Our first step was to search out Henry Barker’s obituary for the story of his life. We found a notice of his death in the Concord Enterprise (Aug. 29, 1917, p. 8), but we were disappointed to read that “He was one of the best known business men in this section for nearly 60 years and needs no obituary.” That was an unusual statement in the local paper; perhaps the editor did not have a lot of column room that day. We set out to learn what we could from other records.
The Barker name is well-known in Acton. In fact, there are so many Barkers, it is a challenge to disentangle them. However, we do know that Henry Barker was an Acton native, born about 1835 to Isaac Barker and Olive Handley. (The birth was not recorded in Acton, but his death notice in the Enterprise mentioned that he had been born in “the old Gould house on the crossroad to West Acton.”) Henry had three brothers that we know of, Joseph Edwin b. c. 1831, Herman b. c. 1845, and Charles b. c. 1848. Henry’s mother Olive and sister Clara Sophia both died in September 1848. His father married again to Eliza A. G. Bragg on Nov. 8, 1854 in Roxbury.
In 1867, Henry Barker bought about a quarter of an acre of land at approximately 150 Main Street (bordered on the other side by today’s Central Street) and built his own cider mill. The 1870 census lists him as a cider manufacturer with real estate of $5000 and personal possessions worth $4000. His household included his wife Louise M., daughters Clara L., Addie H. and Idella J., and brothers Herman and Charles, both listed as cider makers. (The brothers later moved closer to Boston. Herman eventually went into other ventures, but Charles remained in the business.) The 1872 town valuation shows that Barker’s operation included a cider mill with presses, an apple house, a bottling house, and $4000 stock in trade.
In modern times, preservatives allow sweet cider to be bottled and kept for long periods. Without preservatives, cider fermented. Hard cider was a common beverage in Massachusetts’ early days, but by the time Henry Barker was in business, it was a target of the temperance movement and was beginning to lose ground to beer as the alcoholic beverage of choice. Another cider product, vinegar, required additional aging (with exposure to oxygen and bacteria) beyond the first stage of fermentation. The Boston Daily Advertiser, (Saturday June 26, 1875, p. 1) reported that “The cider mills of Mr. Henry Barker at South Acton are in successful operation. About 1000 barrels of rectified vinegar are on hand, and a large amount of cider has been bottled. The mills are run by steam.” In that year, Briggs & Co.’s Middlesex County Directory, ran an ad for Henry Barker, “Manufacturer, and Wholesale Dealer in Crude and Refined Cider and Cider Vinegar, South Acton, Mass.” (p. 92)
The business was clearly a success. Land purchases, a map dated 1889, and the 1890 Acton valuation show that Henry Barker enlarged his cider and vinegar operation over time, purchasing additional property on both sides of Central Street. In November, 1888, the Concord Enterprise reported that Henry Barker had put up the largest tank in the vicinity, 18 feet in diameter and 16 feet high. (Nov. 17, 1888, p. 2) Nearby, according to Mill Corner (Nylander and Forbes, p. 9), there was a spring (and a stone spring-house as early as 1875) on the opposite side of today’s Central Street from the mill that provided a water source. Next to the mill, the South Acton Universalist Church was built in 1878.
Unusually for a man of such local success, Henry Barker did not show up much in the local newspaper except in the context of the cider mill. In town reports, we found that Henry Barker was paid during the 1890s for maintaining two street lamps (a private duty in those days).
Henry Barker established a Boston store/office at 88 Commercial Street, a location not far from the waterfront, sometime between 1875 and 1878 when he was listed in Sampson, Davenport, and Company’s Boston Directory in the business of “vinegar, &c.”(p. 81). He was listed in 1883 as an agent for an industry newspaper at the same address (Geo. P. Rowell and Co.'s American Newspaper Directory, 1883, p. 610) and appeared there in Boston directories for the rest of his life. Brother Charles was listed in the 1880 Boston City Directory as a salesman at 88 Commercial St., living in South Acton. (p. 83) By 1882, the Malden directory showed him as a resident, working in “cider vinegar (88 Commercial, B.)” (p. 37) and Boston directories showed him in the business there in later years, including 1900 and 1915.
Apple production and the cider vinegar industry made it through that period. 1896 saw a particularly large crop of apples. The Enterprise reported on October 1 that “Henry Barker received 1800 barrels of cider apples at his mill in three days last week. He is running his mill night and day.” (p. 8). On November 19, the Enterprise reported “Henry Barker is building another large tank for cider; he has already ground over 20,000 barrels and still they come.” (p. 8) During the autumn, the pressure to process all of the apples must have been intense. According to Phelan’s History of the Town of Acton, the Barker mill “ turned out thousands of barrels of cider which was stored in huge tanks and eventually shipped to the vinegar dispensing companies.... In a season when the fruitage was heavy, a combination of wind and rain could mean thousands of bushels arriving at the mill.... Wagons loaded to the limit would now and again form a queue a hundred yards long at the Barker mill.”(p. 263) Apples would also come in by rail from farmers farther afield. The Concord Enterprise of Oct. 21, 1897 mentioned apples being received by train from New Hampshire. (p.8)
In the early morning hours of October 28, 1900, a fire started near the engine room of the Barker cider mill. A watchman alerted the village, and firemen came from the other Acton villages and Maynard, but their pumping soon overwhelmed the water supply from the spring-fed basin across the street. Barker’s storage tanks started leaking many gallons of cider, and someone had the idea to pump cider to douse the flames. It was an unsuccessful attempt, and two large buildings of the cider plant burned to the ground. The firemen were able to save a large storehouse, the large tank outside the building, and 55,000 gallons of vinegar. The thirty to forty men who had been working there at the time lost their source of employment, at least temporarily. (Concord Enterprise, Nov. 1, 1900, p. 8; Boston Herald, Oct. 29, 1900, p. 3) In the Enterprise, Henry Barker thanked all those who had come to assist in putting out the fire (Nov. 1, 1900, p. 8). After a period of uncertainty, on December 12, the Enterprise reported that Henry Barker would rebuild his mill on the old site. (p. 8) At the March 25, 1901 town meeting, Acton voted to upgrade its fire-fighting capacity immediately, to buy 800 more feet of rubber-lined hose for South Acton, and to purchase “the F. R. R. water supply basin located near the cider mill of Henry Barker [and to] excavate and properly fix said basin for a possible water supply in case of fire.” Also, the town voted to hire “a competent man at each part of the town where fire apparatus is located to properly care for it.”
One might have expected Henry Barker to slow down by the 1900s, but apparently, he did not. In 1908, the Enterprise reported that after a serious illness, “Henry Barker is able to attend to his business again and goes daily to Boston.” (Apr. 29, p8)
On January 22, 1914, Henry’s wife Louisa (Atwood) Barker passed away at the age of 81, after an illness of several months. Sometime in 1917, Henry moved to Dorchester to stay with his daughter. He remarried that summer; Acton’s records show that Henry Barker, merchant, age 82 (born in Acton, son of Isaac Barker and Olive Handley) married Emma C. (Sawyer) Gove of Boston, age 53 on July 28, 1917. Unfortunately, the marriage lasted only a few weeks.
On August 15, 1917, the Concord Enterprise reported that Henry Barker, who had been living in Dorchester for a few months, was suffering from gangrene of the foot. He had been operated on at the Forest Hills hospital, and there was at first hope for recovery. (p. 8) Unfortunately, he died in Boston on August 23, 1917. He was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery. His heirs were his daughters, listed in the Concord Enterprise as Clara L. Barker, Addie H. Burke, Della J. Tuttle, all of Acton, and Olive G. B. Hunt and Medora C. Robbins, both of Melrose. (Sept 12, p. 4)
The Barker mill in South Acton operated for many years after Henry’s death. Owned at first by Addie (Barker) Burke then her husband Fred, it was later bought by J. P. W. von Laer Company of Boston. Fred Burke became a partner in the enterprise and continued to manage the mill until his death in 1940. On October 27, 1951, the Barker Mill burned down again. It was the end of an era.