Barn With An Attitude — (Story and Photos By: Robert J. Galbraith) 05/02/01
North America may lose one of its most valuable agricultural structures due to the threat of collapse, says Michelle Picard, a heritage consultant with the Canadian Center for Architecture in Montreal.
“There are no comparisons to this one – it’s unique! To lose it would be comparable to losing Montreal’s’ Notre Dame Basilica, in agricultural value,” says Picard, speaking of the twelve-sided Walbridge Barn, in Mystic, Quebec, Canada.
Built in 1882, the barn was the brainchild of farmer-inventor, Alexander S. Walbridge, a Vermont-American immigrant who settled in Mystic in the first half of the 19th century.
The unique shape of the red barn, which has been compared to a gigantic star-shaped cookie cutter, presents a linear feast for the eyes, enhanced by an idyllic country setting.
But the true beauty of the barn is not only in its outer shell but in its inner mechanics, into which Walbridge incorporated railway technology, and this technology is what sets it apart from all other barns throughout the world.
Prior to his involvement as a farmer-inventor, Walbridge was a foreman in charge of railway shops at Malone, in Upper New York State. When a locomotive needed servicing or repairs, it was run onto a turntable in the middle of the large circular shop so it could be turned, by the means of gears in the floor, and run into the correct stall. This allowed a number of engines to be worked on at the same time while maximizing space.
In constructing the barn, Walbridge incorporated the same general idea as the railway shop turntable, only he designed a system which supported a 30′ wooden turntable by means of 12 iron support shafts, which ran down from each point of the twelve sides of the barn, meeting at a heavier central shaft. Four smaller shafts angled down, from the central shaft, to support the main wooden cross-beam upon which the turntable was then built. The turntable was rotated on an iron track, powered by a waterwheel set in a nearby brook.
The platform of the table was large enough to hold a team of horses drawing a wagon laden with hay, or some other field crop. When the wagon was driven into the barn it stopped on the turntable. A lever was engaged to start the table slowly rotating. It was stopped when the wagon was lined-up with the stall needing filling. After the load was stored, the table was turned until the horses, or oxen could walk forward out of the barn. It was the first example of the mechanized feeding of livestock and a forerunner to Henry Ford’s moving assembly line for car production, which came into operation in 1913.
Pioneered by the Quakers in New England, the concept of the twelve-sided barn, and its cousins, the round and octagonal barn, evolved during the last half of the 19th century to meet changing conditions in agriculture and animal husbandry. Round and multi-sided barn technology made work in the barn, the feeding and milking of the cows, more efficient and maximized the use of space. At the time, large-scale dairy farming was coming into its own, fueled by urban growth and a general movement of people from rural regions to the cities to find work in the newly-built industries.
Picard believes the barn should receive protective status under provincial or federal heritage laws. “If we lose it, we lose the knowledge of the man who built it, and we don’t want to re-invent what’s already been built,” she explained. “Perhaps in some third world country where there is a shortage of electricity they could use this technology. For them, maybe this is the way to go!”
The barn, the family homestead (built in 1843) and the surrounding 70-acre farm remain under the guardianship of the surviving Walbridge grandchildren; Frances (89), Edith (88), Steven (85) and Dorothy (83). The three sisters still live on or near the farm, tending to their cats and vegetable gardens, while brother Steven lives in Montreal, a one-hour drive northeast of Mystic. All four family members contribute their time, physical effort and finances to help with the upkeep of the barn.
In 1974, the family formed the ‘Walbridge Conservation Limited’, inviting some of the town residents to join and help with the maintenance of the barn and to incorporate it into the village’s future. But this is not enough to keep the structure, with its interior skeleton of warped beams and cracked supports, from decaying, especially since the barn hasn’t been used as a working barn for over forty years.
To Michelle Picard, the Walbridges aren’t just saving a small window of local history, but in the greater scheme of things, she believes they are guarding one of the most important examples of North American agricultural and architectural history.
“It’s part of our heritage,” she concluded, “it’s a part of the evolution of our society.”