Significant maritime collection comes to library

News Photo by Diane Speer Maritime historian Patrick LaBadie and Alpena County Library Special Collections librarian Marlo Broad look over a few of the materials in the extensive Leonard J. Barr II maritime collection.

Ellen Barr of St. Clair believes her late husband, Leonard’s vast maritime collection of vessel photographs, books and other research materials found the proper home after his passing. She recently donated 31 boxes of materials representing his lifelong passion for ships to the Thunder Bay Sanctuary Research Collection housed at Alpena County Library.

“It took me a long time to decide what I really wanted to do with his collection – if I even wanted to do anything with it,” Barr said.

In the end, she worked with Special Collections librarian Marlo Broad and maritime historian Patrick LaBadie to make the transfer to Alpena. Multiple factors contributed to her ultimate decision. Chief among them was the reputation of the library for managing its collections and making them digitally accessible to researchers all over the country and even the world.

“Len wanted for his collection to be used for research,” Barr said. “He wanted it to be viewed. Marlo assured me that once it’s digitized, people can go online to see it. That makes it very worthwhile and makes me very happy. I know Len would be extremely ecstatic.”

Barr lists a second more personal reason for choosing Alpena. More than 50 years ago, LaBadie served as best man at the couple’s wedding. A shared love of maritime history originally brought the two men together back when LaBadie worked at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum in Detroit and Leonard served in an active marine historical society. Even though they had lost touch over the years, Barr said her husband knew both LaBadie’s reputation as a historian and that LaBadie had donated his own valuable collection of maritime materials to Alpena County Library.

“We were married almost 50 years. We were shy by six months,” Barr said. “Len knew Patrick before he knew me. I did this because Patrick’s collection was there. I knew I was doing the right thing.”

Both Broad and LaBadie are thrilled to receive the donation of the Leonard J. Barr II Maritime Collection. While LaBadie’s own extensive collection held at the library focuses on ships from the 19th century, the new collection focuses on the next century.

“It’s really a step forward because the existing collection is almost exclusively 19th century and this is 20th century, which is more popular with researchers,” LaBadie said, adding that he’s extremely pleased with Barr’s decision to make the donation because he knows of many other historians and collectors whose materials after their deaths didn’t go to a public institution where it could be shared with others.

“It’s sad when collections like Leonard’s are split up and sold on eBay,” he said.

Assimilating the donated materials into the already existing collection falls to Broad, who shared LaBadie’s enthusiasm for the new addition to the library. She is in the process of storing all materials in acid free folders and books. She plans to inventory everything and then begin the process of digitizing the materials. Several seasoned volunteers already have stepped forward to help with the digitizing process, she said.

The new collection includes 50 binders filled with photographs and data sheets on 19th century freighters and tankers as well as 10 boxes of books, six boxes of journals, many original photographs, slides, glass plates and negatives.

“The collection really complements Patrick’s because there is so little duplication of materials,” said Broad, who traveled with LaBadie to St. Clair to meet Barr and make the transfer. She hopes one day to bring Barr to Alpena so that she can see firsthand where her husband’s collection now is housed.

Doing so would be bittersweet for Barr, who remembers with affection her first date with her late husband. Along with dinner, she said, their unusual date featured a ship meeting at the Port Huron YMCA.

“I thought this is interesting. I’ve not quite been on anything like this before,” said Barr. What followed was a long and fulfilling life built together.

“My husband and I were one person,” she said. “We did everything that we could together because we were each other’s best friend. If he loved ships and it was important to him, then I loved it. I wasn’t as involved as he was, but I don’t think anyone could have loved it as much as he did, except for maybe Patrick.”

Often, she said, they planned vacations to Sault Ste. Marie and Welland Canal in Canada just so they could watch the ships passing through the locks.

Barr said her husband’s passion for ships began in boyhood, and even though he enjoyed a rewarding career as a senior executive for Munder Capital Management, he did spend one season back in 1964 working on the Sewell Avery, part of the US Steel Pittsburgh Corp. fleet.

“He just always loved the water, always loved the ships,” Barr said. “His hobby was his passion. He was very meticulous and took excellent photos, documenting ships when he could.”

Already the collection has paid dividends for others visiting Alpena. When it was announced last month that two new shipwrecks had been discovered north of Presque Isle, family members of the captain of one of those vessels, the Choctaw, traveled to Alpena to find out more about the shipwreck. Thanks to the Leonard J. Barr II maritime collection, Broad was able to locate a historic photograph of the vessel that struck the Choctaw on July 12, 1915, causing it to sink.

“It was a very emotional time for the family who came, including the 94-year-old granddaughter of the captain and several other family members,” Broad said. “The timing was perfect.”

Barr said she is thrilled to know someone already has benefited from her husband’s collection coming to Alpena.