Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Profile: Elmer Barry

"...The old museum was up close and personal. You could look down the barrel of a gun once shot by a soldier at Fort Pembina. Elmer Barry was not a trained historian nor did he seek to profit from his collections. He collected artifacts for the pure pleasure of sharing a historical tradition."
While Mayor Christopher is credited with leading the effort to establish a much needed and deserved museum in Pembina in the early 1960s, it was Elmer Barry that seeded it from his own personal collection.

From June Webster's Elmer Barry: Father of Museum Collection
In 1962, Elmer retired and placed his museum display in a store building that he owned. A museum was dedicated at Pembina on July 4th, 1962, by the State Historical Society when Pembina observed the 150th Anniversary of the coming of the Selkirks, the first white settlers in Dakota Territory. This museum was to include Elmer's display, but the historical development of the area was to be portrayed and there wasn't enough room left to show all of Elmer's display. So, a second building was built in 1962 by the State Historical Society to display all of Elmer's collection. Both the museum buildings are located in the Pembina State Park, the site of both the Chaboillez trading post established in 1797, and Fort Daer, built by the Seikirks in 1812. Elmer received the Pioneer Historian Award at the Red River Valley Historical Society spring banquet in 1968 for his collection which is valued at $30,000.
From Mike Rustad's Lost Pembina History
The Pembina Museum, in its day, was the best museum in the upper Red River Valley. The Pembina Museum had far more treasures than today's Grand Forks Museum which seeks to reenact history. Unlike the Grand Forks Museum, the old Pembina Museum had an intangible charm. Pembina was a hub of activity before Grand Forks was incorporated.

I associate the Pembina museum with trips with my Dad, Rustee Rustad. It was my Dad who created the spark of interest in history through our visits to the Pembina Museum. We would visit the Pembina Museum together frequently while on water hauling trips. We often went to Pembina because my Dad filled up his truck with water at the Pembina Waterplant.

We would take a break on a slow day water hauling and visit the Pembina Museum. We would also stop at Elmer Barry's garage very often to see his collection. The Museum was not particularly well organized, but it was always orderly and interesting. It was truly a boy's paradise with swords, buffalo horns, arrow points, canteens, rifles, saddlebags, and many artifacts from the military outpost at Fort Pembina. The old museum was a treasure trove of history. When the old museum was finally closed because of the floods and the intervention of the State of North Dakota, many treasures were removed to Bismarck and warehoused.

Today, there is an antiseptic museum along with tower. The displays are pale imitations of the Smithsonian or Field Museum's interpretive museums--quite professional but antiseptic. The new Museum has lost its sense of being connected to organic living history. Elmer Barry's great collection of historic items was housed next to his garage. I spent many happy days with Dad sharing stories about Indian culture and Fort Pembina. Elmer had at least one good story about every artifact. The old museum had a Red River Valley Cart and cannon. There was an unbelievable display of Indian artifacts and leather leggings etc. Later, Elmer's collection was moved to the old museum. The old Museum had interpretative displays reenacting life on Red River Valley in the age of the Indian. I coveted the fur-covered hunting knife! There were also a lot of displays on the Canadian/U.S. fur trade. The age of the buffalo was also depicted. There were old pictures of Fort Pembina and artifacts from each war.

My Dad was a great collector, in the tradition of Mr. Barry. Still, he was not even close to being as comprehensive of a collector when compared to Elmer Barry's prodigious efforts. Barry had bathtubs from the 1890s, oil lamps, old pianos, buffalo robes, cash registers, piano rolls, and every imaginable object from everyday life: dishes, cutlery, etc. Barry was a true genius and today's social historians would see him as a collector with a vision.

The old museum was up close and personal. You could look down the barrel of a gun once shot by a soldier at Fort Pembina. Elmer Barry was not a trained historian nor did he seek to profit from his collections. He collected artifacts for the pure pleasure of sharing a historical tradition. You could touch the beaded leather pouches made by Indians. Today, the living history section of the Pembina Museum may be historically correct but it is packaged, boxed and not very charming. The museum of today is worth visiting but there is much lost history because it is does not contain Barry's collection. I think that Upper Red River Valley residents should petition the state to return Pembina's lost artifacts so future generations can touch a buffalo horn or an Indian axe.