re back at the hunting camp with their buddies. Another year, I did a hunting-season post (it’s here) featuring some fantastic you-are-there (“there” being the hunt camp) info from a book produced by my Madoc Township friend Grant Ketcheson.

But despite my growing understanding that much of ordinary male life screeches to a halt around here during deer-hunting season, I was still taken aback by something that happened today.

It began with an appliance that broke down this past weekend. (Is it my imagination, or do appliances always break down on the weekend, when repair people are not available?) In mid-wash cycle, when the tub was full of water and soaking wet clothes, our venerable washing machine (it came with the Manse) decided it would no longer drain. We hauled the clothes out and took them and the rest of the laundry to the local laundromat, but in the meantime our washer looks like this:

Broken washing machine

A tub full of grey water that won’t go away – just what you want in a washing machine…

So last night I looked up the phone number for the local appliance-repair outfit that has served us well in the past, and also (being in full honey-do-list mode) the number for the local company that empties septic tanks, which is another fall thing that needs doing around the Manse. When Raymond found the sheet of paper with those numbers neatly written out on the dining-room table this morning, he of course (being a good husband) recognized his mission. The result, relayed to me by text mid-morning as I drearily walked the picket line on the strike by Ontario college faculty that please will end soon, was this:

  • Automatic message at the appliance-repair place: “Closed for the week of Nov. 6.”
  • Friendly message from the woman who answered the phone at the septic-tank place: “Not this week. The boys are all hunting!”

So there you go: another reminder that if you want a guy to fix your washing machine or drain your septic tank, hunting season is not the time to ask. Sooner or later I will figure this out.

Finally, a very happy piece of news: There was a huge and joyous gathering at the Queensborough Community Centre this past Sunday as Ken and Betty Sexsmith celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary. Ken and Betty have been pillars of the Queensborough community their entire lives, and it was just lovely to see their four children, many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and hundreds of friends and members of their extended family out to wish them well. Here’s my photo of Ken and Betty that afternoon – looking pretty great, I have to say:

Ken and Betty Sexsmith 65th anniversary

Betty told me that Sunday (Nov. 5) was in fact the actual anniversary of their marriage in 1952. “There was a terrible snowstorm that day – an early one,” she recalled.

Well, 65 years later, there is again snow coming soon. As we all brace for the the harsh days of the winter that will soon be here, I think a Queensborough love story of 65 years – and counting – is just what we need to warm us up.