Monday, 30 September 2013

The Dangers of Barn Hunting

This barn and those chickens south of Ceylon look innocent, but are they? Photo by Janelle Catherwood.

Barn hunting is not for the weak of heart. When I first set out on this perilous quest just a few short weeks ago, I knew I would face many dangers, that I might have to risk life and limb to hunt down all the surviving barns in the R.M.s of the Gap and Laurier. Now that I've battled  my way through some risky situations, I thought I'd share some of my wisdom, so that would-be barn hunters know the risks of this hazardous, yet highly admirable, task.

1. The wilderness
I have mentioned before that a true barn hunter will not be dissuaded by seemingly impassable roads. Abandoned homesteads sometimes harbour long lost barns. However, sometimes these "roads" peter out in the middle of trackless wastes with nary a barn in sight, and nothing for it but to carefully turn around and bounce back down the trail whence you came.
While picturesque, I wouldn't want to be stranded in these environs.
These cows quickly dispelled any delusions of grandeur we may had with their unimpressed stares.
If one's Le Sabre were to break down out in the middle of nowhere, you better hope your cell phone battery hasn't died, or that you aren't in a low spot where reception is patchy. With the danger of becoming stranded comes the possibility for coming across locals, who may or may not be friendly. Saskatchewan is home to plenty of wildlife. Most of them are content to go about their business if you go about yours, but there's always the potential of crossing paths with a belligerent badger or a malevolent meadowlark (if such a thing exists). In addition to wildlife, there are domesticated animals to consider, such as territorial cattle.

2. Creepy crawlies and slithering things
Spiders and barns go together like Buick Le Sabres and speed; that is to say, they go together very well. Fortunately I'm not too afraid of spiders, but some of the webs they weave in barns are truly daunting, so arachnophobes beware.
Stacy courageously strikes forth despite the giant spider's web in front of her and the straw teeming with who-knows-what below her.
As well as spiders, barns can harbour slithery creatures like snakes. I don't mind pet snakes, but wild ones are heeby-jeeby inducing, especially because they always appear so unexpectedly.
This one's for you, Meghann.
But the worst of all creatures that barns harbour is rodents of any kind. I hate mice, I hate them. And rats shall not be mentioned. So far, rodents have known better than to show themsleves in my presence, but I know I won't be lucky forever. I am always wary about being around straw and hay ever since a childhood episode when I fell into a bale pile teeming with mice, one of which had the audacity to run across my hand.

3. Wells. While investigating an addition to the barn we're currently measuring, Stacy ventured inside the dilapidated building to take a measurement. Upon discovery of a large hole in the ground, she quickly vacated the premises. We were both obviously relieved that this episode can be filed under "near-miss."

Probably  best to leave the loft alone.
4. Haylofts, ladders, etc. I used to be deathly afraid of heights. After ascending the half decayed staircase of a burned out house, shimmying up ladders in windmills and climbing into the rafters of cathedrals in the past six months (thanks to Jerry Pocius, my professor and thesis supervisor), this fear has been downgraded to 'nauseating.' I don't like it, but I can do it. However, I always make sure to ask the owners if the loft of a barn is sound before I make the climb. If in no doubt, stay on the ground floor, no matter how cute the kitties in the loft are.

5. Data loss
Perhaps the greatest threat of all is the loss of precious data, whether that be tea spilled on a drawing (this almost happened when a gust of wind knocked over my thermos in the vicinity of the drawing board), a marked R.M. map eaten by sparrows (this hasn't happened yet, but I'm on guard against it), or a camera memory card that suddenly and inexplicably loses photos, probably due to some bumbling but inadvertent mistake of the barn hunter. This is highly dangerous, not to the physical well-being of a barn hunter, but to her psychological wellness. Barn hunters tend to exist in a fragile state of mental health, and the loss of  data is more than enough to tip the scales to full-blown mental breakdown. To preserve the few threads of sanity remaining to her, the recent loss of several dozen photos will not be discussed in this blog post, or possibly in any blog post to follow.

This list is partial and ongoing. There are plenty of other dangers inherent to barn hunting that have not yet been experienced firsthand. Barn hunting is only for the brave, the reckless, and/or the stupid. I'm still trying to decide which group I belong to.

Danger lurks everywhere for the barn hunter.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Badlands Barns

A barn in the process of being reclaimed by nature.
A few weeks ago my friend Teresa and her son accompanied me on a surveying excursion in the deep south. The south eastern corner of the R.M. of the Gap dips into the Big Muddy Valley, one of my favourite places in the world.
The Littlest Barn Hunter squints in the Sask sun.
This area, also known as the Big Muddy Badlands due to its general unsuitability for farming, has long been a region of mystery and intrigue. It is the home of prickly pear cactus, the odd rattlesnake and thousands of acres of unbroken prairie cut through with coulees, streams and draws.
These rolling hills soon drop into the Big Muddy Valley to the south.
For thousands of years it was inhabited by great roaming herds of bison, and First Nations people left their mark with hundreds of teepee rings as well as a turtle effigy and a bison effigy, apparently the only extant of its kind in North America. Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux holy man who led his people to victory against George Custer in 1876 sought refuge just west of the Big Muddy near the present day towns of Wood Mountain and Willow Bunch. When the Canadian government compelled them to return to the United States in 1881, Sitting Bull and his people rode through the Big Muddy on their way back across the border.

In the past century it was the haven of outlaws like Dutch Henry and the Wild Bunch, the Sam Kelly Gang, and was even stop number one on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid's infamous Outlaw Trail, a series of stops modelled on the Pony Express where outlaws on the run could procure fresh mounts and a bit of grub from friendly ranchers.
Big Muddy Lake, which gave its name to the surrounding region, has long been a landmark in the region, and was used by outlaws to evade Northwest Mounted Police officers.
The barn hunting crew found other historic buildings of note, including this one-room schoolhouse, "Big Four" School in the southernmost reaches of the R.M. of the Gap.
There are plenty of legends about these men who rustled cattles and stole horses, making use of the international border to do their dirty work in both Canada and the United States, often managing to elude law enforcement officers on both sides of the line.

After increased settlement and a stepped-up Northwest Mounted Police force in the area forced the outlaws out of the region, the Big Muddy settled into its new incarnation as the home of pioneer families, most of whom adopted a ranching way of life since the rough terrain is not well-suited to farming. It has always been a sparsely populated area, but still many people call this area home.
This big beauty of a barn slowly decays in its badlands surroundings.

The barn hunting crew surveyed the parts of the Gap that lie within the Big Muddy region, and then we explored a bit further afield in the R.M.s of Surprise Valley and Bengough to do a bit of sightseeing not strictly related to barns. As we traversed the badlands, I was struck by how diverse is the landscape within my study area. As I mentioned on a previous post, I am attempting to survey all the existing barns, no matter their current state in the rural municipalities of Laurier and the Gap, an area of 324 square miles. This is a huge area, no doubt, and every time I venture forth on a surveying trip I lament its vastness. But it is still just a small area of Saskatchewan, which demonstrates how diverse this province is, and how much work is out there for would-be barn hunters!

We found just a few badlands barns on this area, and their styles are not unique to the area, but rather indicative of what I am finding to be a fairly homogenous barn style.
This barn, and the farmstead to which it belongs, seem comfortably nestled in their little corner of the badlands.
There are some exceptions, but so far in the area I have survived, by far the most popular barn type is the gambrel roof style, what locals refer to as a "hip-roofed barn." These are the barns that everyone recognises as barns. As I survey more barns in the area, continue to measure, and conduct research in the archives, I am coming to a better understanding of why this type of barn is so predominant in this region. But you will have to wait for a future blog post to find out!
An exception to the predominant gambrel style, this gable roof barn was no doubt the centre of its farmstead in years past.   

Note: The Big Muddy Valley contains many fascinating natural and manmade features, not to mention much intangible cultural heritage in the form of stories and legends. However, much of the Big Muddy is under private ownership. To learn more about these sites and how you can visit them, please visit I have participated in this tour and highly recommend it to anyone interested in the Big Muddy.

The crown jewel of the Big Muddy is Castle Butte, located south of Bengough. Though out of my study area, it deserves special mention anyway due to its badlands grandeur. 

Monday, 23 September 2013

A Barn Hunting Break: Discussing Intangible Cultural Heritage

There’s been a bit of a hiatus here on the barn blog. I just returned from a five day trip to Edmonton for the Alberta Museums Association annual conference. I thought I was leaving barns far behind as I embarked on the 900 or so kilometre drive to the conference, but I found myself scoping out barns along Highways 11 and 16 and talking about barns an awful lot while I was at the conference.
Near Cadillac, SK, this barn intrigued me enough to stop on the road to photograph it.

The theme of the conference this year was Intangible Cultural Heritage, often referred to as ICH. It’s a mouthful to say, and can be a bit hard to understand at first. Basically, ICH considers as important those aspects of our cultural heritage that are difficult to pin down. It is defined by a UNESCO Convention which reads, in part, that ICH “includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts” (“What is Intangible Heritage?”   Thus far more than 150 countries have signed on to the convention, which was created 10 years ago. Canada is one of the few countries in the world that has not. However, Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec have implemented the programme at a provincial level, and I’ve been fortunate to work with the concept hands-on during my time as a student in the Folklore programme at Memorial University. Other provinces are beginning to follow suit, and it is my hope that western Canadian provinces will soon adopt similar programmes modelled after the successes in Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec.

This barn is on its way to becoming intangible as it slowly decays on the prairie. 

So, where do barns come in? If intangible is “unable to touched, not solid or real”(Collins Dictionary of Current English), then tangible is the opposite, and if anything is tangible it’s a building. Barns are tangible heritage, albeit in a fragile form as their original uses have become redundant. However, my study of barns does not include just the tangible. If it did, I would simply document a bunch of barns and call it a day. But my somewhat guilty confession is that the tangible heritage of barns interests me only as a means to an end. The building itself, with its boards and nails and cement is just the beginning. It is the intangible that intrigues me, and though barns are very much tangible entities, there is a great deal of intangible cultural heritage interwoven into their existence.

Take for one example a hay sling in a barn. These were a common feature on many Saskatchewan barns and were used to facilitate the movement of hay from the ground level where it was brought from the fields on carts or wagons and then hauled up into the loft. The hay sling is a tangible object. But the knowledge around how to actually use the sling is intangible. In many cases it only exists in the minds and memories of those who actually worked with them. The process may have been written down at one point, however it would differ from barn to barn, from person to person. It is only through speaking to what we folklorists call informants or consultants that the intangible can be teased from the tangible. And hopefully I’ll finally understand how a hay sling actually works, because just from seeing it, I cannot picture the operation.

The intangible is the stories and memories about a place, the knowledge of how to use certain things, how to complete certain tasks, how to interact with the local environment. I apologise for the use of a rather overused simile, but it is an apt one here. When it comes to studying the past, and how the past lives on in the present, tangible heritage such as buildings are like the skeleton, the bare bones of the larger picture. Only when the intangible is considered does the bone house come to life, stories and memories being the lifeblood of it all, its beating heart. Once we start to examine intangible culture, we begin to understand that heritage is a living thing. 
This barn near Ceylon, SK certainly has many stories to tell.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Barn Hunting for Beginners Part I: Measuring and Surveying

Just how does a barn hunter go about barning? This post will tell you everything you need to know about two of the most important tasks of any barn hunter worth her salt: measuring and surveying. The surveying should really actually go before the measuring, but in my case, it happens whenever I have some extra time. 

The "why" of measuring a barn and then creating scale drawings of it escapes me on most days. But the simple answer is: it creates a record of that building in all of its minutiae. If nothing else, just recording that data is important for the historical record. In terms of thesis-writing, the measuring and drawing help me to focus on the building more thoroughly, to "read" it in a way that would be impossible by just showing up and standing around looking at it for awhile. With the "why" out of the way, let's get on to the "how." It's just as glamorous as you have been anticipating. 


Tools of the trade
 - 1 stack of grid paper of a size and brand that makes it difficult and expensive to procure. This is an esoteric enterprise and one must be outfitted accordingly
- drafting mechanical pencils. Guard these with your life
- drawing board. Staples doesn't have them, so don't waste thirty minutes of your life in there.
- *1 100 foot reel nylon tape measure. Only after you have measured one barn and got halfway through another will you realise it is an engineer's tape and measures in tenths of a foot rather than inches. This will be discussed in more detail later. 
- an assortment of other tape measures in varying lengths  which may be forgotten when they are most needed, namely when inappropriateness of main measuring tape is detected.
The Barn Hunter's Toolkit
- scale
- 1 powder blue, rusty Buick Le Sabre, ca. 2001 with three faulty electrical windows and missing cupholders. This vehicle should rarely be washed and thus in a constant state of dirtiness which endows it with a mystique of ruggedness appropriate in a barn hunter
- *in lieu of a Le Sabre, or in the event of a breakdown, borrow a 2012 Ford F-150 from your father
- 1 secondhand Nikon D60 with broken autofocus. 
- 1 awesome barn hunting partner who is willing to endure hours of tedium and sporadic profanity laced outburts from the barn hunter for no pay and few benefits. Enter Stacy, in this case Stacy Mackenzie. She deserves a blog of her own. 


Note: This list could also be called "Barn Hunting on a Budget", but this would be redundant in the case of graduate students, who are always on a budget. 

Every barn hunter needs a Stacy, pictured here on top of the compost pile next to the barn we're currently working on.

  Show up bright and early. If not a morning person, or if extenuating circumstances prevent a dawn-ish arrival, be prepared that it’s going to take a lot longer than you think and you probably won’t get done in one day.
-          - Measure the exterior walls, and painstakingly and with much erasing, use the scale to draw the barn on your expensive grid paper. 
-      - Stop often to complain about how difficult it is to see the tiny notches on the scale, to remark on the loveliness of the surrounding countryside, and to chat about topics completely unrelated to barns.
-          - Climb anything worth climbing in the immediate vicinity, whether or not it is related to the task at hand. See the above photo. 
This barely discernible salamander values the ongoing usefulness of these lovely old structures. 
        - Photograph the barn and any interesting features, including reptiles, amphibians, mammals and birds that may happen to be around. 
      - When the exterior has been finished, go inside. Once it is realised how much there is to do in there, be both grateful that so much of the original structure remains and intimidated by the amount of measuring and drawing there is to do.
       - Commence measuring the interior, including each and every exposed stud, stairs, wall mounted ladders, windows, doors that have been boarded over, etc. 
       - Take a kitten petting break.
              - At some point, Stacy will realise that the measuring tape does not have an 11” or 12.” Scrutinise the measure with great concentration, as if the force of your willpower alone could change the fact that this tape is completely inappropriate for your needs and not in sync with the scale you have been using. Once you have failed in this, approach the verge of a mental breakdown.
The offending engineer's tape measure, abandoned in a posture of ignominy after its uselessness was discovered.
-          - Allow Stacy to talk you out of abandoning the project altogether. Devise several different theories for how to get around the faulty tape measure without having to redo everything you’ve already done.
-         -  Accept failure in this regard. Find another tape measure. Make sure it uses inches. Get back to measuring.  And re-measuring.
-        -   Et voila, you’ve just measured a barn and made a scale drawing of it. Fun, right?

The barn hunter's vehicle of choice.
           Tools of the trade:
Similar to above: Buick Le Sabre, camera, pencils and notebook. One important addition is R.M. maps appropriate to the survey area.
- 1 loyal and devoted friend or grudging family member.


- Drive down every road it is possible to drive down within the chosen area. If a road looks goat trail-ish and impassable, give it a try anyway. That’s what the Le Sabre is for. You can always laboriously turn around if necessary. 
- Using the map. mark down every single barn that is still recognisable as barn, no matter what shape it is in. Photograph the barn. Classify the barn. Admire the barn, or disparage it if you must. Accept any psychic premonitions about the barn that may come your way.
- Repeat until all 324 square miles (metric-philes, do your own conversion) have been covered.

- At the end of this process, which will take a long time, count how many barns there are altogether and classify them into types.
This trail may turn back even the most expeditious explorers, but no true barn hunter would let it prevent her from fulfilling the task at hand, for she spots a barn in the distance, and it must be documented.
Congratulations, you’ve just created a historical record! What are you going to do with it? That remains for another blog to tell.
Obligatory barn photo. This beauty is the one Stacy and I are currently working on.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Welcome to the Barn Blog

Hi, my name is Kristin, and I am the barn hunter. That sounds very dramatic and perhaps even a bit cheesy, but if it gets your attention then it worked. Why "the barn hunter"? Because it sounds a lot more interesting than "the barn researcher", that's why. Just like Storage Wars sounds better than "People Competing to See Who Can Make the Most Money at a Garage Sale of Other People's Things." You get the idea. It's all about marketing, and I find myself in the business of promoting barns. Well, maybe not exactly, or at least not yet, but that's where I'm heading.
I have just begun my thesis research on barns in southern Sasaktchewan, specifically in the rural municpalities of the Gap No. 39 and Laurier No. 38. For those of you unfamliliar with Saskatchewan's municipalities, that's the areas around the communities of Radville and Ceylon. For those of you unfamiliar with the geography of this area, here is a handy map:

Here is a less detailed map which shows Radville's relation to Regina:

If you still have no idea where any of these places are, you're on your own.

Why am I studying barns in this specific area? Sometimes, especially after particularly long, frustrating days, I ask myself the same question. But when I'm in a better mood, like right now, I will say, in point form in no particular order, that this is why I am studying barns in this specific area:
- because I needed to study something and barns seemed like  fairly straightforward option (this has been disproven).
- because barns are a major part of Saskatchewan's agricultural landscape, and are disappearing at an alarming rate due to their redundancy
- because my thesis supervisor, Dr. Gerald Pocius as well as the head of the Folklore department at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Dr. Diane Tye, encouraged me to
- because I wanted to undertake my research in my home province
and last, not least, in fact most important:
- because I love the place where I am from and I believe that barns are one key to learning more deeply about the traditional knowledge of the people who settled and still farm in this area today.

That in a nutshell is why I'm here.

I don't want these blog posts to get too long and boring, so I'm going to cut it short for now. I know you'll be waiting with bated breath to see my next post, which will be about the "how" of this research project. Before I go, I'll just tell you a little more about me and what you can expect from this blog.

I am 24 soon to be 25 years old, born and raised on a farm near Ceylon, Saskatchewan which has been in my family since 1905. I earned a bachelor's degree in Classical and Medieval Studies from the University of Regina in 2012. I then switched my path and commenced studies at Memorial University of Newfoundland in the Folklore department. I have now returned home for the fall of 2013 to undertake my thesis research. I love farms, I'm bad at math, and I am a Virgo. This will all become important as my research and this blog progress. Here is what you can expect from this blog:
- sporadic posts
- a slow deterioration of enthusiasm for this project
- unbridled gushing about the beauty of the prairie landscape
- lots of barn photos
- lots of talk about barns
- shameless self-promotion

Until next time!

"My" barn, located on my father's land south of our home. Built ca. 1945, its design and gambrel roof is typical of the region, but it is unusual in that it is a bank barn. Its design takes advantage of the hilly terrain, as can be seen by the loft door.