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Elmer Barry: Father of Museum Collection


June Webster


"How did you ever get butter out of a thing like that?"This might be the reaction of a young person at seeing a butter churn ina museum display. By this reaction, one can see how simple ordinary thingsthat we might think of as odd or old fashioned were once greatly appreciatedby some pioneer. Such a pioneer in the Red River Valley is Elmer E. Barry.

Elmer E. Barry is one of the nine children born to thelate James E. Barry and his wife Elizabeth McAdam. Elmer was born in Belview,North Dakota on August 7, 1886. He attended school and grew to manhood ata farm at Belview where he farmed with his father. In l880, the family movedfrom a log cabin to a two story frame house which Mr. and Mrs. James Barryhad built. Mrs. Barry had helped her husband build it by handing up theheavy oak boards to cover the roof. They also had a barn on the farm whichwas about forty-four feet long. Here, they kept their nine or ten horsesand twenty head of cattle.

One of Elmer's first duties on the farm was to get in woodfor the night. The following year, he had the job of feeding the chickensand pigs they owned. The next year, he graduated to the cattle barn wherehe milked and fed the cows and cleaned the barn. (He was about l4 or 15years old at this time) The following year found him in the horse barn takingcare of their horses while his brothers kept the loft full of hay.

When he was l8 years old, he was given his own horse touse when harrowing and seeding the fields. One night at quitting time, heunhitched the plow from his horse at the far end of the field and jumpedon his horse to come home. Just as the horse came near the farm yard, itstumbled and fell on Elder's leg and broke it. The doctor lived far away,so Elmer's father just broke a lid from a grape basket into a couple ofpieces and used them for splints on Elmer's leg.

Another time, when ho had graduated. from a one-horse plow,he was hanging up one of the horses harnesses and the tug at the end happenedto touch one of their broncs. The horse kicked Elmer and broke his leg again.This time Elmer was really disappointed since he had to stay at home andmiss the 4th of July celebration in town.

Elmer lived at home until he was twenty years old. Thenhe rented a farm near there in 1907. He had five horses and various kindsof machinery. He even used a well mended threshing machine that had beenhis fathers. (He sold it in 1915) Besides doing farm work, Elmer also servedas clerk of School District No. 13 of Levant Township.

Every winter, Elmer would go to the Northwest Territorieslooking for land. These territories extended from the northern boundariesof the Canadian provinces to within 500 miles of the North Pole. The regionincludes the Arctic homeland of the Canadian Eskimos and many trading postsand small towns. (1)

In 1911, the crops were poor and he only got 85 cents a bushel for his wheatand $1.25 for his flax. He usually left his stock and machinery with hisyounger brother but in 1913, he shipped the live stock, machinery, householdgoods, and personal belongings to the Territories. In December of that year,he had an auction sale and sold all of his things. He collected about $1,000when he should have collected $1,800 more. At this time, 1914, the Britishhad declared war on Ger-many and Elmer couldn't collect the restof the money that people owed him. In 1913, he traded notes in northernSaskatchewan for a quarter section of land and wrote on them "withoutrecourse" so they couldn't fall back on him. He once signed for someland in the Northwest Territories but thought it was just too cold and toomuch snow for him and decided not to go back.

In 1913, Elmer came to Grand Forks and started a liverybusiness with two Ford cars at $740 apiece. (He still has the contract forbuying these cars) He would meet the train in one of his taxis and takepassengers to any part of Grand Forks for 25 cents. Once he brought somepassengers all the way to the Hamilton fair in N.D. Another time, he broughta girl to Mayvillo for $l2. He finally decided that there were too manytaxis in the business and started to work in a foundry in Grand Forks. Thisjob included buying and selling and melting iron and putting it in castsor molds to form iron products. In 1916, the foundry along with everythingelse was flooded so Elmer came up to Pembina. At first, he rented a blacksmithshop (where Elmer's garage is now) from a woman called Mrs. Baskin. Laterhe bought it and ran it for a year and a half before he was called to thearmy. When in the army, Elmer was stationed at Camp Louis, Washington, inthe Headquarters Motor Battalion of the 13 Engineers of the 13th Division.He ranked as Sergeant in this division. While Elmer was stationed at CampLouis, he helped to raise a flag pole which was twenty feet across and three-hundredand ten feet high. The pole was being pushed by tanks towards the hole itwas to sit in, when it broke into three pieces. (It had only been raised45 feet at this time) The pole was then cut down to two hundred and tenfeet before it was raised. The flag that was hoisted up the pole was 40feet wide by 60 feet long.

In September, the troops were just getting ready to goto France when the flue hit and killed men like fleas. As a result, theyhad to stay at Camp Louis until they came home in 1919.

When Elmer returned to Pembina, he married Mathilda Moris.He continued to work in his blacksmith shop until 1920 when he noticed thatblacksmith work was dropping off and cars were making the scene. As a result,he tore down the blacksmith shop and built a filling station in its place.He started selling cars and made the most money selling Model T Fords. Whenthey quit making them in 1927, he started to sell Model A's which he continuedto sell until 1931. He sold Roadsters for $275 plus freight and Sedans for$375 plus freight. The cars were shipped to Pembina by train with sevenin a train car.

It was in the back of this garage that Elmer started collectingold items that are now in his museum display at Pembina. He made some ofthe items at his orig-inal home and his own farm.

As highways and roads improved, cars were in operationall year round instead of being stored in Elmer's garage for the winterso Elmer found more room to keep his antiques. Some of the articles he storedwere picked up in piles of scrap iron he had bought and sold to the governmentduring the War. Others were sold to him by neighborhood children or peoplepassing through town who knew he was collecting antiques.

Besides operating his filling station and garage, Elmeralso served as Justice of the Peace and was a U.S. Commissioner for thirty-twoyears.

In 1962, Elmer retired and placed his museum display ina store building that he owned. A museum was dedicated at Pembina on July4th, 1962, by the State Historical Society when Pembina observed the 150thAnniversary of the coming of the Selkirks, the first white settlers in DakotaTerritory. This museum was to include Elmer's display, but the historicaldevelopment of the area was to be por-trayed and there wasn't enough roomleft to show all of Elmer's display. So, a second building was built in1962 by the State Historical Society to display all of Elmer's collection.(Both the museum buildings are located in the Pembina State Park, the siteof both the Chaboillez trading post established in 1797, and Fort Deere,built by the Seikirks in 1812.(2) Elmer received the Pioneer Historian Awardat the Red River Valley Historical Society spring banquet in 1968 for hiscollec-tion which is valued at $30,000.

Many of the items in Elmer's display have an interestinghistory behind them. Three such items are the ball and chain, leg irons,and hand cuffs in his collection.

A sheriff named Brown had the ball and chain made to puton prisoners while they worked in the streets in the early days of Pembina.Elmer bought it in a load of scrap iron in 1916 and saved it as a relic.

He got one pair of hand cuffs from an Indian that was hungone mile west of Pembina on the farm where James F. Moris now lives. Anotherset of hand cuffs are from an Indian squaw that was on the boat that burnedand sank six miles south of Pembina on the Red River. She was being heldfor murder in Winnipeg when five people kidnapped her and brought her ona boat up the Red River. Most people figure that the five main kidnappersstayed below deck while the squaw set fire to the boat and went down withit.

In 1919, a few men and Elmer went hunting down by the RedRiver. The water in the River was low and the remains of the boat were visible.Its bow was pointed up on the Minnesota side of the River. There was about40 feet of the boat sticking out of the water. It had been washed cleanfor about 30 feet and the rest was in the deep channel and was covered withgravel and sea shells. Elmer and the others tried to get below deck butit was full of muck and gravel. Elmer intended to go back in a day or twoand explore the lower hull but rain prevented his exploration. Elmer hasa piece of oak with large blacksmith nails in them from the bow of the boatand a piece of the stove from the boat in his museum display.

A few years later, Bill Moorhead, a U.S. Marshal, had theboat pulled up and explored to see what could be found. They discoveredthe hand cuffs that the old squaw had been wearing with her arm bones stillin them. Bill Moorhead kept these hand cuffs along with those that weretaken from the Indian they had hung. Elmer took these hand cuffs from "Muggins"Moorhead because Muggins had stolen the ball and chain from Elmer at onetine so Elmer felt he had "squared" with him.

The manufactured leg irons were once owned by the PembinaCounty Territory and were used on a fellow named Billy the Kid. This manhad been arrested for murdering a woman at Crystal. The leg irons wore thentaken off and put in the livery man's vehicle. The livery man, John Folson,passed them down to Elmer.

Besides these hand cuffs, leg irons, and ball and chain,Elmer's collection also includes two war shells and an old Bible that werecollected at Camp Louis, a gas welding torch, a bottle collection, a valuablecash register, an Indian beaded case and pin cushion from 1901, a hand seeder,an old washing machine, horse tonic, a well pump, a Victrola, a Graphaphonefrom 1886, a back wheel from a binder, horse collars, a picture of the oldthreshing machine, school slates, a few old coffee grinders, and a vacuumcleaner from 1900.

Perhaps when we look at Elmer's display, we can visualizethe pioneer way of life. We can see a hard way of life progressing to aneasier one with the introduction of more modern conveniences. We can seethe simple things that Elmer and his parents appreciated. As Elmer says,"It was a hard way of life but a good one--one I shall always treasure."(3)


(1) World Book Encyclopedia "Northwest Territories"Vol. 14 1962 p.410

(2) Youngblood, Richard "Pembina Plans Historic Rites"Grand Forks Herald, July 1, 1962 p.1

(3) Barry, Elmer E. Pembina, North Dakota



Barry, Elmer E. (Interview) Pembina, North Dakota

Christopher, Mrs. Albert J. "Father of Famed BarryCollection Presented First Pioneer Histor-ian Award" Red River ValleyHistorian Vol. II 1968 P.10-11

"New Pembina" Supplement to Pembina New Era Feb-ruary16, 1968

Youngblood, Richard "Pembina Plans Historic Rites"'Grand Forks Herald July 1, 1962 P. 1, 6

"Northwest Territories" World Book EncyclopediaVol. 14 1962 P.410

oungblood, Richard "Pembina Plans Historic Rites"'Grand Forks Herald July 1, 1962 P. 1, 6

"Northwest Territories" World Book EncyclopediaVol. 14 1962 P.410