Detroit Mayor K.C. Barker & General Custer

Reprint of August 2008 interview with Donald P. Schwarck on Detroit Mayor K.C. Barker and his friendship with General Custer. Barker was mayor of Detroit during the final year of the Civil War.

Custer Q & A with Donald P. Schwarck, author of a KC Barker monograph that he plans to publish someday.

Donald P. Schwarck was born and raised in South Lyon where he taught middle school science and coached high school track and field for 32 years. He holds master’s and bachelor’s degrees in science from Eastern Michigan University.

Don’s research into Kirkland C. Barker began with an interest in Custer’s Detroit connection with regards to the Detroit Audubon Club and Mr. Barker’s hunting trip to Kansas with other Detroiters in 1869, as presented in Custer’s Nomad letters in Turf, Field, & Farm.

Detroit mayor K.C. Barker's Grosse Ile home
Detroit mayor K.C. Barker's Grosse Ile home

In 1990, Don visited the former K. C. Barker home on Grosse Ile with Dr. Lawrence Frost, the well-known Monroe, Michigan podiatrist and Custer biographer.

“We saw the copper bathtub that was known to exist during George and Libbie’s visits with the Barkers,” says Don.

Two years ago, Don retired to Mackinac Island along with his wife, Karen. Karen owns Escapades Group Tours. Both Karen and Don escort senior citizen groups on tours throughout the US and around the world.

Karin’s note: I found this interview especially interesting because I live on Grosse Ile and know the house where KC Barker once lived. It’s been known by locals as the wedding cake house because of it’s ornate architecture and white paint scheme. Recently the house was repainted and is no longer all white. It’s still gorgeous. I’ll try to snap a photo and post it soon.

Karin: Who is Kirkland C. (KC) Barker?

Don: K.C. Barker was born in New York, but moved to Detroit at a young age. He became a well-known tobacco manufacturer and owned the K C Barker, American Eagle Tobacco Co. in Detroit. His company made plug chewing tobaccos, pipe blends, and smoking tobaccos.

He was also an avid yachtsman, hunter, and horse owner. He owned Ericsson, a world record holding trotting horse. His 60′ lake yacht CORA was well known on the Great Lakes.

Mr. Barker was a highly visible member of several fraternal clubs and organizations. He was Commodore of the International Yacht Club of the Lakes, a member of the Detroit River Navy and a member of the Brooklyn, New York Yacht Club. He was the president of the Horse Association of America and a member of the Detroit Commandary of Knights Templar, as well being the founding president of the Detroit Audubon Club.

Karin: As mayor of Detroit, what is Barker’s administration most known for achieving?

Don: Barker was mayor of Detroit during the last year of the Civil War. His primary achievement as mayor was helping to head off the piracy of the USS Michigan, a 15 gun US warship, used in the protection of the lower Great Lakes during the Civil War.

The incident occurred on the morning of September 19, 1864 when Confederate conspirators highjacked the side-wheeler Philo Parsons on the Detroit River with the intent of also taking over the USS Michigan on Lake Erie. Their eventual intent was to use the powerful USS Michigan to free confederate prisoners on Johnson Island near Sandusky, Ohio.

Barker was also instrumental in stopping a conspiracy by southern sympathizers in Canada [whose intent was] to interrupt the US national election in 1864. The plan was to burn several large US border cities on the evening before the presidential election, thereby creating enough confusion to influence the election. Barker caught wind of the plan and put it down before it had time to materialize.

He also established the first nighttime police force in the city of Detroit.

Karin: Describe the relationship between Custer and KC Barker.

Don: Kirkland C. Barker befriended Custer prior to the end of the Civil War. Some twenty years Barker’s junior, Custer described him as…”a liberal and high-minded gentleman, whom I am proud to number among my warmest friends,” which speaks of Barker’s generous nature and high principles.

To Barker, Custer was the young, dashing Union Major General, whom he could parade in front of his well-established Detroit friends. To Custer, Barker was the rich, older, well-connected politician who could help to establish him in possible business or political pursuits.

Barker had also made a gift to Custer of two Scottish staghounds, Maida & Blucher, who figured prominently in many of Custer’s letters during his time while stationed on the plains of Kansas in 1867-1869.

In October of 1869, Mr. Barker, Samuel Lewis, Horace Gray (all of Grosse Isle) and a number of other Detroiters ventured to Kansas for a grand buffalo hunt, hosted by Custer.

In a letter to her cousin, Rebecca Richmond, Custer’s wife Elizabeth best defines why her husband and Barker had established such a warm and lasting friendship.

“He is so fond of dogs [and] horses and hunting,” she wrote, “Autie and he are great friends…”

It was through Barker that General Custer made numerous gifts of mounted animal trophies, Indian artifacts, and natural history specimens to Detroit’s Audubon Club.

Karin: Please explain Custer and KC Barker’s involvement with the Detroit Scientific Society.

Don: General Custer and KC Barker were affiliated with the Detroit Audubon Club, which later, after both men were deceased, made a gift of all of its natural history specimens to the Detroit Scientific Association.

Karin: Thank you Don for this clarification. Please tell us about Custer and Barker’s affiliation with the Detroit Audubon Club.

Don: Initially the Audubon Club was conceived as a hunt club for gentlemen interested in the shooting sports. The club’s first meeting was held in February of 1868 at which time a statement of purpose was written. That purpose being the enforcement of “all laws and ordinances against the unlawful killing or selling of game” and additionally, “the collection and preservation of specimens of natural history and the establishment and maintenance of proper rooms and appurtenances for the social and business meetings of a club.”

At this same meeting members unanimously decided to name the new club The Audubon Club of Detroit and K.C. Barker was elected president. Not to be confused with The Audubon Society, which did not come into existence until 1887, the Audubon Club was patterned after Chicago’s Audubon Club. The bylaws were borrowed from the Forester Club of Buffalo.

“The Club” as members knew it, established rooms on Detroit’s Buhl Block where meetings were held on the first Monday of each month. “London Field”, “Wilkes Spirit of the Times” and “Turf, Field and Farm” were periodicals to which subscription had been made and could be enjoyed by members in the club’s reading room. Card games and later billiards were popular pastimes among the members.

In an attempt to discourage the wanton taking of wild game, the first official act of the club was to print (in English and German) a warning to persons breaking local game laws. A reward of $5.00 was offered “to parties giving information that would lead to the conviction of anyone destroying game in an improper season.”

General Custer, through Barker, along with other enthusiastic contributors quickly filled the club’s rooms with a variety of animal specimens and natural history artifacts. Always an avid hunter and collector, the Audubon Club gave Custer a repository for many of his “relics of the chase.”

Karin: Did Custer ever visit Barker at his Grosse Ile home? If yes, can you provide any details of these visits?

Don: George and Libbie Custer both spent time on Grosse Isle [English spelling] with the Barkers. Libbie stayed for weeks at a time during her husband’s deployment to Kansas in 1868 and 1869. She had recently lost her mother and Mrs. Barker, who was 20 years her senior, seemed to fill the void. The Barkers also had a married daughter, Carrie B. Hull, who was Libbie’s age, and who had also befriended the Custers.

General Custer himself spent time on Grosse Isle after his court martial and forced one-year removal from duty in 1868. Custer was at Barker’s home when he received a telegram from William T. Sherman, calling him back to duty in Kansas, two months before his one-year sentence was up, ostensibly so he could lead the US Seventh Cavalry at the Battle of the Washita.

Karin: Barker died in 1875, the year preceding Custer’s death? Any record of Custer sending condolences, attending funeral, etc.?

“While being readied for entry in the International Boat Club regatta, Mr. Barker’s racing yacht Cora lay at anchor off Stony Island May 20. Aboard the Mattie, which carried three tons of ballast for the Cora that morning, were Mr. Barker, Frederick Dudgeon, Manly Webb (sailing master of the Cora), and fourteen-year-old Peter Miller, son of Mr. Barker’s gardener. The Mattie capsized; all were thrown overboard and drowned. “
Isabella E. Swan, The Deep Roots: A History of Grosse Ile to July 6, 1876; 1976

Don: This is one area that I have researched extensively… and I have unfortunately not found anything written by Custer expressing his sorrow or sense of loss after Barker’s death.

Karin: Thank you Don for this great interview! I do have another question. What became of Custer’s “relics of the chase” once displayed by the Detroit Audubon Club and the Detroit Scientific Association? Hope you can post a reply to this question when you read the blog! Again, thanks Don for all your information.

Karin, My monograph will describe the disposition of many of Custer’s offerings to the Audubon Club. Some went to Detroit Scientific Association, some to the natural history museum in Grand Rapids and several of the Indian artifacts that Custer had acquired at the Washita battle are in the Detroit Institute of Arts. The Historical Museum in Monroe has an Elk head and an Antelope head donated by members of Custer’s family on which Custer himself probably helped to do the taxidermy.

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