By Guest Blogger, Gwen Tuinman
Today, many families overcome economic barriers to attaining healthy and reliable food sources through innovative collaborations within their communities. The earliest settlers of Upper Canada frequently partnered with others to solve challenges. They provide us with admirable examples of how cooperative strategies can overcome the greatest obstacles to survival. I recently visited the Beef Ring Barn at The Pickering Museum Village where Katrina Pyke, museum coordinator, introduced me to one such pioneering solution to food supply.
The Beef Ring
A typical family could consume 10-20 lbs of beef per week. The prospect of butchering their own cow would have been daunting as an 800-pound animal might yield an unmanageable 400 pounds of meat. Most farmhouses had an area where food might be chilled ̵̶ a cellar, spring house, or a box lowered into a well ̵̶ but none sufficient to keep large quantities of meat over long durations. To butcher and consume an entire cow before the meat turned rancid was impossible.
Families interested in a continuous supply of fresh beef during the twenty weeks of summer collaborated to overcome this challenge. A group of farmers and local people would join together for form a twenty-member cooperative known as a beef ring. Each member or shareholder took their turn contributing a cow to be shared equitably among the group. Two small families sometimes bought a share together and pooled their funds to purchase their animal.
Shorthorns were the first beef cattle breed established in Canada in 1832, followed shortly thereafter by Herefords and Angus breeds. (Photo source: Sanders, James Harvey, 1832-1899. @Wikicommons)
The beef ring met each year to hire a butcher. Members drew lots, numbered between one and twenty, to determine on which week they’d each provide a cow for slaughter. Rules of participation were clearly defined by each individual beef ring. For instance, the cow must be grain fed, and fully dressed, its weight must fall between 400 and 500 pounds. If the cow was underweight, the contributing member could choose to receive a reduced portion of beef, or pay a fine per pound to the members who did not receive their full twenty-pound share. Conversely, any excess beef went to the cow’s owner. Fees were collected from each shareholder to cover maintenance of the barn, and the butcher’s wages.
Availability of Beef Cattle
The writings of early settlers suggest that it was prosperous settlers who were able to enjoy beef through the summer months in lieu of more easily attained pork. In 1851, swine outnumbered cattle by nearly 5:1.
Mr. Wing Rogers wrote about his family’s experience of rearing cattle, when in 1832 they moved to the 6th Concession of Pickering. (This quote is shown as it appears in Mr. Roger’s Journal–with its original spelling and grammar.)
“…and again when pleasant spring has come, the poor mans cows have to be turned out in the woods to seek their own living or starve,& commonly he will let them until the Calf is weaned, but I always had to build a pen to put the Calves in, & then bring basswood bushes leaves & all for them to eat, which made a great deal of work, wither for male or female to do, but with those leaves & a little milk we used to raise good calves. But perhaps by the time mid-summer had come the Cows would grow careless & layout,& after the poor man had hunted & searched many days, until he was discouraged, he would let them go,& they would soon dry up, &do him no more good that year…”
In her book, The Backwoods of Canada (1836), Belleville settler Catherine Parr Trail discussed the problem of cattle rambling the deeper forest for days when greenery became scarce in the woods surrounding her homestead. “Naturally, the Canadian cattle are very hardy, and when taken moderate care of, endure the severest winters well; but owing to the difficulties that attend a first settlement in the bush, they suffer every privation of cold and hunger…”
It was not until 1850 that the Pickering Agricultural Society began its work to encourage the import of farming stock, not the least of which included cattle.
Process in the Beef Ring Barn
Twenty-four hours before slaughter, the owner brought their cow to an outdoor stall, alongside the beef ring barn. The animal would not be fed during this period of time. A fresh layer of sawdust was laid on the floor prior to each butchering to absorb blood and prevent workers from slipping. The walls of the barn were whitewashed annually with a hygienic lime whitewash. The rough texture of wood and masonry collected dust, insects and debris. The application of whitewash smoothed these surfaces. Eventually, the layers of paint would peel and drop off, taking the dirt along with them. The lime whitewash also contained antimicrobial properties that promoted a more sanitary environment.
Slaughtering was completed in the cooler evening hours. A mallet, carefully aimed at the forehead, would strike down the cow. The hind legs were bound together so the animal might then be suspended from a hook and drawn upward to the rafters by the overhead winch, operated by the hand crank attached to the right wall. Blood was collected in a trough like the one now stored against the back wall of the barn.
Next, the animal would be skinned and left to hang over night. The walls were washed down and any excess water was poured over the beef. The water evaporated and effectively sealed the surface of the meat.
At 4:00 am, the butcher would return to cut the beef into shares that were then suspended from hooks above which each member’s name was displayed. Families arrived between 6:30 and 7:00 am to pick up their shares.
“As you can imagine,” Katrina says, “it was important for the butcher to know his letters and numbers because he would have to be recording the rotation of cuts among members and the weights to make sure next time around it was fair for another family, because there are tougher cuts and he would want to be sure he was equitable.”
The member who supplied the cow received heart and the head. He also took the hide to tan which he may retain for personal use, or sell to a harness maker or cobbler. Each part of the cow found its purpose. Although a rarity in beef cattle, horns could be carved into gunpowder horns, drinking cups, buttons or other ornamentation. The tail could be simmered to make soup. The blood collected during butchering could be mixed with buttermilk and used to paint furniture. Among the British, Welsh, and Scottish settlers, blood pudding was a popular dish that would have offered much needed protein and iron to the women of child bearing age.
Pickering Museum Village’s Beef Ring Barn and Artifacts
H.R. Gray of Toronto donated the Beef Ring barn situated at The Pickering Museum Village. The barn originally stood in the bush on Lot 12, just south of the 9th Concession in Pickering Township. Originally built in approximately 1870, the barn features batten board construction and a cedar shingle roof. Thomas Stanbury butchered in this particular barn for many years.
A number of artifacts are available for viewing inside the Beef Ring barn. “Conservation wise,” Katrina says, “once wooden pieces have gone through one full rotation of seasonal pressures – contraction with all the freezing temperatures or expansion from heat and humidity – any damage that they are going to sustain has happened. Furniture remains in the building. Nothing is left against a wall so there is plenty of ventilation. Ellen Tayles, the museum conservator, coats the iron pieces to make sure they’re not rusting.”
Gwen Tuinman’s short fiction is included in The Renaissance Anthology and has been featured in a text and photography exhibit at The Robert McLaughlin Gallery. She is beginning work on her second novel. Research relative to her works in progress, along with a sampling of short stories, can be found at http://www.gwentuinman.com./