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Visscher Barnes

Early Probate Judge, Vice-President of the Temperance Society, and first director of the school board in De Smet.

“Oh, he’s going in for politics, I guess,” said Pa. “He acts that way, affable and agreeable to everybody…”. – Little Town on the Prairie, Chapter 8, “Fourth of July”

Visscher Vere Barnes was born February 11, 1851, in Rensselaer (Albany County) New York, eldest child of Samuel and Catherine (Hale) Barnes. When a young boy, Visscher’s family moved to Kenosha County, Wisconsin. He graduated from the normal school in Oshkosh, and taught school in Wisconsin prior to attending Oberlin University in Ohio. He graduated with honors from Yale Law School and did post-graduate work in Chicago.

The Settlement of De Smet. Married in Wisconsin to Mary La Belle Evans in January 1876, the couple moved west to Brookings County in 1879, settling in Oakwood, where Barnes opened a law office. An early advertisement in the Brookings County Press read: Mr. Barnes has settled in Oakwood and opened a law office. He is one of the rising young lawyers of La Crosse, Wis., having studied law in the office of the Hon. Angus Cameron, senator from Wisconsin. Mr. Barnes is prepared to attend to all kinds of law and collection business, having been admitted to practice in all courts. Daughter Mary was born in Brookings County shortly after their arrival. Although Lawyer Barnes announced his plans to move his practice to Sioux Falls or Yankton, he soon made the decision to settle in De Smet instead. In September 1879, he filed on a homestead near De Smet, the SW 28-111-56, located just south of Eliza Jane Wilder’s claim. Although forty acres of Barnes’ homestead was platted as Barnes Addition to the town of De Smet, it has remained as farmland to this day. The Brookings County Press of March 11, 1880, announced: V.V. Barnes has moved to De Smet, where he has gone into the land business. The first building used as his law office stood at the south end of Block 4 (Charles Ingalls built on the north end of the block); for many years, it was occupied by John Owen, then it was used as the telephone office.

When Charles Ingalls wrote about the settlement of De Smet, he included the following: “V.V. Barnes came about the 12th of March 1880 with some lumber for a shanty on his claim 1/2 mile west of De Smet. He put up his shanty and went to bed in it. He had blankets with him and a thermometer which he hung up by the head of his bed. in the morning when he awoke and looked at the thermometer it was 12 degrees below zero. I well remember seeing him coming across the prairie towards the [surveyors’] house and you may be sure he did not come slow.”

The Barnes family spent the Hard Winter of 1880-1881 in De Smet. In one letter to old friends in De Smet, he wrote: “I can well remember the hard winter of 80-81 when Friend Tinkham was chief cook and bottle washer for the Bachelor Inn, where beans was the main diet for some time. Twisted hay for fuel and if we were fortunate to find a little sugar we carried it around in our vest pockets for special occasions.”

Letter From an Early Settler. Zion City, Ill., Jan. 25, 1917.

Editor News: Allow me to thank you for the number of the News just received containing directory of many of the old residents of your city and county. To read them over has given me great pleasure and the manes recall many cherished memories of the old time friends and neighbors and the pioneer incidents hallowed by the associations of the past. Glad to see that so many I once knew so well are still with you. I find I have quite a number of relics of those days that I think would be of value to a historical society if you have one in De Smet. Old Kingsbury’s banner was always in the van of moral reform and progressive legislation and many of the causes espoused in that day by your citizens have since become triumphant. A little time in that country with the old friends would put a red letter day in the calendar for me…

I was there with the rest of the boys during the hard winter of ’80, ’81, when that region was sealed up after the departure of the doctor and after he left only one person was taken sick, Martin Brislin, and he got well, those days when fuel was short and provisions were scarce, and the citizens congregated in successive business headquarters round one rousing circulating fire and enjoyed a fellowship interspersed with ‘rousements’ and sympathetic goodwill rare indeed. Some of us had supplies laid up for the winter but when a shortage came to the town everybody divided up and all was distributed. I remember scratching round town several hours one day to find something to eat for my family consisting of a wife and baby and succeeded finally in securing a small paper bag of wheat ground in a coffee mill and there was a liberal dispensation of straws and mustard seed. The baby gagged but otherwise everything went well on that diet. When the first train came in from the east in May it was loaded not with provisions but agricultural implements and I recollect George Wilmarth’s remarking that he was hungry and succeeded in getting hold of a drag-tooth for breakfast and a Randall harrow for dinner which seemed to so amuse him that it satisfied his appetite and everyone felt jolly.

This edition of your paper is a rich treat and I am glad you were so thoughtful as to send me a copy. With kindest regards for yourself and family, sincerely your friend… V.V. Barnes.

Visscher Barnes was one of the charter members of the Congregational Church in De Smet, he conducted Sunday school classes, and he served as deacon. He was the first school board director of the De Smet town school, and later served as its clerk, resigning in 1883.

As Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote in Little Town on the Prairie, Visscher Barnes did indeed “go in for politics.” He was appointed probate judge of Kingsbury County at the first meeting held in 1880, and served as city attorney for De Smet. He was a member of the Dakota Territory house of representatives and served as a member of the provisional senate of South Dakota. He was also United States commissioner for South Dakota. Barnes was appointed by the attorney general of South Dakota to prosecute cases under the prohibition law.

After moving to Illinois in the 1890s, Barnes served as city attorney for both Lake Bluff and Zion City. He ran for governor of Illinois in 1900 and was Zion City town judge from 1904-1907. Visscher Barnes continued to practice law until his death.

Visscher Barnes was married three times and had two children born in Dakota Territory: Mary “Mamie” Barnes (1879) and Paul Barnes (1883). In her Pioneer Girl memoir, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote that she sat with Mrs. Barnes’ baby so that she could attend Sunday evening church services. Mrs. Barnes during the Little House years was the former Mary LaBelle Evans (born 1852), daughter of Mary Ann (Mason) and Henry Evans; she was born in Williamsville (Erie County) New York. Mary and Visscher were married January 13, 1876. She died in New York in 1895.

Visscher Barnes died in Waukegan, Illinois on September 27, 1924, and was buried at Kenosha, Wisconsin. His obituary in the De Smet News read:

V.V. Barnes Dies; Lived at Zion City. / Death at Waukegan, Illinois Follows Operation. / Was Noted as Attorney. Founder of Zion City; Later Private Practice.

V.V. Barnes, pioneer of De Smet, and an attorney at Zion City since leaving here, died September 27 at a hospital in Waukegan, Ill., following a surgical operation. He was 73 years of age and had been in ill health for some time.

Mr. Barnes attained some prominence thru acting attorney for the Zion City leader, John Alexander Dowie, from the founding of the city to the death of Mr. Dowie.

V.V. Barnes came to De Smet in 1880, taking as a claim the present F.P. Hardy farm. Later forty acres of it was platted as Barnes addition.

In 1882 Mr. Barnes was elected as probate judge and he resigned in the fall of 1883 owing to ill health. His brother, Will Barnes, was appointed in his place. Mr. Barnes was a very active worker in the local Congregational church, of which he was a charter member and an early deacon. He served in the territorial legislature before division of the two Dakotas.

Going to Zion City with Mr. Dowie, Mr. Barnes served as legal advisor to him, and in 1903 was appointed city judge, said to be the first city judge in Illinois. After the death of Dowie, Mr. Barnes remained in Zion City in private practice, but had not been in harmony with the present leader and had fought him on many points.

An interest in his old home kept the De Smet News on Mr. Barnes table recent years and it was not long ago that he wrote of early days for publication in the paper.

Surviving the former De Smetite are his brother, Will J. Barnes of El Cajon, Cal., his widow, Mrs. Anna M. Barnes; two children, Attorney Paul Barnes of Boise, Idaho, and Mrs. Mamie Brunson of El Cajon, Cal.

Funeral services were held at Zion City Tuesday and burial was at Kenosha, Wis.


Visscher Barnes (LTP 8, 19, 21; THGY 4; PG), see also Will Barnes
     Mrs. Barnes (PG)