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Preserving vanishing Prairie barns a difficult row to hoe

One Wawanesa-area family has already sunk thousands of dollars into saving their heritage barns but fear the structures will succumb to the elements

A barn sits in a barley field, gambrel roofed, stained with red iron oxide. It could be one of dozens scattered over the more than two-hour drive from Winnipeg to Wawanesa, but to Sheila and Jeff Elder, this one is special.

On the peak facing the road, it says “Maplegrove Farm 1913” in big white letters, newly painted by Sheila after the old ones fell off.

Why it matters: The barn was once the hub of the family farm. The cumulative stories of these structures tell a history of rural life in the early 20th century.

There are no maple trees in the vicinity, but when the barn was built by the Lamb family over 100 years ago, perhaps there were.

The Lambs abandoned the site in the ’30s after hard times struck. In the 1950s, Jeff’s grandfather bought the land. They used the barn for grain storage.

Since then, the barn has passed out of use but it remains a landmark in the area. It sits alongside a road many locals use to drive to Brandon.

“A lot of people know what it is from miles away. They know about the red barn,” said Sheila.

The barn holds over 100 years of history, but the Elders fear that will soon be lost as the barn, no longer useful, deteriorates.

Heart of the farm

The barn was once the hub of the family farm, writes Kristin Catherwood of Memorial University of Newfoundland. Catherwood, who catalogued all barns in two rural Saskatchewan municipalities, suggests that barns reflect the realities of life on family farms better than any other type of rural building. The barns held horses, cattle and hay, but also served as the venue for social occasions.

“The barn was the first place the farmer went in the morning, the last place he went before bed,” writes Catherwood. “Now at best, barns have moved to the fringes of the farm. At worst, they have disappeared entirely.”

The heyday of barn building was 1910-30, Catherwood said. This was a boom era of agricultural growth in Canada, coinciding with an influx of settlers to the Prairies.

Starting in the 1960s, the barn began to be less vital to the family farm due to changing technology and methods of farming.

Catherwood counted 123 barns in the two municipalities she studied. Of these, 20 per cent were still being used for some sort of livestock, and 25 per cent were used as storage or workshops. One was still being used exactly as it would have been when built.

About a third of the structures were in poor condition, past the point where they could be restored.

Tough choices

The Elders have already put about $50,000 into maintaining another barn, built on their original farm site around 1886. The two-level barn, dug into the sloping farmyard, was built with tamarack logs squared off with a broad axe instead of milled lumber.

The bottom level had stalls for cattle, and draft and carriage horses. Feed and hay was stored on the top level where it could be dropped to the bottom floor when it was needed.

Now it’s used to store a boat, a snowmobile, grain bin parts and other odds and ends.

“It was from the original first generation that put so much work into it,” Sheila said. “There was a lot of factors that went into (fixing it). It was a lot of soul-searching.” They knew the money could go into many other areas on the farm.

“It’s been taken care of by previous generations, and we’re just trying to do the same,” Jeff said. “It’s got a neat history.”

The red “Maplegrove” barn isn’t made out of beams hand-hewn by past generations of the Elder family. It is an “Eaton’s barn.”

Between 1910 and 1932, the T. Eaton Co. sold house and barn packages through its catalogue service. These were only sold in Western Canada.

Eaton’s offered a free plan book which gave the details for the house or barn plan, including an artist’s sketch. Customers could buy the blueprints, or order a complete package of plans, lumber and everything needed to build the house. Lumber was shipped from British Columbia, and the millwork came from Winnipeg, the Canadian Museum of History writes.

The Elders have no proof that the barn was ordered from Eaton’s, but that’s the story handed down to them.

Today, the fir timbers are in decent condition, but the concrete foundation is crumbling. The Elders once used it for grain storage, but they don’t need it anymore. It’s also standing in one of their better-producing fields. Jeff and Sheila acknowledge it doesn’t make much financial sense to keep it up.

“I just don’t want to just let it go and let it fall down,” said Sheila.

Other uses

Near Winnipeg, old barns have found new lives as wedding and event venues, such as the “Rustic Wedding Barn” near Steinbach. But in Wawanesa, which is about a half-hour drive from Brandon and more than two hours from Winnipeg, finding alternative uses for the building has proved difficult.

Over the weekend of May 25-26, the Elders planned two events to test the viability of their barn as a venue. One event had to be cancelled because of lack of interest.

“I have all kinds of ideas but I know realistically the amount of money and time is beyond what I think we can consider,” Sheila said.

The Elders say they’d have to move the barn before they could remodel it as a venue. They can’t sacrifice good land for a parking lot. They were quoted $100,000 to move the barn, they said.

Vanishing history

“There will be a day not too far off where barns are an unusual thing,” said Gordon Goldsborough, author and head researcher for the Manitoba Historical Society.

There are 10 municipally designated heritage barns in Manitoba, according to Manitoba Historical Society records. Goldsborough explained that to be designated a heritage building, the building needs to have historical significance, either to the province or to the community in which it stands.

Significance could include architectural peculiarities, like some of the octagon-shaped barns in the province, said Goldsborough. Other criteria includes if buildings were the site of a noteworthy event, are considered a landmark, and are in relatively unaltered, good structural condition, according to the Heritage Resources Act.

Designating a municipal heritage site is up to local councils, with the input of municipal heritage advisory committees, made up of people who can provide expertise on the historical nature of the site.

However, Goldsborough said he can count “on one hand” how many municipalities actually have heritage advisory committees.

In the Elders’ municipality, Oakland-Wawanesa, there is no heritage advisory committee.

Sheila said she’d researched getting heritage grants, but realized they either did not apply, did not provide enough money to save the Maplegrove barn, or would have too many rules and restrictions.

In Alberta, one county’s approach to saving barns has taken another path.

Flagstaff county, southeast of Edmonton, began cataloguing its barns in 2016. University of Alberta student Sydney Hampshire drove around the county taking pictures of barns and collecting stories from their owners.

Hampshire formed the accounts into an online directory, which also includes old churches and landforms, called “Heritage Barns of Flagstaff.”

“We must not wait until scarcity elicits demand for these historic resources,” the site says. “We should take action now, while residents of the Flagstaff Region still have the access and the connection to historic barns in the area.”

Hampshire told the Manitoba Co-operator that barn owners were enthusiastic about the project, and understood that many of the structures would soon “succumb to time.”

She said people would tell her “if only you had just come by sooner.” Their older relatives would have been able to tell more stories, or they could have showed her other barns that had fallen down.

With pictures and written accounts, “it doesn’t really die,” said Hampshire.

For the Elders, if the Maplegrove barn can’t be used as a venue where it is, they hope someone will want it.

“Even if we can’t save this barn, maybe we would find somebody who — whether we gave it to or sold it to — that would be able to move it and look after it so that it would still have a part in history,” Sheila said.

“I would be sad to see the barn go but I would be even sadder to see if it just stood here and fell into the ground when it could have been saved.”

In the meantime, Sheila said they intend to enjoy the barn with their friends and neighbours. This began on May 26, when they held a market and exhibition at the barn with local artists, craftspeople and sellers.

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