Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Pembina County at 150: The Painter & the Pugilist

Jim Benjaminson is a local historian from Pembina County, North Dakota.  This year is the sesquicentennial of Pembina County, and in celebration of that, Jim has been writing a column for the Pembina New Era entitled, "Pembina County at 150".  The column has been running a few months now, and recently I invited Jim to serialize his fascinating history columns here on the blog. He graciously agreed.  This is the first one...

The Painter & the Pugilist: Two Former County Residents You've Probably Never Heard Of

Simply put, Birdeen Gibson was an artist. Born in Oregon in 1913 but growing up in Neche, the daughter of Augusta “Gussie” (Hughes) Gibson graduated in a class of 21 from Neche High School in the spring of 1931. Times were tough and jobs were scarce but Birdeen managed to make a little money by making sketches using India ink on white paper. Her favorite subjects – Lincoln and sailing ships. A March 1934 family letter told of her selling “the largest size (4x5) for 35 cents” , with smaller drawings selling for 25 or 30 cents. It was mentioned “she's sold 18 now.”

Unable to afford to go to college, her art work came to the attention of Dr. Ernie Coon of the University of North Dakota. In a February 28, 1934 letter Birdeen wrote Dr. Coon's wife, Jennie, stating “I want to let you know how greatly I appreciate your taking an interest in me”. Dr. Coon had spoken with a UND art professor who said he felt there was a possibility of getting her “a CWA job”. Skilled as a typist and in shorthand, Birdeen owned a typewriter (which had been purchased for her by her mother), skills that would soon prove to come in handy. She continued “I have entered two different art contests conducted by the Federal Art School in Minneapolis. Both times I received a part scholarship but the entire course is too expensive for me, so I have been unable to take advantage of it.” Another portion of her letter mentioned the ink drawings she had been selling and thanked the Coons for their interest in her.

Birdeen's sister Sally wrote the Coons that “Birdeen is certainly a nice girl in every way. She's quiet, but once you get to know her, she's very likeable”.

Sorority Girl - Delta Phi Delta
Birdeen Gibson's school portrait

By September 1934, Birdeen, along with her mother and brother Ray, traveled to Minneapolis where Birdeen would continue on to Waterloo, Iowa. She had been told “there was a man there giving lessons on painting—a professor—who wanted to see what talent she had before he would accept her as a student”. That man was Count Odon de Szaak of Pest, Hungary. How much time Birdeen spent with him is unknown. Birdeen enrolled in the art program at UND working for “room and board” doing “Federal work, getting an education and her living besides” utilizing her typing and shorthand skills. She would graduate from the University with the spring class of 1939.

A photograph—and picture she painted of herself—graced the front page of the Dakota Student (UND) newspaper of April 28, 1939. The caption read “Birdeen Gibson saw herself as others see her when in eight hours before a mirror she made this self-portrait. Produced in her home in Neche, N.D., this painting is but one of a series of her works, some of which have been on exhibition in London and Paris. A senior, majoring in art, Miss Gibson has studied under the famed Count Odon de Szaak of Des Moines, Iowa.” The 1940 census records that she was working as a secretary in Neche. When her brother left for the West Coast to work for Boeing, she apparently moved west as well. Little is known of her activities except that she married a man named Donald Cisney on July 22, 1950. Birdeen had no children and passed away at the age of 66 August 30, 1979.

Although her name may not be well known, as least one of her paintings is. She is one of many artists who have painted “Christ Knocking on the Door”. An Internet search reveals many different versions, yet none of Birdeen's were found during research for this story. There are at least three of her “Christ Knocking on the Door” paintings in the immediate area. One is displayed in the dining area of the Cavalier Methodist “Chocolate” Church. Another hangs in the sanctuary of Drayton's Methodist Episcopal Church—a church built of Drayton produced brick in 1905 that also has a unique “disappearing” wall. A third painting hangs in the Presbyterian Church at Calvin, North Dakota.

How many other similar paintings exist is unknown. Do any of her sketches still exist? And what other works of art did she produce during her lifetime? Truly a woman of mystery!

Our second subject is also a man of mystery – much more so than Birdeen Gibson. James Barry claimed to have been born in St. Vincent, Minnesota but called Drayton home. Or was he born in Culbertson, Montana – or did he live in Chicago, East Grand Forks or Petaluma, California? Perhaps we should mention that Jim Barry wasn't his real name. At various times in his life he claimed his real name was Louis Edgar Rogers; at other times it was Hugh Edgar Rogers. And his birth date – was it August 12, 1886 – or August 7, 1887 or August 10, 1887? At one point in an interview that appeared in the Bismarck Tribune May 28, 1916, he claimed “Jim Barry isn't my name at all, and I'm not Italian as everyone believes. My real name is Hugh Edgar Rogers. My father was Jarvis A. Rogers, from County Antrim, Belfast. My mother was a full-blooded Sioux Indian (there are claims she was French-Canadian Metis). They've always said I was from Chicago, when, as a matter of fact, I've hardly ever been there over night. I lived at Drayton, N.D., with my folks, including six other brothers. I'm the youngest and the smallest of them all.”

One thing we know for sure, his father's name was Rogers although he was known simply as “Rog” to most people. And he had been a mail carrier between Grand Forks and Pembina from 1868-71, carrying the mail by sleigh, dogs or on foot during the dead of winter.

Louis Edgar Rogers, aka Jim Barry (1910)
So who is this man of mystery with so many different names and birth dates? A criminal hiding from the law? A man on the run from alimony and child support payments? No – Jim Barry was a pugilist – a prize fighter of some renown.  A man who was the last of the bare knuckle fighters, who John L. Sullivan claimed would one day be heavyweight champion of the world. And he probably would have succeeded had it not been for his battles with gambling, drugs and booze. Sullivan himself was a well-known rounder who took Barry under his wing, teaching him his “tricks” in the ring. There were times when Sullivan's partying “required” him to pawn a championship belt studded with hundreds of diamonds, a belt estimated to be worth $10,000 in the late 1880's. At one point, the belt was rumored to be in Jim Barry's possession when it “disappeared”, not to be found until after Barry's death – minus its diamonds. It's reported that the belt is now owned by the Smithsonian.

Weighing in at 192 pounds and standing 5 feet 10 3/4” tall, Jim Barry had a 42 inch chest and a reach of 73 1/2”. Making his professional debut April 4, 1904, Barry won 25 matches, 18 by knock outs, lost 24 matches, 10 by being knocked out and fought to a draw in 5 matches. A formidable opponent, the Los Angeles Herald in its November 6, 1908 issue reported Barry was scheduled to go 10 rounds with Joe Flynn. Barry, who outweighed Flynn by 20 pounds, placed a $200 bet against Flynn's $160 that he would win the match. The Tonopah, Nevada Daily Bonanza reported “Jim Barry of Chicago had the better of a 10 round bout with Jim Flynn of Pueblo before the Pacific Athletic Club tonight. Barry showed fine form and landed terrible blows to Flynn's body and jaw throughout but was unable to stop the fireman.”

Calling Barry and Al (the California Hercules) Kaufman the “mastodons of pugilism” the L.A. Herald commented in its December 27, 1908 issue that “no human being can stand up under the best punch (that) Barry or Kaufmann is capable of handing out.” In a run-up match as contenders for the world's heavyweight title Kaufman knocked out Barry in the 39th round of a scheduled 45-round fight.

Eyeing the world championship, Denver's Franklin's Paper of October 9, 1909 reported “Jack Johnson the world's champion pugilist, intends to make a grand cleanup of the heavyweights before he meets Jim Jeffries, Stanley Ketchel in October, Al Kaufman (the California Hercules) and “Philadelphia Jack” O'Brien in a return engagement.” The article continued “Jim Barry, the Chicago Slugger, who has been hurling challenges right and left, may also be taken on by the champion”. The same paper in its November 27th edition, reported Johnson defeated Tommy Burns in 12 rounds for the world title. He fought Kaufmann, O'Brien, Barry and Ketchel and “a few others” for the world's title which he now holds. Among that list of fighters was Sam Langford, a Negro many white fighters refused to go up against because of the “color barrier”. Langford held the middleweight crown after defeating all other middleweights when Papke refused to fight him before moving into the heavyweight ranks.

Sam Langford and Jim Barry had a longtime relationship, Barry not being stopped by the color of a man's skin. The two first paired off in September of 1907, fighting each other 16 times, their last match taking place in March of 1913 in Australia, with Langford defeating Barry each time although two matches were called as a draw. Both the Tacoma, Washington Times and Chicago's Day Book reported on the March 1913 fight, the Times terse two sentence article reading “Sam Langford won from Jim Barry in one round. We should worry.” The Day Book's article gave a few more details - “Sam Langford, the Negro heavyweight, knocked out Jim Barry of Chicago in the first round at Brisbane, Australia.”

Traveling to Australia for a series of five fights in 1912 for promoter Hugh McIntosh of Sydney, Jim Barry defeated Bill Lang, former heavyweight champion of Australia in one round; it would be his only Australian win. On the return trip home, Barry was arrested when the S.S. Zealandia docked in Vancouver, British Columbia. Charged with assault it was reported Barry had “lost at cards and then started a rough house.”

The March 15, 1913 fight with Sam Langford brought a temporary halt to Barry's boxing career – he wouldn't return to the ring again until June 30, 1916. Little is known of his activities during that time period except for discovery of an “emergency passport” issued by the U.S. Embassy in London. In it Barry claimed to have left the United States in December of 1912—the December 10th Tacoma Times reported him “visiting in Tacoma” having recently returned from “the Antipodes and is now ready to meet anybody in the ring.” His “visit” to Tacoma was to act as referee at a “smoker”. Three months later he would fight Langford in Australia. How or why he ended up in England is unknown. It is known Barry entered a New York hospital upon his return to the U.S. for treatment for cocaine addiction —at the time cocaine and other hard drugs were legal to possess and use.

The Ogden, Utah Standard of May 8, 1916 revealed “Jim Barry, who was a worry to all the heavyweights 5 or 6 years ago, is now planning a return to the fight game. Barry has the reputation of having fought Sam Langford with varying results, 16 different times. He is now in training earnestly and thinks he will soon be in trim to cross bats with Coffey, Al Weinert or Moran.”. On June 6th Barry stepped into the ring against “Battling” Lavinsky – and lost. He would go up against “Sailor Jack” Carroll in July, Jim Smith in August and Billy Miske in September. All with the same dreadful results.

His final fight came in March of 1917, against another black fighter, Sam McVea. Only this fight would take place in Colon, Panama. Stepping into the ring with McVea March 11th, he was “floored for the count” in the sixth round. The next days Panama Star & Herald had a different story to reveal about Jim Barry. Barry had been shot and killed in the Lobby Hotel in Colon by a gambler known as C. Jerrett, aka “Tex” Martin.

According to news reports “Martin accosted Barry in the Lobby Hotel bar and Barry pushed him back, saying he didn't want anything to do with him. (There had been an altercation between them in Panama City the previous day, stemming from a disagreement over a gambling debt.) Martin then pulled a Colt 44 and shot Barry three times. Barry staggered out of the bar and fell dead. Martin was quickly arrested after the shooting and later stood trial for murder. Apparently it was found that Martin had been threatened by Barry, was acting in self-defense, and was released”. Martin was later reported to have been killed in San Antonio, Texas.

Thus ended the career of Jim Barry, aka Louis Rogers, aka Hugh Rogers. Find-a-Grave lists him being buried in the Drayton Cemetery. Cemetery records compiled by the Red River Valley Historical Society do not list any Rogers or Jim Barry as being buried anywhere in Pembina County. Even in death, Jim Barry is still a man of mystery.

Pembina County Trivia
  1. Who was the first recorded farmer in what is now Pembina County?
  2. Where was this farm located?
  3. What year was the O’Brien Hotel in Neche built?
  1. The first known farmer in what is now Pembina County was Charles Bottineau.
  2. Bottineau's farm was located on land now farmed by the Horsley Family of Neche.
  3. The O'Brien Hotel in Neche was built in 1895 at a cost of $14,000. It’s known today as the L&M Bar.  

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Grand Theatre Memories

Projector from Grand Theatre
[Kittson County Museum Collection]
The Grand Theatre was Hallock's (MN) movie palace.  I was recently contacted by a gentleman who once worked for the man who owned it1, as well as the local drive-in.  He had some interesting stories to share...

Jim Tureson, who worked for Bill Krumholz:

Sitting here thinking about days gone by and remembered an incident at the Grand Theatre. It was 1956.  We were showing a horror movie called The Creeping Unknown where this big glob would catch and kill people. Well, my Dad decided to make it more interesting. He ran some wires from the projection room down to the seating area and attached a buzzer to two seats! The wires were attached to a battery and when he pushed the button the seats would start to vibrate and buzz! Needless to say, at the worst possible time in the movie when people were screaming, we would hit the buzzer and watch someone fly out of their seat! I know, that was bad and we made sure there wasn't an elderly person sitting there. Joe gave us permission to do it and enjoyed the reactions also!

Projector from Grand Theatre.
[Kittson County Museum Collection]

Jim Tureson shared another story:

I'll tell you another Grand Theatre treasure. My older brother Larry was a protectionist in high school also; he graduated in 1960. One of our pet peeves was when one person showed up to watch the second show, we weren't able to go home early. This particular night a gentleman came in just in time for the second show and Larry wasn't happy. So he ran the show. When it ended, he turned on the lights, closed the curtain and was going to lock up when he saw that man still sitting in the front row, thinking he had fallen asleep. He went up and shook his shoulder, only to find out he was dead! Freaked him out to say the least!! So Larry was the only one in our family to run an entire show for a dead man.

Highway 75 Drive-In; go-cart track can be seen between screen and parking area.

July 12th, 1962. Joe Carriere and I were at the drive-in where I was going to paint the big screen. We rigged up a one-man "swing" with ropes over the screen tied off on Joe's big Oldsmobile. It worked like a pulley system - as Joe drove forward I would go higher. It had rained the night before and the grass was wet. I needed to go up higher so Joe started pulling me up, but as he was going, he got hung up on the wet grass around the go-cart track. He goosed the Oldsmobile, tires spinning, and then suddenly he hit the cement track! He took off rather fast and I went from 15 feet off the ground to 35 feet in seconds. When he finally stopped, I had almost wet my pants, the paint can went flying, and I'm screaming at Joe!

The day the Grand burned down in 1975...

Of course, he thought it was funny as hell, while I had thought I was going to die!

1 - Joseph and Rebecca Carriere owned and operated the Grand Theatre in Hallock from 1947 to 1975 when it was destroyed by fire. They also opened the Hallock Drive-In Theater in 1954 and operated it until 1985.