The last red barn of Ruby Line

Barb Sweet
Published on July 9, 2014

Leonard Ruby is standing on the spot once occupied by the large barns built by his grandfather and father, landmark Kilbride structures torn down in 2010, and he’s telling stories from his 80-plus years on the land.

“If you moved off the farm, it would seem like we would be letting our ancestors down,” he says of his years happily working here with his brothers.

The decision to tear down the old barns was hard, but it was made for practical reasons. Ruby had ceased his own registered Holstein dairy operation when he retired in the 1980s. The structures were expensive to keep up and finding handymen to take on that type of job was getting harder as the years went by.

There’s a wide view now towards Mount Pearl, a spectacle at night when all the lights are on.

A pretty field has sprung up of wildflowers, clover and even some perennials in surplus soil trucked in from a new west end St. John’s subdivision to level the old barn site.

Nearby, Ruby created a rock garden from the foundation of his old family homestead — he built a mid-century rancher for his bride, Lena Ruby, a tidy home where the couple still lives.

A small red barn — reduced in size decades ago — remains on the Ruby Line property, the last one standing on the now busy stretch of road. Much of the original clapboard remains, nailed, patched and repainted by generations of Rubys.

Like the land, the last red barn could tell many stories, he remarks, as he opens to the door to the tidy interior.

Ruby is used to photographs being taken of this little barn.

Last fall, someone hung two framed photographs on the barn door, an anonymous gift, which seemed to come from a group of photographers who’d pass by on weekends for a contest.

“We didn’t know who she was or who to thank,” Ruby says of the one who made the gift.

Sometime this summer, Leonard and Lena Ruby will again sell their vegetables outside the barn, a small-scale operation they have retained long past retirement.

Ruby rents out the fields to other dairy operations and remains protective of the legacy of the land.

More than a century and a half ago, his great-grandfather, William Ruby, would finish his day’s work gardening for the merchants in town and each evening walk seven miles into the back country with seed potatoes slung on his back.

He eventually took on farming full time, buying nearby fields until he had about 200 acres.

The original acreage came from grants.

“They came over here (from Ireland) and there was all this free land. They couldn’t believe it,” Leonard Ruby says of his ancestors.

The land was hardly free. It took months to clear a field and the work was all manual.

Up through the generations, there was pride in the work, but also hard times.

Leonard Ruby looks out over the fields — on the same elevation as Signal Hill — and points to a spot where his grandmother had her garden. At age 54, she took ill with a flu and died before she got to live in the new homestead her husband was just finishing for her.

Ruby, one of three boys and three girls born to Alan and Janet, was 10 when his own father died, leaving Janet to run the mixed vegetable and dairy Westvale Farm until the boys — homeschooled with the other children in a front room of the farmhouse — were old enough to take over.

As Janet Ruby was trying to raise her brood, the dairy operation was devastated when the cows contracted Bang’s Disease, a condition which causes cows to spontaneously abort. Only six were left of the herd when the outbreak finally abated.

“Those days you wouldn’t look to the bank for a loan. They wouldn’t give you a loan to begin with and people wouldn’t lower themselves,” Ruby says.

The little barn was where the diseased cows were segregated before being sent to the butcher. Ruby still speaks of it with sadness.

Over the years — he had 70 that he sold off when he retired — the cattle were special to the family, as many were raised from calves.

“Yes you got attached. Some of them lived to be 10-14 years old,” he says

Ruby had his own fright from Bang’s disease when it struck again in the early 1960s, though not as bad as before.

“I don’t know if you are religious,” he says, recalling how he prayed Eastertime one year and the outbreak eased.

History played out before Ruby’s very eyes here, too. In 1936, he was 11, tending the garden where his daughter’s house now stands.

“It was July, just around this time, a beautiful sunny day,” he says.

“I looked up and here was this zeppelin, just floating. I couldn’t believe it. There was not a sound.”

The zeppelin was the German Hindenburg, a passenger airship and a propaganda tool of the Nazi government. The 800-foot aircraft crossed the Island of Newfoundland 13 times, and once over Labrador, according to Memorial University research.

After Ruby saw it hovering that day in 1936, he watched it go on toward The Narrows.

“Seeing something like that is instilled in your memory. ...You know what they were doing, photographing every inch of the shoreline,” he suggests.

The Hindenburg famously crashed in New Jersey in 1937.

There were also lucrative times — during the war years and after, the Rubys were certified to supply their milk to the American bases.

There have also been good years and bad years in the weather cycle and Ruby had a near-miss when Igor made landfall in 2010.

He’d just opened the doors to check on his two-level root cellar and got a few feet away when the wind lifted the entire structure and bounced it onto the road.

The Ruby Line, which separates Kilbride from Goulds, though still dotted with farmland, is more of a busy commuter road now.         

But there used to be several big barns here, he says, and about 100 dotting farm properties in Goulds and Kilbride. Not much trace of the old structures remain, replaced by modern barns and efficient operations and subdivisions have grown up around the remaining farmland, which has been preserved by an agricultural land freeze.

Ruby, who was inducted in the Atlantic Agricultural Hall of Fame, doesn’t lament the old labour when it took two men a full day’s work every day to tend to the cattle and clean the barn.

But he wishes some of his ancestors had carved their initials on the log rafters of the little barn that remains.

And people still mention the big barns to the couple.

“We got a better view to Mount Pearl and at nighttime, it’s really nice. But you miss it, I don’t know, just seeing it there,” says Lena Ruby.

“Something you see for so long and it’s not there anymore. But we are getting adapted to it.”