Red barns are a hallmark of Alberta’s landscape, nearly as ubiquitous as the fields they’re built on. The iconic red paint wasn’t initially an aesthetic choice, though the contrast of a red barn against a sunshine-yellow canola crop or a snow-covered field is certainly beautiful. Rather, red was chosen by early European settlers for its functionality, and it is because of tradition that the colour persists.
Wood barns would weather quickly, turning to a dull grayish brown before beginning to decay. To help protect the barn, farmers would use linseed oil as a sealant on the wood. People would mix other ingredients into the linseed oil, including milk, lime, and turpentine. When someone added rust to the linseed oil, they found that the stain helped prevent the growth of moss and fungi, further slowing down decay. The rust also gave the linseed oil a deep red colour, which stained the barn red. This rust mixture was an inexpensive and accessible solution to the problem of moss and mold, so it became a common practice. The iron in rust is what helps protect the wood from decay. We have iron’s ability to deter moss and mold to thank for iconic red barns.
Red barns likely began in Sweden, and settlers then carried their knowledge with them to North America. Falun, a copper mining town in Sweden, is credited with inventing “Falu Red,” which is the red barn colour we’re familiar with today. The deposits from the mines were rich in minerals like copper, zinc, and iron oxides. In the 16th century, the people of Falun began mixing these deposits with linseed oil to create a red stain. The stain would be dabbed onto various structures to try to mimic the brick facades that were associated with the upper class.
Falu Red became particularly popular in the 19th century when many farmers painted their houses and barns red. This remains a common sight in many Nordic countries. The Finnish expression “punainen tupa ja perunamaa” translates roughly to "a red cottage and a potato field," and is used to refer to an idyllic home and life. We agree—there’s nothing better than a red barn in the countryside.
Today, most barns are painted rather than stained. Even so, red is more popular than any other colour for painting barns. Rich in history (and in iron), red barns are a tradition we hope to see stick around long into the future.