Barns & Cities: One Unexpectedly Goes with the Other

Reading about barns you may first recall memories of those typical red buildings proudly standing in an agricultural landscape, but do you also remember those barns that were located on the main streets of hamlets, villages and towns?

Coming from Québec City as part of the Québec/Alberta Student Employment Exchange Program, I have worked on a research project meant to increase our understanding of the history of livery barns, and to promote awareness for their historic importance. To do this, I had to go back in time at various archives to learn that most livery barns in Alberta were actually important places, especially from the late 19th century to the 1940s.

Livery barns were located on strategic corners. They were the main logistic centres for cities during the time when horse power was mainly used for transportation. Gable roof, gambrel roof, cubic style, with or without a front wall – all a liveryman needed was a place with stalls to welcome and take care of  horses. Mostly located near railways, hotels and lumberyards, livery barns contributed to a great deal of economic activities. Merchants, settlers, travelers and cowboys would park their shire horses, ponies or mustangs with their carriages in a livery barn for a night or a couple of days. Liverymen could rent animals and agriculture implements, host auctions, organize “bus” tours, deliver milk and wood, and even move a catalogue house all according to the needs of the community. If you were marrying in the 1920s, you also could have called for a team of horses to gently carry you to your wedding ceremony.

G. Rowland Livery Barn Inside View, Edmonton, c. 1920, Provincial Archives of Alberta.

Some livery barns were more high-class than others but they were all meeting places; a place where men could play card games and talk about the weather. Livery barns might also have held suspicious activities. Empty bottles of alcohol dating from the prohibition period were surprisingly found in the walls of the National Hotel Livery Barn, in Calgary. This helps to explain the commonly bad perception that citizens had of the places. The job of the liverymen was dirty and the environment was crowded, as you can see by the photograph.

Livery barns sometime created urban sanitary issues. Hygienic laws and relocating the business mostly dealt with the concerns, but, after the 1930s, if a livery barn was accidentally destroyed by fire, it usually was not rebuilt. From the 24 livery barns registered in the Henderson’s Greater Edmonton Directory of 1913, the G. Rowland Livery Barn, which was located at 12705 on 65th St., shows typical historical trends. Built in 1912, exactly at the highest peak of number of livery barns, it changed proprietor 4 times before it disappeared as a company in 1939. The needs of the communities were changing and horses were gradually replaced for automobiles. World War II accelerated the shift and livery barns were abandoned, used for storage or converted to garages.  Because horses started better than cars in the morning, some livery barns still existed in the winter until the late 1950s.

If you think about it, there was once a time when searching for a place to park your horse was like today searching for a spot to park your car. It seems that livery barns are a forgotten part of Alberta’s history, but it might not be too late to recall the legacy.

Written by: Samuel C. Fleury, Historic Places Stewardship Research Assistant

2 comments

  1. My childhood was spent on a farm near Standard, Alberta. I remember the livery barn on a side street close to the corner where it met the one main street. It was across the street from the community hall, a block from the train station and the grain elevators, and next door to the blacksmith shop. In the 1920’s and 1930’s it was a busy place. As cars and trucks gradually replace horses it faded away. A good memory. MMG

    1. Thanks Marjorie. What a great childhood memory. You said it was a busy place. What type things went on there?

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