Morris A. Barr: life history and 1940 biography

Since writing the previous installment of her story of “Eleven Acres of Diamonds” which appeared in “My Town and Your Town” last week, your columnist has had a personal call from Mr. Morris A. Barr, one-time owner of the land.

Now in his middle 70’s, Mr. Barr is a striking example of what a man of small formal education, but of native intelligence and great ambition, can accomplish in “three score years and ten.”

His interests through these years have been many and varied. One of a large family of children, he knew little but hard work on a Berks County farm as he grew up. With his first hoarded earnings he bought a piano, and later on, he wrote a number of poems and songs, many of which have been set to music.

On the more practical side he learned to be a carpenter and builder, and he turned his talents to several inventions, among them a “quick change machine” now in use in a number of banks.

This, then, is the man who made the discoveries of ore and precious stones on his property near Valley Forge, that won for it the descriptive title, “Eleven Acres of Diamonds.” Although Pennsylvania is known as a state of natural rock and mineral resources, it is amazing that so many of them should have been found in such a small area. Perhaps the most likely explanation is that of a former State mineralogist of Colorado, who said that “the surface soil containing the gems was originally hot lava sent forth by an erupting volcano”, and that such a combination of minerals and metals is found only in a “place deposit” (the result of volcanic action).

Thirty years after his startling discoveries, Mr. Barr is still being asked to give talks about his one time famous property. Only this spring, after a lecture delivered before the Rotary Club of Royersford, he found that among his audience there were three men who had heard him talk on the subject in the early 1920’s.

This measure of fame is perhaps some small recompense for the fact that Mr. Barr realized little in the way of monetary gains from the sale of his numerous finds. These finds were never in large enough quantities to warrant mining, and although Mr. Barr made sales from time to time, many of the minerals and gems were given away by him as gifts to various people.

Of his gift collections, one is as close as Radnor High School, another as far away as Baghdad, the Chester County Historical Society, which has made Mr. Barr a “life member”, owns a large number of his finds, among them several polished and mounted gems. George Currier, former curator at LeHigh University, who at one time gave a series of afternoon talks at Mr. Barr’s Valley Forge Museum, owned a number of the latter’s best specimens. The Delaware County Institute of Science has in its possession a good collection of minerals form the “Eleven Acres of Diamonds.” The State Museum at Harrisburg once asked Mr. Barr’s assistance in obtaining samples of fluorescent metals for their collection. Interestingly enough, this is one kind of metal never unearthed at the Valley Forge farm.

Upon request from the Chester County Historical Society, Mr. Barr wrote his autobiography in 1940. Copies of this, along with those of others of his books, which have been privately printed, are in the libraries of several historical societies, as well as in a number of schools and community libraries.

Mr. Barr’s store of general knowledge, much of it self-taught, has earned him membership in almost 40 societies and organizations. Among these, in addition to the Chester County Historical Society, are the Delaware County Institute of Science, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the National Audubon Society, the Pennsylvania State Horticultural Association and the Chester County Council, Boy Scouts of America. These and other on the long list show the diversity of Mr. Barr’s interests and activities.

Interesting as were the discovery of rocks and gems on the Valley Forge property, Mr. Barr’s real business, however, lay in the widely distributed sale of medicinal waters of various kinds throughout the general area. First discovered by him in 1914, they were developed by Mr. Barr under orders of the late Dr. Samuel G. Dixon, of the Pennsylvania State Board of Health. Among the many unusual stories told in connection with the work of excavation was that of an Indian work shop which was unearthed. The vast numbers of Indian relics which were found has led to the assumption that there was once a good-sized settlement not more than 50 feet from the main stream which flows through the property.

It seems quite possible that these Indians settled here because of their discovery of the medicinal quality of the various springs. According to tradition they had excellent health and lived to enjoy many long years of activity. The large museum which Mr. Barr built in his original plant contained many of the relics found thereabouts.

Mr. Barr brought with him on his last week’s visit a number of pictures of the Valley Forge property as it appeared when he owned it. As it was then too late to reproduce them for use with this weeks’ article, several will illustrate next weeks’ column, which will be the concluding one in this series.