Mary Ellen with brother Bud at a family picnic.
(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris 1911-2016)
For a while after she quit school Mary Ellen felt relieved, unstressed, and happy. Sleeping late was a luxury she felt she could get quite used to. Her mother had other ideas. She tolerated a few weeks of “Met,” as she called her when she was mad or being sarcastic, lazing around, shopping, and running off to Columbus with Artie.
Merle wasn’t sure about this young man. He was a good student, had a lot of promise, but he was a socialite. Mary Ellen and Artie grew closer and by summer she was wearing his engagement ring. He still had another year until he would graduate from college, and then he had to get a job. He believed that would be no problem. Merle Townsend wasn’t so sure.
One morning in June when Mary Ellen came down to breakfast her mother announced, “Met, I’m leaving in a few minutes for my Eastern Star meeting and I want you to come with me. You’re eighteen now. It’s time you got involved in some worthwhile activities.”
Boom! Just like that! Her mother had been through all the Eastern Star chairs and had said many times that she wanted Mary Ellen to join when she was old enough. It wasn’t that she was disinterested, it just wasn’t something she wanted to do right then. She knew better than to get into an argument over it, so she went. In high school she’d belonged to a sorority. The Eastern Star felt a little like that, but it was focused on biblical teachings, and had a lot of very rigid rules and practices.
Joining the Eastern Star opened a door her mother used to get her into more organizations and activities. Mary Ellen decided enough was enough. One Saturday morning when she and her dad were in the kitchen by themselves she decided to have a talk with him. Elmer Townsend was a wise and patient man. Though he and the family were now attending the Methodist Church, his Quaker roots of quiet contemplation were still present. He had not been happy with her decision to quit school, but had not pressed her about it.
For her part, Mary Ellen had done some research. She had checked into the Littleford Nelson Business School’s offerings and decided she wanted to go there. It was expensive and she had to ask her dad for the money.
“Daddy, I think it’s time for me to have a job…some way to support myself if I should need to. I can’t go on living here forever, and it will be awhile before Artie and I can get married.”
He looked at her with his characteristic expression, one eyebrow raised higher than the other. “You know jobs are hard to find these days. You didn’t finish high school….”
She knew even a high school diploma was no guarantee of a job. At Western Hills she had made Home Economics her course of study. She had learned skills in cooking and sewing that she knew would serve her well throughout her life, but a job in those areas? Probably not easy to find. The country was in the Great Depression. She’d been in the classroom when news of the stock market crash devastated everyone. Her teacher had invested in stocks for retirement and lost everything. The school had been closed down for the day.
Elmer looked intensely at his daughter. “Mary Ellen, I understand what you’re saying, and I’m impressed that you’ve looked into this.” She had told him the cost. “I could afford to send you there, but how do I know you’ll stay? What if your young man wants you to be with him when you need to be in class…what will you do?”
“He won’t do that. Artie knows I need to take care of myself until we can get married. And what if something happened to him later? I’d need some skills to fall back on. I don’t have my head in the sand about this.”
The discussion went on and finally her dad softened his concerns. “Okay, I’m going to trust you. I believe you really do want this and that you’ll stick with it no matter what. Is that a promise?”
‘Yes, I promise,” she said, hugging him. “Thanks, Daddy. I’ll make sure you won’t ever regret this.”
At Littleford Nelson secretarial students had to choose between learning shorthand, or stenography, which was a code system using a special machine that was faster than shorthand. Mary Ellen chose stenography and did well with it. She felt deep satisfaction and pride when she had completed everything and was ready for a job.
Her joy was tempered, however, by a change in her relationship with Artie. That’s when he developed a new romance at college and broke off the engagement. Her spirit was torn between the joy of achievement and the pain of a broken heart.
Her dad offered her a job at the dairy. She accepted it, suspecting that he did it to keep an eye on her. Every day she checked out the newspaper classified ads. One day a secretarial position was offered with a coal company in Bluefield, West Virginia. She read the ad. “Must be willing to travel.” Oh! This is perfect. I’ve always wantd to travel.
It was a dream job that she knew was meant for her! She went for an interview but felt intimidated when she found a room full of people filling out applications. Still, she filled out hers, was interviewed, and then left to keep an appointment to have her hair done.
When she got home her mom said, “Did you apply for a job today? Someone has been calling you–they want you to go back to the hotel this evening for another interview. Oh, they said to bring your machine with you.”
Mary Ellen was elated. She went back and got the job with the Virginia Smokeless Coal Company. The position was as secretary to the manager of a branch they were opening in Cincinnati. Travel arrangements were made for her to go by train to Bluefield where she would work in the home office for about six weeks. When the train pulled in she was met by the the vice president, Dr. Houston St. Clair. He took her to his home for breakfast and then to a room with a private bath he had rented for her.
A lasting memory of that arrival in Bluefield would always be Dr. St. Clair’s small son who gave her a big hug and then announced, “My, you smell pretty!”
Her landlady, Mrs. Stringfellow, was a single parent with a little girl, and her mother also lived with her. To supplement her income she had a small home business making cakes, candy and pastries. They made Mary Ellen feel right at home by designating her the “official taster.”
“The air here is a little different than Cincinnati,” Dr. St. Clair told her. “Take a few days to get adjusted before you come to work. You’ll probably want to sleep a lot at first.” He was right.
When she did report for work, Mary Ellen found the office staff cordial and welcoming. Dr. St. Clair’s father was the president of the company. One day he called her into his office to take dictation for some letters. While transcribing her notes she was startled to read the words, “chicken ridge.” Chicken ridge? I must have made a horrible mistake. If I type this I’ll be fired. Her training kicked in, however, and she typed the letter exactly as she had transcribed it. She took the typed letters in to President St. Clair with great apprehension. He read each one carefully, then signed all of them. “Be sure to get these in the mail today.” He handed them back to her.
The next day she asked Dr. St. Clair what “chicken ridge” meant.
“Oh, that,” he said, breaking into laughter. “So he tried that little trick on you!”
It seemed that Dr. St. Clair’s father was dubious about stenography and the fact his son had hired such a young, inexperienced girl. She continued to learn about the coal businss and about people, and how to get along with them working in a large office.
The coal mines were located in Jewel Ridge, Virginia. The coal was called Jewel Pocahontas. They gave Mary Ellen a tour of the mines, and showed her how coal was separated into different sizes. She learned about gondolas, freight cars, tippies, and how coal was shipped to various parts of the country.
At the end of her training she returned to Cincinnati where she went to work for the branch manager, Mr. Victor Gillespie. The office was located downtown in the Mercantile Library Building on Walnut Street. Mr. Gillespie was out of the office almost three weeks every month. Her job was to be there, answer the phone, write letters, and be ready to really work hard when he returned.
Mary Ellen soon found this gave her a lot of spare time. She would sometimes cut out and baste a dress or a blouse. She had time to do a lot of reading. And there were always salesmen coming by to give her a diversion and conversation.
Life was good!
(Excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter” by Hugh Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris)