Saturday, July 19, 2008

Hunting Bottles in an Old Barn

On Thursday July 17th The Glove mustered skilled workers to help him repair a weather beaten structure that stands alone on some property he recently purchased, just west of Warkworth Ontario. Dumpdiggers answered the call - but only so we could rummage about in the forgotten history of the old barn.

This old barn sits alone on the south side of Hwy 29 which bisects a historic local region known as Oak Heights. This structure has survived the farm house and all other buildings on the property and now towers over their cement foundations – it has even outlived the United Church which was the focus a tiny farm community, one century earlier.

The barn was built almost 100 years ago, and was probably erected right on top of a smaller, earlier structure on the same spot. For the last forty years, this farm was owned by Eddie Dudeck who died just a few years ago. He was an eastern European immigrant (Polish?) , a tobacco farmer, and something of a land baron. Many of the local residents worked for him at one time or another, including my own father.

This barn did not exist in the 1870s, when the settlement was first surveyed for the Northumberland Co. 1878 map available in McGill University's Blackadder Digital Collections. Here's a cut away that I fashioned which shows the property belonged to Johnson Brewster. His 200 acre lot also supported the church. On a side note, my own ancestor's original plots are also recorded here. My great, great, great grandfather George Campbell died when a rock he was burying on his land tumbled in on top of him. The family legend is that he's still there somewhere on that farm, underneath that rock.

All around the stone walls outside the building is the best place to find coins, old pocket watches and spent ammunition. The first thing I noticed when I approached the site was how much debris and loose material had collected over time against the stone foundation. It was easy to shovel through this fluffy matter - yes thats cow dung in the right hand side of the picture. Littered with crumbling barn boards, buckets, and straw bales, the surface debris rests on top of some harder sub soil that conceals older relics. I have no doubt that some concentrated digging and sifting on this site would yield all manner of old coins and broken tools.

In some situations Dumpdiggers employ passionate enthusiasts to retrieve surface objects. These people are specially trained professional who don't mind doing a little dirty work when it comes to recovering our valuable heritage. Here's young Alec with a quart of port. When we opened the bottle it still looked remarkably palatable - it smelled pungently like overripe wine vinegar. A distiller could no doubt refine this fluid into the finest moonshine.

The wooden floor boards above the drive shed are carpeted in rotting tobacco, which I tried to photograph, without success. The decomposing plant matter now perfumes the air in a musty fragrance. Underneath the ancient straw in an adjoining hay mow I found fertilizer bags and newspapers, one of which was dated September 1976 - Dumpdiggers believes this pinpoints the last summer the barn was used in any serious agricultural enterprise.

The dividing wall between the hay mows. If I had more time on site I would dig away the straw and loose leaf tobacco from around the short wall that bisects the interior of the barn. This is where Dumpdiggers would have the best chance of finding lost coins, jewelery and spent beverage bottles.

Here are some old beer bottles that have already been recovered on this site. The labels on the bottles read, O'Keefe's Extra Old Stock Ale, Molson's Stock Ale from Montreal, Bradings Old Stock Ale, and IPA. The Glove believes this wide selection of 1970's era paper label beer bottles evidences teenagers dipping into their father's coolers and meeting here in ritual drinking. But I don't agree. I suspect these old bottles are the scattered remains of a late 70's era tobacco season harvest party wherein it was customary to provide young workers with a massive selection of commercial brew craft upon which they might deliberate their first taste of alcohol.

Buying and selling historic lumber sounds like a good business. Here's a Canadian website that buys old barn boards. Pine was the building material of choice for old barns in the 1800's. This abundant local wood survives the elements untreated – pine doesn’t shrink when it dries. All this is because pine has a natural resin (which is distilled to make turpentine?) that coats and protects its fibrous cells. Cedar also has a natural oil, but this wood doesn’t last as long outside and doesn’t grow to the size of pine logs.

The north wall of the stable bears the marks of an unsympathetic addition; the window boxes on the east side are an entirely different shape. This means the barn was expanded at some point and the oldest diggings would be found around the north wall.

Explore the tops of all stone walls. When I ran my hand above the window boxes I encountered all manner of rusted objects – old door knobs and electrical boxes and even a spring loaded wooden mouse trap that fortunately wasn’t cocked. There were spent shotgun shells and a few small tins, oxidized beyond all recognition. Dumpdiggers also found lots of square nails and a broken lock.

This is just one historic property in transition - the rolling hills of Northumberland County seen here in the distance will soon be enhanced by gardens, fruit trees and a cute little animal pasture in the foreground. That's probably how it looked on July 17th 1908 when this barn was the center of activity on the Brewster farm.


Trestin said...

A very unique idea for a blog. Great work!

Jayne said...

Looks like great fun to be had, exploring and finding lost heritage relics :)

Michelle (artscapes) said...

Sounds like a great day...

History's Mysteries said...

Hi, what a wonderful story, I wish we had things like that up here left to explore, sadly in Chicago, It's pretty much a concrete gungle. You need to drive out pretty far to find some old structures still standing. Luckily we do have the forest preserves and they are kept up very nice. When they host some event, like the civil war days, it is a wonderful thing to go to. I really like your site and I would love to add you onto my blogroll if you don't mind.

Anonymous said...

Cool stuff! I’ve always been fascinated with old ‘treasures’ and their histories. As for the beer bottles pictured, they are about 20 years older than estimated (i.e. circa 1950’s).