The Farm

The purpose of the farm at Fort William was to supplement the diet of the Nor'Westers during the Rendezvous and lessen their dependence on imported foodstuffs. The farm did not make Fort William completely self-sufficient however, and vast amounts of corn and grease had to be imported to provision the voyageurs' for the Rendezvous and their return voyages, as well as provide the staple diet of the year round engages. During the Rendezvous, the farm at Fort William supplied the Great Hall with milk, butter, eggs, vegetables and fresh meat. The farm's potatoes helped the local inhabitants get through the winter, as did fish from Lake Superior salted down in barrels.

The Fort's livestock consisted of horses, cattle, sheep, hogs, chickens, cats and dogs. As for the crops grown at Fort William, these consisted (identified by Lord Selkirk in his 1816 plan) mainly of fields of oats, peas, buckwheat, potatoes, Indian corn, hay, and barley. The total acreage of the original farm has been estimated at around 120 acres. There was also a substantial kitchen garden located within the main palisade of the Fort.

The building styles utilized in the construction of the farm are typical of Lower Canada. The men who build Fort William were after all familiar with this style. The layout of the buildings however (as well as the farming practices of the Agricultural Revolution) were introduced by the Scottish partners of the North West Company. This reform agriculture was referred to as the Hanoverian System.

The Personnel
The principal farm workers were North West Company engages. Their families, Free Canadians, and Native women also worked as farm labourers during those periods of peak activity at the farm (such as times of planting or making hay). In addition, it should be noted that the Bourgeois of the North West Company took a keen interest in farming, and at Fort William in 1816, James Taitt was actively engaged in farm labour. The Fort proprietor (in 1816 this was Kenneth McKenzie until the end of August, and Dr. John McLoughlin thereafter) along with the Fort superintendent (James Taitt) gave out the assignments of work to be done on the farm.

While many North West Company engages stationed at Fort William were called upon to work on the post's farm (with varying degrees of regularity), we do not have any surviving contracts by which the company hired men specifically as farmers. Most engages stationed at Fort William were called upon to work on the farm at one point or other, but not on a regular bases, and only as a smaller component of their overall duties. At certain times every available engage employed at Fort William would be working in the farm area, en masse, such as the period of making hay in August. Many of the engages stationed at Fort William had Metis wives and children. Unfortunately, the records are not specific as to what work they were doing, referring only to a day or week's general labour. It would be reasonable to assume that some of this labour may have been expended performing farm work.

Various Fort William journals record the Free Canadian (retired engages and their Metis families) doing various jobs at the Fort wherever and whenever extra hands were needed. They were, however, free of any type of contract. The Free Canadians and their families at Fort William provided a vital labour source. They helped to supplement the food supply by hunting and fishing; as well they performed seasonal tasks such as cutting ice and wood. There are Fort William journal references to ""All hands" called upon to assist in the work of haying, cutting potatoes and planting - these would have included the services of the Free Canadians. Thus, the Free Canadian settlement (small huts across the river) was an integral part of the operations of Fort William, and a valuable source of occasional labour for the farm.

It was common practice amongst the partners and clerks to be involved in agricultural pursuits at the posts in the interior, particularly when planting. This may have been particularly true of Dr. McLoughlin, the son of a farmer and a man who had a strong interest in agricultural pursuits throughout much of his career. Dr. McLoughin was not atypical in his interest in agricultural activity. Many of the North West Company bourgeois came from farming families. Moreover, many leading figures in the company and other respectable merchants in Lower Canada took a strong interest in agricultural development and improvement. In 1789, several gentlemen merchants in Lower Canada formed an Agricultural Society to promote agricultural development and innovation, particularly in the improved breeding of livestock. Many of the partners and agents of the company took up farming upon their retirement from the fur trade.

The Cattle and Horse Barn
This building forms the east wall of the Farm Square, and is the home of the Fort's draft animals and dairy cattle. Bulls were kept separate from the herd until breeding season to ensure that calves were only born in the spring. The construction of the building is post and fill. The floor of the barn is hard-packed dirt but some of the stalls do have a wooden floor to help with the cleaning. In the winter, the cows are herded inside the barn and stabled until spring.

Inside the barn, there are two calf pens, five milking stalls, and six horse stalls. This building is conveniently close to the dairy where the milk was taken and processed into butter. The stable was on the eastern end to get the morning light for harnessing and hitching. While there is evidence that chickens also inhabited this barn, it should be noted that chickens were allowed to wander about the yard, and would usually roost wherever they were comfortable. At present, there is a place for chickens in the pig and sheep barn.

The Pig and Sheep Barn
This building housed most of the small animals at Fort William including sheep, pigs, chickens, and (historically) calves. It could also be used to store hay and straw since this barn had a loft. The smaller animals could not generate as much body heat as the larger animals and, therefore, a loft was built in this barn to help hold in the little heat that was produced. As the building is "loamed" or stuccoed on the inside, it offered good protection from the northern winter's winds. In the summer, the loaming has the opposite effect since it stays cool. The sheep will often lie along the walls of their pen to have contact with the loaming and cool down. The construction of the building is the dovetail design.

The Equipment Barn
This barn was something of a catchall at Fort William's farm. As the name denotes, the building was a storage shed for all the equipment used on the farm, but that was not its only function. Sheaves of oats and loose hay were stored in the loft. This barn contains the only wooden floor on the farm and that is the threshing floor. There are grain bins on one side of the floor and a straw mow on the other side. When equipment broke, this barn was its repair shop. There is a workbench with many different tools and implements. At harvest time, beans, peas, and other seeds are hung in bunches to dry out for the winter.

The Dry Cow Barn
This is the building that is commonly referred to as the "modern" barn at present. Historically this barn would have housed varied stock which farmers called the followers of the dairy herd, such as heifers, yearling calves, and bulls and probably, when necessary, any over flow of dry cows from the cow barn. All these animals were confined in stalls.

The Hay Barn
Some of the other buildings were also used to store hay, but this building was the main hay barn. At this time the building is used for public washrooms. You may hear it referred to as building #37. Historically, there was no chinking of the walls of this building since stored hay required ventilation, without which it may heat or spoil.