Our local bank serves the communities of Pepin, Alma, Nelson, and Wabasha; all small river towns clustered within a 15-mile radius here in west central Wisconsin. Every November, the bank issues its annual 13-month calendar, which it distributes as a patronage gift to customers. The calendar is accepted thankfully by all because it’s not just your standard promotional piece; these calendars are a little gateway into the history of our hometowns. Each year before the calendar is published, bank employees solicit historic photos from local citizens to feature on each of the calendars’ 13 pages. The photos are always amazing. They’re usually images of the local landscape from the late 19th or early 20th centuries. Many times they’re photos of school children posing with their teacher in front of a wooden one-room school, the little boys donned in flat caps and knicker-length pants, the little girls in long dresses and lace-up boots with big ribbons in their hair. Sometimes the images are of a local downtown street lined with Model Ts and a few horses tethered to buggies. Often, we’re treated to images of old bridges and buildings as they stood back then or a record-breaking snowfall in the days of old being attended to by vintage snow plowing equipment. And then sometimes there are real treasures.
I visited my local branch of the bank last week and was handed a new 2022 calendar as I left. I was anxious for a sneak peek so I opened it up as soon as I got back into my car. On the first page . . . the very first page . . . was this sweet photo of Anna Barry, a long-ago resident of Pepin.
To shed some light on Anna Barry’s significance, please first allow me to interject a bit of background . . . In 1871, Charles and Caroline Ingalls sent both of their young daughters to school in a little log schoolhouse just a half a mile from their cabin in the Big Woods of Wisconsin. Mary, at six years old, was of school age. Laura, at age four, was quite young, though she was probably bright, active, and curious, which may have prompted her parents to allow her to attend. Or maybe, fearing Laura would become lonesome while her big sister was in school, they simply sent her to tag along with Mary. Laura and Mary attended school together from September through Christmas; Mary returned to school after Christmas but Laura did not. During that school year, the Ingalls girls’ 25-year-old teacher was Miss Anna Barry.
And now featured on the first page of the bank calendar is this lovely image of an elderly Miss Barry; a casual smile on her face, standing in front of her brick house on a sunny summer day. This was the home she lived in during the last decades of her life in Pepin, and it looks very much today as it did back then. I think it’s still the same sidewalk, too. There is no year given, but it’s probably from the late 1930s. There are a few other photos of Miss Barry, one as a young teacher, dressed in a high-collared black dress, her hair braided atop her head; a restrained smile on her face. There is another image of her adorned in black finery as she posed among her fellow members of the Methodist Church women’s group. The year of that photo is not given, but Miss Barry was clearly middle aged. In the late-1930s photo, Miss Barry is smiling at someone as they snap her photograph; I hope it was a friend, a former student, or a beloved niece who came to visit her. I’m sure it was somebody she was very happy to see.
Her death at the age of 95 years, four months, and one day on August 5, 1941 was observed by many local people. An article written in the local newspaper, The Pepin Herald, shortly after her death described Miss Barry as “a devoted worker in the Pepin Methodist church” and a charter member in and president of the Ladies Aid Society in 1899. She was also active in the Women’s Relief Corps. The article goes on . . . “During these last years, Miss Barry maintained an interesting outlook on life. Her capacity for friendship was large, including alike both young and old, men and women. Her sense of humor, her recollections of the past, and her interest in the present made her good company. She was much pleased with the visits of many of her former pupils, some of whom came long distances to see her. She has been well called ‘Pepin’s oldest and most beloved pioneer resident.’”
The lengthy article ended by summarizing Anna Barry’s long, interesting life. “From this background of historical interest, Miss Barry has superimposed her memory of nine decades, covering nearly all the story of the settlement and development of our great northwest. In the year when she was born the Jefferson Davis of Prairie de Chien was helping his father-in-law Col. Zachary Taylor win the battle of Monterey in Mexico. Soon after she came to Pepin, many of her relatives and friends marched to war, vowing to ‘hang Jeff Davis to a sour apple tree.’ Nearly two generations later, she was shocked to hear that the great Lusitania was torpedoed, carrying a grand-nephew of hers – grandson of Sol Fuller – to the World War. He was saved and now lives at Wausau and she is now interested in his children.”
One wonders if, in her old age, Miss Barry still remembered little Mary and Laura Ingalls from her early days of teaching in the little log schoolhouse close to the Ingalls cabin. By the time the late-1930s photo was taken, most of the books in Laura’s Little House series would have been published, and maybe Miss Barry would have discerned that her former student was the author. Or perhaps not. The Ingalls girls did not attend school very long before their Pa moved the family to Walnut Grove, MN, and that would have been about 70 years before this photo was taken, so quite possibly too many years had passed for Miss Anna to recall her little part-time student, Laura. But it’s fun to imagine that this old teacher might have read Little House in the Big Woods and made the connection to the little girl with the brown pigtails who attended the little log schoolhouse as a companion of her big sister, so many years before.
Accordingly, we love Anna Barry as little Laura Ingalls’ very first teacher. But there are other reasons to appreciate and admire her; she was obviously able to maintain her relevance throughout her life and well into old age by staying engaged and remaining involved; a powerful lesson from a wise, old schoolteacher.
Thanks to Jean Cedarblade for lending this photo for the Bank of Alma calendar