Rich his­tory sparks preser­va­tion

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - General -

In­her­itage cir­cles, Dave Al­dous was re­garded as a re­lent­less in­di­vid­ual who wouldn’t take no for an an­swer.

He was tire­less in his drive to pre­serve one of the old­est and cer­tainly the most fa­mous barn in Saskatchewan.

This would be the huge stone struc­ture just north of In­dian Head known sim­ply as the Bell Barn. Built by Maj. William Bell in 1882, it is a fine ex­am­ple of that most un­usual of farm build­ings, the round barn. It is one of only about 20 round barns ever built in the prov­ince, and one with a fas­ci­nat­ing his­tory.

With­out the ef­forts of Al­dous, who died last week in Saskatoon at the age of 89, it might have been al­lowed to dis­ap­pear al­to­gether.

The long­time teacher and school prin­ci­pal kept the idea of sav­ing the barn alive within the her­itage com­mu­nity, and to­day, there is a plan in place that may yet see it re­built to its orig­i­nal state. It’s an im­por­tant build­ing for many rea­sons, not least of which be­cause it sym­bol­izes an im­por­tant part of Saskatchewan’s early agri­cul­tural his­tory, the brief pe­riod of 19th cen­tury cor­po­rate farm­ing.

The Qu’Ap­pelle Val­ley Farm­ing Com­pany run by Bell was rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the huge ex­pec­ta­tions Saskatchewan en­gen­dered in farm­ers and en­trepreneurs of the day. Bell en­ticed a num­ber of On­tario in­vestors to put their money into an en­ter­prise that cov­ered some 100 sec­tions of farm­land with the idea of even­tu­ally sell­ing small farms to set­tlers.

Ini­tially, though, it was a huge op­er­a­tion di­vided into smaller farms with lo­cal man­agers. Bell kept track of their ac­tiv­i­ties via one of the ear­li­est tele­phone sys­tems in the prov­ince, which was con­nected to each of the 27 dif­fer­ent cot­tages lo­cated on var­i­ous parts of the farm.

The round barn was and is a lo­cal land­mark, lo­cated just a mile north of the CPR main line. It was 20 me­tres in di­am­e­ter and fea­tured a cen­tral silo that dou­bled as a lookout tower. The barn was big enough to stall 36 horses, as well as hold 4,000 bushels of oats, 100 tons of hay and even an of­fice.

One of its un­usual as­pects was a se­ries of ri­fle loop­holes around the perime­ter, a fea­ture that never proved nec­es­sary to use.

The farm it­self did very well for a year or two, but even­tu­ally failed for all the same rea­sons agri­cul­ture strug­gles to­day. It suf­fered dry sea­sons, early frosts and high trans­porta­tion costs, which crip­pled the op­er­a­tion. In 1885, Bell couldn’t get a crop in at all be­cause Gen. Fred­er­ick Mid­dle­ton com­man­deered most of his horses and men to sup­ply the troops en route to Ba­toche to crush the North­west Re­bel­lion.

By 1887, large por­tions of the farm were sold off and the build­ings were even­tu­ally left derelict. Years af­ter the farm’s demise, the CPR still stopped trains at In­dian Head to take the pas­sen­gers out to see the barn.

There was also a huge stone house on the site, but it col­lapsed years ago, and the barn seemed des­tined for the same fate. For years, Al­dous con­ducted a let­ter writ­ing cam­paign to pro­vin­cial and fed­eral of­fi­cials, MLAs, the pre­mier and even the prime min­is­ter, seek­ing com­mit­ments to save the barn.

One of those was Frank Korve­maker, then an of­fi­cial with the her­itage branch of the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment.

He cor­re­sponded with Al­dous over the years and later be­came in­volved in writ­ing a book about stone build­ings in Saskatchewan. At that point, he and a cou­ple of col­leagues de­cided they should try to help save the build­ing and formed the Bell Barn So­ci­ety of In­dian Head, which has em­barked on a fundrais­ing cam­paign to re­store it.

“I got the idea, well, it’s one thing to write about it in a book, but I’ve got a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence help­ing other peo­ple save and re­store old build­ings, maybe we should try sav­ing the Bell Barn. I don’t know if Dave hadn’t been so per­sis­tent whether I would have had that idea,” Korve­maker said in an in­ter­view this week.

“Dave had just kept it in the fore­front of ev­ery­body’s mind. When the idea came to do some­thing, was it his idea? Maybe. He cer­tainly had a hand in it.”

There are now at least 20 peo­ple work­ing to raise the $600,000 they think it will cost to move the barn.

Over the years, the mor­tar hold­ing the stones to­gether has slowly de­cayed, and just last year, a snow­storm took out about half of the roof and the north­west por­tion of the walls. It has never had a proper foun­da­tion or floor, re­flec­tive of the fact that in 1882, no one knew about the va­garies of build­ing on prairie gumbo.

How­ever, Korve­maker is op­ti­mistic that by the fall of 2009, the Bell Barn will have been suc­cess­fully dis­man­tled and re­built just 100 feet north of where it now stands.

On Oct. 24, there will be a pub­lic meet­ing about the barn in In­dian Head where Natalie Bull, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Her­itage Canada, will speak on the im­por­tance of the barn to the coun­try’s her­itage.

Dave Al­dous can’t at­tend, of course, but Korve­maker says his me­mory won’t be far away.

“Dave’s al­most like the pa­tron saint of the project. He couldn’t be here to work with us, but he was cer­tainly there in spirit all the time.”

The Bell Barn built near In­dian Head in 1882

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