March 20, 2019 Community news from the prairie to the lakes  
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  General Barrett’s love letters donated to museum
  Georgia McKee
  Theodore Barrett

During the summer of 1960 Justin Holl, Tonka Bay, Minnesota, bought a pile of old letters for the stamps at an estate auction on Lake Minnetonka. Holl lived in the area and, recently married, took in a lot of estate sales. In the pile were around 60 handwritten letters from a Theodore Barrett to his fiance, Georgia McKee, Barrett was surveying land for the railroads, from Kansas to Minnesota and working on establishing a farm of his own in west central Minnesota during those years. Georgia was a Washington, D.C. socialite. In the letters, many written on hotel stationary, Theodore talks about the places he has seen, surveying, farming practices and crop prices. He mentions he saw Chief Joseph at the train station in St. Paul. and, in one letter, includes a sketch of a house he plans to build on his farm and writes about the carpenters building it.

Barrett was a veteran of the Civil War, enlisting in the Union Army in 1862. He took part in the defense of Ft. Abercrombie during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. He commanded the 62nd U. S. Colored Infantry, and has the historical distinction of commanding the 62nd in the last battle of the Civil War — The Battle of Palmito Ranch, in south Texas. The battle occurred a month after the war was over, May 12-13, 1865, because word of peace traveled slow.

With the war over, Barrett surveyed much of Stevens and Grant County, and grew to love the wide open spaces. Earlier in his career, he had plotted the towns of Alexandria, Fergus Falls and Breckenridge, and first became familiar with west central Minnesota. He also laid out the stage road from St. Cloud through the village of Pomme de Terre, to Breckenridge.

In June 1879, with Theodore 44 years old, and Georgia only 23, the couple married, and in 1881 moved to what was now called the Barrett Ranch four miles south of Herman, or four miles north of Donnelly, by a lake called Moose Island. Reports say that Georgia’s friends didn’t think she would like living on the edge of the great plains, but she loved horseback riding and Barrett had a stable full of beautiful horses. He even built a Figure 8 race track on the farm that saw lots of action during their famous 4th of July celebrations.

During his years of surveying for railroad magnate James J. Hill, Barrett had acquired 7,800 acres in Stevens County, and another 8,200 in Macsville and Logan Townships in Grant County. The Barrett Ranch had its own elevator, rail spur, and post office. And that house he sketched for his sweetheart, became a four story mansion with 15 bedrooms, four marble fireplaces and topped by a tower with a 360 degree view of his vast holdings.

Theodore Barrett, of course, is better known as General Barrett, the man whom the city of Barrett was named after. The town was called Fridhem, until the railroad came through in 1886, when the town fathers took an application to the Post Master General of the United States to get the town’s name changed to Barrett.

The designation of “General”, by the way, is because Barrett held the title “Surveyor General of Indian Territories.” Although, as the Civil War wound down, Barrett was promoted to Brevet Brigadier General, an honorary title.

During his time in Grant and Stevens Counties, General Barrett built a reputation as a friendly, generous man. He bought a bell for the Herman School, that is still displayed in the building, and donated land for Lakeside Cemetery. The General and his wife were famous for the gatherings they hosted at the ranch, including the first Old Settlers’ Reunions, and numerous 4th of July celebrations. The huge mansion saw many lavish parties, and rooms were refinished to make a school for the three Barrett children: Robert, Richard, and Georgina, and the children of their 40 to 100 farm workers.

The Barretts lived on the Barrett Ranch until 1900, when the General died following a fall from his horse. Three years after the General’s death, Georgia married a man from Morris who tried to run the huge ranch. But times were tough, wheat prices low, and as the years rolled by, portions of the acreage were sold off. Georgia passed away in 1910 and son Robert continued to run the ranch, selling off more and more acres until eventually he moved to Montana. He passed away in 1954.

General Barrett’s mansion was torn down in the late 1930s. Son Richard became a lawyer in the Twin Cities and died in 1959. Holl figures it might very well have been at the estate sale of Richard Barrett, where he purchased the suitcase full of love letters.

Sister Georgina married and moved to California, passing away in 1967. Relatives of hers have visited Barrett during recent Old Settlers’ Reunions.

Nothing remains of the Barrett Ranch nowadays, but there is a small lake, halfway between Herman and Donnelly, called Barrett Lake, most likely the Moose Island of the past.

Holl, 93, said he kept good care of the letters, but decided he didn’t want them to disappear, or be thrown, after he passed away. A friend from Herman showed him an article in the Grant County Herald about General Barrett, and it all clicked.

He made a call to Grant County Historical Museum curator Patty Benson.

“He said he just felt this was the place the letters should be,” Benson said.

After several telephone conversations, Holl mailed the letters to the Grant County Historical Society Museum. Benson is currently going through the letters, and airing the musty missives out.

Although the letters themselves are in remarkably good shape, General Barrett’s handwriting is nearly indecipherable. Years ago, when he had the time, Holl made an attempt to transcribe some of the letters. He said once he got used to the cursive of General Barrett, the letters began to open themselves up and tell a story. It is possible to read Barrett telling his fiance about former solders he served with, friends that he meets while surveying the Indian Territories, tales of his travels to frontier towns of the West like Kansas City, and his thoughts on the dream farm he is planning for the couple’s future. He talks about his health and the miles he traveled that day. Later letters use “The House” as his address and one can see him writing away in the Barrett Ranch house under construction.

The letters also reveal that General Barrett was not a terribly romantic man. Although Barrett addresses his wife as “Dear Georgia” he always signed off as simply “Theo.” Endearments were few and far between, but at least one time, with their marriage getting closer, Barrett admits “My heart beats for you.”

Following their marriage, either the letters stopped, or Georgia stopping saving them.

Benson hopes someone, somewhere, takes the time to decipher all the letters, in that there is a sure treasure trove for history lovers in them. But she realizes it will be no easy task. Still the letters are a fascinating window into history, handwritten mostly with fountain pen, by the hand of one of our areas most illustrious pioneers.

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March 19, 2019