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Barn Hunting with the Old Man: The Importance of Local Knowledge

The other day my dad went barn hunting with me. There was a particular barn he had wanted to see, and that I had been saving for him. Now that harvest is finally over and he has some free time, we made the trip south of Ceylon to the North Star barn.

The North Star barn

As excited as I was to be barn hunting with my dad, I had a few small worries about bringing him along, simply because I know him so well. Sure enough, soon after we had settled down for coffee with our hosts, my dad started reminiscing, interrupting my barn questions with memories of his own, random talk about farming, and musings on the weather. I was a bit frustrated, since the barn hunter is on a tight schedule these days (as I write this, there is snow on the ground). But I soon realised that my dad was drawing out information about this barn by asking questions I might not have thought of. For example, in reminiscing about his own experiences growing up on a farm, he said to our host, “loose hay was before my time. Do you think the loft could hold more hay when it was loose, or in bales?”

That was a very good question, and one I had never thought to ask before. Soon after, my dad entered into a good-humoured wager with our host over the width of the barn. The barn owner said the barn was 26 feet wide, but my dad politely suggested he thought it was 28. With glee, we all headed out into the chilly afternoon air with Bob the tape measure to see who was right. We measured it twice, just to make sure, and it was 28 feet on the nose.

My dad inspects an antique Cockshutt tractor in the North Star barn. After barns and cookies, his great love is tractors.

Later that afternoon we went surveying, and my dad’s local knowledge was an invaluable help, as well as his uncanny ability to eyeball the measurements of barns. Though I had seen his prowess in action, I was still a bit skeptical. “How do you know that, Dad?” I asked after he estimated the measurements of one barn. “I’ve been looking at barns all my life, I can tell,” he responded with some irritation, as if I weren’t really sharp enough to call myself a barn hunter.

My dad also knows about many barns that were once there but are now gone. As we drove through the countryside, he pointed out various abandoned homesteads that had once had barns. Though I know that many have vanished over the years, I would be hard-pressed to say with any authority where and when they had gone.

This expedition with my dad reinforced the importance of local knowledge in a study such as this (which is part of that whole intangible cultural heritage thing I’ve been going on about). I have been asked several times why I chose to do this study in my own area. There are many answers: free rent, being in the place I love most, reunion with my cat Rufus, etc. But I also truly believe that a study like this is dependent on local knowledge, and since I am a local, I’ve already eliminated a lot of work. But as much as I know about my area, I still know next to nothing compared to someone like my dad. I can only imagine the difficulties faced by a stranger coming in to a rural area and attempting to find all the barns, make contacts, etc. all in a limited time frame. It can certainly be done, and is done all the time. I did something similar myself last year when I participated in a field school in Keels, Newfoundland.

Some would even argue that doing a study in one’s own area is a bad idea because of the inherent pre-conceptions and biases one brings into her work. This is a legitimate concern. But we have biases and pre-conceptions no matter where we go. Awareness of these, and acknowledgement of them is very important.

But for all the potential cons for doing this work in my own area, I believe they are heavily outweighed by the pros, especially the free rent one. In all seriousness, I believe my knowledge of this place will lend a depth and richness to my study that would not be possible otherwise. This is not to say that I will only ever do research in my own area; to the contrary, I love diving into a new place and trying to immerse myself in it as much as possible. But for my master’s thesis, I wouldn’t want to be barn hunting anywhere else but here. Every time I go out, I end up driving down a road I’ve never driven down before, seeing farms and barns I didn’t know existed, and meeting people I previously only knew by name, or not at all. I’ve discovered so may amazing things about a place I know so well. It begs the question: how many secrets are waiting to be discovered in your own backyard?

A magnificent barn I knew nothing about, but of which my dad and our North Star barn hosts knew the location. It is situated far from any main road. My dad said he had always wanted to see it, as it is somewhat legendary in the barnlore of the region.

2 comments on “Barn Hunting with the Old Man: The Importance of Local Knowledge

  1. Anonymous says:

    I have a question about one of the pictures on your blog. Is there any way I can contact you? I can't seem to find an email listed.

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