For a certain vintage of farmer, the remaining skeleton timber frame of the huge old bank barn on “the Bowman place” near Brussels, Ontario, served to shout out rich, rural history. It was late August and another traditional barn, aged a century-plus, was being taken down.
In a day or two, the only reminder of this past glory of early Canadian architecture would be a pile of rubble and a few broken bales. The stone and block walls remained a little longer as a temporary monument to the ingenuity and muscle of framers and farmers who truly knew what it meant to eat by “the sweat of thy brow.”
This barn in particular characterized the kind of hard labour it took to run a farm in the late 1800s and into the 21st century.
Measuring 84 ft. by 84 ft., every summer the upper level was crammed to the hayfork track and rafters with an estimated 10,000 bales of hay and straw. One grandson who helped fill that cavern year after year said that he recalled getting poked in the back by the shingle nails that protruded through the roof boards as he squeezed those last few bales under the rafters.
These bales were pulled back out every winter for feeding and bedding the 180 head of cattle housed below, requiring hours of labour. A neighbour, who helped out with chores one winter when fourth-generation farmer James Bowman was injured, remarked “It was like haying every day!”
“The Bowman place,” as it is still known, was in the family since 1854 when British Isles immigrant, John Bowman, applied for the Crown Patent from the Crown Land Office in Goderich, Ontario. By 1861 the rich, flat 100-acre farm was assessed at 30 acres cleared and “five cattle, 10 sheep, 1 dog and 6 household members on the farm” valued at $575, according to the Morris Township history journal.
This farm and an abutting 100 acres were operated by pioneer John’s great-grandson, James Bowman, son of Jack Bowman. In 2005, James, Jimmy as he was known, retired from the daily rigors of handling 60 to 70 bales and lugging dozens of 5-gallon pails of chopped grain to the hungry cattle. Always full of cheer and ready with one of his classic witticisms, Jim’s passing at the age of 89 years in 2019 was felt keenly in the neighbourhood. Jim was a well-regarded chap and always a colourful character.
Family members and neighbours recalled how, years ago, they would begin filling that barn with first-cut hay when the school year ended and continued with baling straw and second cut hay into fall. Although it would seem like filling those mows was enough work, the baling crew also filled 4 or 5 other neighboring barns with hay and straw as the sunny, summer days ticked by.
Rain brought no relief from the labours; when it rained there was mustard or other weeds to pull in the grain fields or bull thistles to dig. Or the woodshed needed to be refilled and hernia-inducing logs were manhandled onto the buzz saw, the blocks split and piled indoors for the cook stove and winter heating.
For many years the Bowmans bought Hereford calves from one ranch in Saskatchewan, feeding them until fat for butchering. This meant that in years gone by those cattle might be pastured for two summers after which they were sold off grass as finished butcher steers.
Wayne Elston, grandson of Jack Bowman, recounted how one year the rancher who raised those Hereford calves came east to Ontario to visit his faithful buyer. That year it so happened that the crops were especially good and produced more hay than the barn could hold. So in order to utilize the surplus, Jack turned those big 2-year-old steers into fields where the second-cut alfalfa was tall enough to tickle their bellies. Of course, with that much feed under their hooves, they trampled about as much they ate.
The dry-land rancher surveyed this scene with astonished disbelief and eventually muttered to Jack, “Back home they’d hang a man for wasting that much feed.” For a man with Jack’s established, fiscally responsible reputation, that comment may have left a mark.
Nothing is permanent. For Jack’s son, the ever-hard-working Jimmy, retired at the age of 75, and sold his farm to neighbours Jeff and Cathy Cardiff, ending the historic, family ownership of “the Bowman place” after 141 years. But the stories remain — Jack Bowman once told Jeff that in bygone years, likely early in the twentieth century, 65 people lived in that mile and a quarter of “the 3rd of Morris”, now named Cardiff Road. Today’s count has dwindled to about 15 souls on the same stretch.
Change and decay were what caused Jeff to make the tough decision to dismantle the less-used structure: “The foundations were crumbling,” he remarked with a clear twinge of sadness in his voice. Are the implications of that simple statement broader-reaching than just the ancient bank barn that once drew a community together?
John Schwartzentruber is a Huron County farmer.