Edwin C. Barr: Restaurateur
Born at New Braintree, Worcester Co., Massachusetts in 1829, Edwin C. Barr was the son of Sumner and Susan (Robinson) Barr. He went to work as a young boy in order to help support the family. He spent his youth in Oakham, Mass., until he was apprenticed in the shoemaker’s trade in North Brookfield. In 1847, he crossed New York State on the Erie Canal and took a job as a porter on a steamship from Buffalo to Chicago. After his return to Buffalo, he had an opportunity to sign on for a regular position, but an outbreak of cholera delayed the departure and his plans changed.
In 1851, he joined the movement westward, going by way of Panama, where he was recorded at the American Hotel in Panama City on the 14th of December. The Springfield Republican told his story this way:
“He had little money with him, so when he arrived at Colon, he walked across the isthmus. From Panama [City] he took a ship to San Francisco. While on the voyage there was an outbreak of Panama fever on board the ship, and 60 or 70 persons died of it and were buried at sea. Mr. Barr escaped with only a slight attack. He had only $3 in his pocket when he arrived at San Francisco. He spent this for a ticket to Stockton by steamer. He walked the rest of the way to the mines.”
Another source elaborated on his good fortune:
“At Stockton, seventy-five miles from Sonora, his intended destination, he was forced to inform his companions that, being without means, he could not proceed further, when a stranger, returning from the mines, happening to overhear the conversation, generously advanced him a few dollars, which enabled him to joyously continue on his journey.”
The Springfield Republican story continued:
“Mr. Barr next fell in with a man named Fisher who came from Danielson, Ct. This man Fisher knew of a man who was a miner at a place some way off, and they decided to look him up. They found him making a fortune, and he would not work with anyone else because his mine was so rich. This miner told them of two Welshmen who were in the habit of working their mine for three or four months and then going to San Francisco to spend their earnings. He believed the Welshmen would be willing to sell out. They accordingly struck a bargain with the Welshmen and after a few instructions from the miner, who, by the way, supplied the necessary capital, they went to work. They were fortunate in securing a rich mine and in a short time they were taking $160 a day out of it. This kept up for some time, till the arrival of the partner’s brother from the East.
Mr. Barr sold his interest in the mine to this brother, and started in a new partnership with a man named Louis Searles, from Brooklyn, Ct. After remaining there for two years, he left Searles and returned to his home. He rode a mule on his return across the isthmus of Panama, as he had made a neat fortune and could afford such means of travel then.”
Upon returning from his “fair success” in California, he purchased a life-lease for his parents on his family’s farm in Oakham. He then returned to California, this time mining near the Trinity River. The Springfield Republican wrote:
“Mr. Barr was urged to go back to California with several young men from Oakham and vicinity. He accordingly went to California a second time. He was not as successful as he was on the first trip, and he soon returned to his home. The railroad was then completed across the isthmus, and he did not have to walk or ride a mule. He never saw any of the men he was with in California again, except Louis Searles. About 20 years ago he was surprised to see Mr. Searles at his store in this city. Mr. Searles had returned from California and was at the time the postmaster in Brooklyn, Ct. He was then a white-haired man and Mr. Barr did not recognize him at first. When he did, he dropped his work, and had a reunion with him for the next three days.”
Returning east about 1858, he opened a bakery and dining room on the east side of Main Street in Springfield, Mass., which he operated until 1863, before making a third journey west, this time to Montana. After mining some, he opened a hotel and eatery in what would become the city of Butte.
When he returned to Massachusetts for good in the fall of 1865, he had an establishment built on the west side of Main Street in Springfield, near Vernon Street. Opening his “ornamental confectionery” and restaurant in 1866, Barr quickly developed a reputation for outstanding service. He was an early pioneer in ice cream; his establishment is said to have been only the second place in Springfield to offer ice cream for sale. He contracted for all the ice he could use for $50 a year. He also had the first steam-powered ice cream machine, which he neglected to patent. Eventually, through hard work and a keen sense of what people wanted, Barr became known as one of the premier restaurateurs in Springfield.
King’s Handbook of Springfield (1884) described his business this way:
“He opened a bakery down town, and kept a lunch-counter. His ice-cream soon created a great demand, and led to a patronage which enabled him to move into his present quarters at No. 384 Main Street, on the west side near Vernon Street. Here, during 18 years, by shrewd management he has built up a large business, amounting to $75,000 a year. His fancy baking is still carried on, and in connection with it is a restaurant and a salesroom for fruit and confections. In the latter department is found the largest and choicest stock of fine confectionery in the city, with all sorts of fancy and staple fruits. The main dining-hall on the ground floor, 75 feet deep, is elegantly finished and richly furnished. A toilet alcove opens from the left of the entrance, opposite the cashier’s desk. There are three private dining-rooms cosily located above stairs, seating altogether 50 people. A large sum is expended every year or two in new and fashionable decorations, $3,000 being laid out in this way last season. In connection with the industries mentioned as carried on harmoniously under this roof, is one of the largest and best catering establishments in the State outside Boston.”
But for all the pleasure Edwin Barr brought to others, his Springfield life was filled with tragic events. His first wife, Adeline (Stone) Barr, whom he married in 1852, died of consumption in 1865 at the age of 33. She had borne him three sons, George, Edgar and Jesse, and a daughter, Emma. He married again in 1868 to Minnie E. Arthur and with her had one son, Walter S. Barr. All of his sons took an active role in the business, which expanded to Northampton and Holyoke. After a few years in the restaurant business, George became the proprietor of the Hotel Warwick, where he was found dead with his second wife, the former Mamie Ashley, in December of 1891. George had apparently committed a murder-suicide over his wife’s dalliances. Son Jesse ran the Northampton store until his illness and eventual death at age 41 in 1900 from the effects of syphilis.
Edwin, himself, lived past his eightieth birthday, moving for a time to Agawam, and remained connected to his business until his death in 1911.
His youngest son, Walter S. Barr, inherited his father’s business acumen and he continued the business, “E. C. Barr & Co.”, for many years after his father’s death. Walter Barr lived in West Springfield and led the fight to prevent Springfield from annexing West Springfield. A scholarship in his name is still given annually to worthy, college-bound students in Hampden County.
“Adventurous Life of E. C. Barr,” Springfield Republican, 31 May 1909.
Allis, Fred H. & Julius J. Estey, et. al., eds., Biographical Review, Boston: Biographical Review Publishing Co., 1895.
“E. C. Barr’s Birthday Observed,” Springfield Republican, 1 June 1907.
King, Moses, ed., King’s Handbook of Springfield, Massachusetts, Springfield: James D. Gill, Publisher, 1884.
Panama Star, Panama City, Panama, 16 December 1851.
Springfield Picture Collection, Museum of Springfield History, Springfield, MA.
“Wife Murder and Suicide,” Springfield Republican, 2 December 1891.