Aug. 17, 2008
of fishing: The Barber brothers of West Duluth
By Sam Cook
It must seem easy for the Barber brothers, fishing
this way. Driving up to Wild Rice Lake north of Duluth. Putting
the 14-foot aluminum boat in at the ramp. Motoring anywhere they
want to go with the 9.9-horsepower Johnson.
Easy, because as kids, growing up in West Duluth,
they didn’t have this kind of luxury. But then, they grew
up a long time ago.
There’s Gene, in the stern, on this July
morning. This is his boat and motor. He’s the kid brother
among these three fishing Barber brothers. He’s 80.
Beside him is Wil. He’s 89. And up front,
on the bow seat rigging his Beetle Spin lure, is John Barber. He’s
As they do about once a week, these fishing brothers
have come out to see if they can catch some walleyes and crappies.
They usually fish Boulder Lake, but Gene has to be home by early
afternoon, so they have decided to fish a little closer to town.
Gene points the boat toward a rocky shoreline
where John once caught a big walleye, and they begin drifting. They
each use a closed-face spinning reel. Gene and Wil bounce Whistler
jigs with minnows. John remains faithful to his Beetle Spin, which
he fishes below a bobber, also with a minnow.
As they fish, they reflect on the fishing days
of their youth and a way of life that most of us never knew. They
were boys before and during the Depression. Their dad, also named
John Barber, worked as a safety man at Interlake Iron. He took his
eight kids fishing often, the brothers say.
But most days, when dad was at work, the boys
would take off on their own.
A Long Walk
“We’d get up. It was still dark out,”
Wil says. “We’d water the tomatoes. We put a little
water on each plant to make it look like we watered them good. Then
we’d walk up to Midway Creek.”
The boys could catch brook trout in Midway, which
is near Proctor — a long way from the boys’ home on
62nd Avenue West in West Duluth.
“Then we’d walk up to Rocky Run and
Hay Creek,” Wil said. “I clocked that in the car the
other day. It was 10 miles one way. We’d think nothing of
Gene, who came along a decade later in the Barber
lineup, was lucky enough to have a bike. That opened up another
world of fishing.
“I rode up to Fish Lake to fish,”
Gene says. “Then I rowed a boat all day. Then I’d ride
the bike back home.”
In the 1930s, Fish Lake had no walleyes, according
to the Barbers. All the boys remember catching back then, other
than brook trout in streams, were northern pike. After John and
Wil gained access to a Model T Ford, they would take Gene along
fishing when they drove to Fish Lake.
“They were good brothers,” Gene says.
Sometimes, their dad would take them up to the
“One time, we drove back to Duluth with
a bunch of big northerns on the hood of our car,” John remembers.
Mom was Busy
Back home, Myrtle Barber worked long days raising
her eight kids.
“Mom would bake 12 loaves of bread every
other day,” Wil says.
And there were those tomatoes in the garden.
“She’d can 200 quarts of tomatoes
each year, in two-quart jars,” John says.
“Potatoes, too,” Gene says. “We
used to have to pick the potato bugs off of ’em.”
The Barbers didn’t have much money in those
days, and it didn’t take much to brighten a kid’s day.
“Times were so tough,” Gene says.
“We hardly ever had milk. We’d do an errand for a neighbor,
and they’d give us a glass of milk. That was a big deal.”
When it was county fair time, the Barbers’
dad would give each of the kids a quarter to spend.
“That was a lot of money back then,”
Crappie in the Boat
Between the stories, the brothers catch an occasional
fish and replace minnows stolen by fish that got away. Wil catches
a couple of modest perch and throws them back. Then John’s
bobber goes under, and the Beetle Spin has fooled a crappie. It’s
a good one. He cranes it on board, removes the hook and tosses the
crappie on the floor.
Wil catches about a 3-pound northern pike. It
goes back in the lake.
Each of the brothers is long-since retired. John
put in 32 years at the U.S. Steel plant in Duluth. Wil was a contractor,
insurance salesman and a vacuum-cleaner salesman. Gene made his
career in vacuum-cleaner sales, too, starting out as a door-to-door
Gene and his wife life in Duluth year-around.
But come November each year, Wil and John fly to Florida, where
each has a mobile home on the same lake. Both of their wives have
died. They spend a lot of time fishing for crappies and largemouth
bass on Florida lakes. John has a 10-pound largemouth on his wall
at home, and a 2¾-pound crappie. Both from Florida.
But it’s not all fun and games in Florida,
“One thing about that mobile home park,”
he says, “you have to dodge the widows all the time.”
Older men, especially handsome ones who can catch
fish, are apparently in short supply down there. The widows notice
“They give you a second look, all right,”
And he isn’t looking back.
“Not in the market,” he says flatly.
“Right here’s where I got my big walleye.”
He points to a weedline along shore where he caught
the fabled 6- or 7-pounder a few years back.
“He was a dandy,” John says.
One gets the impression, watching the Barber brothers
on Rice Lake, that they have always been this way together. At 70,
at 50, at 30, at 13. Tagging along with each other. Fishing simply.
Catching fish. Taking a few home to eat.
Clearly, they enjoy being on the water together.
They regard each other as complete equals. No one has to be in charge.
Nobody is better than the next guy. Maybe that comes from growing
up in a big family in hard times.
And, yes, they seem to appreciate being able to
fish at 80 and 89 and 90. But they don’t consider it a particularly
big deal. It’s just fishing, the way they’ve always
“Seems like just the other day I was 21,”
The boat seats creak.
Small waves slap the aluminum hull.
The July sun shines down on the Barber brothers.