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Grand old man of Oregon history

President Hoovers friend Bart Brown Barker served into his 90s


Of all the houses and buildings in Newberg that help define our history, there is one that stands supreme: the Hoover-Minthorn House Museum.

Located at 115 S. River St., the museum was the first property in our city to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That was 38 years ago.

Built in 1881 by “Father of Newberg” Jesse Edwards, it was purchased in 1885 by Henry and Laura Minthorn. Henry and Laura were President Herbert Clark Hoover’s foster parents. From 1885 to 1888, Hoover lived here.

It is also generally considered to be Newberg’s oldest surviving house.by: SUBMITTED - History's friend - Burn Brown Barker, seen here in 1951 with former President Herbert Hoover during the dedication of the Hoover-Minthorn House Museum, was instrumental in preserving much of the history of northwest Oregon.

This story is well-known to most of us.

What isn’t so well-known is Dr. Burt Brown Barker’s story. Dr. Barker played a significant role in the 1940s and ’50s to ensure the future of Hoover-Minthorn. It’s time we give this remarkable man his due.

Born of pioneer stock on Nov. 3, 1873, in Waitsburg, Wash. (Walla Walla County), he was but a year old when his parents divorced and forced him to live with an aunt and uncle in Salem. In his Presbyterian Sunday School class was Herbert Hoover, where the two would begin a lifelong friendship.

Graduating from Willamette University in 1893, Burt Barker became the first Oregonian to enroll at the University of Chicago. He returned home in 1897, taught at McMinnville (now Linfield) College, then entered Harvard Law School in 1898. Other credentials he enjoyed included a law degree from Linfield in 1935 and a doctor of letters degree from the University of Oregon in 1964.

Beginning in 1901 and for the next 27 years, he would become successful, and rich, thanks to law practices in Chicago and New York City.

Oregon beckoned once again. With his wife Ella Starr Merrill (they were parents to a daughter named Barbara), Barker “retired” in 1928 and relocated to a stunning Chateau Ferme-style house on Southwest Brentwood Drive on Portland Heights.

For the rest of his life he would devote himself to public and community service. He became a director of the First National Bank of Oregon, was a trustee of the McLoughlin Memorial Association of Oregon City, and held leadership positions with the Portland Art Association, Portland Civic Theater, Catlin School and Doernbecher Children’s Hospital.

He is remembered most, however, for his efforts to help preserve and promote appreciation for Oregon’s history.

Indeed, during his lifetime, Barker, whose quiet dignity was his trademark, was affectionately known as the “grand old man of Oregon history.”

Beginning in 1935, Barker traveled to London and accomplished something no one in 265 years had been able to do: Make public the archives of the Hudson’s Bay Company for scholarly research.

Later, his interest in the HBC and its fur trading outpost, Fort Vancouver (situated on the north shore of the Columbia River directly across from Tomahawk Island near the I-5 bridge), led to his involvement in the restoration of the Dr. John McLoughlin House in Oregon City. McLoughlin was chief factor, or manager, of the British-owned outpost from 1824 to 1845.

Barker was chair of the Lewis & Clark Sesquicentennial celebration, an activity highlighted when he convinced the Crown Zellerbach Corporation to donate the logs for what would become a replica of Lewis & Clark’s Fort Clatsop near Astoria.

He was responsible for fund-raising and placement of the Jason Lee and John McLoughlin statues in the Capitol in Washington, D.C. He also served on the Oregon Centennial Commission in 1959. Along with daughter Barbara Barker Herman Sprouse, he helped preserve several buildings at the Aurora Colony in Aurora.

When in the 1930s, University of Oregon President Arnold Hall appointed him to a vice-president’s position (public relations), Barker accepted on the condition that his salary be used to sculpt the “Pioneer Mother” statue, seen today in the Women’s Quadrangle on the Eugene campus and dedicated on May 8, 1932.

He served twice as director of the Oregon Historical Society. An outstanding scholar, he wrote or edited several books on Oregon history and was a contributor to the “Oregon Historical Quarterly.”

After the Minthorns left Newberg, their house was purchased by Milton Nicholson. Between 1909 and 1912 (after Nicholson had departed), the appearance of the house was altered. For the next 40 years it would be owned twice by Pacific College (now George Fox University). In 1947, Barker organized the Herbert Hoover Foundation to raise support to restore the house and turn it into a museum in honor of Hoover’s Oregon boyhood. For Barker, it quickly became a labor of love.

The foundation’s roll of officers included Pacific College former presidents Levi Pennington and Emmett W. Gulley. Many of Hoover’s friends from around the country donated to the cause.

The restoration, under the meticulous leadership of Barker, was guided by the memories of Nicholson’s daughters, Bertha May and Lillian, President Hoover himself, Mary Minthorn Strench, and others. Among the reconstruction highlights, L.S. Skene skillfully carpentered the reopening of the original front porch and moved the woodshed to its original location.

Barker also helped secure much of the furniture and furnishings seen in the house by today’s visitors.

Hoover came to Newberg for the dedication, celebrated on Aug. 10, 1955, his 81st birthday. Thousands attended, in one of the most historic days in Newberg’s history.

Under the watchful eye of current director Sarah Munro, the Hoover-Minthorn House Museum has been owned and operated by The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in Oregon since 1981.

Burt Brown Barker died on Jan. 29, 1969, at age 95. Ella preceded him in death in 1960.

George Edmonston Jr. is the retired editor of OSU’s alumni magazine, the Oregon Stater, and is a frequent contributor of history features to this newspaper. Contact him at edmonstg@ comcast.net




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