Rich history sparks preservation
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