Whimsical replicas bring out the kid in all of us, says hobby builder

East St. Paul retiree John Ness’s interest in tiny barn replicas began with a toy barn he built for his grandson

You don’t need to be a farmer to appreciate a well-built barn.

Just ask retired East St. Paul businessman John Ness, or the curious visitors drawn to his replicas on display at farm toy shows.

Ness’s display includes tiny toy barns kids love to play with, and replicas that the bigger ‘kids’ who flock to the farm toy shows love to look at.

Ness didn’t grow up on a farm, but worked for farmers as a youngster.

“I worked on dairy farms from the time I was 14,” said Ness, who grew up in Ontario but came west as an adult to run a company selling dairy barn equipment.

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“I’ve always had my heart in dairy farming.”

A dealer with Westfalia-Surge, Ness’s career spanned more than 30 years in Manitoba selling dairy barn equipment to farmers and helping some design their barns too.

It was only after retirement a few years back, and arrival of a grandson, that Ness decided to build a toy barn. It turned out well and the youngster was delighted with his new toy — complete with working bale-retrieval system.

“He still has it,” said Ness. Naturally, other grandkids wanted one too and over the course of a few years he’d built a dozen. That included some built after he got involved with the toy show circuit in Morden, Winkler and Steinbach, where a few exhibitors approached him to build the toy barns for them too.

Between toy barn building, Ness also turned his attention to building a little barn for himself too. His first replica was an Ontario bank barn, built from recollections of the barns he worked in as a young lad.

That replica caught the fancy of a farmer in the Morden area, and he approached Ness to build him a miniature of the barn on his own farm. Ness built that replica, a traditional Beatty-style barn with a gothic roof, from supplied photos. The farmer was happy with it, said Ness.

“I asked him why he wanted it and he said if he ever moves away he can take the barn with him.”

A friend also asked him to build a replica of a horse barn. That one, complete with stalls and lit with LED lights is so authentic you can’t tell from photos Ness took of the interior that the horses standing in those stalls inside are plastic.

His latest creation is a replica of a barn he built for himself. The rare octagonal barn, still standing near Bethany, Man., has long fascinated him, says Ness, who’s built a replica, as close to perfect as he could, complete with faux fieldstone foundation, and tiny cedar shingles. It was built entirely from photos, says Ness.

“I’ve never been in one of these barns or I’d have replicated the interior too,” he said.

All the replicas are built to 1:16 scale which make them ideal for displays with toy tractors and farm animals.

They now travel with Ness to the farm toy shows where he enjoys chatting with visitors about barns of yesteryear and different styles of barns.

“It’s kind of a history lesson,” he adds.

He’s not exactly sure what the appeal of these tiny barns — or any type of miniature is, only that they appeal to many. They spark the imagination, says Ness.

“They bring out the boys in us,” he says. Girls too, of course.

Ness is now looking for more unique types of barns to replicate. He hopes to eventually recreate some of the barns in the Co-operator barn photo series last year, featuring photos supplied by the Manitoba Historical Society (MHS) of barns across Manitoba.

He’s just not sure what he’ll end up doing with more replicas.

“They’re just for educational purposes,” he said. “They’re not really toys.”

At least not for tiny pairs of hands.

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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