Building on Past Foundations

Old barn foundations find new life in the rural landscape.

June 21, 2007 | | Community

After Diether and Ludgera Mueller bought their Mono farm six years ago, they completely renovated the rickety farmhouse that sits atop a south-facing slope, adding a romantic wrap-around porch to its new board-and-batten façade. But the house is not the first thing Diether proudly beckons a visitor to inspect, rather it’s the stone ruin of the old barn foundation.

The modest L-shaped wall, dating back to the early twentieth century, sits off a little to the west of the house. After a quick march toward it, Diether runs his hands along the craggy wall, pointing to the inscription. It reads Kenneth Henry 1924. Around it, the initials of other visitors and family members are also scratched into the stone, the monograms NAH and MEK among them.

“It’s history. It’s solidness. It’s grounded,” he says. “It makes the place.”

It’s hard to believe that when he and his wife bought the property, the graceful ruin was buried beneath a mess of beams, rotting wood and old tractor parts, serving no aesthetic purpose whatever.

“Anyone would have said tear it down,” says Diether, but he describes it as the farm’s centre of gravity. “Everything else revolves around it.”

Now uncovered and lovingly tidied, the foundation is highlighted by simple lawns, already bright green in early spring, that lap right up to its base. It’s the work of landscape designer Karen Rosenbrock.

Doing the work himself, Diether uncovered and cleaned up the foundation, which originally held cattle, and reinforced the portion of the wall without mortar, known as “dry-laid.”

Diether’s affection for the remnants of the farming past of the Headwaters region is shared by many residents, who can’t bear to dismantle the last remaining vestiges of the original homesteaders. Instead, they tidy them up to anchor their gardens, coddle their swimming pools or play a role in other farm structures. Some are content to let them stand on their own; others take a more interventionist approach, moving walls or otherwise tailoring the foundation to contemporary uses.

As the original post-and-beam wooden barns of the region, some built in the mid to late 1800s, reach the end of their natural lives, many of them are being torn down, their foundations getting dismantled or buried in the process.

Some of the structures that replace them on working farms mimic their aesthetic, but have concrete foundations. More commonly, farmers dispense with all that in favour of practical, cheaper, often pre-fab, and arguably more durable steel structures.

In some cases, landowners who want to build new homes or sever a piece of land to sell must comply with minimum setback distances of 500 feet from an existing barn. If they can’t, they may choose to bulldoze the barn.

But for some owners, breathing new life into the foundations is an increasingly popular option.

For Diether Mueller, the barn foundation on his property is nothing less than spiritual. “You leave it. You look at it and you let it grow on you. You let it manifest itself.”

So, while he undertook an ambitious renovation of the farmhouse and dug a large pond at the bottom of the slope on which the foundation sits, he chose not to undertake much more than a clean-up of his beloved wall.

He has also preserved and imitated rock piles left in the fields by farmers. He is especially fond of wending his way through the property at sunset, when the wall takes on a rosy hue. “The play of colour on this place is astonishing,” he says. “The Queen of England hasn’t got a better piece of property than me.”

Like Mueller, Jorgé Bernhard was enthralled with the token of the past that sits on the rolling horse farm he has owned in Mono for four years. In his case, the single standing wall of a former barn is now tucked under a very modern-looking carport attached to a small new home.

When he and his wife Mandy bought the property, which included another small house, there were still some barn beams toppled around the remaining wall.

“We decided we had to save it,” he says, adding that he has learned the property belonged to a family named Sacerty. “There are fewer and fewer of these barns left. They just fall apart. It’s good to preserve them.”

Jorgé, who spends the summers here and his winters in Collingwood, says he didn’t envision a slavish restoration, but some solid maintenance that would slow the ravages of time on the forty-foot length of wall he believes to be more than 100 years old.

He hired craftsman Brian Wood for the project. Waterproofing was the priority, so they dug around the base to promote drainage, then repaired and re-applied mortar to ensure water couldn’t penetrate.As all barn-foundation lovers will tell you, water seeping into the foundations, then freezing and thawing, is one of the major reasons walls deteriorate in the first place.

Jorgé was determined to keep many of the intriguing details of the wall intact, such as holes drilled into a portion of the wall in which wood dowels would have been inserted and used as hangers. And if you look closely at the window frame, you can see the stone is cut out to allow the window to slide sideways.

Jorgé decided not to repaint the wall, preferring the charming effect of years-old peeling whitewash.

The wall provides a visual contrast with the large, new fourteen-stall horse barn that sits a little in the distance, built recently by a Mennonite team in cedar, Douglas fir and oak.

And while the carport roof slightly overhangs the wall, a space between them is a deliberate detail, suggesting that while the old structure is in harmony with the new, it doesn’t need the carport for stability.

“We sized the rest of the building to the size of the wall. You can see it used to stand on its own,” he says.

For some barn-foundation aficionados, though, it’s not just about reverence for the past – it’s about transforming a barn foundation into a showpiece, even if it means tampering a little with the evidence.

Mulmur weekender Melissa Emerson remembers the decision to tear down the barn on the farm that once belonged to a family named Penelton. It was in disrepair and blocked the view south from the gingerbread farmhouse they bought twenty-six years ago.

“It was a gorgeous barn. It killed us to take it down,” she says. She made the most of the remaining foundation, though, filling it with raised flower beds, boxwood hedges and a gazebo.

“It was lovely, almost Roman-looking,” she says.

Lovely, but not inviting: “We never used it.”

So, three years ago, it was time for the foundation to evolve again. The Emersons had been trying to find a location for a pool on their farm that wasn’t too exposed. The space within the walls of the old barn became the obvious choice. “It’s the warmest place on the property.”

She not only took the opportunity to repair parts of the wall that were deteriorating – “I love the crumbly look, but they do crumble!” – but pushed back parts of the east wall to create a pool house, bar area and mini kitchen. She also had the remaining windowsills on the north edge of the foundation lowered to enhance the view to a pond, and to a stone wall fashioned from other remnants of the barn foundation.

The family now spends much of the summer ensconced there. Melissa says she’s hoping to contact relatives of the family who founded the farm after one of them recently left a note and an old photo of the property.

Another barn foundation that’s undergone a major facelift is owned by Karla Galbraith. When she joined her husband Bruce Reynolds on his property near Alton eight years ago, she took to gardening in and among the stone remains of a “bank barn” (so-named because it was built into a slope), which dates back to 1857 and was part of the Lovell Farm, she believes. But when it started to show serious signs of deterioration, she saw it as a chance to reinvent it.

Loose stones presented a danger to her small children and poor drainage meant that with every rain Karla was losing plants in the run off. She also found when she weeded, she often dislodged stones, further destabilizing the walls.

Mason Steve Thomas repointed the walls – removing and replacing the crumbling mortar, improved the drainage, and created a two-tiered design set off by central stairs and flagstone walkways.

Karla hastily planted chrysanthemums and ornamental grasses late last summer, but she is embarking on a more ambitious garden plan this summer, excited by the varied terrain she now has to work with, especially the myriad little nooks and crannies waiting to be filled.

Karla says well-travelled friends compare her garden to old ruins of Europe.

“It is styling. It makes the property,” she says, echoing her fellow enthusiasts.

Love and Labour

A barn restoration story

When Trevor Haws’ parents bought their Erin farm in 1974, the only building on it was a big old barn with the year 1898 carved into its east wall. Over the years, they named the farm Windsong, built a house on the land and stalled the barn’s decay as best they could.

“They had a real feeling for it,” Trevor recalls.

It only seemed fitting, then, that after the death of both parents – his father seven years ago, his mother three years ago – Trevor and his brother Ian, a veterinarian, decided they “should save the old dear” by restoring the barn top to bottom.

Like many barns in the area, the forty-by-sixty-foot barn, made of hemlock, beech and pine, was approaching decrepitude when they started in 2oo4. Most of the battens had blown off, and the penetrating weather threatened to rot the twelve-by-twelve-inch beams that rested on the foundation and supported the whole structure. “If we lost those, we would have lost the whole thing,” says Trevor. Unfortunately, most of the weathered barn siding was not salvageable and ended up as kindling.

Trevor, who is a trim carpenter by trade, found the hunt for new wood a greater challenge than he had anticipated – he visited eight suppliers, from Orangeville to Acton. Much of the new pine available today is filled with knots, making it a poor choice for building a weather-tight barn. Comparing the new wood to the old, Trevor says it’s obvious why the barn stood for so long.

“You could see the rings were very small and close together. They were from slow growth forests in 1898. Those boards lasted for over 1oo years,” he says. “The boards we used may only last twenty.”

That wasn’t the only dialogue with the past he found himself having. He often wondered about the men who had erected the barn a century ago.

“We have a generator, a mitre saw and a power nailer,” he says. “You think, geez, these guys had no electricity, just a big barn-raising crew. It was sheer effort.”

And to preserve as much of their work as possible, Trevor and carpenter Jim Randall had to be gentle and deliberate. To protect the interior from weather exposure, they dismantled and restored one side before moving to the next, knocking off the barn boards from the inside. The heads of the old square nails snapped as they did that, so they had to beat thousands of the remaining nail shafts back into the support posts.

Instead of ripping down the massive sliding doors with their huge welded strap hinges (“Getting them to align again would have been next to impossible,” Trevor says), Jim rebuilt them in place.

As Jim skillfully undertook the reconstruction, he looked like “he was born 100 years too late,” Trevor says with obvious admiration. “Man, this is what guys would have been like. We couldn’t have done it without him.”

Trevor does know that Ferguson was the name of the original owner who built the barn, and the mason’s name inscribed under the 1898 engraving appears to read T. Banlowe. As another keepsake of the barn’s former life Trevor took pains to reproduce a template of a Scottish thistle motif he found cut out of one of the gables, presumably for decorative ventilation.

Ian now lives on the property, but Trevor frequently visits “the giant old beauty.” The barn sits empty, almost temple-like.

“We did it as a remembrance and a tribute to our parents,” he says. “But also to preserve a piece of history. It’s like a giant antique.”

More Info

Taking the measure of old barns

Mono’s Heritage committee inventories the stock

If an unfamiliar car drives up your lane, don’t assume immediately it’s some kind of salesperson or evangelist trying to sell you something.

It may be your chance to enter the history books.

Members of the Mono Heritage Committee have been compiling an inventory of the aging wooden barns that dot the town for about five years. And if you have one on your property, they want to hear its tale.

Time is of the essence, says committee member Sally Ker. “We’re hoping to record all the barns before they disappear. The time may come when there aren’t any left.”

Sally says that with the hot real estate market in the area, she fears many “good-looking barns” are being torn down as farms change ownership. The growing market for used barn board, especially in the United States, is an added incentive for dismantling them.

Where many of us see a familiar shape on the horizon – the large, weathered grey boxes atop sturdy stone foundations, amateur historians like Sally see “a visual history of the agriculture of the area.”

So far, the group has documented about forty barns, built from the 1890s to the 1950s. Sally estimates there may be as many as 150 or more still to count. Some of the barns have been renovated as recently as the 1970s and have incorporated new upgrades such as concrete floors.

The committee’s process involves taking photographs, talking to owners and trying to learn as much as possible about the history of the barns and the families who built them. This summer the young members of the Dufferin 4H club have undertaken to photograph as many as possible.

The barns most likely to be enjoying a long life? Those which are still in use.

“Barns love livestock,” says Sally.

It’s a symbiotic relationship between the building and the animals, she says. The body heat from a herd of cattle, as well as the insulation of the straw and hay, keeps the barn warm and protects it from the effects of the cold, particularly the damage caused to stone foundations when they repeatedly freeze and thaw.

While she is always happy to see a barn escape demolition, she has also watched her own family members go through the painstaking work of refurbishing a barn, and knows it’s not a simple undertaking.

As the barns disappear, so too do the skilled barn builders and the clients willing to pay them.

“You’ve got to do it for the love of it,” she says of both sides of the equation.

For now, she and the committee are doing their part and, of course, are always looking for more volunteers willing to drive up the laneways of strangers in search of a good story.

About the Author More by Tralee Pearce

Tralee Pearce is the deputy editor of In The Hills Magazine.

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