U of A student's 'Heritage Barns' book helps preserve Alberta's rural history

In her final class project, Sydney Hampshire chronicled the old barns of Flagstaff County.

Drive down any Alberta country road, and you'll spot an old barn or two. While many just see them as relics of the past, Sydney Hampshire sees stories and history.

The recently graduated University of Alberta student has compiled a colourful book celebrating one community's barns, paying tribute to the province's agricultural heritage and to the idea of preserving the past.

"Heritage should be thought of as things that we as a society want to keep for future generations," said Hampshire, who took on the project to earn a leadership certificate through the U of A's Peter Lougheed Leadership College. "Anything that's built will fall down with time, especially the barns. It will be a different day when all those structures are gone, but we can document them."

The result is Heritage Barns of Flagstaff: Volume 1, a coffee-table book that took her two summers of field research to put together. It features a handful of the 300 to 500 barns in Flagstaff County, where her own family put down farming roots as British immigrants in 1904.

"There's this huge history we can document-rustic adventures, brushes with death-and we can tell that history using the barns."

Hampshire took on the project while also studying for a Faculty of Science degree. Through the Lougheed College, she needed to log 200 hours of community experience that stretched beyond her comfort zone, and while most other students went abroad to do that, Hampshire wanted to stay in Alberta. And as a small-town kid herself, she knew what to explore.

"I wanted to learn about rural leadership. Rural Alberta is facing a new challenge: residents are leaving. To tackle this issue, we need leadership," she said.

Raised in La Glace, a tiny northern Alberta hamlet near Grande Prairie, Hampshire got a sense of the problems facing small rural communities, such as difficulty accessing health care and lack of broadband connectivity for internet services.

Curious about the role local government plays in leading community sustainability, she asked administrative staff of Flagstaff County whether she could work with them in some way.

"I wanted to learn by watching, to find out what role I might play in the solution and to learn about leadership," she said.

They welcomed the idea and promptly put her to work.

"They said to me, we have this heritage barn project, trying to document culture in Flagstaff County."

Hampshire had her doubts at first-she was no author-but quickly fell into step with the project. "I love old things. Visiting my grandma when I was young, I liked to go into the old buildings near her farm. It was like a treasure hunt."

She soon found herself travelling throughout east central Alberta, talking with farmers about the history of their family barns, creating a website, taking photos and harvesting information from local community history books to compile into Heritage Barns of Flagstaff.

Along the way, she began to truly appreciate how barns-red or weatherbeaten grey, round or square, made of wood or stone-were the heartbeat of rural life in the pioneering years.

"Barns were the life force at the time. Everything in a barn serves a purpose to help the farm. The loft, the manger, the livestock. And a lot of people have fond memories of being in the barn. Everyone has a story of early morning chores at minus 30, or a cow story-either a favourite or the worst you had to milk."

The book's five chapters chronicle the culture and community that revolves around barns: architecture; prominent local farmers, ranchers and carpenters; demonstration farms and, looking ahead, preserved barns, some of which have been designated as historic resources or repurposed for new uses like family recreation spaces.

Her own family barn, built in the 1960s, is featured in the book. "We've had a few dances in it, we keep the horses in it and this summer my sister's getting married in it."

Self-published by Flagstaff County, the book has already sold 100 copies and 100 more are being printed. It's been popular among local residents, but Hampshire believes it has appeal well beyond county lines.

"The book is something tangible to get people thinking about their own heritage, whoever they are and wherever they came from, because if we're not careful, that knowledge will be lost. I want people to ask what they want to know about themselves before it's too late, and then go seek that knowledge from grandparents and others who would know."

Hampshire, who plans to continue her work this summer by documenting bygone churches, homesteads and landmarks in the Flagstaff region for a second book, said she now knows more about how to address issues facing rural areas.

"I want to help bridge the gap between rural and urban Albertans, and we can help do it with a project like this," she said. "This book is a talking feature to help make relationships with a rural community after people go out to the country, experience it and then continue to go back out."

To order a copy of Heritage Barns of Flagstaff, call the Flagstaff County office at 780-384-4100.