Something Like Pioneers


Willy’s Jeep station wagon”

(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)

During the weeks that Hugh was in Virginia preparing the house for their move, Mary was enlisting the help of her kids in packing.  It was quite an undertaking.

“Oh, Jimmy…look what you’ve done!”  He had just emptied some of the toys they had packed.  She got down on his level.  At age two-and-a-half, it was all just fun to him. “Let’s play a game.  Each time we put something in this box, let’s kiss it good night.  Then all your toys can take a nice long nap, and we’ll wake them up when we get to the new house.”

Jimmy liked that idea.  After an elaborate toy-packing ceremony, they were all tucked away in their boxes.  Mary stepped away to get something to seal the boxes and heard his gleeful voice accompanied by a clattering sound behind her.  He had dumped everything back out.  “Do again…” he said, clapping his hands.

Mary picked him up and hugged and kissed him.  She found something else to occupy his attention and from then on toys got packed when he wasn’t around.  Packing was a chore. She pictured Hugh sweating with pick and shovel, digging drainage ditches in red clay–and building a bathroom and closet in addition to that.  She decided she had the better end of the deal.  When he came home, she was glad to hear that he’d hired a local teenager to help him with the digging.

Nurturing her dream of living in the Shenandoah Valley motivated Mary to seek solutions when she realized eight rooms of furniture would never fit into four smaller rooms.  Hugh finished his work on the house and came back to help her with the last few weeks of preparations.  They advertised some items for sale, and finally held an auction.  A friend offered to drive a truck with their remaining things to Virginia.  They loaded everything they could get into it, and the rest somehow got stuffed into their Willy’s Jeep station wagon, or was given away.

Pulling out from Howell Avenue early in the morning they headed for Leesburg, Ohio, where Hugh’s parents now lived, for a farewell picnic.  The Willy’s was so loaded that they had to drive with the tailgate down and ropes strapping things in.  Estus and Toy were not happy about this move.

“What do you want with mountains,” Estus asked.  “If it’s hills you want, we’ve got plenty of them right here in Ohio.”

“Not like Virginia,” Mary said.

Jimmy looked up at his grandpa as they got into the car.  “We’re going on a citing bensner,” he beamed.  Mary translated that as “exciting adventure.”  She winked.  “You just have to know the language!”

Unexpectedly, they had to squeeze three puppies into the car–gifts from Estus and Toy. Sis claimed one and named it “Sugar.”  Hughie took a black one and named it “Pepper.”  Jimmy’s was named “Cincy.”

Mary could imagine what pioneering must have been like generations before her as they set out on their 600-mile journey in the overloaded jeep.  It was a rough ride and she wondered if conestoga wagons felt something like that.  Probably not as comfortable as this, she decided.  The hours wore on everyone’s nerves as they wound their way through the West Virginia mountains on Route 50 to Grafton, then through the covered bridge at Philippi  and eastward toward Franklin.

They made frequent stops, and focused on the natural beauty surrounding them as an antidote to fraying nerves.  Several times they heard a scraping sound under the vehicle, but nothing seemed to fall apart, so they kept going.  It was after 1:00 a.m. when they descended toward Rawley Springs, Virginia, and then into Harrisonburg.  Eastbound on Route 33, Hugh slowed the car and they turned left onto a narrower paved road.  The change of motion wakened Hughie.

He yawned groggily.  “Where are we, Daddy?”

“We’re on the road to Keezletown.”

He groaned.  “When will we ever get there?”

“Not long now.  Watch for the headlights to reflect off a shiny aluminum door on a barn alongside the road.  When you see that, we’re almost there.”

Mary awakened and stretched as much as possible in her cramped quarters.  Suddenly the aluminum door shone right back at them as they came around a curve.

“I see it,” Hughie shouted, wakening the other kids.

A mile or so later they came to a road where they stopped before turning left.  Mary noticed the tall, darkened hulk of a house on her right, sitting very near the road.  Diagonally across the street to her left she saw a frame church.  Just past it was another almost identical church with a fenced field between the two.

Keezletown seemed more barren than romantic at that moment.  They drove past a number of small houses with cars parked along the road, descended a hill then crossed some railroad tracks.  She noticed a large building that had a gas pump outside it, and then the large hulk of a school building loomed in front of them.  Hugh bore left past it and continued another half mile, ascended a steep hill.  He turned right up a rough gravel lane just as the paved road crested.

“This is it,” he announced with pride as he stopped the car.  It was 2:30 a.m.


Everyone sat in stunned silence.  They were looking at a dark two-story house with a building behind it that appeared to be almost the same size.  Hugh got out of the car, unlocked the back door and turned on a light inside, and one attached to the outside of the house.

Mary looked around, feeling a little off-balance.  There was a fence between the house and driveway where weeds were so thick they disguised the wire between the posts.  The grass looked clumpy and sparse.  As she stepped out of the car and began getting the children out she felt the cool night air–so different from what she was used to in the summer.

“Mom, you’d better get some sleep,” Hughie said.  “Looks like you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you.”

“Well, you’d better, too–cause you’re going to help me.”

Hugh got Paul out of the vehicle.  He had rigged a way for him to ride the whole distance in his chair, and knew he must be in pain from sitting all that time in braces.  They went inside, then brought in blankets, pillows, and suitcases.

Mary took in her surroundings.  The kitchen had one ceiling light bulb with a string that hung in the center of the room.  Another was over the sink.  There was a washer and dryer, and a small closet, in the utility room Hugh had built in place of the back porch.

Just past the kitchen on the left was the new bathroom Hugh had built from a piece of the living room.  Opposite it was a door and stairwell to the upstairs where she found two bedrooms and a storage room.  There were nails in the walls where the tenants who’d lived there had apparently hung their clothes.  Her mind took her back to memories of the old house built from a log cabin where she’d spent her childhood on the dairy farm.  In some ways this all seemed quite familiar to her.

She went back downstairs.  Hugh was explaining things, obviously feeling proud of what he’d accomplished, and wanting her approval.  On the right was a door into the master bedroom.  He had built as large a closet as he could under the stairwell.  The living room had an oil stove that would heat the entire house, and a door that opened onto a front porch.

In the morning when the sun had burned off the overnight chill, Mary breathed in fresh mountain air.  It was so quiet–no traffic noise, no neighbors hollering to each other.  As she listened to the birds, the task before her seemed a little less daunting.  Soon the truck drove up with their furniture and they spent the rest of the day unloading and deciding how to organize familiar things in an unfamiliar place.

Over the next few days everyone pitched in with various tasks  Hughie was put to work crawling under the house (complaining about bugs and fearing rats or snakes) to dig out all the cans and trash the tenants had tossed there.  Mary ventured out into the front yard where raspberry bushes traversed the perimeter.  She picked a quantity, then turned and took in the house.  She whispered a prayer.  “Thank you, Lord, for this place to which you have led us.  Help us turn it into a home filled with love.”

Hugh took a job with Nielsen Construction Company.  He left for work at 5:30 each morning, and left a list of jobs for Hughie to do while he was gone.  These included picking up sticks and debris in the yard, and cutting the grass.  That task required a scythe and sickle since their lawnmower, a hand-pushed reel type, was far more suited to the lawn on Howell Avenue than the wild grass at Keezletown.  It was so hot during the day that he had to do a lot of grass cutting in the evening.

In her kitchen, Mary had a gas stove and an electric refrigerator, cabinets and a pantry. The sink faced out into the back yard.  Upstairs she assigned one of the two bedrooms to Sis.  The three boys shared the larger one.  Amazingly, they managed to fit Paul’s standing table, exercise table, and Hughie’s electric train table into that room–along with three beds.  The cistern outside the back door provided running water for the sink and bathroom, but it wasn’t palatable. The had to carry a large milk can down the road to the big house where they were offered spring water that was pure.

Mary did Paul’s exercises every day, and he seemed to thrive in the new environment. He loved to look out at the Chesapeake & Western railroad tracks at the bottom of the hill across the road.  Every morning a diesel engine pushed a dozen loaded freight cars up the tracks toward Harrisonburg, and every evening it returned pulling empty cars.  Very few vehicles passed on the road, so this was the major excitement of each day.

When fall began, Hugh bought a small wood-burning stove that would help warm the house during the winter months.  He also closed in the open spaces around the outside of the house, painted it, and put awnings on the front windows.  It looked like a totally different place than that night in June when they had arrived.


Talking with his mom one day, Hughie seemed thoughtful.  He had begun reading adventure stories about young people who lived on the American frontier.

“Mom…sometimes I think we are just like the pioneers.”  He looked at her.  “Do you think so?”

Mary caught what he was feeling.  “Something like that, I guess–starting a new life in a very different kind of place, with great hopes and dreams to keep us going.  I guess we are –at least in spirit!”

(Excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter” by Hugh Townsend Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris)



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