Time unfair to Barber House

The fates have not been kind in recent years to Barber House, the historically-significant home that once belonged to a  pioneering family.

In 1935, Lillian Gibbons interviewed Lily Barber Sparrow for one of her series of articles entitled Stories Houses Tell. The daughter of Edmund Lorenzo “E.L.” Barber told Gibbons that she still slept in the same bed she was born in at 99 Euclid Ave. “I suppose few Winnipeg women can say that,” Sparrow added.

“It was built to face Fort Douglas,” explained Sparrow, “which was part of the Logan estate and my mother’s home. That’s why it’s at an odd angle to the street.”

At the time the August 31, 1935, Winnipeg Tribune article was published,  “Thistle Cottage,” the name then commonly given to the house on Euclid, was the oldest home in the city to have been continually occupied by members of a single family. It would be lived in by Barber descendants for over 100 years until suffering the indignity of vacancy, dereliction and most recently a disastrous fire. 

It wasn’t the first fire at the home built circa 1862, when Winnipeg and the surrounding district was known as the Red River Settlement, and the entry of Manitoba into the Canadian Confederation was eight years down the road. Just after a restoration was commenced and then abandoned, the penultimate fire occured in 1993. The building then had a chain-link fence erected to keep out trespassers, its windows were boarded up with sheets of plywood, and the forlorn house was left to fend for itself.

Throughout its long life, the Barber House has been the subject of controversy and ongoing conflict about how it would be left to posterity. It’s a house with a sad history, one that began in 1974 when John Graham sold the property to the city.

A 1990 heritage report, released when Barber House became a city-designated historic site, said the home was historically significant for three reasons:

• “This building is a rare surviving link to Winnipeg’s Colonial past.

• “It is on land continuously occupied by the Barber family for nearly a century.

• “It is also a rare example of the Red River frame construction method employed by early settlers.”

For such an historically significant building, it has been used and abused for far too long. 

At one time it was even recommended that the building be dismantled due to its poor structural condition. Luckily, government support for its restoration was finally obtained in 1986 by a Point Douglas community group that saved it from this inglorious end, and work to preserve the house was done in 1986 and 1988-89. In 1987, Barber House was declared a provincial historic site. Squabbles then arose over jurisdiction with the result that all restoration work ceased and the building was again left derelict by 1990. Local residents began to call the home an “eyesore,” but they still held great affection for the much-neglected building,

referring to it as a neighbourhood “icon”.

A week before the fire last week which gutted Barber House, Sisters Initiating Steps Towards a Renewed Society (SISTARS) took over possession of the house and property from the city. The objective was to build a new $1.3-million community day-care centre on the property and redevelop the historic house as an adult drop-in centre for neighbourhood seniors. The community group had raised about $700,000 for the Barber House redevelopment, which included a federal grant, yet still required about $300,000 more before the project could proceed.

But after flames engulfed the home in the early morning hours of June 7, the fate of Barber House is once again a matter of speculation. A charred exterior remains, leaving some doubt that the building can be salvaged, although members of SISTARS told the media they are committed to salvaging the building as it is too important historically to abandon.

E.L. Barber (1834-1909), was originally a native of Hamden, Connecticut, who made his way to St. Paul in 1854, where he worked for the Minnesota Democrat, then associated with his cousin George Brott, who also owned a land company and dry goods business. In either 1868 or 1869, Barber came to the Red River Settlement as Brott’s agent and set up a dry goods shop, trading in furs, hides and firewood. His marriage to Barbara Logan in 1862 connected him to a long-established Red River family.

After their marriage, the Barbers occupied Thistle Cottage in the northwest part of Point Douglas. Who actually erected the two-room building is unknown, but it was deemed inadequate for the Barbers’ growing family. By 1868, a two-storey, seven or eight-room Red River-frame log house was added to the site, which is the building now seen at 99 Euclid.

“What preserved it was the rough-cast plaster coating,” Sparrow told Gibbons.

Sparrow took over her father’s real estate business when he died in 1909, which she ran until retiring in 1929.

Sparrow explained that Euclid was named after a “beautiful” street her father remembered from a visit to Cleveland, Ohio.

“The old house has always been comfortable,” said Sparrow. “There was wood a-plenty to burn; we used to put oak logs in our grate. The Carron stove (imported from Scotland by her grandfather Logan) still keeps us quite warm. We used to have a cooking stove in the kitchen and a Dutch oven outside where bread was baked. Water came from a spring, and also from the Red River. Grandfather Logan used to get wines and choice supplies from the Old Country; Father, in his day, got supplies from St. Paul.”

“If we keep natural repairs done — like keeping the roof from developing leaks — I think this house will be just as firm and well preserved in 100 years. There’s no stir in the house at all. We don’t feel storms here, like some of the modern houses do.”

Gibbons wrote that the motto over the carron-stove fireplace was “Two hours from worry.”

She said, “That means you’ll never worry — you’ll have two hours grace before you begin. It might well be the old house’s motto, too. It looks peaceful, serene, and not afraid of the present or future.”

Unfortunately, Gibbons’ prediction of the house not having to worry about its future, as well as Sparrow’s belief that the house would be “well preserved,” have not stood the test of time, which has been decidedly unfair to the home on Euclid. The great hope is that SISTARS can yet again come to the rescue of this historically valuable home and ensure it has a future in Winnipeg.