Grandma and the Big House

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(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)

Mary Ellen Townsend was the Dairyman’s Daughter because of decisions made by her great-grandfather, Isaac Townsend, in the mid-nineteenth century.

Isaac set out to be a grocer, but added a small dairy farm into his endeavors.  By the time his son John Thomas was old enough to take over, the farm had become too much for Isaac to handle.   He turned it over to John who built it up into a 200 acre enterprise that grew corn and other produce, along with a large herd of dairy cows.

The farm became the Townsend Milk Co.  Each day John and his hired hands would milk over sixty cows.  They filled a number of ten-gallon milk cans, then lowered them into a basement area of the house to keep it cool.  The next morning the cans were loaded onto horse-drawn wagons and milk was delivered to customers where it was ladled into containers they left on their doorsteps.   

A few years before Mary Ellen was born, John sold the dairy to the French Bauer Company. They combined that purchase with acquisition of a company owned by a man named Charles J. West.  By 1915, four years after Mary Ellen’s birth, the Townsend Milk Co. had become the Townsend West Dairy.  

Her daddy, Elmer Davis Townsend, took over management of the dairy, which became established in a downtown Cincinnati location instead of on the farm.  Elmer managed the daily operations, and led the company through modernization and growth.  This, of course, put pressure on the family’s farm-centered life–something that would affect Mary Ellen as she grew older.

As a child of ten, however, her life on the dairy farm was all-consuming.   One of her greatest fascinations was the Big House, as they called it, that her grandfather had built next to the dairy barn.

She loved Saturdays.  They were busy catch-up times for the family.  Everybody had chores to do.  Her job was usually to keep her little brother occupied and out of the way.  Typically her mother washed clothes and hung them on a line in the yard, leaving the basket beside the clothesline.  Mary Ellen would put Bud into the basket and pull him around the yard.  He loved it.  With him she could make almost anything into an adventure.

Her own time of adventure came later when she slipped down the sidewalk to the Big House.  It was a white frame two-story structure with many windows and green shutters.  A porch stretched across the front and around the side where the driveway was located.  A stand of pine trees and chestnuts formed a windbreak on the southwest side.  Mary Ellen loved that house, and she loved the times she spent there with her Grandma Mary.  She had a routine that seldom varied.

Climbing up onto the porch, she pulled the screen door open, then stepped inside taking care not to let the door slam.

“Hi, Grandma,” she called from the hall.

As if on cue the parlor door opened and her grandma stepped out wearing her usual apron, and carrying a feather duster.

“Well, Miss Priss.  It’s about time you showed up.”

They laughed and joked with each other, then Grandma Mary told her stories about her own childhood while they worked together on housecleaning.  During the summer months the shutters were closed all around the house to keep out the sun and hot breezes.  Mary Ellen loved to help with that.  When they finished, they moved into the parlor.

Although the room was only used for holidays and special occasions, it was always kept clean.  It featured exciting furniture.  A loveseat was bordered with cherry and upholstered in rose satin damask.  There were two matching chairs and several marble-topped tables.  A large piano captured much of the focus, as did a number of vases, plus some shells her grandma had brought back after living for several years in San Diego.

Mary Ellen gravitated toward the shells.

“Hold one up to your ear.  You can hear the ocean waves.”

It worked!  Hearing the ocean became a ritual whenever she visited the Big House.  There were also two vases that Mary Ellen especially liked.  Her grandma took note of her interest and years later would give them to her as a wedding gift.

Another of Mary Ellen’s favorite places was the pantry.  It was filled with good things she liked to eat.  Between it and the kitchen was a dumb-waiter that had been built into the wall.  Using ropes and pulleys with weights, it was designed to lower milk cans into a well in the cellar.

Mary Ellen would remember over the years about her Great Aunt Lizzie’s visits to the pantry with her.  Lizzie lived there in the house with her sister and would sometimes sneak her great niece into the pantry for a treat.  She would have a piece of freshly baked bread already prepared with butter and sugar on it.  They would eat their bread along with a cup of eggnog.  This was a rare treat that was exciting because it was forbidden.  Neither her mother nor grandmother wanted Mary Ellen to each anything in between meals.

 The Big House had a large kitchen with a table that seated a dozen people.  Each night the table was set for breakfast, then a tablecloth was placed over it.  Oatmeal was prepared in a double-boiler on a wood-and-coal-burning stove, then pushed back to keep it warm overnight.  There was also a built-in sink with running water supplied by a hand pump next to it.

From Mary Ellen’s visits to this marvelous kitchen came a story her grandmother loved to tell about her.  A small trough was installed halfway up the stem of the pump to collect the overflow of water.  Mary Ellen liked to play in the water and her grandma had to tell her over and over, not to do that.  One day her grandmother was distracted and Mary Ellen went right to the water trough.  When her grandma discovered what she was up to, she scolded her.  Mary Ellen looked up and said, “Grandma, I did not hear you.”

Attending church with her grandparents was another special activity.  The family belonged to a Quaker church where the services consisted of people sitting in silence until someone felt “moved by the Spirit” to speak.  Women weren’t allowed to speak, but sometimes her grandpa would say something.  Mary Ellen took in this atmosphere of quiet meditation and filed it away in her spiritual reservoir.  Years later those memories would feed her own devotional life.  She would develop a practice of keeping a journal in which she would write  out things she read or heard that struck a chord of truth or inspiration within her.

On many of her visits to the Big House, Mary Ellen found Grandma Mary knitting, crocheting, or quilting.  One day she watched for awhile, then said, “Grandma, can I help?”  Her grandmother’s gaze in response seemed to be measuring her in some way.  Finally she put aside the fabric she was working on and took her granddaughter to a large basket where she had old clothes and various other pieces of cloth with patterns or designs.

A completed quilt was folded on a nearby chair.  She opened it up and showed her granddaughter all the pieces of cloth cut in various sizes and sewn together in a unique design.  Next she showed her a box filled with pieces of fabric she had cut out and stored for future use.

“Missy, I’m going to need all of these pieces sorted out in little piles for the quilt I’m making.  Why don’t you go through the box, pick out the pieces that match, and then stack them over on the table?  That will help me when I get ready for them.”

“I can do it, Grandma.  I know how.  I’ve been watching you.”

Grandma Mary smiled and returned to her quilting while Mary Ellen meticulously tackled the task.  Gradually her grandma taught her to design, cut, piece and sew small quilted pieces of her own.  It was a skill learned at her grandmother’s feet that she would store away until much later in her life when it would become a resource for redefining her sense of purpose when things would change dramatically.

Mary Ellen learned other skills, too, like crocheting and knitting–and the practical skills of darning socks and mending torn clothes–all from her grandma.  Spending time at the Big House was not only fun, it was an emotional and spiritual treasure trove that would serve Mary Ellen for a lifetime!

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

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