All About Canadian Barns

Barns are going out of fashion and as funds from wealthy societies, heritage trusts, and governments are being diverted from the purchase and preservation of Canada’s oldest barns, it’s only a matter of time until they are no more.


As a result of the changes in the agricultural economy, many Canadian farmers have gone bankrupt leading to abandoned farms. The cultural and architectural interest in barns from earlier years have gone down.

Barn designs have typically been affected by inherited customs and the type of building materials available like timber, stones, brick, slate, and thatch for roofs. While the barn enthusiast with a camera will find it rewarding to find and capture old barns designed with these materials on walls and roof, they would also find many barns roofed with aluminum sheathing, and it’s likely to evolve to metals and other weatherproof materials in the future.

Canadian barns are classified as Pennsylvania, Dutch and English styled in form and function. Barns in the eastern regions are usually circular or polygonal except in Québec, where well maintained barns painted in bright hues are common. Of all the types mentioned, the most common one is the Pennsylvanian.

Concrete driveway and barn on ranch
Concrete driveway and barn on ranch

A typical barn is one built with great doors that open at an upper level directly onto the threshing floor, which is a broad aisle flanked on the sides by stout, squared timbers that stretch from the floor all the way to the ceiling. The granary is neat and well-built with its precious contents taken into consideration and divided into about 6 to 8 bins with a passage separating them. Farm machinery is moved onto the threshing floor as the season closes and in autumn and winter, hay is lowered to the cattle below.

The Pennsylvania barn is outstanding for the housing of animals. The upper structure is typically cantilevered to about 2.4m, which does well to shelter the cattle in the byre at the back of the barn. Pine planks are generally used for Canadian Pennsylvania barns, but stone or brick or a combination with timber are some of Pennsylvania’s finest.

The Canadian Dutch barn is unique in having main doors at the end and not the side. The threshing floor and isles are in the barn plan or Basilican, with cattles on one side and horses on the other. The living space at the “sanctuary” is one of the fascinating historic features of early Dutch barns. Furniture could be arranged in a central fireplace and flanked on each side by bedroom or beds that would be lowered for sleeping.

The English barn which is ubiquitous and little takes its appearance from the form of those in Britain. This barn has a central threshing floor, with the threshed grain kept in a space to the left and unthreshed grain in a space to the right. These smallish barns flourished for a period when wheat cultivation was predominant in agriculture. 

The French Canadian were very ingenious and loved the primary colours in their barns. They typically had barns that were long and low, with a number of circular and polygonal shapes which added variety to the traditional single-storey rectangles. The painted walls were tight-tongued and grooved. Cracks in clapboard walls on barns outside of Québec City allow free passage of air and allowed animals of all kinds to enter.

The Québec barn is well known for decoration in paint, and its plain surfaces let farmers get the opportunity to display different colours. In many old barns outside of Québec City, the flat areas allow them to demonstrate their operations raison d’être operations, and it is common to see large faded cow and horse paintings.