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Will Barnes

Walnut Grove acquaintance of the Ingallses’ in the 1870s.

Will Barnes and family of Redwood Falls Minn. Called on De Smet friends yesterday while on their way to the Black Hills for a month’s outing. Mr. Barnes was for many years a baggage man on the Tracy-Pierre run in the early days. They were to stop at Huron where Conductor John Green and wife were to join them. Mr. Barnes last saw the Black Hills in 1884 and he will find some marked changes on this visit. – August 1919, De Smet News

In her handwritten Pioneer Girl manuscript, Laura Ingalls Wilder mentions Will Barnes as the brakeman on the train when she and Mrs. McKee and daughter travel from De Smet to Manchester to spend the summer of 1883 on the McKee claim. Will spoke to Laura and she recognized him as someone she had known in Walnut Grove but hadn’t seen in several years. In the George Bye and Carl Brandt versions of Pioneer Girl, the story is expanded only slightly to say that Laura and Will talked about people they had known during the journey (Manchester is nine miles from De Smet). The shorter revised manuscript says, “It seemed as though all of Walnut Grove was moving west, one by one, just as we had done.” Will is not mentioned by name in the manuscripts or published These Happy Golden Years.

William Russell Barnes was born in Rochester (Olmsted County) Minnesota in March 1859, the son of Ruth and Ebenezer Byram Barnes (1830-1914). Will’s siblings included Emma, Mary, Alice, and Fred. The family lived near Springfield in Keokuk County, Iowa, before moving to Walnut Grove in the early 1870s. Will’s sister Emma married attorney David Thorp; he taught the winter 1877 term of school in town, with Laura Ingalls as one of his students.

In October 1878, William Masters sold Ebenezer Barnes Lot 3, Block 2, Masters Addition to Walnut Grove. The house was located on the west side of Eighth Street across from today’s city park. Mr. Barnes ran the feed mill and flour store in Walnut Grove, and when Wakeman, Frow & Company of Wisconsin started a new lumberyard in Walnut Grove in the spring of 1879, Barnes was hired to run it. The yard was on the north side of Main Street. Barnes also purchased the livery from a relative, Newton Byram; Will’s brother Fred eventually took it over. The Barnes family was active in Walnut Grove social life. They were members of the Good Templar’s lodge, as were the Ingallses.

The summer of 1879 was one of many changes for Walnut Grove. Many men were working on the construction of the railroad west of Tracy, and supplies passed through Walnut Grove. Charles Ingalls left town in June, and the rest of the family followed in September. That month, Ebenezer Barnes sold his house in Walnut Grove to Stewart O’Hara and his flour and feed mill interests as well. September 5th, Barnes made first filing on a homestead three miles south of Walnut Grove just over the line in Murray County, the SW 12-108-39, but it appears as if the family had attempted to file on the land years earlier.

Will Barnes was no longer living at home, but worked as a laborer. January 19, 1882, Will filed on homestead south of Brookings in Moody County, the SW 13-108-50, making final proof in November 1884. Will married Jeannette Towne in 1884; Nettie was born in Faribault (Rice County) Minnesota in October 1863, the daughter of Matilda and Truman Towne. The Towne family lived in Springdale Township, and after their marriage, Nettie and Will Barnes first settled in Tracy; will continued his work as a baggage handler on the railroad between Tracy and Pierre. The Barneses had four children: Alice, Amy, Harry, and Emma.

Will Barnes went into the real estate business and moved his family to Redwood Falls in the 1890s. His parents also moved to Redwood Falls, where Ebenezer again had interest in a livery; he died in 1914. Will died November 22, 1937, and Nettie on November 28, 1951, both in Redwood Falls.



There is a different Barnes family mentioned in Pioneer Girl and in published Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years, that of Visscher Barnes, early De Smet attorney and probate judge. He had a younger brother, William J. Barnes, but this family was not related to the Barnes family from Walnut Grove. Visscher and William were sons of Samuel and Catherine (Hale) Barnes. William was born in Illinois in 1857 and came to De Smet from Kenosha County, Wisconsin. William was an investor in the Kingsbury County News (formerly Jake Hopp’s newspaper), later selling his interest to Edward Couse’s adopted daughter, Lettie Hilton. In 1885, Barnes was elected clerk of De Smet Township, and became a partner with Alfred Thomas in Barnes & Thomas, Land and Loan Brokers. He married a “Miss Smith.” In 1887, the Barnes family left De Smet and settled in Oshkosh, but Will was soon single and back in De Smet. He was a member of Company E, Dakota Guard, serving in the Philippines. After living in Chicago for many years and working as a contractor, William moved to El Cajon, California, where he raised grapes until his death on July 30, 1927.


Will Barnes (PG)