Lewis N. Barbee, Texas and Oklahoma state legislator, farmer, miller, and manufacturer, was born in August 1856 in Missouri. He was the son of Alexander Barbee, a master blacksmith from Illinois, and Caroline (Higgins) Barbee of Indiana. The family had relocated to Texas by the time Lewis was four years old, initially settling near the Denton County town of Lewisville. Barbee’s father joined the Confederate Army during the Civil War and enlisted with Griffin’s Regiment of the Texas Infantry for the duration of the conflict.
Barbee married Delila Bays of Freestone County, Texas, in 1880, and the couple had eight children: Alfon, Jacob, Robert, Jefferson, Effie, Lucy, Myrtice, and Henry. As of the 1880 census, Barbee was farming in the Limestone County town of Mexia with the assistance of his new bride, mother, and twenty-one-year-old sister Emily. He relocated his family to Wortham in nearby Freestone County— a town for which his wife’s grandfather, Robert Longbotham, was among the founding fathers. Though he had been active in the Masonic fraternity and in leadership roles for the Methodist Episcopal Church (his father-in-law, the Rev. J. S. Bays, was a minister in the area), no evidence points to Barbee entertaining the notion of holding public office until 1892, the first election cycle in which the burgeoning People’s Party of Texas emerged as the organized political voice for the concerns of the Farmers’ Alliance. Barbee secured the Populist nomination to run for the seat representing Freestone County in the Texas House of Representatives and emerged victorious in the November 1892 election, being sworn in as a member of the Twenty-third Legislature when it convened in January 1893.
Speaker John Hughes Cochran appointed the freshman Populist to only a pair of committees—the Counties and County Boundaries Committee and the State Affairs Committee. Barbee posted a less-than-exemplary attendance record during the 130-day regular session. The Twenty-third House Journal lists him as absent without leave on five occasions, excused on important business four times, and excused for sickness another three. Nevertheless, Barbee introduced amendments to two bills during the term and authored three of his own: H.B. 226, which provided for employees to be paid within three days of being discharged and in “lawful currency”; H.B. 483, which aimed to reduce the maximum salary public school teachers could be paid, excepting those in districts with 1,000 or more inhabitants that levied a school tax; and H.B. 498, an act to prohibit county commissioners from issuing bonds exceeding $5,000 without voter consent. H.B. 226 died on the calendar, and H.B. 483 and H.B. 498 both were killed by their respective committees.
Despite Barbee’s lack of individual success in the House chamber, he carried the Populist banner with fervor back home and emerged as an outspoken advocate for participation of his constituency’s Black population in civic service and the political process. John B. Rayner of Robertson County, the preeminent Black leader of the Populist Party in Texas, had experienced some success in mobilizing Black voters of Freestone County in aid of the People’s Party platform —laying the groundwork for White Populist leaders such as Barbee to forge the mechanics of a lasting coalition. In part due to Rayner’s efforts, the Populists had seated Black delegates at the party’s state convention in 1894 and offered a resolution to allow Blacks to serve on juries. Barbee orated upon the jury issue at a barbecue in 1894, emphatically expressing his belief to the attendees that their race should not preclude them from having a voice in selecting juries of their peers. In contrast to the political climate in other areas of East Texas, the Populists never gained majority control in Freestone, and Barbee found himself turned away by his constituents in the 1894 general election despite significant inroads the People’s Party had forged elsewhere in the state.
After his departure from Texas politics, Barbee remained active in the Methodist Episcopal Church leadership and was elected to the standing district committee at the state Methodist conference in Wortham in October 1898. His farming activity gave way to manufacturing entrepreneurship as he joined forces with a group of investors, including T. A. Bounds and M. C. Tynes, to open the Wortham Cotton Oil Mill Company which broke ground on a plant with a forty-ton capacity in September 1897 based on a capital investment of $25,000. The 1900 census listed Barbee’s occupation as manufacturer, but an article in the Fairfield Recorder dated May 22, 1903, mentioned a hardware business in his name and that he “served his country [sic] in the Legislature and was several years superintendent of the Oil Mill.”
Barbee had ventured north of the border by 1905; the Wapunucka Press of Johnston County, Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), listed him on a federal grand jury panel for October of that year. The 1910 census placed the Barbees in Jefferson County, Oklahoma, where Lewis had once again taken up farming, and his daughter, Effie, taught music. An announcement in the December 7, 1912, edition of the Rush Springs Landmark heralded the pending arrival of Barbee into the town of Rush Springs, Oklahoma, in early 1913, following a public sale of livestock and implements from his farm near Rush Springs on December 23. He returned to the mill business and opened a blacksmith shop and grist mill operation in Grady County in early 1913. Barbee’s success in business and growing status as a community leader was sufficient to inspire his return to politics in Oklahoma, which had achieved statehood only two years after his arrival. He accepted the nomination—this time as a Democrat—for a successful run to represent Grady County in the Oklahoma House of Representatives in November 1914 and was sworn in as a member of the state’s Fifth Legislature in February 1915.
Already sixty years old at the expiration of his single term in the Oklahoma House, he retired from public service in early 1917 but continued his entrepreneurial and farming activities; for a while he moved his family south of the Oklahoma border once again in his endeavors. The 1920 census rolls found the Barbees again operating a farm back in North Texas near Denison in Grayson County (with two grandchildren in the household). The Texas Populist-turned-Oklahoma Democrat ventured north of the Red River at least once more before the end of his life: Barbee died probably on May 12 or 13, 1925, in Wilson, Oklahoma, and was interred in Hewitt Cemetery, Carter County, Oklahoma.