Family Story

1900 Banyan : Men's Robe

The Banyan in a full frontal view.

Albert Fremont Barfoot was born into a family of eight on August 18, 1862, one year after the outbreak of the Civil War in the U.S. His mother and father, Jane Dougherty Barfoot and Benjamin Taylor Barfoot, each in their early thirties, lived with Albert’s five older siblings—Andrew, John, Louisa, Cyrus, and Enos—in the small city of Decorah, Iowa. Benjamin and Jane, both natives of Ohio, made their living the way that many Midwestern Americans did at the time—by farming. While Benjamin farmed, Jane ran the household and took care of their five children, whose ages ranged from her one-year-old son Enos to her 10-year-old son Andrew. Albert’s birth marked her sixth child. Later on, in 1869, Jane would give birth to her seventh and final child—a daughter named Annetta Mary, sometimes referred to as Mary, and at other times called Nettie.

At the time of Albert’s birth, around 1,920 people lived in Decorah (United States Census Bureau). The first American settlers to move to Iowa arrived in 1833, just thirty years earlier, so the Barfoots were among the earliest citizens of the state (Schwieder). Situated in Winneshiek County on Iowa’s northernmost border, the city of Decorah rests atop an underground crater nearly four miles in diameter, the result of a meteorite crash approximately 470 million years before Albert’s birth (Love). However, no one yet knew of this giant crater that lay beneath the city—it was not discovered until about 2007, and there is little physical evidence on the surface. Instead, the physical features that marked the city of Decorah at the time were the Upper Iowa River that flowed right through the city and the unassuming architectural structures of the town surrounded on all sides by rugged hills and “fertile prairies” characteristic of northeastern Iowa (Alexander 56). Iowa had achieved the name “The Beautiful Land” due to its first inhabitants’ belief in its “superiority of climate, soil, and location” (Alexander 1). This land, and its soil, provided the Barfoots with their humble but steady living. 

Grant Wood - American Gothic - Google Art Project

Because of the fertility of the land and its diverse natural resources, a considerable percentage of Iowa’s population was made up of farmers; “by the 1870s, farms and small towns blanketed the entire state” (Schweider). Grant Wood’s famous 1930 painting American Gothic, pictured on the right, was set in Wood’s native Iowa and was meant to encapsulate the rural American values of the Midwestern state—for instance, the hard work and dedication of its farmers (Art Institute of Chicago). Though we cannot know exactly what crops Benjamin grew on his farm, we do know that it was typical of farmers in Iowa to grow wheat, which was the “principle product” of Winneshiek County, before and during the Civil War (Alexander 220). After the war, however, farmers were urged “to diversify their production, raise corn rather than wheat, and convert that corn into pork, beef, and wool whenever possible” (Schweider).

Iowa was also known for its large population of immigrants, mainly European (Schweider). Albert’s own family embodied a blend of cultural heritage: Benjamin’s father was from Ireland and his mother from Scotland, and the name “Barfoot” itself is a Scottish variant of the German origin, “Barfuss” (“Barfoot Name Meaning”). The Barfoots’ religion was listed as Episcopalian, an Anglican religion rooted in the Church of England. The political stance of the entire family is not known, though in a 1916 Iowa newspaper, Albert is referred to as an “amiable Republican,” the dominant political party in Iowa (Cresco plain dealer, Secretary of State). During the Civil War, Iowa’s Republicans occupied themselves with “advancing the Union cause,” meaning that the party was anti-slavery (Secretary of State).

All of the Barfoots were able to read and write. This would have been typical of white Iowa citizens at the time, as by the time Iowa became a state in 1846 there were 400 organized school districts and schools were “open and free for every class of white citizens between the ages of five and twenty-one years” (Alexander 101-102). Albert later wrote in an Iowa state census questionnaire that his education consisted of common school and college. It is possible that the Barfoot children attended their early schooling in a log schoolhouse, the prevailing educational structure for the first twenty years of Iowa’s history (Alexander 101). However, by the time that Albert was seven years old, the number of log schoolhouses in Iowa had dwindled to 336, making it likely that Albert studied his later lessons in a more modern building (Alexander 101). 

Blackboard by Winslow Homer, 1877

An 1880 census lists Barfoot’s occupation as simply “laborer,” most likely meaning that he worked on his father’s farm with his brothers, though we cannot know for sure. What we do know is that on August 27, 1891, at 28, Albert got married. His new wife, the Canadian-born Rebecca Holmes, was one year older than Albert and had become a schoolteacher when she was just seventeen years old, a profession she held for seven years. As Rebecca also received her education in Decorah’s public schools, it is likely that she and Albert were classmates. Rebecca was also a member of the Episcopal Church, and was “exceptionally active” in church work, such as Sunday school and Ladies’ Aid. According to a local newspaper, she was “a woman possessed of high ideals and was always interested in the betterment of the community . . . Her high qualities of mind and character gained for her an extensive circle of friends who held her in the highest esteem.” Once married, the couple moved out of their parents’ homes, but stayed in Decorah, where they had their first daughter, Dorothy, in 1896. A few years later, around 1900, Albert left farming behind and, perhaps because of the influence of his intellectual spouse, became a physician.

 

In the early twentieth century, most physicians did not have their own offices, or even a separate building to work in. Instead, physicians during Barfoot’s time “typically operated out of the front room or parlor of their home” (“Doctor’s and Dentist’s Offices”). However, as unglamorous as his work may have been, it certainly added glamour to his life outside of his work—while the average yearly income for a farmer around the beginning of the twentieth century was just over $285, physicians could earn anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 or more a year (United States Bureau of Labor Statistics 59, Rothstein 95). Albert would have enjoyed not only a large increase in wealth, but an increase in esteem as well; physicians were considered part of an elite class due to the degree of education they received (Heit). It is around this time that Barfoot obtained a banyan—a garb that emphasized not only his social and economic class, but also his intelligence and education. The banyan also solidified Albert’s own personal upward mobility, achieving the prestige of an upper-class career in medicine after being raised by middle-class farmers.

In 1916, sixteen years after Albert started his profession, he was thrown a curve ball in his career: Iowa instituted state-wide prohibition laws, four years before national prohibition (Hanson). Iowa was one of the three most strongly pro-prohibition states in the union and the home of several of the movement’s leaders (Hanson). The state’s ban on alcohol would have hindered Albert’s ability to freely prescribe alcohol as treatment for his patients, which was a popular practice among physicians at the time (Spooner 159). While it was still possible for physicians to prescribe alcohol for “medicinal purposes,” pharmacies no longer remained stocked with alcohol, and obtaining it became a more difficult process (Spooner 159). That very same year, alcohol’s “supposed medicinal properties” were declared to be “entirely unsupported by research,” and its use in therapeutics had “no scientific basis,” according to the American Medical Association (Gage). In fact, some claimed that alcoholic stimulants as medicine were “worse than useless” (Spooner 421). Eventually, the nation-wide debate over alcohol prompted Congress to pass a bill in 1921, one year after national prohibition had been put in place, limiting wine and liquor prescriptions to not more than a half pint in ten days, and banning beer altogether (Gage). Thus, Barfoot, a fairly seasoned physician, would have had to learn to adapt his old practices and routine to fit the changing beliefs and laws of a nation immersed in prohibition. 

The first World War brought changes, also. Though Albert did not serve in the war, nor did his siblings, they surely would have felt the overwhelming absence and loss of fellow Iowans: 114,242 Iowa men and women left the state to serve in the armed forces, and an estimated 3,576 died (Horton and Morain). Though the economy boomed during the war due to increased exports to Europe, at the end of the war in 1918 Iowa’s economy was in crisis (Stromquist 20). Failing industries led to the dissolve of unions, bitter strikes, and unemployment for many workers (Stromquist 20). The agricultural economy also suffered post-war, as “the loss of farms, the breakup of families, the extreme poverty, and the struggle for subsistence had become commonplace in rural Iowa” (Stromquist 20). It is not known whether or not Barfoot or his family members were directly affected by the poor economic conditions in Iowa, and the country as a whole, but surely they would have been rattled by the destitution and melancholy that had taken hold of their hometown.

Despite having moved on to separate places, professions, and marriages, records show that the seven Barfoot siblings continued to keep in touch and visit each other often. When Cyrus Barfoot and his wife moved back to Decorah in 1915, they were greeted with a “surprise party” from family and friends, which, according to the local newspaper, Enos Barfoot and his wife came from Cresco, Iowa, to attend (Cresco plain dealer). The same newspaper shows that Enos and his wife “returned Wednesday from a visit at the Dr. [Albert] Barfoot home at Decorah” (Twice-a-week plain dealer).

Even without his siblings, Albert maintained a full house. About one year after he began his medical profession, Rebecca gave birth to another daughter, whom they named Marjory. Around that time, the family lived with a single, 26-year old woman named Nellie M. Slayton, who boarded with them for a few years. Then, in 1920, Rebecca’s mother Mary Holmes, an immigrant from Durham, England, and a now 74-year-old widow, came to live with the Barfoots in their home in Decorah. Mary continued to live with her daughter and son-in-law even after Dorothy and Marjory had moved out of the house in 1930 and were living on their own, leaving the 67-year-old Albert, still working as a physician, to provide for his wife and mother-in-law.

Rebecca died on February 11, 1934, and was buried in Phelps cemetery, the same cemetery in which Albert’s parents had been buried. Her funeral was held in the Episcopal Church, the church she had remained loyal to throughout her years in Decorah. However, Albert was not left totally alone—her mother, Mary, kept him company for several more years before passing away on May 12, 1937. She, too, was buried in Phelps cemetery. In his final years, one can suppose that Albert was frequently visited by his daughters and siblings, before finally being laid to rest in Phelps cemetery on November 20, 1939, at 86 years old. There is no information on the cause of death—we only know that his tombstone read “Father.”