Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Barn Hunting for Beginners Part II: The Art of the Ethnographic Interview

Barn hunting may be done (although I have only just discovered two barns I missed in my survey, so my declaration was premature), but my work as the barn hunter is far from finished. Surveying season is over, but interviewing season is now just underway.
My project is an ethnographic analysis of barns, rather than a purely architectural study. A bare bones definition of ethnography from the online Merriam-Webster dictionary states: ":  the study and systematic recording of human cultures; also :  a descriptive work produced from such research." Thus, my barn research does not end with counting, photographing, classifying and observing the structure of the barns. In fact, I believe that was only preliminary research. The ethnographic part, which consists mainly of interviews, is where the real story begins. 

Like any other skill, learning to be a good interviewer is a process of learning from others, reading about how it's done, and a lot of trial and error. I have a lot of experience interviewing people, since I once worked as a newspaper reporter. But ethnographic interviews are a bit different. Last year in my graduate field school in Keels, Newfoundland, I learned a lot of new skills about how to conduct interviews properly. For starters, remember that an ethnographic interview (which can also be called an oral history interview) is not necessarily just for your own reference, but could end up being a historical record available for posterity. So with that in mind, here is my quick and dirty and not in any particular order manual to the art of the interview. 

1. Get the best audio recorder you can afford and learn how to use it properly
There's all sorts of fancy audio recording technology out there, many of it running in the thousands of dollars range. I can't afford that, but it is important to get the best recorder you can afford. Do not use your cell phone, thinking it will be "good enough." You never know where your recording will end up: archives, radio, television. So don't cheap out. I learned this important lesson from Dr. Guha Shankar of the American Folklife Centre, and he is an expert who seriously knows his stuff. The same goes for photography and/or videography. Ideally with an interview you will use external mics, but I really couldn't afford that much equipment. I bought a basic model of a respectable audio recorder brand, and I learned how to use it.
My friend the Tascam DR-05, available from Amazon and other purveyors of electronics.

- Read the manual and test it out with yourself several times from different angles and at difference settings to be comfortable with it. It's embarrassing to be fumbling around with your equipment at an interview, so figure it out before it gets to that point. 
- Always record in the highest quality (.wav vs. .mp3 for example). It will take up more space, so always promptly upload the files onto your computer and then back it up religiously. Losing an interview is devastating. 
- Always bring extra batteries. ALWAYS. 

2. The interview is not about you. Be a good listener. 
The first time I ever heard a recording of an interview I'd done with an informant, I almost died of humiliation. Seriously, my face heated up to dangerous temperatures. I was constantly interrupting my informant (this is how we in Folklore commonly refer to the people we are interviewing) with little anecdotes of my own, finishing their sentences for them, and generally being a loser. Your job as the interviewer is to stimulate conversation, and then to let the informant talk. Keep your own commentary to a bare minimum. Trust me, the first time you hear yourself on tape, you will vow never to speak again in an interview. 

3. Don't be an interrogator. Keep it as casual as possible. 
I used to go into every interview with a long list of questions. This is fine, but I found that it distracted me too much and sometimes distracted the informant. Now, I just take in a short list of keyword reminders. I still prepare for the interview and think about what I most want to know, but I'm not married to a sheet of questions. Start out with a few basic questions and you will usually find that the conversation spins off in all sorts of directions. Let it. Many times the most important information to come out in an interview will not be in response to a question you had, but will naturally emerge from the memories of the informant. 

4. Brief the informant before the recorder is turned on
Sometimes the audio recorder can be like an elephant in the room. Conversation is going great, the informant is a fountain of knowledge, and then suddenly you bring out the recorder and the temperature suddenly drops in the room. Recorders can make people a bit nervous, so be as casual as possible. Never record without the informant knowing. Breaking trust is not only a shady move, but is unethical in situations like these. See #5. Explain what sorts of ground you want to cover in the interview and let them know that if they ever want the recorder turned off, you will do immediately. Don't ever break that promise. 

5. Obtain oral or written consent before beginning the interview 
As a university student, I am required to pass a rigorous ethics review before beginning my research, and this includes drawing up an informed consent form which informants must sign before the interview begins. The form basically ensures that both parties know why the data is being collected and what is to be done with it. In my case, this includes obtaining permission to use the data in my thesis, on this blog, and to submit it to the archives. There were lots of shady ethnographers in the past who collected data from people and then used it for their own advantage without ever obtaining permission. That was totally lame and made lots of people suspicious and rightly so. 

6. Enjoy the process. People want to tell you their stories.
Despite all of the serious talk above, seriously, enjoy it. For me, interviews are the best part. A lot of people get nervous before interviews, and I still do get a few butterflies before each interview, but I truly enjoy it. Each interview I've done so far has taught me more about barns, but has also been a great few hours. Often after the recorder is off, I end up staying around for a bit to look at photos or let the conversation drift into other matters. People want to share their stories. You are giving them the opportunity to do that, and it is truly a gift on both ends. 

For more information on interviewing, including a handy checklist and some videos (everyone loves videos)
check out these two posts from my friends at the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador here and here. An excellent and hilarious manual for interview skills is The Tape Recorded Interview: A Manual for Fieldworkers in Folklore and Oral History by Edward D. Ives.

Here are the wonderful informants I've had the privilege to interview so far. I will be sharing some of their stories in more depth in future posts, so check back!

Dave and Sharon Verot and Xina, Radville, SK.
The Verot barn southeast of Radville, built 1918.

Roy Levee, Radville, SK

The Levee barn, just north of Radville, was moved to this spot probably in the 1920s from its original location in the present ghost town of Brooking 8 miles to the west. It started out as a lumber building (built around 1910) and has just undergone its latest renovation.

Frank and Eveline Porte, formerly of Radville, SK, now living in Weyburn, SK

Eveline and Frank.

Frank showed me his beautiful woodworking during the course of the interview.

The former Porte farm, south of Radville, built 1926.

Roland Carles, Radville, SK.
The Carles barn, built 1925 (despite what the paint say!) is southwest of Radville, just a few miles north from the Porte barn.

Stafford McGrath, Ceylon, SK.
The McGrath barn southwest of Ceylon, built 1912.

Allan and Edith Ayotte, Ceylon, SK

Edith demonstrating how the butter dasher was used. How is this connected to the barn? The milk came from the cows housed and milked in the barn just outside!

The Ayotte barn, known as the North Star Barn, south of Ceylon, built 1916.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Guess How Many Barns! And Win!

As I mentioned in my previous post (click here), I am just tallying up the final number of barns I have found in my survey. Rather than just boringly telling you, I want you to guess! Email me your guess to k.catherwood@mun.ca. The guess closest to the actual number will win a homemade gift basket from yours truly. So put your guessing hat on!

Contest Rules:
1. Email guess to k.catherwood@mun.ca by December 15, 2013.
2. The guess closest to the actual number will win a gift basket of homemade goodies (if you live within a reasonable and deliverable distance). If the winner hails from further away, you'll get a gift certificate from Better World Books.
3. Limit of one guess per person.

- This number will be the total number of barns in both the R.Ms of Laurier and the Gap. 
- This number will include barns built before approximately 1960 (no rigid-frame buildings, steel buildings, cattle sheds or calving sheds will be included in this number).
- This number will include barns of all different roof types, not just the common "hip-roof" barn.

Now you know there's at least one barn in the area. This is one of the biggest and best preserved in the region and is located west of Radville.

The End of the Road: Hunting No More (and a contest! yay!)

 It's been a couple weeks of silence, and I'm sure some of you may have been clamoring for a new post. I assume that's so, even though I haven't had a single person ask why I haven't written a new post in awhile.
Where have I been, you ask? Well, I've been finishing up barn hunting, of course! And I can now say with confidence that I am pretty much done the survey (there's a couple I have to photograph still).

Late afternoon shadows paint an intricate deign on this barn south of Ceylon that only nature could create.

The barn survey is the true hunting of a barn hunter's trade, for this was where I actually got out on the road and attempted to count and document every single barn in my study area. For more info on this aspect of my study, you can read my post here. I can say now that I have driven every single driveable road in the R.Ms of the Gap and Laurier and seen every single farm, whether still occupied or not. As much as I wish I could say I have captured every single barn, I know that it's quite possible I missed a few, whether because of roads that were too impassable even for the Le Sabre or because I'm a faulty human who is apt to make mistakes. But, as far as I know, I got the vast majority of them. And right in the nick of time, too, the day before our first significant snowfall which doesn't seem to be going anywhere soon.

The survey, which I originally thought would be a fairly secondary part of my study, became a herculean task. To say it was a learning process is an understatement. I learned not just about barns, but about how to properly and thoroughly conduct research, how to stop on a dime on a gravel road, and how to tell the time of the day by the sun and shadows (seriously). I learned so much, spent probably the most enjoyable few months of my life (despite the expected setbacks and fatigue), and experienced the countryside in a truly meaningful way.

Now all the sappiness aside, what were some of the most important takeaways from the barn survey experience? I learned so many things, it would be impossible to list them all here, so I'll just stick to the big ones.

1. I'm not sure what a barn actually is.
There are a few buildings in my survey which are classified as unverified barns, because try as I might, I simply could not tell whether they had been built as a barn, were at one time used as a barn, or are a barn now. Some good indicators are a loft door, but in my early, ignorant days of barn hunting I sometimes got confused by openings that looked like loft doors and classified granaries as barns. Another indicator is the presence of cattle corrals, but those are often removed or fall down so it's not a sure bet. So, long story short, barns aren't always straightforward.

Is this a barn? I really don't know. Any help would be appreciated!

2. No seriously, what is a barn?
When I first started out, I wasn't including "new" barns, that is, barns built in the past 20 years or so. Then I thought I should. Then at some point I realised that what people may call a barn is actually a calving shed, and is that technically a barn? Also, a lot of people I met with think that barns with gable or "peaked" roofs weren't "really" barns, even if they were built before 1960 and housed a milk cow and hay at one point. So, it gets confusing. I'm still working out exactly what a barn means in the context of my study area, but my tentative hypothesis is that a barn was meant for livestock (usually work horses and milk cows) and hay storage for animals. Sounds simple, but it's actually not. The point is, barns were and are living buildings, and went through a variety of changes of use and form as agriculture changed and individuals' farming practices changed, whether by personal whim or because of the influence of outside forces.

3. Barns are good at hiding
There were several barns I hunted during the survey which were located in places I have driven past numerous times, and yet I somehow missed that there was a barn there. Also, some barns really are concealed by the landscape features, whether trees, hills or man-made features. One barn I found was in a yard right along Highway 6 that I have seen a thousand times in my life, but the barn is mostly hidden by large steel granaries. So, barn hunting ain't no fluffy past-time, you gotta track 'em down.
This one really isn't hidden at all, located just a few miles east of Radville on a busy road, and yet I somehow didn't really notice it until I was barn hunting. 

This barn is hidden on an abandoned farm deep in the hills, and the barn itself is deeply built into one of those hills.

4. Barns can tell us a lot about the past.
Duh, right? I mean, I won a grant for my research based on that argument, so I should have that figured out by now. I always knew that barns had a lot of knowledge embedded in them, but I didn't realise how very deep and broad that knowledge is until I was in the middle of my survey. I have learned so much about this place from studying its barns, and not just about farming, but about family ties, settlement patterns, social existence, gender roles, and on and on.
This is the last barn I officially hunted. Located in a field southeast of Radville, it is unique in my region. I haven't come across another barn built with diagonal boards like this.

5. There are a LOT of barns out there.
One of the things I hear most is, "gee, not too many barns left." If I hear that one more time, I will spit black bile. I used to agree, but now I say "You try going out and seeing them all, then come back to me!" Every day I went out to survey (so, pretty much every single day), I thought I had an idea of how many barns were in the area I was going to survey that day. Every single time, there were more than I had anticipated. You'd think I would have learned, but I never did. It happened even on the very last day of my survey. Now I know that compared to what there used to be that there aren't many barns anymore, but really, there's a lot left. Which just reinforces the importance of barns, because possibly only a fraction survive of what there once was.

This leads to the second most common thing I hear, which is the question "how many barns are there?" I actually didn't know, because I wasn't counting as I went along, just collecting all the data and taking the photographs to compile later. I'm in that compilation stage now, so I will soon have the final tally (excepting those few pesky unverified barns). And this brings me to an exciting announcement - a CONTEST! I'm not just gonna give away that hard-earned number. I want you to guess. Click here for those details.

I have learned so much during this barn hunt, and I know I'm just scratching the surface. It's now time to do interviews, and that's where I will put the meat on the bones of this particular barn saga. The hunting is over, but the barn hunter still has a lot of work to do. And all that hunting would never have happened without the help of a lot of wonderful people, some of whom I'll mention here. Every person who was home when I drove into their yard was a huge help to me. I can't name them all. There were also people I ran into in the street who gave me helpful suggestions. I've also had a number of people directly call me to give me help, and they will be listed elsewhere. For now, I want to publicly thank those who actually came barn hunting with me. Their local knowledge, driver's licenses, and ability to wrangle with Bob the Tape Measure were an invaluable help. Thank you to my long-suffering sister, Janelle Catherwood, my brother Shawn Catherwood who came barn hunting with me last spring when I didn't even know what I was doing at all yet, my best friend Teresa Whiteman who also came with me in the very early days and whose encouragement is better than any medication, and my old friends Mitchell Bert and Ian Larsen who knew better than to put up with me for an afternoon but helped anyway. Thank you also to Michelle King and Kenton Fisher who got roped into helping against their wills but were good sports about it. Very special thank you to my partner in crime Stacy Mackenzie who loves the hills the same way I do and knows more about barns than I ever will (also shout-out to Mehson and Hyden for a fun afternoon of barn hunting). And finally, the biggest thank you of all to my dad, Ken Catherwood, who has been teaching me folklore my whole life and is the best barn eyeball-measurer I know.

The sun sets over a barn just west of my farm.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Barn Hunting Across the Pond: British Barns Part I

Due to my many blunders, you might assume that I am a barn hunting novice, but I actually cut my barn hunting teeth this past summer in Great Britain.

Though its exterior esthetics are sort of humble compared to Saskatchewan barns, this is one of Britain's most famous barns, Coggeshall Grange Barn, which was built more than 700 years ago, making it one of the country's oldest surviving barns.
My research there wasn't as inclusive and far-reaching as my current barn study, but it was a start in barn hunting. This past summer, I was fortunate to spend six weeks in Essex, England participating taking a course which consisted of study trips around the country, in addition to my own research on barns which was also part of the course requirement. So, this barn hunter ain't no rookie.

British barns are completely different from western Canadian barns. The word barn itself is derived from the Old English bere (barley) and ern (house/place), thus the word itself originally meant "the place for barley." Historically, barley and wheat were the two most important crops in Britain. Nowadays, agriculture is just as industrialised as here in North America, but prior to about 1800, crops were sown, reaped, and threshed by hand. The barn was an incredibly important building in that it was a sheltered place where the grain could be processed throughout the winter and stored. In that era, every single grain was precious. Failed crops meant famine. To see how grain was threshed by hand using a flail, check out this short YouTube video with accompanying cool English folk tune.

Thus, the barn was vital to the entire functioning of society. Very few barns from the medieval era (roughly 1000-1500) still survive, and those that did tend to be exceptional barns, ones that were built as store houses by religious orders, such as Coggeshall pictured above.

One of the informants I interviewed in Britain, upon hearing that I was from Saskatchewan (he just so happened to have taught here in the '70s) remarked "your barns have got the doors in the wrong side."
In this photo of Upminster Tithe Barn (ca. 1450), which is now a museum of nostalgia, notice there is a door in the long end. All British barns have doors like this.Note also the thatched roof, which desperately needs to be replaced at a cost of close to $200,000.

He was referring to the fact that most barns here have the doors in "short side." This is because barns in this part of the world were primarily meant for horses and other livestock. Thus, stalls run both sides of the barn, necessitating an alley in the centre for care of the horses. British barns were intended for a completely different use. They are divided into bays, sometimes alternating between threshing floors and storage floors.

Coggeshall Barn is dressed up for a wedding, but you can make out the bays, which are the spaces between trusses (the squarish things composed of posts and beams which support the entire building).   

The doors were in the long side because carts loaded high with grain were driven in, relieved of their burdens, and driven out again. The doors were often left open to allow a draught to blow the chaff away. Interestingly, the doors on one side of the barn were often taller than their opposites. This was because the cart came in with a high load, but emptied out, didn't need such a tall door on the other side.
Carts like these (displayed in Coggeshall Barn) hauled precious loads of grain from field to threshing floor.

 The comment about doors, and the ensuing explanation, demonstrate how widely buildings can vary according to their intended use. Some Saskatchewan barns are still bring used for what they were originally intended, but no British barn is. The focus of my paper in England was the adaptive re-use of British barns. I will discuss this more in a future blog, and if there are any lessons Saskatchewan barn lovers can learn from the Brits in terms of preserving and/or re-purposing barns that are doomed to neglect.

You may have noticed the gigantic size of these barns and the huge timbers that were used to build them. When I showed my dad the photo below of the timber in Upminster Tithe Barn, he remarked, "Ten million dollars!", meaning it must have cost a fortune to build. They did even in their time, but now such timbers like that (all oak) simply don't exist anymore, especially not in England.
Ten million dollar trusses? These ancient oak timbers are a treasure, and many Brits are passionate about preserving these buildings in part because of that. Truly, they make the posts and beams in Saskatchewan barns look rather spindly in comparison. 
Timber-framed barns in Britain employ joints like these to hold the timbers together; there's not a nail to be found. Vernacular architecture fanatics get really excited about joints like these, because they can help date buildings based on knowledge of joinery techniques of different eras.

Not all British barns are built of timber. Architecture varies widely in England depending on local materials. Here in my ancestral home in the Peak District near Glossop, barns were built of stone. This is a later barn (by British standards) from the 18th or 19th century. Its roof type and shape look more like what we're used to in Saskatchewan.
Now that you know what British barns were originally intended for, I will follow up this discussion with another blog about how British barns have been re-purposed for use in the 21st century, at some point. You'll have to check back here multiple times every day to find out when! In the meantime, I'm hoping for one last gasp of nice weather so I can finally finish up my survey. One R.M. down, a fairly vast swathe of the other to go!