Model of a fanning mill

I was born and raised on a farm between Cobden and Pembroke in Renfrew County. My parents were fourth generation beef and vegetable producers. A highlight in my childhood was to go to the weekly Pembroke Farmer’s Market. Here we sold our own beef and vegetables. My father would also purchase poultry, eggs, pork and other goods from local farmers to resell at the market.  

Life on the farm involved working closely with several neighbouring farmers haying, harvesting and cutting firewood. I will always remember this communal way of life and the camaraderie of those days on the farm                            

I’m proud to say that many of my family members continue the agriculture tradition. One brother still operates the home farm, another brother has a plant nursery business. and three of my five children continue activities related to farming. One son has a farm in Cochrane, Ontario, another son builds 19th century split rail fencing across Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec, and my youngest daughter and her partner farm and produce sheep cheese.  

After high school I attended the Ottawa Teachers’ College for two years. Upon graduation in 1966 I moved to Smiths Falls to teach special education. The following year I bought a 100-acre farm with an old stone house, where my wife and I still live. Shortly after I purchased cattle to start my own cow-calf operation. I still raise cattle on the farm. Along with teaching and farming, I was soon introduced to the world of antiques.  

You missed a duck dinner in Smith Falls

Collecting Antiques

To furnish my first apartment I had bought a round oak table for $1.00 from the Salvation Army. About two years later someone offered me $75.00 for it. This sparked my interest in antiques and as a teacher with summers off, I started going to local auction sales, acquiring enough inventory to sell at flea markets and out  of my barn. By the early 1970s I was selling at antiques shows. The business became so successful that in 1976 I decided to leave teaching to venture into the antique business full-time.                

My main area of interest was Canadiana and folk art. For many years I participated in forty shows a year throughout Ontario and Quebec. I would also travel to the East Coast and the USA to source antiques. Over the years we promoted four of Canada’s leading antiques shows, The Kingston Winter Antiques Show (Cabin Fever), the Bowmanville Antiques & Folk Art Show, The Perth Antiques Show and the Odessa Antiques Show. All four shows continue today. with the last three under new ownership.   

Yoke for young oxen

I also collected 18th & 19th century tools of the trades, focussing on food and agriculture. My passion for this collection exists because of my interest in the simpler, rural life of pioneer living. I feel that preserving this history is paramount. In the early 80’s, I decided to share my collection with the public by opening a museum in a barn on my farm. Over  the years I have also exhibited this collection in other museums,   schools, plowing matches, historical society events, and conferences.   

The three most important aspects of collecting are form, condition and provenance. I like to think of a tool as an extension of my body, to make a task easier. I prefer treenware, forged iron, items with a motif and models demonstrating pioneer life.   

Some of my favourite items pertain to harvest time, animal husbandry, cooking and meal preparation, cheesemaking, spinning & weaving, etc. These items will usually have a painted or carved detail. Artifacts with original paint or what we call “as found” are desirable. My dream is to publish a book which will not only showcase the items, but will also explain the use and history.   

Artifacts from the museum are photographed in front of a log building that I moved from Aylmer, Quebec. Included are butter churns, wool winders, harvest tools, and an oxen yoke.

Pioneer Grain Production

Planting by hand. This wooden planting box would hang around one’s neck while casting seeds. Notice that the shape of one side is curved to fit around the stomach for comfort. I also have basketry examples made of different types of grasses and bark in my museum. Casting or scattering seeds was usually done on a windy day to spread the seeds more evenly. 

Early harvests were by cradle scythes, sheaves tied by hand and flails used to thresh the  grain on the wooden barn floor. Fanning mills, first manufactured in the early 19th century, were used to clean the grain. I have about fourteen mills in my museum. They mechanized the winnowing process, separating the grain from the lighter chaffs, straws, and weed seeds. The clean seed was stored in the barn for the winter. Some fanning mills are still in use today. 

Threshing machines transformed this work, early models powered by horses turning a long driveshaft. This 133-year-old model of a threshing machine reminds me of my childhood growing up on the farm. The thresher man and model were carved by Green Hill, Nova Scotia resident Gordon Bryden when he was 18 years old

Other Farm-Related Antiques

Jointer planes were used in farm and furniture carpentry. Ones with an animal or figural form carved into the wooden handle are very rare. I have one that was owned by John Borutski, a furniture maker of Polish origin who lived near Round Lake Centre, in Renfrew County.

Early tools were made from material ready at hand – wood in the case of Eastern Ontario. Here are handmade wooden forks and shovels made by early pioneers. 

Forged iron drying racks
were used for apples as well as corn. Drying was a traditional preservation method as fresh fruit was not available all winter. Corn and apples were also dried on flat screens or wooden frames. The racks were hung sometimes near a stove and later placed inside a dry room for winter storage.





Stir sticks were used when dyeing wool. The simplicity of form and use of of the hand motif makes this one of my favourite items in the museum. The stir stick protected one’s hand from the hot water and the dye. I have used the title of many exhibits “From the Hand of Man” after this artifact.  


My advice for anyone who would like to start a collection would be to buy what you like and can afford. Don’t worry about the value too much, but think of the joy you will have living with it. I would be very interested in seeing or learning about similar items that anyone may have. I would gladly talk to you about collecting antiques.  

My barn museum is open for individuals or groups by appointment.  


Bill Dobson 


From Rural Roots to Rural Treasures