castles of concrete & online archiving of materials

Yesterday, I took robin’s good advice and stayed indoors to scan more photos. I decided to start working on a project that I’ve planned to do for some years. The scanner now makes that possible.

In 1993, while completing a degree in Art History at Carleton University, I spent a couple of months researching the history of the Boyd Brothers Company in the nearby town of Osgoode, Ontario. The company manufactured what were once referred to as artistic stone, or imitation stone blocks from 1907 until the mid-1950s. Although the topic probably sounds a little dry, it was anything but that. Boyd Brothers was quite the going concern and built hundreds of houses throughout eastern Ontario during the first half of the century. You can barely drive down any road, pass through a town, or journey down a street in the older section of the city of Ottawa, without seeing at least one or two “Boyd block” houses. When we first moved to our farm, I was intrigued by the large number of such houses in the nearby village. Of course, with so many of the town’s inhabitants employed at the factory, or on the masonry gangs that traveled around the countryside, it’s only logical that a large number of them would build Boyd block houses. The neat part is that the blocks and the house styles changed over the half-century of production, so a walk around the town is a little like a life-size museum exhibit. When it came time to write a research paper for a course in Canadian architecture, what better project than to research the history of the Boyd Brothers Company?

I began my research at the Osgoode Township Museum, and located some interesting materials. However, the real motherlode was to be found at the Public Archives of Canada which, rather fortunately for me, is located in they city of Ottawa, which is just a stone’s throw from where I live. The archives had *several boxes* belonging to the Boyd Collection in storage up at their other storage facility at Renfrew, so I just had to file a request and wait about a week for the materials to be shipped down. When they told me there were boxes, I thought they meant something like shoe boxes. Imagine my surprise (and glee) when the staff rolled out a little cart laden with three big filing boxes! I was in heaven as I sifted through all of the many records. It turned out that the owner of the company, Harry Boyd, kept very interesting ledgers on which he entered things that you don’t normally see on such sheets. Early pages recorded how many blocks he and his brother made each week, how many bags of cement they used, when they bought a gun (presumably to shoot at varmints), and when Harry bought his first Indian motorcycle — obviously a major event as he appears with his motorcycle in a photo on a concrete trade magazine of the time. Anyhow, it was great fun going through his papers. His book collection, consisting of a good number of Radford Company house design books are also stored at PAC. The books proved to be like catalogues of the houses in Osgoode. I can just imagine someone coming by Harry’s office and flipping through them to order Design #1130. I found close matches for just about every one of the older houses I had photographed around town.

So, well, before I bore everyone to tears, why am I writing about this today? Well, I guess it’s mainly that I wanted to explain how a few bits and pieces of technology have made it possible to put historical documents in a place where others might be able to study or enjoy them.

First, the new scanner has made it possible to scan all of the photos that I’ve taken of Boyd block houses in Osgoode and around the region. Further, last night I gave the OCR (optical character recognition) program a shot to see how well it can read scanned pages, and it works like a charm. I won’t have to re-type all of the pages of my rather lengthy research paper. And further, I decided to experiment with using a blog format for laying out and archiving the material as I get it scanned. I have a ton of unused server space that I’m paying for each month, so I may as well use it to put this material up online to make it available to anyone who wants to know more about Boyd Brothers, or the ubiquitous concrete houses of this region. For anyone who is curious to see how I’m doing this, here is the site. I’ve just got the first 3 sections of the research paper up, but there’s more to come. Section One would probably be of interest to anyone who likes reading about local history. Section Two and Three are sort of dry, technical stuff about block designs, but I’ll soon be doing some sections on architectural styles featuring photos of houses from Osgoode and beyond — those sections should be of interest to just about anyone who likes heritage architecture. I’ll post a note here on Burning Silo once I get those sections up and running.

Although I’ve only completed a little of this project, I’m finding that a blog format works quite well for archiving material. I’m hoping to use it to archive some of the geneaology research that my Mom has been working on. I can see other applications as well, so I’ll be doing more experimenting with some of these ideas over the next while. What is especially nice about a blog format is that it’s quick and easy to pick a “theme” that gives a neat look to the project, and also that it allows for comments from visitors. I can see that being a huge plus in the case of a local history or geneaology type of project where visitors might be able to post bits and pieces of information.

By the way, I should really add a note about the photo at the top of this post. In Ideal Ideas, a turn of the century concrete block trade journal, it’s identified as the Brownlee House, built in 1912. It’s on Clemow Avenue in Ottawa, or at least it was there when I photographed it in 1993. It seems to be included in a story on the Boyd Brothers Company featured in that issue, and I believe the Boyds made all of the blocks from which it’s built. I’m not sure if their masonry gang was involved in construction though… I think it may actually have been built by a contractor such as McDiarmid & Tyndall who may also have been building concrete block houses in Ottawa around that time.

Tags: , , ,

  • Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
  • Trackback URI:
  • Comments RSS 2.0

10 Responses to “castles of concrete & online archiving of materials”

  1. robin andrea Says:

    That’s quite a stunning home.

    Did the Public Archives let you take the boxes of paperwork home for review? I can’t imagine, but maybe they did. What a fascinating topic to explore.

    Your scanner is definitely getting a good work out. Our first scanner had an OCR feature, and it too worked like a charm. When I was still working at the university, I once had to rescue our campus radio station when they lost the hard-drive on their computer and with it the only digital copy of the handbook the students used for learning how to manage the station. It was a 50 page document containing all the campus rules and the FCC rules and regulations that governed the station. So, I used our little flatbed with its OCR, and was able to recreate the document from a hardcopy. It would have been a bummer to have to re-type the whole thing. Our newer scanner doesn’t have the feature. Dang.

  2. burning silo Says:

    robin – No, when you use materials at PAC, you go down, check your bags into lockers, and can only bring a few things in with you — as I recall, a notepad and pencils – i don’t think they allowed pens into the work area. I expect they would allow cameras as well, although few people would have been bringing them along 10 or so years ago. Must be common now. You had to stay in a special work area and your requested materials were brought out each time you visited. I think it took me about 6 half-days to go through everything that I wanted to read and take notes on. I found it all quite marvelous!
    Regarding the scanner, I just love it. It’s a 4800×9600 dpi model and scans very quickly. I’ve been holding out on buying one for about three years while waiting for the resolution to go up and the price to come down. I had one years ago but it was slow and with very low resolution. The OCR works so well (and fast) that it astounds me. And yes, I can see how amazing that would have been to be able to recreate a document from hard copy. I’m now thinking about that with “other stuff” around here. This scanner also has a neat feature where you can put something in for scanning and send it right to .pdf format. The thing just blows me away.

  3. Dave Says:

    Those are very nice scans. I will come back and spend more time with this site when I get a chance. I’m glad to see that you’re discoverig the same thing I am – that blog templates make for quick and easy websites with some pretty nifty features.

  4. NatureWoman Says:

    Hi Burning Silo – this is awesome! I love the castle home photo – how cool is that! I’ve never seen a home like this before. I’m heading over to your other blog now. I’m a history buff and eat this stuff up. Thanks!

  5. NatureWoman Says:

    What OCR software are you using?

  6. burning silo Says:

    Dave – Yes, it does do pretty nice scans. Those were from 4×6 photos taken with an old so-so qualiity 35mm camera, so I think they turned out quite well. I have a lot more to scan and put up on the new site. The nice thing is, I’ll be able to archive a lot of extra photos than I did not include in the original research paper. I’ve got quite a lot of slides and photos of other historic buildings in our area, so I’ll probably end up setting up another site for them. I can use the blog format and create a post about each building as I have time to scan the photos and write up some history. I’m also thinking it might be neat to start a site just for posting spider photos – a post for each spider species – as I’m already kind of doing that here from time to time. Anyhow, yes, you’re quite right about these blog templates being goof for a lot more than what we usually consider to be “blogging”. I like the comment feature as that’s not normally something that you find on a typical webpage, and yet it can be useful in a sort of “wikipedia” sense as far as having people contribute info if they wish.

    NatureWoman – Thanks! There are several of those castle houses in my area. In fact, there’s one in Osgoode, only it has been modified since it was built. I’ll be posting a photo of it on the other site once I get around to that section of the research paper. Regarding the OCR software, I have a MacBook, so the software that I’m using is called ABBYY FineReader 5 Sprint for Mac (it was bundled with the scanner). I think the CD had the same software in a PC version.

  7. Jenn Says:

    Absolutely not bored! I LOVE that sort of use of concrete, and can’t wait to see more. Thank you!

  8. burning silo Says:

    Jenn – Good to hear that someone else likes concrete buildings. Some people regard them as not very artistic, but I see the concrete block construction as very much a part of the evolution of 20th century architecture.

  9. Kathryn Says:

    HI: I recently purchased a charming Boyd Block home in Prescott Ontario. I have had architectural drawings made to put on an addition and attached garage. My problem is that I cannot find a source to purchase the matching Boyd Blocks for the exterior. Can you help? I am currently in the Ottawa area. Thanks!!

  10. burning silo Says:

    Hi Kathryn – That’s a real problem as I don’t know of anyone making that type of block anymore. If it’s the exposed aggregate type block, especially of the broken ashlar pattern type, it would be very difficult to find anything like them as they were made using aggregates from a number of sources. The only thing you could probably hope for is to find some architectural salvage company that has saved these type of blocks from a house demolition. If you have the older imitation stone type of block, you might have a better chance of finding something suitable as those blocks (or similar) were made by others beside the Boyd Brothers Company. However, once again, I imagine you’ll have to try to find an architectural salvage company that is saving this type of block. Good luck with your project!