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Ervin Barth sits in his rural Caledonia farmhouse, explaining why he donated 40 acres of woodland to the Caledonia music program. He said music has been part of his life and he wants it to continue after his death.

CALEDONIA — Ervin Barth's life has been surrounded and sweetened by music.

It played in the hospital nursery 90 years ago when he was born, he sang in choirs in high school and in church, and there will be music at his funeral.

The music won't die after his death.

The rural Caledonia man has donated 40 acres of woodland he bought many years ago to the Caledonia School District. After his death, the district must use any money from the land for something related to music; the land is valued at about $130,000.

Barth was born in the Preston area and served in the Marines in the years following World War II. He attended the University of Minnesota following his discharge but had to come home after one quarter because his father was ill.

Barth eventually got a job with the Fillmore County Soil and Water Conservation District. He was sent to Duluth for a while, then he returned to southeast Minnesota to work in the Houston County area to help farmers slow erosion. He and his wife, Esther "Bootie" Barth, bought an old farmhouse near Caledonia that had been in her family for nearly 150 years.

He retired from the SWCD in 1990, and they still live in the old farmhouse, which is partially heated by wood he cuts. There are cats outside and the inside is filled with memorabilia and memories.

Ervin Barth fits in with the comfortable old house. He has a white beard and white ponytail and looks like he's ready to either split wood or laugh. His grip, strengthened by milking cows by hand many years ago, is still strong.

In the 1960s, he bought 40 acres of woods for $5 an acre to pay for back taxes.

"I figured there is more people coming along all the time but they aren't making any more land," he said. It's in Yucatan Township northwest of Caledonia.

When he thought about what would happen to those 40 acres after his death, he decided it should go to the local school music program.

His life has been one of work and music. He recalls singing so loud when plowing that he tried to drown out his tractor.

"My mother liked to sing a lot," he said. "Mother had a phonograph, it was usually church music and popular music."

At Preston High School, his baritone was part of the school choir. He also sang in church choirs for services and funerals. "I have a fairly good voice," he said.

He still loves music, but said "I don't sing nearly as much as I once did. (I'm) running out of wind, I guess."

"I feel that music is a lot more important than football in school," he said.

There's already a music program in the Caledonia schools, but Barth thinks it could be improved. He'd like to see more of a push for music of all kinds at all levels.

Caledonia Superintendent Ben Barton said that when Barth told him about his idea, "I was floored. I wanted to do cartwheels. (My reaction was) almost one of shock at first, then admiration."

Like many schools in the region, Caledonia has had to cut millions of dollars from its budget during the past decade. Music was not immune. Teachers are stretched thin, and their instruments are getting old.

Barth apparently saw tht and decided to act.

"He wants to leave a little bit of a mark, a stamp," Barton said.

The district, with free help from local attorney Joe Hammell, is establishing the ERB Caledonia Area Music Foundation so others can add to what the district earns from the land. The district isn't sure whether to sell the property or keep it and use money from timber sales or leasing it for hunting, Hammell said.

Whatever will be done, future generations will sing the praises of Erving Russell Barth.

Back Roads is a weekly column on people and places in Southeast Minnesota. If you have a tip, call John Weiss at 285-7749.

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