Sunday, January 26, 2014

Ontario's stone farmhouses

Over the years I've taken many drives through the countryside around Waterloo, Ontario, where rolling farmlands dotted with woodlots and sugar bushes still show occasional stone farm buildings with great character. A fascination with their multi-hued granite walls has led me to wonder what explains their presence  among much more numerous brick farmhouses, and what accounts for there appearing to be two distinct styles of stone masonry at work? Some showcase more prominent individual stones that often appear in block-like chunks, while others utilize smaller and more randomly sized stones overlain with lavish quantities of mortar.

A farmhouse near Shakespeare, Ontario, made from blocks of colourful stone

On a visit over the 2013 holiday season, I decided to photograph a few of these magnificent structures and inquire further into their origins. I wanted to know where the richly hued rocks used to make these 150-year-old walls came from, given there are few if any granite outcrops in surrounding counties? I learned that the stone for these farmhouses wasn't quarried from bedrock, but consists of granite fieldstones distributed by retreating glacial moraines whose parent glacier carried them down from the distant Canadian shield. Glacial pressure and tumbling likely rounded them into smooth boulders during their long southeast migration. The original breaking and clearing of the land for agriculture, in the early to mid-eighteen hundreds, supplied the stock of stone used to construct these unique buildings. Their finished look derives from the work done on these available materials by people with craft skills of differing origins. This plume of buried granite boulders only covers certain parts of Ontario, explaining why stone buildings in other areas tend to be of materials like the limestone in Elora and Fergus that was quarried from river gorges. 

A plain farmhouse made of irregular fieldstone overlain heavily with mortar

The two most frequent types of granite masonry work in Waterloo and surrounding counties differ completely in approach, texture and effect. One, pictured above and below, involves a loose and generous use of mortar, to the point of obscuring the individual character of the stones. It doesn't try to achieve more than a rudimentary impression of courses (horizontal layers of stone). The rocks are held in place by the matrix and no trouble is taken to disguise that fact. While this could be read as crude or rustic work, the effect with aging is soft and appealing to the eye and the structures themselves have proven durable. When carpentry touches are added, like the porch with turned columns below, the results are aesthetically pleasing.

 Granite boulders float in broad mortar seams in a loose, utilitarian style of stonework

Here some effort has gone into squaring the boulders, producing a neater finish

Above and below, granite blocks have been more neatly trimmed and set in regular courses

The differences in approach and style are accounted for by the two distinct building traditions imported into Ontario via immigration in the early and middle nineteenth century. One group of settlers came from parts of Germany where there were traditions of building with random fieldstones, which allowed farmers to take immediate advantage of the plentiful supply unearthed by breaking the soil. The German way of working with this stone is utilitarian and rustic, involving no real effort to dress it or even to carefully select a presentation face. The effect of this matter-of-fact use of stones in a great deal of matrix can nonetheless be quite appealing, as illustrated below.

A fine old building, once a church or school, in the German style of stone building

The example above superbly illustrates this masonry style, in which structural elements like corner quoins or lintels above the windows are fancifully used rather than precisely worked for solidity of effect. The German masons used mortar lavishly in order to develop their ultimate structural integrity. This would have been a relatively quick way of building with available stone (assuming a dependable supply of materials for mortar), with little time and effort invested in squaring up resistant boulders. The architectural effect however exceeds the utilitarian quality of construction, its own particular beauty softened and polished by weathering.

The soft brown mortar lines blend multi-hued granite into a pleasing whole

Stone building was being supplanted by rail-supplied brick buildings by the time this was built

A modern cement chimney rather mars an otherwise pristine stone facade

Mortar applied copiously with little effort to refine or tidy the presentation

The second pattern of stonework is a product of Scottish immigration, which brought skill in controlled splitting and careful shaping of even very hard stone. It also brought a distinct aesthetic sense expressed through a tendency towards careful selection. This masonry style achieves a much more precise and expressive use of granite boulders, which as pictured below have been made rectangular and carefully selected for colour harmonies. The technique is impressive, as granite is among the hardest of stones (some say second only to diamonds). As found, the boulders would have muted colour due to glacial grinding, but once split reveal incredible diversity and vibrancy of colour. And these interior colours have remained fast over their 150 years of exposure, their denseness having inhibited weathering and kept organic action at bay.

Entry facades often received a formal treatment with tightly coursed granite blocks

I owe much of my recent insight into the Scottish style of stonework to a chance encounter with Bill Shivas, owner of a stone farmhouse who also restores these heritage structures. He was outside when I stopped to ask permission to photograph his house, and a fruitful conversation ensued. Bill understands how these structures were put together and why various things were done, and he comes to it all from the perspective of a practicing stone mason involved in repairing and maintaining them. His splendid 1864 farmhouse is pictured above, here showing the original entry-wall to which the farm driveway once conducted visitors. Bill says the masons took particular care to dress this facade, giving it a high degree of formality by shaping large, irregular granite boulders to look like blocks of quarried stone. These are of more subdued and subtle colour variation than the adjacent walls, which are comprised of more random shapes. Also, windows and front doorway have been set into a gently contrasting hue of stone, for an even more subtle effect. It's fascinating that these masons were able to achieve such refined looks from such tough raw materials. The time it would have taken to split it so evenly and trim it to fit so closely suggests that the original farmer was a person of considerable means, an inference reinforced by the many artful touches in the home's fine interior joinery.

A random assortment of split fieldstone pleasingly fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle

Compare the front entry wall to the side wall pictured above, which is of more randomly shaped fieldstone, yet closely fitted into courses with what appear to be ultra-fine mortar bands.The exuberant use of these stones, coupled with the feeling of close aesthetic control, is absolutely stunning to my eye. It's very difficult to conceive of modern masons being able to achieve this sort of fitting with hand tools.

Corner blocks align with rubblestone on this side wall

Bill revealed several significant facts about the Scottish style of masonry practiced in nineteenth century Ontario: these buildings are erected so carefully that they would stand securely without any mortar at all - the bonding agent between stones is not in fact structural. When he repairs one of these walls, he finds every stone is chinked, rock is resting directly on rock. The Scots are said to have used the mortar only to make the building draft-proof and to prevent water penetrating. The second thing Bill revealed is that the practice of applying a thin band of white mortar over a seam, or originally of running a thin groove through the centre of the mortar and whitening it, is an aesthetic device used to enhance the impression of preciseness of fit. Practically this technique serves to diminish the visual weight of the mortar bands and increase the impression of regular coursing. 

While the skill in splitting, trimming and close fitting of hard stone was imported, the application to granitic boulders dispersed eons before by glaciers was a unique, on-site response to local conditions and building materials. Boulder splitting per se wasn't a building tradition from their native Scotland, but rather evolved as an adaptation to the nature of materials available in abundance. Stone in their native Scotland was typically quarried from a source and dressed into regular shapes. A more traditional application of these skills is the church in Galt, Ontario pictured below, made mostly of quarried stone.

Church of the era made largely of quarried stone

Bill shared an interesting story about how his own place came to be that gives context to this emerging response to local conditions by people with masonry skills. He said the masons who built the house first dug and constructed a basement during the building months, then built a temporary roof over it so they could inhabit it for the winter. Throughout the long, cold winter they completed the selecting, splitting and shaping of the stones for future walls, so their materials were ready for the main build when spring 1864 rolled around. It's hard to imagine living in a basement and working in winter temperatures at splitting and shaping fieldstones with a hammer and chisels - these were definitely hardy folk.

The following pictures illustrate the application of decorative mortar lines to reduce the apparent width of the true mortar bands necessitated by irregularities in the stone shapes. These thin, more regular lines give the finished wall an even more fitted look.

Close-up showing thin decorative bands placed on mortar seams

Chunk of original exterior wall showing rectilinear grooves with vestiges of white paint

Below is a restoration project that Bill is picking away at on a neighbouring farm (stone work is slow, methodical work, and Bill now works alone). This lovely stone farmhouse is complimented by a little dairy shed (near dilapidation) and an original blacksmith's shop, where the metal tools and hardware needed on a farm could be manufactured. Once the house is done, Bill intends to tackle both dairy shed and smithy.

Repointed and repaired facades of an early stone farmhouse (circa 1860)

A wall that Bill has been carefully remaking, without the white banding

A dilapidating dairy cooler, partly in-ground, likely one of the last of its kind in Ontario

A blacksmith's shop, soon to be restored and recycled as a working farm building

My exposure to these 19th century stone buildings has led me to wonder if there's a heritage inventory of all that remain, and whether there are tools in place to help stabilize and repair them authentically. I didn't get to that point in conversation with Bill Shivas, but I intend to canvass the topic down the line. These artifacts deserve preservation, as they enrich our access to our history immeasurably. They also embody skills no longer common, and aesthetic senses that should inspire us towards effects today. There should be an agency of some kind that helps keep the skills needed to maintain these buildings alive and vibrant.

Pinks and blues, rusty browns, buffs, many more

For information on Ontario's fieldstone buildings and the geology underpinning stone resources, Gerard Middleton's article is an excellent source:

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