Abandoned farmyard is a labour of love and a COVID-era affordable home for Saskatchewan family
Parker family brings old farmyard back to life with help from original homestead owners, virtual followers
This story was originally published on Feb 18, 2022.
Restoring a 107-year-old farmyard was a dream come true for Brad and Kendal Parker. They love the history in old buildings and the satisfaction that goes into doing something themselves.
"We were just taking on our dream. Then we saw that people were looking up to us," said Brad Parker.
When the family moved to Harris, Sask., from Saskatoon in 2008, they asked the owner of a local farmyard if he would be willing to sell the property. They continued asking him every year for nine years. In 2018, when he agreed to sell to the Parkers, their families were skeptical about the buy.
Brad, a former construction worker, quit his job at the beginning of the pandemic. He wanted to protect his young son Cole, who has Down syndrome and was born with a congenital heart defect that gives him a weakened immune system. Brad's open schedule — and his skills — made it possible to undertake the restoration project and move his young family into an affordable, rural home.
"We had the vision. Once we started to see that we've got some people behind us, we knew that we're not crazy after all," Brad said.
The Parkers started a Facebook group called "Bringing An Old Farm Yard Back To Life" where they post before and after photos to document the renovation. Nearly 2,000 people are following their journey, commenting, asking questions and seeking advice. Many are expressing their awe at photos of the abandoned buildings.
The farmhouse, located outside Harris, Sask., about an hour's drive southwest of Saskatoon, had been boarded up for almost 70 years.
"We still get the money pit comments. But we try to answer questions. This is what saved us money. People are wanting to learn about it so hopefully they're making some history too," Brad said.
Record-high material prices have added thousands of dollars to building costs, but the Parkers say they have been saving by doing the labour themselves.
"To build this house in today's time, it would cost so much money. We already have 50% of the house sitting here, we just have to complete the other 50 per cent," Brad said.
WATCH| Brad and Kendal Parker talk about their journey to renovate a 107-year-old farmhouse:
The physical work of restoring the house is partly why the Parkers took the project on. The plaster walls had to be removed from all three stories of the home, so the Parkers did it by hand. The basement was gutted with jackhammers to take out the 20-centimetre deep cement cistern.
Together, the couple lifted buckets of concrete out of the house through an old coal chute in the basement. Filling a seven-metre well in the yard with material from the basement was another cost saving method. They didn't have to hire a contractor to cover the exposed well and didn't have to pay landfill fees.
"Even our own friends thought we were a little nuts when we first decided to take this on. We'd take them to the house and they would say no, there's no way you're going to do this," said Kendal.
Kendal had been working on the renovations until she was six months pregnant with her son Dominic. When Dominic arrived, their online community celebrated the photos she posted of her newborn.
"It's day 21 and you're still shovelling away and you're in a lull, then you look at the comments online. People admire what we are doing," she said.
The original doors and cupboards are being salvaged for the renovation. Discovering other pieces of history in the house left the couple asking questions about the family that built the farmyard. One afternoon, Brad received a message that would lead to some answers. He arrived home to find a note stuffed in the farmhouse door.
"One of the grandkids had written to say, 'This used to be our family home, and I heard about your renovation so I had to come see,'" he said. "She left her name and number and I called her up. We talked and I invited them to our Facebook page. More of their family joined the page and started sharing more family history."
The grandchildren of Alfred Cram, the Harris, Sask., reeve who built the yard in 1915, have been sharing stories with the Parkers, encouraging them to continue the restoration.
"It's really something. One of the grandchildren shared a painting with me of the original homestead," said Kendal. "They tell me it's so wonderful this house is coming back to life and to have children running around."
One of those grandchildren, Kathie Cram, has memories of tea parties and the farmhouse veranda. Even though she was only four years old, she remembers the comforts of the farm.
"Through the years, my sister and I have made little pilgrimages back and forth to the old farmhouse," said Cram.
Cram said she and her sister had once dreamed of buying the house and making it into a bed and breakfast.
"There's something about how buildings and homes help make you feel about yourself, your own history and who you are," said Cram. "All of that generation is gone, and that farming lifestyle is being eroded. I guess it gives me some hope. I like the idea of investment in rural Saskatchewan and the sort of a revitalization. I think they're doing what they can to make the house sturdy and keep that heritage alive."
Cram said she hopes the Parkers' project inspires other families to do the same.
The restoration has cost the couple more than $200,000 so far, but Kendal said saving the historic farmyard was more than just a financial decision.
"We used to drive around and look at old farmyards and wonder, 'What happened here? What's the history here?'" said Kendal. "We've always enjoyed that, so when we came upon this place, this was it."
Watching her young children play in the yard, Kendal wonders about what the Cram acreage will mean to future generations.
"We found names carved into the wood in the barn, maybe they did this as little boys growing up and it's still standing," said Kendal. "You'd never think in 100 years from now someone will see it."
Kendal feels the acreage has been a safe place for her family during the pandemic. They've made it their home and have left their own marks on the walls.
Now, they have new sense of community. Their online followers are learning alongside them. Their neighbours are driving by the old farmyard to see a piece of local history come to life. And the Cram family is looking forward to visiting once the pandemic has ended.
"I hope this house continues beyond, long after we are gone," she said. "That's all we can hope for."
This story is part of Unlocked: Housing stories by young Canadians, a national storytelling series by the CBC Creator Network. These personal stories, produced primarily by gen Zers and millennials, reveal the challenges young Canadians face finding affordable housing, their creative solutions and their hopes for the future. You can read more stories here.