The following is a Woman of Courage profile produced by the St. Lawrence County, NY Branch of the American Association of University Women.
Often known in her later years as “Mother Lake,” Leonora Kearney Barry was a labor leader and social reformer who grew up in the Town of Pierrepont in St. Lawrence County, New York. Born on August 13, 1849 in Kearney, County Cork in Ireland, Leonora Marie Kearney was just three years old when she immigrated with her parents, John Kearney and Honor Grainger Brown in 1852. The family was driven out of Ireland by the potato famine which “ended” the year Leonora was born, but the devastating effects of which were felt in Ireland for years.
The family settled on the Irish Settlement Road in Pierrepont, on a hardscrabble farm near many other Irish immigrant families. There is evidence to suggest that the Irish immigrants continued to raise potatoes on their farms. Nearby Colton was the site of the first potato starch factory in New York State, processing 200,000 pounds of potato starch which was used in the manufacture of shirtwaists and collars. Manufacturing starch from potatoes reduced their volume by 90%, making them easier to store or transport. Many farmers also graised sheep on the rocky hills.
When Leonora was 11, her brother Henry was born, and by the time she was in her early teens, her mother had died, perhaps in the Diphtheria Epidemic of 1863. Her father remarried a 19 year-old when Leonora was 15; she decided to become a school teacher. In order to teach she had to pass a teaching certificate exam, which she did. At age 15 Leonora began her teaching career in local schools, which she continued until she was 22.
In 1822 Leonora married William E. Barry, a painter and an Irish immigrant, in Potsdam, NY. Since only unmarried women could be teachers, she had to resign her teaching post. A daughter, Marion Frances is born in 1873 in Potsdam. The young family was forced to move to find work because of the economic depression which began in 1873. A son, William Standish, was born in 1875 in Heydenville, MA, and another son, Charles Joseph was born in 1880 in Amsterdam, NY, where the family had moved in search of work.
William died in 1880, perhaps from poisoning by the lead paint he used in his painting work. Leonora was just 31 years old with an 8 and a 5 year old and a baby to support. Her daughter died a few months later, and she could expect no help from her own family. By this time her father was dead, as well.
Leonora tried taking in piecework at home to support her family, and then got a job in one of the clothing factories in Amsterdam. Working conditions in these factories were appalling and the pay was poor. Leonora earned just 11 cents her first day on the job and only took home 65 cents for her whole first week of work. She worked there for two years and joined the women’s branch of the Knights of Labor in 1884.
The Knights of Labor, started by Philadelphia tailors in 1869, had grown into a national organization by 1878, even faster after 1881 when it ceased to be a secret organization. The Knights of Labor welcomed industrial workers, women, blacks (after 1883) and even employers into it ranks. It used education to achieve its goals: an 8-hour day, abolition of child and convict labor, equal pay for equal work, elimination of private banks and cooperation. Under union leader Terence V. Powderly it totaled 702,000 members in 1886, the year Leonora Barry was sent as one of 16 women delegates (out of 660) to the national convention in Richmond, Virginia.
At this convention Leonora, already a master workman in charge of 1,000 women in her local branch, was elected to be the General Investigator for the Knights, to take charge of the newly created department of women’s work and organize new unions. This marked the first time a woman was paid to be a labor investigator and organizer. She earned $23 a week for her first year on the job and this was raised to $24 a week the next year. She had an office and secretary (Marie O’Rielly) in Philadelphia, but spent most of the next four years on the road. She gave 100 speeches in her first year alone.
During this time she had no real home of her own. Her oldest son boarded at a convent school in Philadelphia and the younger son stayed with her husband’s sister during these year.
Leonora worked tirelessly to improve the wages and working condition of women and children around the country and she traveled widely to organize and investigate for the Knights of Labor. Her teaching experience was invaluable as she worked to educate women workers and inspire them to form and join labor unions. She wrote annual reports which were detailed indictments of the effects of the factory system on women and children. Her reports helped lead to a factory inspection law passed in Pennsylvania in 1989.
Leonora resigned her position in April 1890 when she married Obediah R. Lake, a newspaper printer from St. Louis, Missouri. She continued to travel and speak from her new home in the mid-west on behalf of women’s suffrage, temperance and other social reform movements. Susan B. Anthony had asked her to speak at the 40th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention in Washington, DC in 1888. Her husband died in 1916 and she moved to Minooka, Illinois, where “Mother Lake,” as she was known, was popular on the Chautaugua and Redpath lecture circuits until 1928 when she was 78 years old. She died in Minooka on July 15, 1930 and is buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery.
- Special thanks to Betsy Kepes and Emily Owen for sharing thier research into Leonora Barry this Profile.
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