The Rise and Decline of the Ontario Barn

Raising the barn in the 19th century was a mammoth undertaking for the early farmers in Ontario, but winter was coming and there was nowhere to keep the hay dry. Wolves were picking off the sheep and cows one by one, tools were rusting and grain spoiling. Today, barns seem to be on the ranks of the “endangered species” and with little help from heritage trusts and government funding to purchase and preserve them, their demise can be expected. Fortunately, both professional and amateur photographers seek to capture the character and spirit of heritage barns today. The form and function of Canadian barns today are classified as Pennsylvania, Dutch and English. Most of the largest barns you see today date from the 1870’s to 1880’s and were usually 40 – 50 ft. by 60 – 100 feet with a gambrel or gable roof. Even in the cities, barns were a necessity to house a cow for milk, chickens for fresh eggs and the horses needed for transportation.

The farmer was likely to start his new life in the wilderness with a log cabin with a huge central chimney. Necessity dictated that one side of the cabin be utilized for his family and the other half for his livestock. As time went on and the farmer had cleared substantial land of trees, roots and rocks he would then move up to a frame or stone house (very popular in the former Hope Township) and the original log cabins would be converted to the first barns for livestock. Other structures would be added to the farm as needed, such as chicken coops and the pig sty. A good supply of water was important, such as a good stream or a reliable well.

Barn raising ‘bees’ were “an excellent and agreeable” way of sharing the workload of building a barn. A master carpenter and 2 gangs, each with an experienced captain to speed up the work and get a race going to see which gang would have their job done first. The heavy timbers were already placed on a foundation and the ‘sleepers’ laid. The heavy structural timbers were fastened with wooden pins driven in place with a wooden mallet. At the end of the day the new barn owner, with a bottle in hand would climb to the roof and swinging the bottle around his head three time, threw it into the field below. If the bottle was unbroken it was considered an omen of good luck for all. For days the farmer’s wife with help from her friends, would prepare for the supper she was expected to prepare for the men. Family members were all invited to the feast and a dance held on the floor of the new barn marked the end of the day.

By the 19th century all the trees around the farm home were cut down leaving nothing for needed windbreaks and shade. A lot of farms soon faced a shortage of wood on their properties after the lumbermen moved through. Farmers were keen on planting orchards but shade trees were sometimes an afterthought. Cheese factories became common in the 1860’s. The silos made their appearance about this time to replace the barn granary for storage of grains and corn for livestock. Concrete blocks, poured concrete and now metal were materials used in their construction.

One of the most common type of barn was the Bank Barn. As with most barns the ground floor was used mostly as stables for livestock with pens for newborn calves or piglets and likely the chicken coop would be moved into the barn as well. The second floor, divided into three sections along the length of the barn held a mow strictly for loose hay and on the opposite side, another mow for bedding straw and the granary or the storehouse for threshed grains. The centre space between the mows was reserved for farm jobs like threshing and seed cleaning. The cleaning of seeds in the earliest days was done by ‘winnowing’ this was done to separate the chaff, dirt and mostly weed seed from the wheat kernels. Done on a windy day with the barn doors opened to create a draft, the grain was placed in a large basket or tray and shaken so the chaff, lighter than air would be carried away by the wind. Later, a large fan in a wooden cabinet (called a fanner) was cranked by hand to accomplish the same job. The open floor space was used to bring the horses and hay wagon into the barn for unloading. Before bales (round or square), loose hay was unloaded with a William Louden’s hay carrier. See post: Antique Machinery Centre – Port Hope, Ontario, October, 2017 for more information and photos. I can still remember my father sprinkling salt over fresh cut hay in the mow, this was common practise to prevent spontaneous combustion in the hay or maybe the animals needed the nutrient in their diet, never did find out for sure!

Back to the reason for the name Bank Barn. They were usually built into a north facing hillside or bank for great insulation value and allowed the use of the different elevations on front and back, the uphill side an access to the second floor and the downhill side to a ‘walkout’ to the ground floor. The livestock and water supply on the ground floor were protected in the winter by the hay insulation on the second floor and their natural body heat on the ground floor, it was never cold in the barn. Back in the old days it would be next to impossible to have the horses haul a loaded hay wagon into the second floor area so a ‘bank’ or earthen ramp was needed to allow both into the barn. Backing a loaded wagon by horse (or tractor) appears to be a lost art these days. My dad would drive the tractor and wagon into the barn and after the unloading was completed, would disconnect the wagon and back it outside by hand. A very wise farmer I once worked for was a genius, he rigged up a wagon hitch to the front of the tractor which allowed him to ‘drive’ a wagon safely up the steepest ramps.

The introduction of farm machinery corresponded with the decrease in needed farm labor, 1847 was the start of the famous Massey Company in the town of Newcastle and in 1870 it moved to Toronto. Massey became Massey-Harris and today is Massey-Fergusson. You can almost tell the age of their tractors by their name. After World War 2, Ontario was faced with mass immigration from Europe, they bought up farms along the Oak Ridges Moraine were the land was only marginal for most crops and inexpensive to own. The sandy soil here was perfect for growing tobacco which saved a lot of families from hardships and generated a lot of wealth in the local area as well a new type of barn, the Tobacco Kiln.

Today’s farmer (accept dairy) have come to the point of forgoing the traditional and rustic barn. Those large round/square bales you see along the roadside do not require indoor storage as the smaller 50 -100 pound versions do. At 1 – 2 thousand pounds, the hay after being cut must be dried to about 16% moisture so it can be wrapped in plastic. This wrap repels moisture and with the ends of the bale exposed, the hay can ‘breathe’ preventing fermenting and if stored in a shed it will last even longer with less loss of hay to rot and moisture. In the 21st century the somewhat controversial ‘factory farms’ also known as industrial or intensive have also reduced the need for the traditional barn. The Ranger is planning to start a photo collection of rustic old barns before these historic buildings disappear forever.

Regards, Ranger


  1. Anonymous · · Reply

    Great article. I am the proud owner of a bank barn over 100 years old. The mow was as described when I moved here except the mow floors were loose logs. Now restored by a timber frame specialist it houses horses. The upper pinned beams which were spreading due to age are reinforced with airplane cable that was winched tight. Half the original roof remains, and the basic frame; the side boards were replaced. The stone foundation was repointed with sand mortar


    1. Anonymous
      Appreciate your comment and the description of the work you put into your bank barn. You are to be congratulated for your efforts to save another great Ontario barn! Thank You.


  2. martha · · Reply

    great post! loved reading about the bank barn. I see them along #7. Hopefully these barns will remain standing for many more years.


    1. Martha,
      Thanks for your comment. The family bank barn was unfortunately lost to a housing development many years ago.


  3. Nosnibor · · Reply

    Does anyone else call the little hill leading to the upper floor of the barn a “barn dump”? We always did. ((Southwestern Ontario)


    1. Can’t say as I’ve heard of that terminology. Can any of our readers help ?


  4. Will Samis, director, OBP · · Reply

    I’ve never heard the phrase “barn dump” but I’ve heard several others, including “barn hill”, “gangway”, “tramway”(Manitoulin), “barn ramp”, “highdrive”.. I will add “barn dump” to glossary of terms in Ontario Barn Preservation website.


    1. Glad one of our readers could help.


  5. Jill Perrin · · Reply

    Wonderful article. Do you have any contact info? I would love to ask a few questions.


    1. Jill, thanks for the comment, glad you enjoyed this post. Would be happy to answer any questions you have. Please contact our web site Email
      with questions and we will get back to you ASP.


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