Have we found a clue to the barn mystery?

Diamond cross on Vermilyea Road barn

Look up and left: an example – from Vermilyea Road, just north of Belleville, Ont., where I work – of the mysterious diamond crosses carved into some barns in our area. Why, people, why?

You know, I love solving mysteries, or at least seeing mysteries solved. As a rule the most mysterious mysteries in my day-to-day life are where I might have left my reading glasses, or my phone, or my keys – not super-exciting stuff, but one does get a nice surge of satisfaction when the mystery is solved and the missing object located. (My reading glasses, by the way, are quite frequently discovered perched atop my head.)

The most recent mystery I shared here at Meanwhile, at the Manse was one brought to my attention by reader Greg Polan. As you may recall, the mystery in question – which you can read all about here – is the phenomenon of diamond-cross cutouts on the upper levels of quite a few barns in Hastings County and some other parts of Ontario (as well as some places in the United States). As Greg put it, these barn crosses are “enigmatic in terms of original purpose and meaning.” People, enigma = mystery!

As was explained (more or less) in that earlier post, cutouts on barn walls are not uncommon, and probably have something to do with a combination of letting birds (owls, swallows) in or out of the barn, and providing ventilation and light inside the barn. But the diamond crosses that Greg drew to my attention are unusual, in that the pattern is a complex one to make, and has no apparent practical advantage over a plain old four-sided square or diamond. Whoever built the barns that have these unusual features went to a lot of trouble over them. Why?

Well, that’s the mystery.

I was pleased that when I uploaded that post and then shared it on Facebook, several readers indicated that they are now intrigued by the mystery too, and have already started looking closer at barns they pass in their travels to see if they bear the mysterious diamond crosses. Personally, I always look for them now, having been alerted to their existence by Greg, and I’ve spotted several.

The comments that came in (some from people having consulted their parents or other elders) also contained some suggestions about the purpose of the diamond-cross cutouts: ventilation, again (though why so decorative?); a tradition carried over from early Dutch builders in the U.S.; a symbol of Freemasonry or other such organizations; a church symbol of some sort; a Celtic cross; a Mennonite connection; a symbol to ward off witches – or the taxman! All god suggestions, in my view.

But something that two different readers dug up really intrigued me, and I think it might hold a clue to the mystery. Because many readers don’t see all the comments on my posts (whether here or on Facebook – the link showed up in both places), I thought I would share it here. It’s definitely food for thought.

The clue comes in an article published online in 2013 and (according to the online posting), written in 2008 as part of college project on research writing. The author is M. Custer, and I’m afraid I don’t know any more about M. Custer (including his or her first name, or geographical location) than that.

The full article is here, and I encourage anyone interested in this topic to read the whole thing; it’s fascinating! (Though the type is awfully small. Where are my reading glasses?)

But here’s the main gist of M. Custer’s piece: it’s possible that the crosses are a symbol intended to invoke protection against fire, whether caused by lightning strike or something else. The writer cites a couple of saints who are supposed to be able to intervene against the threat of fire, and who also happen to have interesting-looking crosses connected with them.

One of these is St. Florian, whose cross resembles a Maltese cross and is used as a symbol by fire departments pretty much everywhere; it looks like this:


And here’s what it looks like when worked into a fire-department logo:

St. Florian cross fire department

The other saint that M. Custer dug up is St. Brigid of Kildare, one of Ireland’s patron saints, who is sometimes thought to protect against fire. Her cross is quite an unusual one and, with a bit of imagination, one might be able to see it as a model for our Ontario barn crosses. Here are a couple of variations:

St. Brigid's cross

St. Brigid's cross 2

But after all this business about saints who are supposed to offer protection from fire, Custer also sensibly notes that Lutherans (associated with these barn cutouts in the U.S.) and many other Protestants do not adhere to a belief in protection by saints – so maybe this theory too flies out the window.

However: to quote M. Custer once again (and as someone who grew up in a rural area, I absolutely know this to be true): “Barns were the largest building and investment on a farmstead. It was considered normal and sensible to pay more for the barn than the farmhouse since a barn protected a farm family’s grain, tools, livestock, machinery, food and means for survival through winter.”

Back when these old barns were built, and in fact still today, a barn fire can be, and often is, a disaster, the destruction taking a farm family’s livestock and machinery and thus posing a very serious and immediate threat to the family’s livelihood.

Custer goes on: “Because barns represented success and survival, a cross-shaped [cutout] may have been a traditional symbol of protection and good luck.” And, I might add, if this diamond cross was seen as a good-luck symbol to ward off fires, I suspect the owners of the barn, Lutheran or whatever form of Protestant though they might have been, wouldn’t have cared a whit that the symbol had its origins in traditions surrounding Roman Catholic saints. Hey, if it protects your barn and thus your family from a disastrous fire – or even if it might protect them – who’s to question it? Whatever it takes…

ermilyea Road barn with diamond cross

Can you imagine a barn-builder carving that diamond cross as superstitious protection against fire? I believe I can.

Anyway, I think it’s an intriguing, and credible, theory, and I thank M. Custer for the research and for sharing the article, and my readers for finding it.

And now I shall sit back and await more clues and theories. Please feel free to share them, and let’s try to solve this mystery!

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!