Edith Cleaves Barry
We would have been friends, I just know it. Edith Cleaves Barry, founder of The Brick Store Museum in Kennebunk, Maine, was born in 1884. Although she never married, she managed to travel to every continent – except Antarctica – before her death in 1969. I instantly admire her tenacity.
I cannot even fathom the idea of a single woman traveling the world during the late 19th, early 20th century. From the moment I walk into the main entrance of this Museum, I’m determined to learn all I can, about her life, her art, and her love of travel.
To admit I am fascinated, is an understatement.
Edith was born in Boston, but spent most of her childhood in Montclair, New Jersey. Because her father was partner in an import-export business, both she and her siblings were able to travel often with him, in the states and overseas.
In 1899, when she was just 15 years old, Edith won a drawing competition in the New York Sunday Herald. It was a portrait of George Washington, entered against other youngsters in the paper’s “page for boys and girls.”
Traveling to Rhode Island and attending the Mary C Wheeler Preparatory School for Girls from 1901-1904, Miss Barry worked tirelessly, to become the best artist possible. She went on to study as an impressionist in France and continued to visit that country often throughout her life as a single woman traveling.
I feel lucky, to be walking through several rooms throughout the museum. I’m drawn in slowly, studying each of her most – prized works of art. Some hang on the walls, while others are locked up in long, wood and glass cases.
Miss Barry’s portraits are bright and colorful. Each clamors to tell me a story. Her numerous sketches, thousands of them, are both amazing, and impressive. These little drawings seem to capture a split-second in time. They accurately document impressions of what was around Edith. It’s also apparent – that these moments were so captivating – she just had to get them down on paper.
When I learn that she’d traveled to Paris for the first time, alone, in 1906, I am stunned. To be a single woman traveling in 1906 would have been almost unheard of.
I stop for a moment, to remember my mom, in the ’60’s, so many years later. She was a stay-at-home wife, bringing up five daughters, and keeping up with housework. It seemed like all of my friend’s mothers did the same exact thing. It was their lot in life and what was expected, I guess. If they hated their everyday life, we never knew. They never complained about it.
Only when Momma was on her death bed, did I even learn the truth. She’d always longed to travel with my father. Now, she would die, regretting that they’d never made the time. The sad fact is, I’m certain mom never expressed an interest, in venturing from our house, or little town, to travel with my dad. If she had, he would have made it happen.
I stand quietly, in front of an image of Miss Barry. It’s from 1917, or thereabouts. She looks regal, dressed in her Woman’s Camouflage Reserve uniform. Hired by the WCRC, along with other artists, Edith designed camouflage for the Army and Navy troops during WWI.
Pretty amazing, if you ask me.
A Single Woman Traveling
Edith Barry wrote about her travels in journals. She created postcards and sent them to friends and family. I pause, to read one of her Christmas cards, penned in 1945. It’s nice to see this holiday sketch of places she’d loved, paired then, with colorful words describing each.
Some of her simple sketches seem to be done in haste, perhaps while she awaits the next exhilarating destination. They all seem so life-like, a sweet breath of imagination and insight. A documented thought, on a page I want to step into.
Brick Store Museum
The Brick Store Museum was founded by Barry in 1936, in what once was a dry goods store, opened by her great-grandfather in 1825.William Lord was a prominent ship owner and merchant in the Kennebunk area. After his death, the shop passed through family hands, and eventually Edith inherited the property.
She added three adjacent buildings, along with a house, barn and carriage stalls. When the museum opened on Main Street, it was one of the few in our nation to open during the Great Depression. Miss Barry became the first director, but retired in 1948, when her love for art and travel tugged at her heartstrings. It was a pull which proved too strong to deny.
I smile, imagining this wonderful, adventurous time of her life. In 1959, Miss Barry travelled the world with a close friend. They titled their trip “Around the world in 80 days.” A fitting name, as this epic journey ends on that 80th day.
Today, The Brick Store Museum holds many historic items centered around Kennebunk, Maine. From fashion and medicine, to clocks, looms, and stately furniture, the museum is a representation of both people and state.
An interesting model ship, fashioned from lamb and fish bones, by inmates at Dartmoor Prison, sits proudly in a glass case on a polished – wood bureau in the museum. Upstairs, guests can even catch a glimpse of the original windlass, a pulley system used to hoist heavy goods, just by looking up through a skylight. Interesting portraits of the Lord family and other descendants, hang on walls throughout the building.
Edith Cleaves Barry died in Biddeford Maine in 1969. Kennebunk’s Hope Cemetery, across the street from The Brick Store Museum, holds her remains.
Art museums up and down the Eastern Seaboard display her work. For over 60 years, she was a painter, sculptor, travel writer, photographer, and adventurer. A woman so far ahead of those years she lived in, a single woman traveling the world.
“I dream my painting, then I paint my dream.”
Vincent Van Gogh.
I feel Edith would have quoted the same, or something quite similar, during her lifetime.
I wish I had known her, each of us a single woman traveling. We would have been good friends, I just know it.