Barn – A Chapter from “A Number of Things: Stories of Canada Told Through Fifty Objects”

In this series, we’ve asked a handful of notable Canadians to tell us about a place that matters to them. Our guest bloggers are great Canadians you likely know and admire, but may not have associated with heritage. Our goal is to spark conversations about why heritage matters, and broaden the circle of supporters and public champions.

Our fifth blog post in the series is a chapter from A Number of Things: Stories of Canada Told Through Fifty Objects, written by Jane Urquhart. Jane is the author of eight internationally acclaimed novels. She is a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France and is an Officer of the Order of Canada. She lives in southeastern Ontario with her husband, artist Tony Urquhart.


From A Number of Things: Stories of Canada Told Through Fifty Objects by Jane Urquhart. Illustration by Scott McKowen.

According to my uncle Cliff Quinn’s memoir, and to the various stories recounted by my mother and her older brothers, the earliest barns on my maternal family’s farm were ill-fated. The first was laboriously moved from one family farm to another: it was pushed on rollers across several fields by my grandfather and four or five of his brothers. “This was a big operation,” Cliff writes. “It involved rollers, planks, and capstans.” Settling it in place was no easy task either, and in the stories I heard about that process, the number of workhorses used fluctuated between twenty and two hundred, depending on who was telling the tale. It was a prodigious amount of work by any account, with both animals and humans operating at full strength. It was also apparently overseen by a jealous God. “That same night,” Cliff writes, “a terrific windstorm came up and flattened the barn.”

A few years later, when the family and neighbours began to build another barn, yet another big wind sprang up over the noon dinner, and brought down the beams and rafters that the men had assembled just that morning. Once a barn was finally completed without elemental interference, it was much appreciated by the Quinns. “Someone told me,” writes Cliff, “that after they finished building the big barn, Uncle Art Quinn and Big Art Jones had a wrestling match on the roof.” A curious kind of celebration, but a celebration nonetheless!

In a country filled with some of the most desperate weather systems in the world, outbuildings to protect crops, catches, equipment, and animals have been vital to everyone’s survival. One thinks of the fishing rooms, large sheds that were until recently an integral part of the outports of Newfoundland, or the lovely, tall grain elevators of the Prairies. One thinks of stables and silos, drive sheds and woodsheds, and the humble little milkhouse, so beloved by Cliff that he took it with him when he left the farm.

Agriculture in Canada changed drastically in the years aft the Second World War. All but one of my grandfather’s brothers, for example, spent their lives on a farm, whereas only two of my mother’s six brothers would become farmers. In the next generation, every single one of the children of these two farmers became a professional and left the land. Industrialization, urbanization, education, and in some odd roundabout way, the postwar use of pesticides all led to this transformation. By 2011, the number of farms would be down by 70 percent, and most recently, the number of people who list their primary occupation as farmer has dropped to 2 percent.

This alteration is visible in our landscapes, as well as in our occupations. Factory farms now resemble huge empty parking lots as the old farmhouses disappear one by one. The barns are disappearing as well. We sometimes glimpse one or two of them as we speed by on a busy freeway. Sagging and abandoned, they look as old and out of place as Roman granaries or Tudor byres inexplicably set down among the industrial warehouses that now occupy what once were fields.

Someone I know once rescued a lintel from the top of the two main doors of a stone barn that was about to be torn down in Eramosa Township, Ontario. The surrounding fields were being turned into housing lots, and the name of the whole enterprise was to be, ironically, Stone Barn Estates. The message on the stone lintel was more heartfelt and sincere. On it were carved the following words:

When your barn is well filled All safe and secure

Be grateful to God

And remember the poor.


Excerpt from: A Number of Things: Stories of Canada Told Through Fifty Objects by Jane Urquhart ©2016. Illustrations by Scott McKowen ©2016. Published by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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