Barn fires added to problems of Wellington County farmers in 1930

I have remarked previously about the curious way fires seem to have occurred locally in clusters.

Another of those series of coincidences occurred in the late summer and fall of 1930, when flames consumed more than a dozen barns in Wellington County.

Coming as the Great Depression was starting to take hold, these fires were major disasters to the farmers affected.

The first of this series of fires happened in August. Many were related to harvesting activities.

In those days farmers set up a threshing machine, more often than not the property of a roving threshing crew, adjacent to their barns. They would blow the straw into a pile near the barn or into it, for use as bedding for livestock.

All too often a fire broke out in the straw. The threshing operation was often done in late August when everything was dry. The situation had been much worse back in the days when threshing outfits used steam engines. The heat and flying embers and sparks from the engines easily started fires. Wise farmers kept the operation well away and downwind from buildings.

The increasing use of tractors by 1930 gave many farmers a false sense of security regarding the dangers of fire. Threshing could still be dangerous, with overheated bearings and dust catching fire.

One fire near Elora that year was especially senseless. A man feeding the threshing machine decided to light up a cigarette. Somehow the cigarette fell from his lips, and was sucked up by the fan that blew the straw into the barn. The burning cigarette set the pile of straw on fire, and within minutes the whole barn was engulfed in flames.

A year round danger to barns was the use of coal oil lamps in the years before farms had access to Ontario Hydro lines. Lamps could easily be knocked down in a barn, or dropped accidently. Other fires were ascribed to spontaneous combustion, usually the result of damp hay that heated up and eventually caught fire.

One such fire claimed the barn of Peter Thompson, between the 3rd and 4th lines of Erin Township on the night of Sept. 14, 1930. It broke out while he and his family were at church. They returned to discover the barn engulfed in flames. Thompson lost the entire year’s grain crop and about 50 head of cattle. About 20 of the cattle were prize-winning Aberdeen Angus specimens. The loss, which included about 30 pigs, 350 bushels of fall wheat, and 100 tons of hay, was put at about $10,000, and was only partially covered by insurance.

The blaze illuminated the sky for miles, and attracted hundreds of curiosity seekers in motor cars. About 2,500 people managed to get to the farm to watch, while hundreds more clogged the roads for miles around.

The Hillsburgh fire brigade, assisted by dozens of volunteers, made a valiant effort to save the house and another barn. The Hillsburgh chief summoned the Erin village brigade, but that force and their engine could not make the trip to the farm because the roads were plugged with traffic.

Slightly more than a month later disaster struck Bill Candle, who farmed on Concession 12 of Maryborough Township. On Oct. 17 he had a threshing crew at work near his barn, a fairly modern and well-equipped structure.

The men broke off work shortly after 11 in the morning to go into the house for their dinner. Candle came out of the house around noon, a few minutes before the crew was to resume work. He noted that it had started to rain.

As he watched, the barn seemed to explode into flames. Fire spread quickly, claiming all the contents of the building: the freshly threshed grain, 150 hens and roosters, about 150 tons of hay, a buggy, and all Candle’s farm implements.

The cause of the fire was never determined, but it undoubtedly involved either a reckless or foolish act by someone with the threshing crew. Candle had adequate insurance to cover his loss. Thanks to the rain and help from the threshing crew, the house escaped destruction.

Less than two weeks later, early in the morning of Oct. 30, a mysterious fire on Concession 5 of East Luther Township claimed a bank barn on a farm owned by J.G. Brown.

In contrast to the blaze in Erin Township a couple of months earlier, this one attracted, as far as anyone knew, not a single spectator.

Though Brown owned the barn and the farm it was on, he had lived for years in Grand Valley, and had rented the property to Oliver McDermott, who lived on a farm across the road. McDermott had some hay and unthreshed grain in the barn, worth about $500 and fully covered by insurance. McDermott carried $2,000 of insurance on the building, which was below replacement cost.

The timing of the fire suggests that it may have been a Halloween prank. If so, it was a successful one. McDermott was asleep in his house across the road, and of the scant number of people in the neighbourhood, no one heard or saw anything suspicious.

The next morning all McDermott could do was poke among the smouldering ashes. The provincial police conducted an investigation, but as there were no witnesses or clues, it was a brief one.

There was no mystery at all regarding another fire four days later in West Luther. Bob Smith, who farmed on Concession 8 of that township, was in the barn on the evening of Nov. 3. At about 7:30 he was shoveling feed for his cattle by the light of an oil lamp. He inadvertently knocked the lamp to the floor, where it broke, and the coal oil in it caught fire as it flowed across the floor.

The flames spread so quickly that Smith was unable to save anything. He was lucky to escape unscathed. Several neighbours saw the blaze, which lit up the sky, and came rushing to offer what assistance they could. Some neighbours called friends in the area, and they came as well.

Soon a large crowd had assembled, but there was little any of them could do, though they did make futile attempts to save parts of the building, and the original barn, a log structure attached to it. They were more successful in saving a nearby driving shed by smothering sparks and cinders as soon as they landed on the structure.

Smith, like most victims of barn fires, did not call any of the fire brigades in neighbouring towns. The mutual aid system was not yet in effect, and townships rarely had agreements to fight fires in nearby townships.

Bringing in a municipal fire brigade was a major expense for victims of fires. And in any case, by the time they would arrive the fire was invariably already out of control and the barn doomed.

A number of factors have helped reduce the number and frequency of barn fires over the decades since 1930. The mutual aid system works well in bringing equipment to the scene as quickly as possible, and today’s equipment and the training the men receive makes the forces of 1930 seem primitive.

Perhaps the biggest factor is rural electrification. With electric lights in their barns, farmers retired their coal oil lamps to the back of the cupboard, or perhaps someplace more visible as a decorative item. There was no longer the danger of flaming oil getting a foothold in a tinder-dry barn.

As well, various farm safety programs have made farmers aware of fire and other dangers.

Today, we no longer have seasons where fire claims a dozen barns in a four month period.


Stephen Thorning