It was a struggle to find the right adjective to describe this Alberta barn. It’s not especially large so “huge” didn’t work. It’s not built of stone or brick so I can’t describe it as a grand work of masonry (although some may say otherwise). It is a fine looking barn but not the most beautiful barn I’ve seen. I think that distinction goes to the Fluet Barn, located in the Barrhead area; you can read my blog post about the beautiful Fluet Barn by clicking here.
Perhaps it’s the most unique barn I’ve even seen, if you exclude round barns. No, I think it is the most unique barn, even compared to round barns because there are, or were, at least four round barns in Alberta and many more in Saskatchewan but the barn featured in today’s post could be one of a kind. At least I’ve never seen another building quite like the Gale / Morel Barn that I now call Helen’s Barn.
It is not obvious, at first glance, what makes this barn so unique. Keep reading and I’m sure you will agree that this is indeed something quite special.
The Early History – Gale
We don’t have a lot of history of the origins of this barn. The early history of the farm and therefore the barn is attributed to Edwin Gale (1884-1956) and his wife Mary Ann Hayes Gale (1891-1980). Ed Gale first arrived in Alberta from Ontario to homestead in the Stettler area in 1905. He went back to Ontario for a few years and then returned to Alberta to this farm in Paintearth County in 1917. The first home on this farm for Ed and Mary was a log and sod house. Their first barn burned down but the date of that fire is not known.
Our barn caught on fire in the wee hours of the morning. Grandpa Gale yelled “fire” but when he got there it was too far gone and we couldn’t save it. Gordon’s horse died in the fire (Gordon was Ed and Mary’s firstborn son).Alma (Gale) Murry, Byron Gale, and Betty (Gale) O’Neill – Halkirk Home Fires
Ed Gale was a school Trustee for the local school for a number of years. He also served as a Councillor for Paintearth County for 22 years. Ed and Mary had five children; Gordon (1911), Chrystal (1913), Alma (1915), Byron 1920), and Betty (1935). Ed and Mary sold the farm to their son Byron after he returned from WWII. Byron lost an arm in an accident with a feed cutting machine. They sold the farm after that accident and moved to Calgary sometime between 1947 and 1954.
It is generally understood that sometime in the early 1930s the Gale family built the barn that still stands on the farm today. This is because the original barn burned down in the early years that the Gale family owned the farm. They needed a barn so that means they must have built the one that is the subject of this blog post. The reason as to why Ed chose to build a cordwood barn is probably lost to history. It’s not mentioned at all in the local history book. Perhaps the Gale family didn’t think that the barn was such a remarkable thing that it warranted mentioning. I will make some informed suggestions as to why he built the barn using this method further into this blog post. This brings us to the end of the story of the Gale family, at least in so far as the barn is concerned.
The Next Owners – Jean and Helen Morel
The story of Jean and Helen Morel is the story of Canadian immigration and the development of the prairies. Jean Morel was born in Paris, France in 1914. He came to Canada in 1939 to work for his uncle, August Billiot, who homesteaded in the Galahad area in 1905. Jean answered the call to return to France when the war broke out. He was captured ten months later and spent five years in a prisoner of war camp in Braunschwerg, Germany. He returned to Canada in 1946 and went back to work for other farmers but had a dream of someday owning his own farm.
Helen Morel was born in Athabasca after her family immigrated from Poland. Helen’s parents, Josef and Justinia Popyk died in 1931 and 1934 respectively leaving three daughters as orphans. Interestingly her father’s death was attributed to a hunting accident but there were suspicions that it was no accident. The police investigated Josef Popyk’s death as a possible homicide, but charges were never laid. Helen was only about three when her parents died. She had two older sisters: Sophia, was five, and Anne was twelve or thirteen. There were no other family members to care for the children.
Helen’s oldest sister Anne was considered old enough to find work and live on her own. She met William Chizewski, who eventually became her husband. Sophia and Helen would have preferred to have lived with their sister but that wasn’t possible. Anne and her husband William lived in a very tiny house in the Westlock area of Alberta, that was “the size of a granary” and with a baby on the way there just wasn’t any room for the two sisters. Sophia and Helen would have to remain at a convent in Edmonton until they were eventually adopted.
Helen remembers that her sister Sophia would often run away and take her along. Of course, they were quickly found and returned to the convent. Helen also remembers that the food wasn’t very good; she remarked on how the breakfast porridge was often “lumpy”. At the age of nine Helen was adopted by Jules and Flora Plaquet who had no children of their own and needed help around the farm. The Plaquet’s farm was located near Galahad, Alberta. Helen’s sister, Sophia Popyk Morrison was adopted by a farming family in Saskatchewan. As soon as Sophia was able to get married, she did and ended up living in Marathon, Ontario (near Thunder Bay) where her husband worked in the forest industry. It was apparently quite common to adopt children to help with chores on the farm. Of course, anyone who has read Anne of Green Gables, would already know that. The difference is that Anne Shirley was a fictional character while Helen Morel is very real, as was having her sister Sophia adopted out to a family in a different province. Helen’s adoptive parents, Jules and Flora Plaquet are both buried at Notre Dame de Savoie cemetery. I wrote a blog post about Notre Dame de Savoie that still stands across the road from the cemetery and you can read about it by clicking here.
How Helen Met Jean
Helen met Jean in the Galahad area. Apparently, a letter meant for Helen was delivered to Jean by mistake so he took it upon himself to hand deliver it to Helen in person. Helen said, “it was love at first sight”. I wonder if the sender of that letter ever learned what it set in motion because, Jean and Helen married in 1949. The two newlyweds bought their farm in 1952 or 1954 (two sources state the two different years) with the financial assistance of the Veterans’ Land Act, of July 20, 1942. Making a living on the farm was a struggle at first but they were young and up to the task. They also had very kind friends and neighbours who would give them a chicken or two, and other things, to help them get started. It was here at this farm that they raised a family of five daughters: Suzanne, Marie, Jeanette, Carol and Rosemary.
My Meeting with Helen Morel
I always look forward to meeting the owners of buildings that I photograph. It’s not just that they can provide unique insight into the property, but also because they have interesting stories to tell and generally are more than happy to share their stories.
I knew about this barn for about three years. I read about it in a book about heritage barns in Flagstaff County even though this particular barn is not actually in Flagstaff County. I really wanted to photograph this unusual structure but the location just didn’t work with other trips and so, for one reason or another, the barn remained in the back of my mind instead of in my camera. Then, in early September 2022, an opportunity presented itself for me to photograph this barn. It was time to drive out to see if I could find the owner, Helen Morel, to ask if I could photograph her heritage barn.
It was mid-morning when I pulled up on the driveway of the Morel residence. The entrance way was very well kept with many flowers and trees. Some might call it as well loved and that’s a very appropriate description. As I parked my car Helen Morel was already at her door. She readily gave me permission to photograph the barn inside and out but cautioned that the second floor wasn’t in very good shape even though the roof was replaced approximately ten years ago. I also asked if I could photograph the old house (where she explained they first lived when they moved to this farm). Mrs. Morel had no problems with me photographing the hold house as well as the barn. She mentioned that when Jean Morel bought a new truck he parked the old Dodge in front of the old house and it hasn’t moved since that time. I thanked her, retrieved all of my photography gear, and walked the short distance to the original house and barn.
After I was finished photographing the barn and the first Morel house, I went back to the second Morel house and knocked on the door. “Come in” cried out Helen Morel, as if I was a regular visitor. She asked if I would like a cup of coffee to which I replied, “I would love a cup”. Helen has a way about her that immediately puts a person at ease. She offered to put some Irish Cream in the coffee, “just once a day in my morning coffee because it tastes so good,” said Helen. I thought that was a marvelous idea. Helen and I visited for at least an hour, maybe even two. She talked about her upcoming trip to France to visit Jean Morel’s family. They will show her around and introduce her to many in-laws that she’s never met. Helen taught herself how to speak French so she should have a wonderful time in France. She’s 91 years old but doesn’t look a day over 80.
Helen often spoke about her late husband who died of brain cancer at the age of 79. She pointed to a photo of him taken when he was much younger. He had the nickname of “Dusty Farmer”, and he was a real cowboy. I’m sure that I saw a glint in Helen’s eyes as she spoke about him. Clearly they were a team as well as lovers.
The time passed quickly and yet I was in no hurry to leave and Helen seemed to be in no hurry to see me go. She didn’t have much to say about the barn but it was just a barn after all. The real story here was about a Polish orphan who met a French WWII veteran. It’s about how two people with nothing but their love for each other ended up owning a very beautiful part of Alberta, including a heritage barn. Both Jean and Helen Morel strongly identify with the farm. In fact there’s an image of the house and barn on Jean’s (and eventually Helen’s) grave marker.
The only time I saw any sadness in her eyes was when Helen said that eventually she will have to leave the farm. She loves living where she is, among the hills and the coulees, and said that the days pass by quickly because there’s always something to do. But at the age of 91 the day is approaching when she may have to leave and live in a lodge. At least the farm will remain in the family. Her daughter and son-in-law are interested in taking over the farm. That makes Helen much happier because I’m sure that she will enjoy returning to visit the farm often.
This barn is called a cordwood or stackwood structure. It’s unique on the prairies. There are log barns in the Peace Country of Alberta and near the mountains but those are the typical log buildings with large logs laid down horizontally in an interlocking structure. Those log buildings need a good supply of large and consistently sized logs.
A cordwood barn is obviously not as strong as stone or brick masonry construction but there are some advantages over stone.
- Wood is much lighter than stone so for manual construction where a person is physically lifting the materials, logs are much easier to work with and move. This is especially true of the shorter pieces of wood used in cordwood construction.
- Stones found in farmers’ fields are free except for the time it takes to collect them. Most of the Canadian prairies have a lot of stones but there are exceptions. Trees are generally plentiful except in the very dry deep southern prairies. So either way the building material is likely either free or very inexpensive. In this case there are lots of trees in the area but they are not large trees. A traditional log barn like you could find in the Peace River Country of Alberta, or in BC would not be feasible here.
- Ed or Byron Gale may have experience working with cordwood buildings. Although Ed Gale was born in Ontario, his father, Byron Sr. was from England so it’s possible he learned about cordwood construction in England or Ontario and taught his son how to work with it.
- One specific advantage of using wood over stone is that wood has some built-in ability to handle flex. Prairie soils tend to move over time with changes in moisture levels as well as the freeze and thaw cycles. This can cause serious cracks in stone walls but cordwood walls can adapt to a small amount of flex. The key is the type of mortar used. Ideally it should be a softer mortar that can flex and if cracked, can easily be filled or patched.
Earlier I said that this is the only cordwood structure in Alberta. While cordwood buildings are definitely rare, and it still may be the only cordwood barn, there is at least one other cordwood structure in the province. Have a look at this house below. The website, where I found the image shown below, doesn’t state the exact location except that it was built in the mountains of Alberta. Click here for more information.
One thing is certain. If a person is going to build a cordwood or stackwood style barn or home they had better be an extrovert because there will be a lot of people coming over to ask questions. Helen Morel said that there used to constantly be people coming over to photograph their barn. This stopped when the County realigned the road and made it a dead end. Now you will not see the Morel barn from the road because the road no longer goes past the farm. To see this barn a person must already know where it is.
I’m glad I brought my flash because it was quite dark in the barn, especially upstairs. I didn’t walk around up there; I just poked my head up from the stairs to obtain a photo of what it looked like.
Most inside walls were smooth and covered by the mortar or plaster. In some places however you could clearly see the logs that the walls were made of.
Naturally this is Helen Morel’s mailbox. Jean Morel built it.
- Sydney Hampshire, HERITAGE BARNS OF FLAGSTAFF: VOLUME I, 2017. Online version at the Flagstaff County Website.
- Halkirk Historical Society, Halkirk Home Fires and Area, Volume I, 1985, Printed copy.
I wish to express my gratitude to Margaret Hyrniuk, Frank Korvemaker, and Larry Easton. If you’ve read Legacy of Worship or Legacy of Stone you will be familiar with those names as they collaborated on both books. I was able to consult with them in the research for this blog post and my previous post, The Mystery House. Their expertise in buildings on the prairies, and especial those made of stone, has been invaluable.
I also wish to acknowledge the assistance of Richard Krehbiel. His biography at the website for the University of Northern British Columbia states: Richard Krehbiel is an Adjunct Professor in the University of Northern British Columbia’s School of Environmental Planning. Rick retired from teaching environmental and aboriginal law courses in 2015 but continues to support the program through advisory services, guest lectures and project work in those areas. His interests focus on First Nation governance as well as Indigenous land and resource use and planning, BC treaty negotiations and western Canada history and folklore. So what does a professor of environmental and aboriginal law have to do with stone and stackwood buildings? To find out, you’ll have to read this CTV News article.
Good workmanship will sustain a barn for it’s first 50 years. Love and good maintenance will sustain it for the next 100+ years.
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.