A Life: Elbert R. Barnaby; ‘He was a fixture’

  • On Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022, an impromptu memorial for Elbert “Dick” Barnaby stands where he spent Saturdays on the Strafford Road in Tunbridge, Vt., collecting returnable cans and bottles from those on their way to drop off trash and recyclables at the nearby town transfer station. Barnaby died on October 12. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Geoff Hansen

  • Dick Barnaby, of Tunbridge, Vt., waits his turn to show his oxen steer team at the Tunbridge World's Fair in Tunbridge, Vt., on Sept. 14, 2012. Traditionally the last fair of the season in Vermont, the four-day event involves many of the town's 1,000 residents. (Photo by Geoff Hansen) Geoff Hansen photograph

  • Dick Barnaby, of Tunbridge, Vt., mans a shovel while working for Greg LamsonÕs excavation business on a house project in Tunbridge on July 12, 2006. (Photo by Geoff Hansen) Geoff Hansen

  • Dick Barnaby, of Tunbridge, Vt., rides the roads with a friend in an undated photograph. (Family photograph) Family photograph

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    Dick Barnaby waves to a passerby from the roadside location where he collects returnable bottles and cans during a Saturday "dump day" in Tunbridge, Vt., in an undated photograph. (Family photograph) Family photograph

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 11/27/2022 7:29:45 PM
Modified: 11/27/2022 7:29:29 PM

Most Saturdays, you knew where to find “Tiger” Dick Barnaby. A quarter-mile up the Tunbridge-Strafford Road, at a small pull-off, Barnaby would set up a weekly collection point for used cans and bottles as people drove to and from Tunbridge’s Transfer Station on Recreation Road. Once he had his weekly stash, Barnaby would exchange the recyclables for what he called his spending money — usually to the tune of $150 or $200.

“He had a lot of customers. It was amazing how many bottles would get dropped off there because people would save their bottles for him,” said Tim Barnaby, a cousin of Dick Barnaby and his legal guardian at the end of his life.

Dick Barnaby did not know how to read, write or do math beyond the early childhood level, but he knew the value of a dollar. How to make it and how to spend it. He was an entrepreneur of sorts, always thinking about the next job. A man who expertly navigated the barter economy of a small rural town.

“He knew how to get things done, or help to do things, or accomplish things. He never learnt it, he just knew it,” Tim Barnaby said.

Elbert Richard Barnaby was born on Jan. 31, 1947, and grew up in Tunbridge with his parents Elsie and Levi Barnaby, and younger brother Kevin. Because of what would now be called developmental delays, or learning disabilities, Dick — no one ever called him Elbert — did not advance beyond elementary school.

Rather, he was schooled in life. From childhood onward, “Tiger” Dick Barnaby learned how to shoot, log, put up fence and raise livestock. He mowed lawns and weed whacked and cleared snow on Main Street. He worked as a flagman on a road crew on Route 110 and for excavation companies. No job was too big or too little. Despite his illiteracy, Barnaby managed to get a driver’s license because he took the test orally.

For most of Barnaby’s life, Tunbridge’s 44 square miles were his world. But after the death of her husband, Howard, Shirley Hoyt, invited Barnaby, whom she’d known for years, to accompany her on road trips throughout Vermont, to places he’d never seen. Hoyt also lives in Tunbridge.

“We went up Route 5 all the way up, and all the way down south to the Massachusetts border. We went Route 100, all the way up and down. And we followed Route 7 all the way up,” Hoyt said. “He liked doing what I liked doing.”

Hoyt was the driver and Barnaby was the talker. He’d picked up enough letters and numbers so that he could call them out on the license plates of passing cars, and from a plate’s color and design he could recognize the state it came from.

Once, they drove all the way to Mt. Washington. He liked looking at big rocks, big mountains. “He wanted to go up there real bad,” Hoyt said. But when they arrived the road to the peak was closed, and they couldn’t make reservations on the mountain’s Cog Railway because the ticketing system only took credit cards — and neither Hoyt nor Barnaby had any.

When Barnaby died, on Oct. 12 at age 75, presumably from a heart attack, he and Hoyt were on their way to visit Smuggler’s Notch on Vermont’s Mount Mansfield. He lapsed into unconsciousness during the drive, and was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital but died there.

“At least he was with me when it happened. I was afraid he would die at his house, and that we’d find him dead in there somewhere. That’s what I was afraid of,” Hoyt said.

He counted many townspeople as his friends and relatives, and vice versa. When Hoyt’s husband was in ill health and bed ridden, Barnaby would come to their house to sit with him. Together they’d watch old movies or TV Westerns like Gunsmoke or The Rifleman. Barnaby also liked to call people he knew once, twice, three, four times a day, or more to check in. He’d ask after family. He’d ask after children. He’d ask after pets.

“If they had a cat and it was named Fluffy, he’d ask, ‘How’s Fluffy?’ He just refused to be lonely,” Tim Barnaby said. “He was intentional with his relationships.”

Sometimes Dick would show up in your house when you weren’t there, and wait for you to come home. If you didn’t come home when he was expecting you, he’d call your cellphone, recalled a friend at the Oct. 19 memorial service at the Tunbridge Fairgrounds. “Guess where I am. I’m in your living room having a soda,” he’d crow.

The persistent phone calls were “a reassurance that you’re OK,” said his niece Katie Barnaby. He’d call her to make sure she’d arrived safely at a destination and he’d call her to make sure she’d gotten back home again.

“I think he learned that from his mother,” Tim Barnaby said. “She was a stay-at-home Mom, so during the day she would call oodles and oodles of people and talk all day long.”

Barnaby’s voice was pitched high and he had a rural Vermont accent. He liked to wear overalls or pants with suspenders, and sported glasses with thick lenses. He had sideburns, a mustache and a scruffy beard. He waved at everybody he knew or flashed two fingers by way of salute. He earned his nickname because someone once put a stuffed animal, a tiger, in the back seat of his car, and so he became “Tiger” Dick, a moniker he was proud of. He was around five feet tall and generously proportioned, with a large appetite.

“One thing in particular he had more than anything, and I couldn’t understand it, was succotash. I don’t know why he loved it so much,” Tim Barnaby said.

“He liked chicken. Chicken. Chicken. He was going to turn into a chicken,” said Shirley Hoyt.

Barnaby lived for the Tunbridge World’s Fair, held every September. Until he could no longer physically do it, he worked in the fair’s ox pulling ring, setting up the stone boats that the animals, with a mighty thrust of their shoulders, would pull a number of feet forward. Over the years Barnaby had his own oxen teams: Ulysses and Grant, Nickel and Dime, and Ham and Burger. At home he had a dog and two cats.

When “Tiger” Dick was 65, Tim Barnaby took him down to Walmart in West Lebanon. Dick had never been there. “It was a big deal for him. He was like a kid in a candy store,” Barnaby said. But he couldn’t quite remember the name. “Walmart” became “Mallmart,” and remained so.

For a number of years Dick Barnaby lived with his younger brother Kevin Barnaby, who took care of him. But Kevin Barnaby passed away suddenly in 2019. The loss of his brother was enormous, and Dick Barnaby withdrew, became more guarded, said Katie Barnaby.

“He wouldn’t talk to us for a little while because he thought we were going to put him in a nursing home, and leave him and forget him,” she said. That didn’t happen. He remained in the house where he lived with Kevin, but in 2021, as it became clear that his health was in decline and that he needed help with making decisions and paying bills, Tim Barnaby, who lives in Claremont, became Dick’s guardian.

Nonetheless, Dick hatched ever more ambitious plans. He’d buy a skidder and start a logging business, he’d start a burger business that could go to the agricultural fairs. He kept up his bottle collection but, now banned from driving, he asked Tim Barnaby to help him turn in the recyclables.

“I’d be like, Dick, with the price of gas and all this, it’s hard to come all the way from Claremont to turn in your bottles. ... He’d say, Timmy, don’t worry about it. I’m going to take care of you. We’re going to stop at McDonald’s and have lunch.”

One of “Tiger” Dick’s last acts, said Barnaby, was to buy a pickup truck. He wasn’t supposed to drive and he wasn’t supposed to have access to, much less spend, that kind of money, but somehow he got a bank check and somehow he went to a dealer and gave them a down payment and somehow he drove the truck home. When Tim Barnaby told him he was going to have to return it, Dick Barnaby pitched a fit. But in the end they managed to return the truck and get the money back.

“You kinda gotta laugh about it. The spunk that Elbert had, it was his last rebellious hurrah,” said Tim Barnaby. “He was somebody that belonged in the community, he just kind of fit, like a household item. He was a fixture.”

Nicola Smith is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Tunbridge.

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