Berry family history: 247 years of patriotism

Cynthia Sheeley/Torrington Telegram Matt Berry sharing his presentation about the Berry family history.

TORRINGTON – The Community Room at the Platte Valley Bank was filled to capacity on Tuesday, Oct. 25, as many from the community gathered to listen to Matt Berry’s presentation of his family’s history. The Berry family’s history includes 247 years of patriotism and agricultural contributions dating back to the American Revolutionary War.

Mary Houser, the Goshen County Historical Society (GCHS) president started the night by welcoming everyone, offering a word of prayer, and then led the group in the Pledge of Allegiance.  Pat Ellis then introduced Matt Berry and turned the mic over to him. 

“I just want to say thank you to the Goshen County Historical Society for inviting me here to give this presentation this evening about some of our Berry family history,” Matt began. “The legacy that started in the American Revolutionary War and progressed all the way to the present here in Goshen County.”

Where the story begins

John Berry, an apprentice shoemaker, was born in Dublin, Ireland. He came to America by himself, to fight in the war for independence. He settled in Pennsylvania where he later took up farming.

“The only description that we have of John Berry, is somebody said, that he was a heavyset Irishman with large front teeth,” said Matt.

John enlisted in 1776 as a private with the 10th Pennsylvania regiment. He fought in the battles of Brandywine and Paoli before he went to Valley Forge. At Valley Forge, John was selected as a lifeguard for General George Washington, basically, his personal security detachment.

The lifeguards, also known as the chief’s guards, lived by the motto “conquer or die.” There were only 180 to 250 lifeguards throughout the Revolutionary Wars. 

“This is a very prestigious and really cool thing about my family history,” Matt commented. “My grandfather was selected by a regimental commander, and there were only four per regiment that were handpicked to serve and protect General Washington and discharge those duties.”

Later, the lifeguards helped Baron von Steuben retrain the whole Continental Army, 12,000 soldiers, at Valley Forge.

Elizabeth Gilmore was also born in Ireland but came to America with her family. They settled in Lancaster County, PA, where they started farming.

“We don’t really have a description of her,” Matt said. “But I do have something out of one of my books from the family. Their church minister back in Canonsburg said that she was the most intelligent woman in his congregation.”

Elizabeth and her sister, Anne, decided to follow the Continental Army and become nurses. Eventually, Elizabeth enlisted in Northumberland County in the army and became a ranger on the frontier.

There were ten to twelve ranger companies. Their job was to range the frontier on the western side of Pennsylvania fighting against loyalist militias and warriors from the Iroquois nations.

In the summer of 1778, the ranger companies left Valley Forge to quell the violence and to drive back the Iroquois villages.

While it is not clear if John and Elizabeth met on the ship coming to America or when they were both stationed at Valley Forge, they did at some point and their romance started. They married in 1780 and had eight children together. After the war, they settled by Elizabeth’s family on their farm in Lancaster County.

In 1789, John purchased 400 acres six miles west of Canonsburg and was working for Dr. John McMillan, the founder of Jefferson College. In 1802, they purchased 251 acres of property, close by, that used to belong to Washington.

The Daughters of the American Revolution have a monument near Elizabeth’s headstone recognizing her and her husband’s service in the War of Independence.

Blacktop merino sheep

William Gilmore Berry, one of John and Elizabeth’s sons, was born in 1781. In 1804, he married Jane McConnell, and they had eight children together. They lived on a property called the Peach Garden south of Canonsburg.

William was a justice of the peace for 15 years in the Cecil and Chartiers townships, before going into the sheep business.

In 1821, he purchases a couple of ewes and one ram from WR Dickinson, a man from Stephenville, OH. Over the next 26 years, he focused on refining his flock, these sheep became known as blacktop Spanish merinos.

The blacktop wool of his sheep was highly sought after, as were his sheep’s pedigrees.

“So, if you go to Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops and buy some wool socks and it says merino wool, it most likely originated from a Berry’s flock of sheep,” Matt explained.

William was also a prominent abolitionist and supporter of the Underground Railroad. His home, along with one of his sons, was actively used and part of the network to harbor slaves during the Civil War.

The Merino Sheep Breeder’s Association has a blacktop sheep registry that was created to historically document all of the flocks of these sheep.

Matthew Berry and Sons

Matthew Berry was one of William and Jane’s sons. He married Margaret Willison, they had three sons.

Matthew led a quieter life, focusing on the continued development of the merino sheep industry.  Since wool was in high demand and the merino sheep were good quality, everyone wanted sheep from the Berry flock. 

Their sheep business was known as Matthew Berry and sons.

Matthew willed half of the Peach Garden property to his son, Samuel Willison Berry.

Samuel married Isabel McNary, the daughter of a close family friend. Similar to his father, he led a quiet life and focused on the sheep industry.

Samuel was a charter member and an elder of the Houston United Presbyterian Church. 

Western migration

Matthew “Bill” Willison Berry, the son of Samuel and Isabel, was born in 1879. At the age of 18, Bill moved from Canonsburg, PA to Greeley, CO. His hope with this move was that the drier air would help with his asthma.

There he met Lois Reid, whom he married in 1907. In Greeley, Bill worked for his father-in-law, John Franklin Reid. 

John was an elder of the Presbyterian Church in Greeley and was appointed to organize a congregation in Torrington. Even though the original church building burned down, the new church was dedicated in 1909 and is still standing today at 2141 West A Street.

In 1910, Bill and Lois moved to Goshen County to a farm owned by her father, two miles north of Torrington. This property is now just north of Eastern Wyoming College just after the first curve on the Van Tassell Highway.

In 1956, the cornerstone of the new Wyoming United Presbyterian Church was laid at its present location, 2972 Main Street.

John, Bill, and Bill’s brother-in-law, Boyd, formed the Torrington Land and Livestock Company. This company consisted of four corner sections that were adjacent to each other. Here they farmed potatoes, barley and alfalfa.

In the 1920s, Bill started feeding around 3,000 head of sheep with a guy named HW Farr out of Greeley, CO. They started a potato business in Torrington known as the Farr Produce Company, which later became the Farr Wyoming Company.

Bill and Lois had four children, three boys and a daughter who died in infancy.

“Bill and Lois saw all three of their sons serve during World War Two and returned safely home to pursue their own dreams and careers,” Matt said.

Bill passed away in 1950, from a heart attack. Lois passed away shortly after, from lung cancer.

“The obituaries that I found, hailed them both as pioneers of Goshen County,” Matt said. “Bill as a man of sound judgment with high integrity, his kindly counsel was often sought by many of his friends and acquaintances.”

The three sons

Franklin Samuel Berry was the youngest of Bill and Lois’ sons, born in 1920. He married Bernice Barker in 1946 and had one daughter and two sons.

Frank fought in World War Two as a sergeant in the Army Air Corps. He was the left waist gunner on a B17 G Flying Fortress called the Sweet Patootie. He was a part of the 5/34 Bomb Squadron and the 381st Bomb Group.

They had completed four missions, but on Sept. 3, 1944, on their fifth mission, the Sweet Patootie suffered the loss of three engines, either to mechanical failure or to enemy fire. The Sweet Patootie was landed wheels up near Chalon-sur-Saõne, France, with no casualties.

Now on the ground in German-occupied France, the unit became prisoners of war (POWs) and they were loaded into a boxcar on its way to Germany.

“What do Americans do? They say heck no, we’re not going to be prisoners,” Matt continued. “We’re going to figure out a way to get out of this.”

After they escaped, they met up with allied forces and were told to go around to North Africa to avoid German soldiers. When they made it to Naples, Italy they were finally able to get a western telegram off to Bill and Lois.

After the war, Frank inherited the farm outside of Torrington where he raised hay, corn, and beans. Frank also fed cattle on the side and was partners with his brother Walt in the Berry Brother’s Cattle. He was very active in the community with the American Legion, Last Fly Club, school board, and board for the irrigation ditches.

John Reid Berry was the middle son, born in 1918. He married Billie Rodin.

Both John and Billie served in World War Two. Billie served as a lieutenant in the Navy Nurses Corps for two years. John served in the US Army for four years, obtaining the rank of captain. He also served the Pacific Theater for two and a half years with the First Cavalry Division.

After the war, John worked with his dad Bill at the Farr Wyoming Company. John bought out the business and operated it until he retired in 1986.  At this time, the Farr Wyoming Company was sold and became the Kelly Bean Company, which still operates today.

John was also active in the community with the city council, the Rotary Club, and Lions Club.

Walter “Walt” Willison Berry was the oldest son, born in 1913. Walt married Alice Opdal.

“(Walt) actually skipped two grades,” Matt recalled. “He was a very intelligent man. His mind was with him even till the day that he passed away.”

Walt was an active youth in the community participating in sports, 4-H, Boy Scouts, and the Booster Club. He was on the 4-H Livestock Judging Team. His team competed in the Goshen County Fair, Wyoming State Fair and the Denver Stock Show, and won all three judging events. 

Walt attended the University of Wyoming, like his brothers, and participated on the UW Livestock Judging Team. In 1933, they competed in the Denver Stock Show and the International Livestock Expo in Chicago, where they placed tenth.

He became good friends with Cliff Hanson. Hansen later became the 26th Governor of the State of Wyoming and a US Senator. In the late 1930s, Walt and his wife worked on Hanson’s ranch in Jackson Hole.

When World War Two broke out, Walt enlisted and served from 1943-1946 obtaining the rank of sergeant. At the end of the war, his unit was assigned to guard POWs in Nuremberg, Germany. He was most likely guarding the prisoners that were going to the Nuremberg Trails.

After the war, Walt and his wife once again worked for Hansen in Jackson Hole.

In 1949, he moved his family back to Torrington and established the Berry Ranch north of Torrington in the Prairie Center area. There they started a cow-calf operation, which transitioned into breeding Herford Angus crossbred cattle.

This ranch is still in operation today, run by Walt and Alice’s son Charles “Bumper” and his wife Kayle.

The Berry Bell, an antique bell that originally hung on the Peach Garden property in Pennsylvania, is still hung in the ranch yard on the Berry Ranch. This bell is still used to bring people in for dinner and as an alert for prairie fires.

Current day

“I grew up on the Berry Ranch north of Torrington,” Matt said. “I graduated from the University of Wyoming and did 21 years in the Wyoming Army National Guard. During that time, I deployed twice to Iraq and Kuwait. I retired from all of that about a year and a half ago, and I currently work over at Camp Guernsey as a civilian military contractor. I've been doing that for about 11 years.”

“So, one thing that makes this really fascinating for me is, I do love history a lot,” Matt explained. “And this all kind of started when my dad talked about our grandmother who picked up a rifle and fought in the Revolutionary War. I just found that pretty amazing, because how many people can say that a female relative, picked up the rifle back in the 16-1700s and fought in the war for independence? Probably not too many people.”

It was this story, that began Matt’s journey to learn more about his ancestors.

Matt, along with his parents, wife, and sister, took a trip to Pennsylvania last year to take a walk through the past. They found where their ancestors were buried, the family’s old properties, and learned more about their family history.

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