The old Barber House stands at the corner of Short Tract and Oakland Road in the Town of Portage. Over the years there has been a lot of interest in the building, and the Historical Society receives many requests for information regarding the once elegant home.
You will find below information on the Barber Family and their house taken as compiled by the late Nunda Town Historian, Marjorie Frost. Members of the Historical Society are currently doing additional research of the house. Please come back soon for additional information.
Please remember that the house is on posted private property.
The Barber House or "Chestnut Place" circa 1960
Photograph by Roy Gath
Barber, John Failing b. Canajoharie, Montgomery Co. Sept 2, 1809, son of Samuel and Madeline Failing Barber; d. Feb 7, 1883, buried Oakland Hill Cemetery; m 1)Rhoda Tyler, 1830, 2)Mary Alward, Nov 29, 1836 (children: Mary, m 1)Clarence Thornton 2) Fred Medcalf; 3) Adoline Newcomb, 1851, (Children Ethel, m Arthur Yates Bennett, their child was 1)Dorothy,) Bennetts were last family members to live in house before moving to Alden in 1920
"...I have often thought how ironic the middle name Failing was for John Barber because he was anything but a failure. That was his mother's name, of course. She died before 1820 and Samuel, the father, brought John and the other children here that year. John would have been only nine years old. Before he was in his teens he was working for Col. Williams, land agent for the Cottringer Tract on which most of Portage is located. Williams owned quite a few of the 50,000 acres. He got young Barber to work clearing land and one of the things he did was to pull out stumps with an ox team and a "bull plow". His father, Samuel Barber, made these heavy plows of wood with wrought iron points and facings, although he was a millwright by trade.
The father died in 1827, leaving you John with 3 younger brothers and a sister to bring up, which he did. He saw to it that the children received educations. He worked hard and in 1835 was able to buy 50 acres of his own adjoining Col. Williams land which he worked on shares. In the winter he lumbered and rafted timber to Rochester on the Genesee when the river could be run during the spring. He is known to have walked home from Rochester.
Most of this information is from an article by Charles D. Bennett, of the Town of Portage, and appeared following Barber's death. In the Nunda NEws in 1884 (?), by which time Mr. Barber had become a very successful business man and banker, although he continued farming...(line missing here)...his historian said he was an example of what superior physical and mental ability could achieve by ordinary means and the sort of "luck" he was favored by was the result of good management and attention to business.
The house had been started by Nathaniel Alward, Barber's brother-in-law, but was purchased and finished by Barber who called it "Chestnut Place" because of the many chestnut trees there. Alward went back to Cayuga County where he came from.
Robert Gath and his family were the last to live there. He wrote this description of it....'Fifteen rooms, a half mile of halls, 9 closets, one fireplace of black marble and two of oak. The doors are curly maple and winding staircase cherry. The wall paper in the the upstairs rooms in the original paper'. He said the marble bathroom is gone.
I remember that the windows were plate glass and I keep thinking someone said there were more fireplaces. The other house was a tenant house and was built in 1884, so it must have been built by his daughter Mary. She was an early "Women's Libber", organized the Political Equality Club here and was president of the county organization. She was married twice...her first husband (Clarence Thornton) left her and she later married Fred Metcalf, an English engineer who came here to supervise some repairs to the Portage High Bridge. She always signed herself a Mary A.B. Metcalf.
I have always heard that the third wife was a hired girl, but that may be gossip. The Alwards were a very prominent family. There is a beautiful big mansion down at the end of EAst Street that William Alward started."
A margin note says there was a house belonging to J.F. Barber on the 1872 map. The present one must have replaced it."
Note: It is not known to whom Mrs Frost wrote this information or the date of the writing. Also, the last sentence is not clear - the house appears on the wall maps from the 1850s TSC
The image below is of the model of the Barber (Alward-Barber) House built by Nunda resident George Lucas. The model is on display at the Society's Historical Building. Photograph by Joan Schumaker.
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