Biography of John McGrath of Barnesville Minnesota

John McGrath, born October 20, 1857, in Greenville, Wisconsin, was a pioneering settler of Barnesville, Clay County, Minnesota. Son of Irish immigrants Dennis and Ellen (Cashman) McGrath, he moved to Steele County, Minnesota, in 1867. In 1879, John and his brother Thomas ventured to Barnesville, establishing the first claim shack and opening a butcher shop. John also operated hotels and expanded into farming, owning about 1,500 acres. A dedicated public servant, he served as mayor, city treasurer, and school board member. McGrath married Alice Brislane in 1895, and they had seven children. His contributions significantly shaped Barnesville’s development.

John McGrath, who was one of the pioneer settlers of Barnesville, Clay County, Minnesota, was born in Greenville, Outagamie County, Wisconsin, on October 20, 1857, and is a son of Dennis and Ellen (Cashman) McGrath, both natives of Ireland. The father acquired a good education in County Cork, and after coming to the United States, he taught school and served as the county superintendent of schools in Outagamie County, Wisconsin, where he settled in the pioneer days. He was a soldier in the War of the Rebellion and participated in many battles.

He returned to Wisconsin after the war, and in April 1867, sold his land in Outagamie County and moved to Steele County, Minnesota, where he bought a farm. Unfortunately, he was accidentally killed on July 17, 1867. His widow survived to the age of seventy-two years and passed away on February 14, 1896. They had seven children, namely: Alice, now the widow of Mr. G. Erickson, of Black Hills; Mary, the wife of Mr. Patrick Coulon, of Sacramento, California; Thomas, who died in 1897, and whose sketch appears in this work; Johanna, the wife of Mr. John Welch, Steele County, Minnesota; John, the subject of this sketch; and Dennis F., the present postmaster at Barnesville.

Our subject acquired his education in his native place and in Steele County, Minnesota, where the family moved when he was nine years old. He grew to manhood on his father’s farm, and at the age of twenty-two, in 1879, he and his brother Thomas started out on their own account. Taking three horses, they made the journey across the country to Barnesville, in Clay County, where they built the first claim shack in that region on their homestead claim. Our subject worked as a section hand, and together with Thomas, under the firm name of McGrath and McGrath, they opened a butcher’s shop and market. In 1880-81, John taught school, and two years later, he bought the St. James Hotel. During the eighteen months that he conducted it, he built the Central House near the railroad depot, which was known as the Central House. At the same time, he carried on a prosperous trade in the meat market.

Mr. McGrath, being an early settler, was able to make profitable investments and acquired title to much valuable land. He currently owns about 1,500 acres in addition to his home. He moved from his farm into the village and devoted his attention largely to the firm’s business, which grew to large proportions. The business included the meat market and the operation of an elevator with a capacity of 25,000 bushels. He was also involved in the business of L. H. Clark & Company, dealers in groceries, coal, and wood. In 1885, he and his brother opened and carried on a large trade in farm implements.

After the death of his brother, John, in January 1897, the estate’s interest in the business continued until 1904, and in 1907, Mr. Leo McGrath, a son of John McGrath, and a young man of brilliant promise, joined the firm.

Mr. McGrath has played a significant role in building up and developing the town of Barnesville and is known as a generous and public-spirited man. He donated ten acres for a public park on the west side of town. He was the first trustee of the village, has served on the school board, was city treasurer for thirteen years, and served as the mayor of the city for seven years. In politics, he is a Republican and has served as the chairman of numerous county, state, and congressional conventions. In 1895, he was elected to Congress from Clay County and was re-elected in 1908. He is the vice president of Barnesville National Bank and belongs to the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, Ancient Order of United Workmen, and the Royal Arcanum.

On September 25, 1895, Mr. McGrath married Miss Alice Brislane, and they have seven children: Frances, the eldest, born in Barnesville, is an alumna of the Moorhead Normal School; Alice, born in Barnesville, is a teacher in Grand Forks; Lucy lives at home; Celia is a student in the high school at Grand Forks, while Ruth, John Jr., and Robert Harold are attending school in Barnesville.


C.F. Cooper & Company, History of the Red River Valley, Past And Present: Including an Account of the Counties, Cities, Towns And Villages of the Valley From the Time of Their First Settlement And Formation, volumes 1-2; Grand Forks: Herald printing company, 1909.

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