Something Like Pioneers

Hughs Wordquilts


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…

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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)



Going the Extra Mile


CP Mother of the Year

(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)

Mary and Hugh were challenged to go the extra mile when they got involved with a CP Parents group.  Here were people who wanted to create a center to provide schooling and physical therapy for their children.  They were actively exploring methods to fund their dreams.

The group provided good networking for Mary.  She thrived on their bi-monthly meetings that provided bonding around common experiences, ideas, frustrations and triumphs.  She got involved with the funding discussion.  Television was a new and powerful communication instrument.  The group decided to approach WLW-TV about doing a telethon to get visibility for their efforts.

They launched a contest to name one of their members “CP Mother of the Year,” and have this person presented during the telethon, which would be held at a prominent hotel. Over a period of time community business leaders submitted letters nominating someone for this honor.  Mary was overwhelmed when she received the most letters and was selected.  The night of the telethon her children were thrilled to see their mom on television.

From there on fund-raising efforts proved effective.  The group hired a professional fund-raiser to direct the program and soon they were able to move forward with the center.  That’s when Mary suddenly hit a brick wall.  When the center was ready to open she found out Paul wasn’t qualified to participate.  Several other children with similar levels of need were also rejected.  She learned that group leaders had set minimum standards for participation that said only children who could feed themselves and were toilet trained could qualify.

Mary was crushed and angered.  “I can’t believe this, can you?” she said over the phone to another parent whose child was rejected.  “Why did we all work so hard if this isn’t going to serve the children who need it most?”

She took her feelings to God in prayer.   Lord, I don’t understand this.  We found this group, believed in their cause, helped them raise money to create this facility…and now we’re blocked!  Why?  What did we do wrong?  Show us the way.

In response, she heard an inner voice saying, Wait!  Keep the faith!  Look deeper!

Mary found herself going the “extra mile” again.  She called the other parents of rejected children.  “Maybe this just wasn’t the right approach,” she found herself saying.  “Maybe we need to do something else.  Can you come to our house Saturday afternoon?  We’ll have sandwiches and talk this over.”

On Saturday five children and their parents showed up.  This was a different “coming together” than they had experienced with the other group.  They were all active caregivers who loved their kids and wanted to advocate for them.  They began to meet each week and dubbed themselves the CP Support Group.


The impact on the children was noticeable.  Being a child with Cerebral Palsy was isolating.  People around them didn’t understand their condition or their needs.  The support group had the effect of normalizing their lives.  Now they could simply “be kids”–laughing and playing together in the safety this group provided.  Mary and Hugh were thrilled.

“Sometimes God has different ideas that we can’t see right away,” Mary said one day.  “We had to run into a brick wall in order to see past the boundaries we had helped set up.”  The support group began to feel energized and soon became visible, and people wanted to help.  One of those  was Paul’s Sunday school teacher.  She and Mary had become friends, and one day she said, “You know, I’d love to come over when your group meets and read some stories to the children.  It might help stimulate them to learn words.  Do you think that would be all right?”

Mary and the group welcomed her.  Soon she was innovating ways to teach these special needs children to speak.  She would put a word she wanted them to learn on a red ribbon that she pinned to their shirt or dress.  The kids squealed with delight and tried to form the words.  They began to have contests to see which child could get the most words on their ribbon.  This became such a stimulus that the group grew from six to twelve children.

About that time Clifton Methodist Church received a new pastor, Reverend Warren Bright. Mary invited him to her house for one of the support group’s meetings.  He was impressed with what they were doing, but noticed how crowded they were.  He made a suggestion.

“Have you ever considered meeting at the church?  We have a large social hall, a kitchen and bathrooms–anything you might need.  You would have so much more room.  I do hope you’ll consider this.”

It didn’t take them long to say “yes.”  The group became known as the Clifton “CP School.”  A woman named Mildred Martin emerged as a key leader who would keep the group functioning for many  years.

Mary and Hugh continued their trips with Paul to visit Dr. Phelps during all of this.  They were still thinking about moving to the Shenandoah Valley some day so they could be closer to Maryland.  Mary also remembered how the beauty of the area had attracted her.  They put their house on the market, but after a while took it back off due to lack of interest.

Hugh had been selling women’s hats, and had done well with it, but it took him out of town a lot.  Then he had the chance to open a business of his own.  He had become interested in woodworking and cabinetry.  A space suitable for a shop opened up on Vine Street, next door to a moving company.  It was an ideal location.  A major part of his work became refinishing furniture damaged in transit.  Applying his woodworking skills to the house, he decided to remodel the kitchen.  About this same time they put the house back on the market, still thinking about Virginia.  He was only halfway finished with the remodeling when the house sold.

Suddenly their world was turning upside down again.  The dream of living in the Shenandoah Valley was now a possibility.  Hugh drove to Harrisonburg where they had stayed at the Pure Village Court, and looked for a house.  He had limited funds and the realtor showed him several places, but nothing seemed right.  Then he was shown an old tenant farm house in the village of Keezletown.  It had once been part of the estate of Senator George Keezle.


The property covered three-and-a-half acres that included an apple orchard…and a magnificent view of the Massanutten Mountain and the valley that spread out from it.  The house needed a lot of work, but the price was right.  He went home and described it to Mary.

“I bought the most magnificent view you’ll find anywhere in the Shenandoah Valley.  You can sit in the front yard and look out across miles of farmland.  She was fascinated with his description, and intrigued by the apple orchard.  Then she choked back some misgivings when he told her more about the condition of the house.

“It has a cistern for water located right outside the back door.”

Mary pictured the well outside the kitchen of the hold house on the dairy farm where She wasn’t sure how she felt about the cistern.  Then he told her the biggest drawback.  “It doesn’t have a bathroom, and it has no closets.”

“Hubert Harris, if you think I’m going to live in a house without a bathroom or closets, you are mistaken!”

He tried to console her.  “You won’t have to live in it like that, honey.  I’m going back for a few weeks and I’ll fix it up.  The soil perks, so I can put in a septic tank and build a bathroom…and I can build closets.  I’ll also turn the old back porch into an enclosed utility room.”

She thought about the view and her desire to live in the Valley.  This was the biggest “extra mile” she’d encountered yet.  After prayer and more discussion, she saw God’s hand in it. It was 1951 and they had lived in the house of her dreams on Howell Avenue for six years. She reckoned it was time to trade dreams and entrusted that to God.


The dairyman’s daughter was about to move back to the country…not to a farm, but close. It felt good!

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















Opportunities and Blessings

Hughs Wordquilts


(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)

Mary didn’t know it starting out, but the next few years would be filled with opportunities and blessings she believed came from trusting god fully in everything.

Alongside caring for Paul, she had the task of nurturing Sissy with her heart condition.  Since Sis would be five-years-old in December, Mary wondered if they would take her in kindergarten in the fall.  She knew the heart murmur, along with the need for restricted activities, could present a roadblock.  She called the city school office for help.

“We have a school over in Avondale that has handicapped children,” the clerk told her.  “I’m talking about Condon School–perhaps you’ve heard of it?”

“Condon School….”  Mary turned the name over in her mind.  “No, tell me about it.”

“It was built nearly twenty years ago to educate children with handicaps.  I think they’ve had some kids with heart issues before…

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So What’s the Big Secret?

Hughs Wordquilts


There’s a big secret at Dinkel Island, but almost nobody in town is even aware of it.  That all changes when Fanny Grayson buys the old lighthouse and invites Gracie Love to help her turn it into a retreat center.  All kinds of rumors break out–things meant to intimidate Gracie and stop the project.  But…WHY?

The Old Geezers gather for coffee at the drugstore lunch counter and speculate about it.  Gracie’s cousin, Kate Sheppard, gets involved.  Ed Heygood steps in to help sell the retreat project to the pastors and churches in town.  Gracie has a nauseous reaction when she and Marty explore inside the old lighthouse.  Doc Patcher says the rumors are “fed by something or someone you can’t see.”  What’s that mean?

The plot thickens when two funerals draw media attention.  At one of those the speaker created “an air of electric silence, as though people were afraid…

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