There was a time when I might have said, upon sighting a round barn, the builders must not have owned a straight edge. That tongue in cheek comment meant that I had no clue at that time why some barns were built round. Most barns are rectangles and maybe a few are square. In Alberta round barns are about as common as ocean-front property. Actually, unlike ocean-front property there are a small number of round barns in Alberta. There is a hybrid round barn on the west side of the QEII highway, south of Red Deer. It’s big, multi-sided and likely functioned in much the same way as a true round barn. Another well known round barn is fully restored Henderson Barn at Fort Edmonton Park. It was originally built near Edmonton’s Jasper Ave and 82nd Street. Click here to go to an image of the Henderson Round Barn. I’m sure that there are more round barns in the province but not a lot more. Round barns are much more common in the eastern USA and even Saskatchewan had more round barns than Alberta. Then again, Saskatchewan probably had more traditional rectangular barns than Alberta too.
Lady luck and tips from friends have recently allowed me to find two round barns and both are hidden away in places that would make accidental discovery highly unlikely. I’m pleased to be able to feature these two barns in this blog post to prove that round barns do, or at least did, exist in Alberta. Actually there is another reason that I am making a post about them and that is because round barns are special. They were built with a purpose in mind and likely required experienced or highly skilled craftsmen to design and construct them. I could try and explain why round barns were built, but I wasn’t raised on a farm so I might end up embarassing myself. A website that is useful for information about round barns features a restored round barn in Saskatchewan called the Bell Barn. Tours of the Bell Barn can be arranged during the summer. It’s a barn with grand provenance which is extensively documented by Frank Korvemaker, M.S.M.; SAA (Hon) Ret’d Archivist / Construction Historian. Earlier this year wrote a blog post that includes some information about the Bell Barn. It is called Two Great Men and Their Saskatchewan Stone Barns. Click on the blog post title to open a separate tab on your browser to read that post.
If you don’t want to take the time to open those links but still want to know why a barn would be built in a circular shape, I can give you a very short answer. The shape allowed a team of horses to haul in a wagon with feed for hogs, cattle, horses or whatever livestock was below on the main floor. The team would enter from a ramp and carry on around the circular second floor (sometimes called this a loft) while people on the wagon shovelled feed through the open circle in the middle. The horses and wagon would eventually exit the same way they entered after completing the circle. The feed would be evenly distributed to the livestock below. That may not sound like a very big deal but it must have mattered for farmers to wanted a round barn. The round shape would have provided additional protection from high winds which are quite common on the prairies. Rectangular barns present a huge flat wall to the wind so in the right conditions the wind could blow them down, especially in the southern prairies where strong winds are prevalent. There may have been other tasks that were made simpler because of the round shape but that is beyond the limits of my knowledge and certainly beyond the scope of this post. Now let’s have a look at a couple of actual round barns, or at least what is left of them.
The Ruins of the Curtis Barn in Alberta
It was 1907 when Clarence and Edith Curtis with their three sons left Idaho to homestead in Alberta. They started the homestead with a modest house and a straw barn. In Alberta they had one more child; a daughter named Greta.
In 1910 Clarence and his sons were burning brush near their straw barn. When that job was finished they put the fire out with many buckets of water to douse the embers. I’m sure that they put more water on that fire than they thought was absolutely necessary but it still wasn’t enough. The fire started up again during the night! The fire spread to the straw barn and the barn with all the animals in it were destroyed. We can only imagine how devastating that fire would have been. Clarence, however, didn’t give up. A new and improved barn must be built. It would be a barn designed to resist the ever-present risk of fire. Clarence Curtis’s new barn would put him and his barn in the history books.
That fire motivated Clarence to plan a stone barn to replace the burned straw barn. He hired the stonemason Andrew Rodin of Rosyth, Alberta to build the lower level. Andew Rodin had one helper (not counting the neighbours who helped by bringing many wagon loads of stones from their fields) and this part of the round barn cost Clarence $150. The stone walls were 10 feet high and two feet thick. Charlie Manning, (1870-1957) a carpenter, built the wood loft for $175. Manning built the barn roof using a gin pole and derrick. The roof was shingled by workers using scaffolding hung by ropes from the central cupola. The barn was 58 feet in diameter and had room for ten horses, seventeen cows and several calves. The animals faced the centre of the barn where there was a silo for hay. It was a marvel of engineering and soon everyone would see it. According to his granddaughter, Verna (Curtis) Nordin, the following announcement was placed in a local paper on July 14, 1916;
Mr. and Mrs. Curtis propose holding a barn-warming picnic on Saturday, July 15. Dinner will be served in the hayloft of the barn. Ladies please bring lunch. Alberta is dry but free drinks will be served at the iron post. Baseball and other sports will be engaged in. Everybody welcome!Memories and Milestones, Verna (Curtis) Nordin, page 526
Now before I go on, the above newspaper anouncement might have you wondering, was there prohibition in Alberta? The answer is yes. It started federally with The Canada Temperance Act (Scott Act) of 1878 that gave local governments the option to ban the sale of alcohol. Prohibition became law in Alberta in 1916 and ended in 1923 following a plebiscite where 58% voted to end prohibition. Actually it ended in most of Alberta but not in Cardston and area where as recently as 2014 the people voted for prohibiltion. According to a 2020 CBC article, the ban finally ended in 2020, however Jeff Shaw, the chief administration officer of the Town of Cardston, said they are still considering their options. The United States handled the legislation differently by enacting federal prohibition laws. The USA ended prohibition in 1933. Okay let’s get back to the Curtis barn.
Back to the Barn
The image below shows what this barn looked like at one time. I don’t know the exact date of the image but you can see that the barn is already missing some boards on the side and the ramp to the second floor is beginning to collapse. It’s difficult to know the direction the photographer was facing when this image was taken because the ramp position vis-à-vis the doors and windows doesn’t seem to match up with my images. However it is absolutely the same barn, or at least what is left of it. See the image below the Provincial Archives photo for an example of how a “mirror” image matches the layout. With this change to my image, the ramp is at the lower left and the two windows and door match the Provincial Archives photo.
I processed the image below so that it is a mirror image of what you actually see. I changed it in this manner to show that the above photo from the Provincial Archives of Alberta may have been flipped horizontally. By making this change, I’m able to match up the ramp (in the lower left in both images) and the two windows and door to the archive image. I didn’t use a cell phone but as a point of interest most cell phones take regular images from the front lens and mirror images from the back or selfie lens, (go ahead and check your phone). If there was text in my image below, such as an old sign, the text would be backwards. I believe that the old film camera that the photographer used for the old archive picture took mirror images (or somewhere along the line it was scanned into a mirror image). Maybe all film cameras did that; I don’t remember. The photo below is the only image that I processed as a mirror image for this post. The rest are regular images that show the barn the same way you would see it with your eyes.
The above image shows the wall from the inside. It might appear as if there were two styles of the stone wall because at the lower third the stones (or boulders) are exposed but above it the wall is smooth. It’s all one and the same wall. The only explanation that I can think of is that there was a poor batch of mortar in that spot. The visible stones can’t be exposed due to the weather because the wall is still fine above that section. It also can’t be due to a flood because the mortar to the right and near the door at the same level is still in place. Those exposed stones do provide us with an opportunity to see what the wall would have looked like when it was built. I can’t imagine how exhausting the job of moving and lifting those stones must have been.
Edith Curtis died in 1921. Clarence Curtis married Isabella Landals in 1924. Clarence died in 1932 so his son Rodney took over the farm. Rodney married Violet Thompson in 1933. Rodney and Violet moved to town in the 1960s where they died in 1972 and 1977 respectively. Verna (Curtis) Nordin, the daughter of Rodney and Violet, is the person who told the story of the Curtis barn and family for purposes of the local history book. Details below under citations.
The Wooden Round Barn
This barn is located between Edmonton and Red Deer. All that remains is a skeleton of the former barn. The owner of the barn, Victor, told me that people come without permission and steal the old wood, likely for furniture projects. As I walked around it I could see that there was no wood lying on the ground as you would expect if the boards fell off naturally. It’s sad that people would do that. Victor had no concerns about me entering the property and photographing it and only asked that I make sure the gate was well closed when I left. I asked him if he or his father had built it. Victor said no but he believes that it was built in the 1950s or even 1960s as a hog barn. I think it was built even earlier than that, but that’s just a guess.
Local history books can only include information that the book committee had access to. Typically this involves meeting with the descendants of the original homesteaders, or their close friends, to obtain the family story. Where there are no longer any members of that family in the area, the committee may be left with nothing but the name on a homestead map. Often when they know that a family’s information is missing they will list the names at the end of a particular section of the local history book. In this case the name of Fred Lauring is stated as one who had a “round roofed barn” but no other information could be located. I don’t know if that is even the same round barn but it would have been in the same general area as this one. Another possible owner of the barn was Peter MacDonald. The land that he homesteaded has a different legal description than where this barn is located but his daughter Patricia (MacDonald) Jones is the current owner’s mother-in-law. Also it says that Victor, the man I spoke to, bought the family farm. A third possibility is that it was built by Reid and Dorothy Cameron. They only provide an approximate location of their farm but the district they lived in was straight north about five townships. The Camerons did build a round barn. It was built in 1964 for a dairy herd. That year does align with what the current owner, Victor, told me. So was the barn built by the Fred Lauring, Peter MacDonald or Reid and Dorothy Cameron? I don’t know which one built this barn. The provenance of this wood round barn may well be lost.
You don’t have to be a carpenter to be perplexed by the above photo. This is from inside the round barn and looking up. Whenever I’ve seen a roof being constructed, the trusses, which are the long beams that support the weight of the roof and give it whatever shape it will have, are built first. On modern homes the trusses are more or less triangle shaped. They are self-supporting as long as there is a beam or cribbing going between and perpendicular to them. I’m sure most people reading this post have seen a house under construction and seen the roof before plywood sheets are fastened to the outside. Now look closely at the above roof. Many of the beams meet in the middle but not all of them can because there isn’t enough room. The beams that reach the grey centre post are cut to a point to make extra room. So what holds the beams up? You might say that the boards on the outside (on modern homes those boards would be sheets of plywood) hold up the beams but it doesn’t work that way. The beams are there to support the exterior boards or sheeting. These are not triangles that support themselves like on a modern house, most of the beams only touch at the centre post. I suppose that if the centre post (the grey thing in the middle) was temporarily supported by another long post, that could explain it in part but the minimal contact that the beams have with the centre post does not look very strong. Perhaps there is a carpenter out there who can explain this to me?
That silver post in the middle of the ceiling / roof is the key to this roof. The gin pole would have held up the centre post while trusses were nailed to it. The cupola on top of the roof might be a structural component rather than just decorative or to help seal out the weather.
- Memories and milestones, 1905-2005. Amisk – Hughenden – Rosyth : a history / Amisk Hughenden Historical Society — Amisk, Alta. : Amisk Hughenden Historical Society, 2005. volume 2. This was the main source of information for the Curtis barn. The relevant sections were written by the grandaughter of Clarence Curtis, Verna (Curtis) Nordin.
- The Canadian Encyclopedia. Used for the quote on the Temperance Act cited in the paragraph on prohibition in Alberta. Canadian Encyclopedia
- Ponoka Panorama, 1973, Ponoka and District Historical Society. I reviewed this local history book for information on the wood round barn. The book’s scope clearly included the quarter section where the barn stands and there were brief references to a round barn that was a landmark but no definitive link to this barn was established.
- Tales and Trails of Millet Volume II, 1978. Millet and District Historical Society. This was used to locate the history of Reid and Dorothy Cameron who were considered as possible builders of the wood barn.
- ALL ABOUT CANADIAN HISTORY – 2017 ‘Cadeau, C’ wordsmith blog post. https://cdnhistorybits.wordpress.com/2017/04/25/temperance-movement-in-canada/
If you visit the structures shown in this blog, or any other old and potentially abandoned structure, please respect the landowners” rights and obtain their permission to access and photograph their structures. Always exercise caution when visiting abandoned buildings as there are potential dangers such as crumbling structures, deep wells hidden by grass, and even spores of mould in the air.