In this special video presentation, Free Press photojournalist Ruth Bonneville's Uncle Herman performs the "Farmer's Song" in the barn loft on the farm where he grew up.
The wind whistled through the outbuildings like echoes from the past on the day my father and I visited his family farm one sunny September afternoon.
My great-grandfather purchased the land in the early 1900s for about a dollar an acre and kept it as a lasting inheritance for his children. So began the legacy of the farm in southern Manitoba, midway between Carman and Morden, that my dad and nine of his siblings called home.
At its peak, it was a beehive of activity. Barns were filled with cattle, horses and chickens; fields flourished with oats and wheat, and the list of never-ending chores kept all 10 kids out of mischief most of the time. Evidence of this labour of love could be seen everywhere as my father, Tony, and uncle Herman, both now in their 80s, held onto their hats while they guided me through an oral history of our farm.
Bale loaders, an old metal vise, cream cans and a two-share plow were some remnants that sit quietly in the tall grass nestled next to the outbuildings. An anvil and hay wagon are nearby. My dad tells the story of how he used to spend a whole day loading and taking wheat to a thresher for a crisp five dollar bill — an envious day’s wage for a young lad at that time.
Adding to the farm’s presence is a mix of weathered outbuildings. Among them is the family’s first house, where five of the oldest children were born. It was later turned into a chicken coop, housing more than 100 chickens. A one-room schoolhouse the children attended sat a kilometre up the road before it was moved to the farm in the late 1950s to be used as a granary. And finally, the family farmhouse, a two-storey wooden structure that was the heart and soul of the farm. It served up warm meals, and discipline, at the same table and prepared the children to one day leave for good.
The most impressive building is the big red barn. Still standing straight and tall, it was built from the foundation up by the skillful hands of my grandfather and his many sons. At 12 metres high, the barn towers over the prairie fields like a beacon to a wandering traveller. Uncle Herman tells the story of how, while painting, he fell off the barn roof onto the hood of a truck. Luckily, the hood took the brunt and he lived to tell the story. But after years of housing a herd of cattle, team of horses and a loft full of hay, the only animals left in this barn are a litter of kittens.
The farm cats have gathered together up in the loft to warm themselves in the shafts of light streaming through the hatch openings. The scene looks more like a church window than a barn. I am humbled by the day’s events, at being immersed in my family’s roots and transported back in time.