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Thatcher in the Rye

Brown suitcaseUkranian house with newly thatched roof at North Battleford WDM Heritage Village, 1999.

By Noelle Grosse

The opportunity to experience history first-hand is sometimes worth a few slivers.

In 1999, about 25 men, women and children helped to build a thatched roof for a Ukrainian pioneer home at the North Battleford Western Development Museum. They tied 3,000 bundles of rye and learned about an ancient craft brought to Canada by Ukrainian settlers in the late 1800s. Thatched roofs existed for a brief time on the Prairies. By the 1920s the tradition was almost lost.

"I didn't have a clue how it was done," said Michael Mischuk, a volunteer. WDM staff and volunteers learned how to bundle the rye from Peter Caron, a heritage building consultant from Edmonton who thatched the roof of the house.

Caron spent several years learning to thatch in Canada and Europe. He has thatched 12 roofs in several styles like French-Canadian, Chinese and British. He said a thatched roof requires extensive planning and luck.

"You have to plan a year in advance so you can put the crop in," he said. "There have been years when my whole crop has gone down with hail."

The rye that covered the clay plaster house in North Battleford was planted by the WDM in the fall of 1998. The rye must be cut at the "blue haze" stage, before the seeds develop. Seeds in a thatched roof sometimes sprout, or they attract birds and rodents.

"There was a small window of opportunity," said WDM staff who organized the project.

When the rye was about 1.5 meters high, the WDM used a binder to cut the crop. About 1,500 sheaves were stooked and stood for 10 days before splitting, combing and tying began.

It was a very labour-intensive process. Several people were needed to comb the straw from the rye stalk before tying bundles. As the rye dried, tiny shards sometimes jabbed into combers' fingers.

To make a bundle, clean rye was placed in a wooden jig and fastened with binder twine about 15 cm from the base of the rye stalk. Twine was looped through the bundle with a flat wooden needle, leaving about four feet remaining to fasten bundles to each other and to the horizontal wooden purlins that form the frame of the roof.

WDM Volunteers preparing bundles of rye.

The volunteers said they could make one bundle in about two minutes. Bundles were stacked on hay wagons and taken to the Ukrainian house, where Peter Caron thatched the roof in 1 meter sections, starting from a bottom corner and working his way to the top.

"There are about twelve layers altogether, and they overlap each other like shingles," he said. The bottom and corner layers use bundles that were tied at the head of the rye and had trimmed ends, which created the roof's distinctive ridges.

The house at the North Battleford WDM illustrates a style of building that was brought to Saskatchewan in the late 1800s by Ukrainian settlers. They built homes from readily available material such as logs, clay, willows and grass. Thatched roofs varied from home to home, often reflecting the traditions of the region from which the family had emigrated. A well-thatched roof lasted about 30 years, was waterproof and provided excellent insulation.

The WDM's house was constructed in 1968 by the Canadian Ukrainian Association as a tribute to pioneers. The roof had been thatched three times, including a slough-hay thatch in 1983 that had to be removed when it began to leak. It was replaced by a temporary metal roof. When the new thatch was completed, it was estimated that it would last at least two decades.

For many volunteers, the thatching project was an opportunity to learn an ancient craft that is practiced in fewer and fewer places.

"It's nice to compare how other people lived with the conditions we have at the present time," said Michael Mischuk. The former teacher said he also has learned more about his own history.

"We often think this type of thing was done many hundreds of years ago but really, it wasn't that far back," he concluded.

Museum Gold: Treasures from the Collection

This article was originally published as part of a newspaper articles written by Noelle Grosse in celebration of the Western Development Museum's 50th anniversary in 1999. The articles appeared as regular features over the course of late 1998 and 1999 in the Saskatoon Sun,Yorkton This Week and Enterprise, and as intermittent features in the Regina Sun. In 2001, all 65 articles were gathered into a publication - Museum Gold: Treasures from the Collection.

Museum Gold is available in WDM Gift Shops.

You might also like:

- More North Battleford WDM Heritage Village buildings

- Artifact Articles: Alone in a Strange Land

- About the WDM Collection

- How to donate an artifact