Growing up in the 1930s in rural Clayton County

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Merlin and Eunice Barry

By Caroline Rosacker

Eunice and Merlin Barry of rural Colesburg grew up in close proximity to one another on family farms in rural Clayton County. Eunice, 88, is the daughter of Cecil and Myrtle Hansel, and has one sister, Janette. Merlin, 91, is the son of Frank and Edith Barry and had one brother, Frank Jr. The couple has been married for 67 years. 

Eunice spoke of simpler times. "There were always neighbor kids to play with," Eunice recalled. "My dad fixed up a tire swing that was pretty popular. We had kittens and we used to dress them up and push them around in our doll buggy in the summertime."

Merlin grew up on the Turkey River about two miles south of Promiseland Winery. His grandparents, Michael and Margaret Flynn-Barry, immigrants from County Cork, Ireland, originally owned the property where the popular winery sets. "My grandfather worked on the railroad that went up to West Union," Merlin said. "He serviced the engine with some other fellows. There was a turnaround and water tower at Estes Point."

Farm life

Eunice described life on the family farm. "We had everything on the farm," she explained. "We weren't just dairy or beef farmers. There was always a lot going on. We would get together with neighbors and work. If you needed something done you went to the phone and called – and everybody came." 

Merlin enjoyed being on the water. "Duane Hagen and I used to float the Turkey River, and Frank and I liked to fish and swim," he commented. "We also had lots of chores to do." 

"I started making pies when I was old enough to roll out the dough," said Eunice. "I enjoyed doing it and helping my mother with the canning. I did the lawn mowing with a reel mower and milked cows by hand. Mom washed our laundry on a washboard when I was little. My dad wore bib overalls. I still don't know how my mother wrung them out by hand. We eventually bought a wash machine that ran on gas. In 1946, when we got electricity, my parents bought an electric machine."

Eunice's mother also shared her seamstress skills. "My mother taught me to sew on her treadle sewing machine, and also how to quilt," she told The Press. "The children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren all have quilts made and quilted by Grandma Barry. I still do some stitching for Quilts of Valor." 

Country schools

Eunice was educated at Dingesville Country School. "It was named after the Dinges family," she reminisced. "It was a one-room schoolhouse. I had lots of teachers including Cecil Tomkins, Marjorie Walter, Irene Blaker and April Finnegan was my last."  

Merlin attended the Turkey River School. "One year there was close to 40 kids and they had to put up a partition to separate the classroom," he remembered. "Esther Bolsinger taught on one side and Marion Penhollow on the other. There were a lot of big families back then and construction workers and their families in the area."  

It was common for people to purchase unused school buildings once they were vacated. "My Uncle purchased Turkey River School and moved it to the top of the hill," he noted. "Clarence Wachendorf purchased Hunter School and moved it. Both schools eventually burned down. Jack Hess bought the Dingesville School and moved it to North Buena Vista, and it is still standing." 

Going to town

Both families enjoyed a trip to town. "My mother had chickens," said Eunice. "She had a crate that held 30 dozen eggs and she would take them to Osterdock and trade them for groceries. Our cream went to Osterdock also. I would sometimes go with my dad to deliver cream and go to Willman's Store and get two large dips of Purity ice cream for a nickel."

"We went to Millville and Guttenberg every weekend," Merlin commented. "My brother and I went to the movies while our parents sat in front of Tujetsch's grocery store and Cerny's Spic and Span and visited."


In 1945 Merlin's parents purchased a farm located up the road from the Hansel property. "Merlin was a freshman at Guttenberg High School when the family relocated," explained Eunice. "He walked three miles to Millville and met Edith Stegan, who had a car and gave him a ride to school in Guttenberg. That fall Merlin went to Colesburg High School to finish his education."

"We became neighbors and got to know one another," Merlin said with a smile. "We didn't date until I graduated and Eunice was a senior in high school. We went to dances at Lakeside – Tom Owens Cowboys used to play, and the movie theater."

Merlin recalled when the Barry family home caught fire. "My parents bought the farm on a Saturday and that night the barn and outbuildings caught fire," he said. "Several years later my brother and I had our team of horses in the field. We saw all these cars driving by and then we saw the smoke! The house was on fire! A crank phone used – one long ring – to let people know there was a fire. Everyone from miles around showed up with cream cans and buckets and anything that would hold water. We had it put out before the fire department got there."  

Military service

"After I graduated, Merlin was called to the military," said Eunice. "We weren't married until after he came back from Germany. I worked at Muters during that time, and lived in an apartment above Ocie Nad ing’s beauty shop with two other girls, Donna (Kottke) Buechel and Betty (Steen) DeCook. Later, in 1954, they were maid of honor and bridesmaid in our wedding, along with my sister Janette.” 

“We took our basic training in El Paso, Texas,” Merlin remembered. “A third of us went to Panama, Germany and Korea. I was lucky enough to go to Germany. Duane Hagen and I were drafted together. He ended up in Korea. We were right out in the middle of the desert for six and a half months. We bunked in old World War II prisoner of war camps. They resembled chicken coops with tarpaper on the outside. The temperature climbed to about 110-115 degrees the last six weeks. It was pretty miserable.” 

In January 1954, Merlin returned to northeast Iowa following his tour of duty. He and his brother, Frank, were talented musicians and formed a band. “We formed a band when I returned from the service,” Merlin noted. “We started up and played just for the fun of it. A couple of other servicemen eventually joined our group. We had a couple of different names: ‘The Buckaroos’ and ‘Frank Barry and the Band of Stars.’ We became pretty popular and started playing at venues farther out. I quit when I had to change out of my band clothes and change into chore clothes because we weren’t getting home until the morning. That was enough of that!”

The Barry family

The couple was married and built a home on Merlin’s parents’ property and began farming. “We were married in August 1954 and started building our home in ‘55,” shared Eunice. “Merlin literally built our home. It took a couple of years. We eventually moved into our new home in 1957.” 

The Barrys have four children: Debra, Michael, Diane, and Patricia; eight grandchildren and two step-grandchildren; 13 great-grandchildren and six step-great-grandchildren. “We have one that isn’t married yet, and three of them only have one child apiece so there may be more,” Eunice laughed. “We both came from small families, and neither Janette or Frank had any children, so our kids don’t have any first cousins.”

“My father passed away at age 62, our youngest daughter wasn’t quite a year old,” Eunice remembered. “He died on the Fourth of July. We had family in, and my parents were watching the children while my sister, Janette, Merlin and I went to view the fireworks in Prairie du Chien. We stopped at ‘Doug’s’ on our way home for a sandwich, and ‘Red’ Block walked in and told us the bad news. It was quite a shock.”

Merlin’s father passed away in 1947 at a young age. “I had one year left in high school when my dad passed away at age 60,” he noted. “We had Beirman, of Guttenberg as the undertaker. In those days they had the visitation at the person’s home. My dad always planted the crops so I took over that job. In those days when you planted corn you used a check row wire planter and a team of horses. My dad taught the horses to respond to the verbal command of ‘Gee’ (right) and ‘Haw’ (left). It also snowed on Memorial Day the year he died! Enough that you could make snowballs!” 

“We had a good time growing up in the 30’s and 40’s. It was not such a fast pace as it is now. We didn’t have much, but nobody else did either. We have been very blessed throughout the years and are grateful for all that we have,” they concluded.

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