Barn concerts set for another summer

Ken Kellar

There are few buildings as versatile as a barn.

Somewhere across the country, and around the world, a barn has been repurposed for almost any function that can be imagined. A restaurant operates out of a converted barn in Smithville, OH, while, coincidentally, in Smithville, NJ a historic barn functions as an inn.

But these barns are retired barns. It’s been a long time since any of them saw the work for which they were built done within their walls. However, even in the days of storing hay and housing livestock, the barn functioned from time to time as a social gathering spot, a place to host family, friends and neighbours for dances or parties.

But what of a barn that, from time to time, serves its purpose by day and hosts a series of world-class entertainment by night?

For that, one need only look as far afield as Devlin and the Cornell family barn.

The Cornells have been hosting two to three performers in the barn each summer since 2008, though the origins of their concert series goes back a few years earlier to 2004.

It began, strangely enough, with a crisis.

“When did the BSE crisis hit the beef industry?” Kim Cornell asked, ready with the answer.

“It’s indelibly etched in every beef farmer’s mind. May 20th, 2003.”

He recalled that the barn, erected by his great-great-grandfather William Pope, had since its construction in 1915 reached a critical point.

“Our barn was either going to get fixed or fall down. The bank was still in a good mood so we fixed it that year,” he said.

Reaching out to a community of contacts, Cornell oversaw the restoration of the nearly century-old barn, doing extensive work on a crumbling foundation and shoring up the rest of the building. Work on the barn was completed in 2004, where by coincidence, events conspired to see the barn used in a social setting.

“2004 was the Centennial of the township [of La Vallee],” Cornell said.

“Bill McLean’s family, down here, had a threshing bee. So then they got the idea, on the night of the threshing bee they should have a barn dance.”

Cornell said the township approached them and raised the possibility of having the dance in their newly restored barn, which the Cornells agreed to.

It was the first event to be held at the barn, and helped set the stage for what was to come.

The next year, the Cornells were approached by Mort Goss, a Kenora city councillor and the manager of a band called The D.Rangers. That concert began the trend of featuring musicians and entertainers in the space, though it was still a few years before it stepped into high gear.

In the interim, the barn played host to a Cattlemen’s Tour and the production of “Breaker Calling Cinderella” by the Fort Frances Little Theatre. The concert series as it is now began in 2008, which featured musicians Heather Dale and T.Nile.

“After that, because I’d been involved in Tour de Fort, it was pretty easy to line up some musicians,” Cornell said.

“So that’s kind of what started it.”

The names of performers that have passed through the barn since then have become nearly household to those who have seen them. Ask the right people and names like Del Barber, Kim Churchill, Union Duke and Cara Luft will come up time and again. And the talent through the barn truly is world-class, or at least at a national level. The Brothers Landreth, one of the Cornells most popular shows, won the 2015 JUNO award for Best Roots and Traditional Album of the Year, less than a year after their concert in the barn.

“David Landreth, he still keeps us posted on their tours,” Cornell said.

It’s not easy to set up a working barn for a musician and audience either. Cornell said it generally takes three eight-hour days to clean out the barn, set up the stage and chairs, and then return everything to working condition in the aftermath.

After years of hosting performers, the momentum of things has shifted. Cornell notes that there are still concerts lined up for this summer, Sean Ashby is set to run tonight at the barn, and multiple Maple Blues Award winner Suzie Vinnick will be playing the barn on Aug. 7, but with the popularity of Tour de Fort and the rise of programming at the Rainy Lake Square, the barn’s role in the arts in the district may shift as well, though as of now there are no concrete plans in place.

But Cornell said he’s excited for the performers this season, even as the future remains undecided.

“I haven’t seen Sean Ashby, but I’ve seen Suzie Vinnick a couple times and you know, they’re both pretty accomplished,” Cornell said.

“Probably Sean Ashby’s quite a bit more accomplished because he accompanied Sarah McLachlan for so long, but if you get good shows, you’re going to be ok. We’ve got a whole bunch of stuff up our sleeve for the next few years.”

Sean Ashby is set to begin tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Cornell barn.

Tickets are $15 dollars at Tompkins Hardware, the Fort Frances Public Library, Lidkea Optometry and the Cornell Farms website, or $20 at the door.