In 1812, John W. Barss was born. He was the son of Captain Joseph Barss Jr., who had been born in the elegant old house built around 1798 by his father, Captain Joseph Barss Sr. The house, near the bridge over the Mersey River, is now Lane's Privateer Inn. Both father and grandfather were legendary privateers.
Privateers, as all Queens County people know, operated under letters from authorities giving them permission to protect their own coastal areas and harass enemy ships. Both Barss men were among the best of the privateers, the senior Barss master of the schooners Enterprise and Despatch, and the junior Barss captain of the most famous privateer vessel of all time, the Liverpool Packet, owned by Liverpool merchants and the businessman and banker, Enos Collins, originally from Liverpool.
It is hard to know when Joseph Barss Jr. found the time to be at home with his wife, who was Olivia DeWolfe Barss, the daughter of Judge Elisha DeWolfe. Olivia had grown up in Wolfville in the house known as Kent Lodge, which still stands on Main Street. Her husband captured more than two hundred vessels while captain of the Packet, regarded as the greatest privateer vessel of all time.
Still, the family had four sons and two daughters - Elisha, Eliza Ann, Amelia, James, Joseph and John William. John was born at the height of privateer activity, during the War of 1812. His father was captured by the US and imprisoned, released only when he made a solemn promise not to resume his privateer activities.
Joseph Barss Jr. decided to move his family away from temptation, away from Liverpool, to a farm just outside Kentville, on the road between Kentville and Wolfville. John William was only five when the move was made. Captain Barss took up farming but missed the sea, and died at the young age of 49. He is buried in Kentville, "far from his seaside home, and the resting place of any of his fellow rovers," as historian Janet Mullins put it.
John, however, lived to a ripe old age and had a very successful career, making him a wealthy man. One historian called him one of the most successful men of business Kings County ever had. At the age of 24 he had moved to Halifax, where he was a ship chandler and commissioner, his business activities highly successful. When at the age of 38 he had problems with his health, he moved back to the Valley, to Wolfville.
That was in 1850, the year that was one of the darkest in the young Acadia College's history. Its finances were in poor shape and there were fears that it would have to close. It had been founded only twelve years before, and a controversy had arisen within Baptist ranks about whether or not it was proper to accept government aid for the institution. Money was drying up, the president of the university had resigned, and the most valuable professor resigned as well. The college was deep in debt.
John Barss saw what had to be done. His health better now that he was in the wholesome air of Wolfville, he went to the annual general meeting of the Baptists - it was held in Nictaux - and put the matter to them, telling them how to improve the financial situation. He led by example, donating a large sum of money to Acadia and encouraging others to do the same.
He partnered in this effort with two other men, Reverends John Chase and I. E. Bill, who set out to raise money from the Baptists of the Maritime provinces. Seeing the example set by Barss, the members of the denomination opened their pockets too, and before long the debt was gone.
John Barss took on the job of acting as agent for Acadia College, visiting each of the Maritime provinces and raising money. Barss became the chair of the college's finance committee, and then its treasurer. Acadia flourished. An early history of Acadia College, written as a prize-winning essay by a student, Albert Coldwell, said that it was not too much to say that the usefulness of the college would have been impaired, if not destroyed, but for the "timely, generous and long-continued aid of this friend" of Acadia.
Barss was also a benefactor to the town of Wolfville, contributing much of the cost of building the Baptist church there, and providing the land for Willowbank Cemetery. His involvement in politics led him to be the first warden of the Municipality of Kings. He built and then rebuilt (after a fire) a beautiful house he called Thornleigh, which still stands beside Blomidon Inn, on Main Street. He married Lydia Kirtland Fitch and had six children, one of whom was a prominent doctor in Wolfville, married to the daughter of one of Acadia's early presidents.
John Barss died on May 22, 1902, at the age of 90.
- Tom Sheppard can be reached at email@example.com