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Leverett Barker

(1787 – 1848)

By Douglas H. Shepard


 Leverett Barker was born on 6 May 1787 in Branford CT to Russell and Elizabeth (Wilford) Barker. Russell had himself been born in Branford on 29 March 1757 and married Elizabeth Wilford there on 8 September 1779. Their children were Russell Rutherford, Lucretia, Leverett, James, Abigail, Sarah Elizabeth, and Wilford. After serving in the Revolutionary War, Russell was mustered out on 25 December 1786. In 1792 he moved his family to Oriskany Falls, NY, and on 13 February 1798 to Lot 48 in the Town of Madison, Madison County NY, when Leverett was 11 years old. By the time he was 15 or so, Leverett must have been apprenticed to a tanner to learn the trade, either in Madison itself or nearby Sangerfield. When Leverett finished his apprenticeship at age 21, he came to Fredonia and began his career there as the junior partner in the firm of Terry & Barker. (The standard biographical account that Leverett Barker was born in Connecticut and came to Fredonia in 1809, giving the impression that he emigrated from Connecticut all the way to Western New York, is clearly misleading.) Isaac Terry, Jr. was 34 at the time. (A receipt dated 3 June 1810 in Sangerfield reads “Received of Terry & Barker thirteen hundred and fifty eight Dollars and forty six cents . . . and stands owe[d] to me on book and signed by me and Leverett Barker. . . .” It is signed by Isaac Terry, Jr.)


On 8 April 1811, one month after Leverett married, Terry signed a note that the co-partnership of Isaac Terry, Jr and Leverett Barker “is this day by Mutual agreement Dissolved.” Terry was paid $1,500 for his share in the business — the declaration witnessed by Leverett’s new father-in-law, Hezekiah Barker — and young Leverett Barker was on his own. It cannot be a coincidence that he came to Fredonia to begin his business career with someone from Sangerfield, when we recall that early Pomfret settlers Hezekiah Barker, Richard Williams, Oliver Woodcock, Thomas Morton and Jonathan Bartoo, among others, were all from that Sangerfield, Paris, Madison NY area as well. Terry and Leverett Barker had “rented” a parcel of land from Hezekiah Barker on which to set up their tannery. “Rented” because the Holland Land Company still retained title to the land. On March 3,1811, Leverett Barker married Desire, the daughter of Hezekiah and Sarah Barker. They must have lived at her parents’ home at first, the log cabin/inn that Hezekiah Barker had built in 1808 at the corner of today’s Park Place and West Main Street, but in the summer of 1811 Leverett built a small frame house, only the second one to be built in Fredonia, near today’s 21 East Main Street. The tannery and leather shop were behind it in what is now part of the municipal parking lot.


At some point in 1812, a load of hides being carried by Ichabod Fisher, Jr. to Leverett Barker was taken by a contingent of British soldiers, bringing that war uncomfortably close to home. Barker served in Col. McMahon’s Regiment of the New York Militia as a Private. Besides the time away from family and work, the War of 1812 must have hurt businesses in general. In addition, the family had been added to by Hamilton A. (1812) (also known as Alexander Hamilton Barker). Sarah Elizabeth Barker (also known as S. Eliza), was born in 1814, all of which might explain why it took five years for Leverett Barker to save enough money to pay his father-in-law for the home and tannery lot, $500, in a deed dated 29 May 1816. The lot was a peculiar shape. What Hezekiah Barker sold to Leverett was a large parcel that ran along East Main Street from today’s Day Street to White Street and extended back from the East Main Street frontage some 300 feet. There was a small corridor running southerly at right angles to that lot, beginning about where the front walk to the Barker Museum lies today, across Main Street then expanding into another large parcel including today’s 19 through 23 East Main Sreet, and all of today’s parking plaza behind those addresses. Apparently it was necessary to have the transaction be made up of one lot rather than two, but the reason for that is not clear.


In April 1817, Barker advertised that he had saddles and bridles in his leather store, and “Most other kinds of Saddler’s Work kept constantly for sale,” and “All kinds of Repairing done on the shortest notice, at his saddler’s shop, now occupied by Mr. E. Foster.” Apparently Barker had hired Foster to tend the shop. The ad continued to appear until December 1817. However, an ad of 19 April 1819 for John Couch’s “Boot & Shoe Factory” states that “he has removed his establishment to the Saddler shop of E. Foster,” and one of 9 December 1823 from William Mellen states that “he has commenced the Saddling Business. . . in the room over Col. Barker’s leather store, and which was formerly occupied by Elisha Foster for the same purpose. . . .” It would seem, then, that Foster ran Barker’s store but had his own leather goods establishment in a rented room above it as well.


In August 1817 Mary L. Barker was added to the family, which now included three children and two adults with, perhaps, another person. Probably around 1812 or 1813, Barker had taken on Isaac Boss as an apprentice. Isaac was born in 1797 and would have begun his apprenticeship at 15 or 16, leaving to work on his own when he reached 21. He did go on to establish himself in Forestville NY as a tanner and shoemaker. It was probably 1818, when Isaac left his apprenticeship, that Leverett had his young brother Wilford take his place. Wilford Barker, the youngest of Russell and Elizabeth’s children, had been born in 1801 or 1802, so he was about16 when he began his apprenticeship. In his Early History of the Town of Ellicott, Gilbert W. Hazeltine summarizes the next sequence of events. “Samuel Barrett came to the Rapids [Jamestown] with Daniel Hazeltine in the summer of 1816, and returned east in 1817 with Royal Keyes; both came west again in 1818 from Wardsborough , Vt., with their wives. Salmon Grout became this year the partner of Stevens, and Barrett worked in the establishment. During the next winter Barrett bought out Grout and became a partner of Stevens in the tannery, and placed Wilford Barker, a younger brother of General Leverett Barker of Fredonia, in the tannery to look after his interests. . . .Barrett and Barker afterwards bought out Stevens.”


Young’s History of Chautauqua County gives a slightly different version. “Gen. Barker’s [tannery business] was conducted on an extensive scale; and he subsequently bought an interest in a large establishment in Jamestown.” That seems to mean that Leverett was bankrolling his brother Wilford, who did go on to great commercial success there. But to return to 1819, in a 17 August 1819 advertisement, Hezekiah Turner and Horace Risley announced that by “the first of September next, at their Brick Yard [on Chestnut Street] near Hezekiah Turner’s [home] in Pomfret, 400,000 Bricks” would be for sale. Levi Risley, in an account in The Fredonia Censor of 28 January 1880, wrote that “the writer, then a boy, helped to manufacture the bricks.” He elaborated on this in a 3 May 1882 article. “Being then fourteen years old, I drove the cattle that worked in the clay pit where the mortar for the brick was made.  It is true I was assisted by Mr. Day, the boss, and Jonas Hubbard and Varanus Holmes and old Uncle Sam Fields (the old mason tender) which old settlers will all recollect. Up to that time no plan had been contrived to make brick mortar from the hard clay but to work it up with the feet of cattle being driven round and round in it. Not even the old fashioned Crab had been invented, and such a thing as a Brick Machine could not be seen with a telescope into futurity.”


Then, in the issue of 27 April 1884, Levi Risley wrote the fullest account of all. “In the year 1819 a bare-footed boy of about fourteen years might have been seen, with whip in hand, driving a pair of oxen in the old brick-yard operated by Hezekiah Turner and Horace Risley. Turner was a wealthy farmer of that day, and built and resided in the house now occupied by Asa Johnson, Esq. Turner then owned about all the land there was in sight on the west side of Canadaway creek and nearly all of the flats on the east side. The ancient brick-yard was situated just west of Chestnut street and nearly opposite the old Risley house, which for some years was my home. . . . The hot summer’s labor of this boy was to mix the mortar for the brick by driving this yoke of oxen back and forth and round and round through a pit made thirty feet long and half as wide, filled with clay to make the mortar for the brick. No machinery, or even “crabs” had been invented in that day for mixing mortar for brick. The season turned out about 200,000 of brick, and Turner sold his half to Gen. Leverett Barker, and from them was built the first brick building in the town of Pomfret, if not the county of Chautauqua.”


That brick building is today’s Barker Historical Museum, completed in May 1821 according to a corbel stone attached to the front of the building. What Levi Risley was probably remembering was the 200,000 bricks that represented half of the 400,000 that he helped his uncle Horace produce. As the first brick home in the village, it surely was seen as an indication of  the social status and financial success Leverett Barker had attained. It is also true that Mary’s arrival in August 1819 may have convinced him that a larger home was needed. And just in time, too, since Darwin R. Barker was added to the family in September 1820. The 1820 Census dated as of 7 August listed 11 persons in the Barker household, so Darwin’s arrival made 12. Probably to commemorate their having “arrived,” Leverett Barker commissioned artist Corbin Kidder, who was here teaching school in 1822 but had gone on to Warren PA in 1823, to paint portraits of Desire and of himself to hang in their new home. Years later, when Darwin Barker gave the family home to the village to be used for a library, one stipulation was that those portraits should remain, presiding over the house as they had done since its beginning. They have been there ever since.


In addition to his tannery and leather store here in Fredonia and the one he had an interest in in Jamestown, Leverett Barker later built another one. The History of Cattaraugus County under “The Versailles Tannery” heading states that “Soon after 1830, Gen. Barker, of Fredonia, built a tannery near the creek.” The tannery business was not the only activity Barker involved himself in. After serving as a Private in the Militia, he was commissioned Lieutenant in the 162nd Rgt., Infantry, in 1815; Adjutant in the 169th in 1816; Lt. Col. of the 169th in 1818; Col. in 1823; Brigadier-General of the 43rd Brigade in 1824; and Major-General of the 26th Div., Infantry in 1826. In addition, he served as the Town of Pomfret Supervisor in 1818, 1819, 1820, 1821, 1822, 1829, 1845 and 1846. Years before that he involved himself with the Pomfret Library, later with the Phenix Society which met at the Fredonia Academy to hear lectures on various topics. It accumulated a library, to which he contributed. He was very much involved with the Fredonia Academy. He and Thomas G. Abell were the committee to solicit funds to build it and he continued his involvement, serving as President of the Board for 22 years from its beginning until his death.


There is ample evidence that Leverett Barker continued to prosper even as he became more and more involved in community and political activities. For one thing, every one of his eight children was able to attend the Fredonia Academy, each for a good number of terms and with Darwin attending for an astounding 26 terms from 1830 to 1839. (The four additional children after Darwin’s birth in 1820 were Susan W.,1824; Dorinda C., 1826; Emeline F., 1831; and Lucretia J., 1834.) One of Darwin’s classmates for two terms in 1834 was Roselle Greene, then 18, and his father’s apprentice. Greene, born in Fairfield NY in 1815, was the oldest child of Nathaniel and Frances Woolson Greene. The family had moved to Mayville around 1820 and in 1832 Roselle Greene walked to Fredonia to learn the tannery business from Leverett Barker. As the custom was, he lived in the Barker household and attended the Academy, no doubt at the Barker’s expense. Roselle Greene married Eliza Barker on 30 November 1837.


Leverett Barker, like many of his contemporaries, speculated in real estate, buying parcels and dividing them into building lots to be sold. He acquired land in Pomfret and in 1829 bought a 215-acre lot in Portland from his father-in-law. In addition, he apparently had property in Buffalo. The Barker Museum has a letter to Leverett Barker dated 5 April 1842 from an L. F. Tiffany in Buffalo stating that “I have had Mr. Sawin & one other Mechanic, examine the house on main street, and I cant get them to make the repairs for any thing less than 120, this is for what you concluded to have done.” Nothing more seems to be known about this Buffalo property. A few years after this, in May 1846, Barker had another leather store built at 21 East Main Street “in front of the present store.” However, there is one particular venture in land acquisition that did not quite work out. At some point Barker acquired a long strip of land, some 250 feet wide and running from about 124 Temple Street due south some 1400 feet to near 66 Forest Place. It can be seen on the 1851, 1854 and 1867 maps, marked out as a proposed street to be named Harrison Street. That must have been in honor of our 9th President, William Henry Harrison, who died in April 1841, one month after taking office. The street never did get accepted by the village board and it disappeared by the time of the 1881 atlas map.


The problem that arose had to do with the Risleys and the street first called Nassau (today’s Center Street). In a 12 April 1899 article in the Censor, Franklin Burritt mentioned, in passing, that Nassau Street "had been suggested by the Risleys in honor of a great historical personage and a street in New York city." Nassau Street in lower Manhattan was named in honor of Maurice of Nassau, prince of Orange (1567-1625) who first freed the Netherlands from Spanish rule. Where Nassau Street in Fredonia was to run had been an alleyway from Main Street, giving access to the rear of the large, wooden hotel — in 1835 it was Abell's Hotel — where the trash bins, outhouses and horse stables were located. No wonder when Nassau Street was opened, the local wags referred to it as Nasty Street. By the 1840s, the three Risley brothers had become quite wealthy from their Risley Seed Company enterprise, so they had local architect John Jones design and build three Greek Revival mansions at the northern edge of their seed gardens. The three were spaced out along Garden (now Risley) Street, Elijah,Jr.'s near the Creek, William's in the middle and Levi's near Temple Street. It was William Risley who took the next step. On 7 April 1847, he presented an "Application" to the Village Trustees proposing that Nassau Street be "extended across Barker Street to Garden Street." A two-man committee, appointed to go with a surveyor to look into the matter, consisted of Suel H. Dickinson and Thomas Warren. Warren had married a Risley sister, Philena, in 1810 and, in the 1840s, with a small seed company of his own, had used the Risley Seed Company wagons to distribute his seeds country-wide. We could not call him entirely disinterested, so it is not surprising that the committee returned at 7 p.m. that same day with a report in favor of extending Nassau Street according to a survey already completed.


The survey itself is a very peculiar document. Made on 7 April, while the committee looked on, the center line of the proposed street began at Main Street, ran northwest 1,160 feet to today's Terrace Street. There it stopped abruptly, made a right angle turn some 60 feet, left 97 feet, left again 60 feet, and then northwest on its original course some 1,115 feet to Garden Street. The odd jog was to avoid running the Nassau Street extension through a building that happened to be standing in the way, a building owned by the other local power, General Leverett Barker. So the evening meeting concluded with instructions to the Clerk to "draw [up] a notice & serve [it] on L. Barker tomorrow that the street is laid according to the same [survey]." In May 1847 Barker took his case to the Court of Common Pleas, claiming that the Nassau Street extension crossed his land, which had been improved and cultivated. That was the large strip intended to become Harrison Street. The court found for Barker and declared the Trustees' action reversed and annulled. (At the same time, Barker had his own street, Terrace, surveyed, although it was not officially opened until August 1851.) The Trustees — Thomas Warren was the one to make the motion — agreed that no work was to be done on the stretch of road between "Garden Street & the South line of Gen. Barker's Land" and that nothing was to be paid to William Risley for work on that section. Risley, for his part, appealed the decision, lost his appeal and then requested and was granted permission by the Board "to bring a Writ of Certiorari in the name of the Corporation" provided he execute a bond of $500 "to save and keep harmless the said President [Mayor] & Trustees & their successors in office from all costs and expenses in the prosecution and determination of said suit." The Writ of Certiorari was to ask a superior court to review the lower court's decision. The Trustees had said "You're on your own" and Risley had answered "I haven't given up." There is no further record in the Trustees' Minutes of the outcome of all this, except that Nassau Street did go through. Perhaps the issue became moot when Gen. Barker died on 11 May 1848. (The next mention of the street, on 5 April 1851, is that its name was to be changed to Center Street.) With his death, responsibility for the family and the businesses fell on his son-in-law, Roselle Greene and, after his death in June 1859, on the grandson and namesake, Leverett Barker Greene. It was he who gave land on 28 May 1868 for a new street, to be called Leverett Street, that is now, along with the 1821 brick house, a lasting monument to a remarkable Fredonia pioneer.