Pictured are Harriet and George Allen with daughters Stella (left) and Gretchen (right).
A remarkable couple was interviewed by the Living History program of Johnsburg Historical Society November 9, 2012. George and Harriet Allen of Barney Hill Road, Bakers Mills are typical of Johnsburg’s strong work ethic and at the same time extraordinary in their unwavering commitment to family, work, church, community and each other.
The interview was conducted on George’s 82nd birthday. Also present to add their own colorful stories were his brother Lee and two of George and Harriet’s daughters, Gretchen and Stella.
One of nine children (eight boys and a girl), George was born in the Bartman district of Bakers Mills. His father, a lumberman, was a sawyer all his life. Harriet’s father also worked in a sawmill for a time, as did George as a young man.
Harriet (Ross) was born October 7, 1931, one of seven children who were raised at the Izzy Richards place off Garnet Lake Road. As a four year-old, Harriet followed her older brothers to school, walking behind them to the one-room schoolhouse for eight grades on South Johnsburg Road. Amazingly the patient teacher, Mrs. Shortsleeves, allowed Harriet to stay, and even found time to teach the four year- old to embroider.
Mrs. Shortsleeves became a lifelong friend and always called Harriet “Sister” like her siblings did. Gretchen remembers Mrs. Shortsleeves visiting the family at Christmas with presents for all. The teacher, a sister of Ed McKee and Fayette McKee, remained friends with the family all her life.
“ A Lickin’ Every Day”
George and his brother Lee’s school experience was not as sweet. Male teacher Jack O’Donnell would take Lee aside and give him a “lickin” every school day, for no apparent reason (according to Lee). George told Mr. O’Donnell that their Daddy said that the lickins had to stop, or he would come to school and give the teacher a lickin. Lee was never bothered again.
“I Would Do Anything to Go to a Square Dance”
As a teenager Harriet’s favorite activity was square dancing. She was 16 when her mother finally consented to allow Harriet to attend her first square dance, at the Buckskin Valley Dude Ranch at Garnet Lake. “I would do anything to go to a square dance” and Harriet remembers having to clean the whole house and bake a cake before being allowed to go dancing. She had to be escorted by her brother Howard — not Harry, because Mom thought he was too wild.
Even after Harriet and George were engaged, Harriet would attend square dances without the groom-to-be. Reasoning that “George doesn’t need to know”, Harriet wore her new wedding shoes to a square dance weeks before the wedding.
The young couple who had met at church and had grown up together were married January 1, 1949 on a minus 30 degree day at Bakers Mills Wesleyan Church. The ceremony was simple, with two witnesses and followed by a reception at Harriet’s mother’s home.
When George was hired by National lead in 1951, the growing family moved to Upper Works where housing was provided for employees.
His first job there was at the cinder plant where coal was mixed into ore. A specific amount of water was added so that the cinder-filled bins and ore-filled bins would not flare up when set on fire. After burning for fifteen minutes, the cinder chunks were ready to be dumped into railroad cars which were sprayed with water to keep them cool. The cars would be weighed, then sent to the lower yard, and then sent south by train, some containing titanium and some containing iron.
After having worked at National Lead for twenty years, George reluctantly went on strike along with the rest of the work force of about 300. He never returned to work after the strike, but went to work at Barton Mines Hudson River garnet mining plant in North River, where he remained another 22 years.
George’s brother Lee worked at the Barton Mines Ruby Mountain facility. Lee was caught in an avalanche of rocks off the wall, broke a bone in his back, and was out of work for four months.
“If We Had Food, It was Because Dad Grew It”
Daughters Gretchen and Stella described their father’s dedication to work and family. “He probably never slept more than four hours a night’” and all through those years he plowed, logged, shoveled, farmed, took care of farm animals before heading off to work. To feed his family of nine children,
George had huge potato gardens, grew corn, beans, pumpkin and made butter and cheese from the cow’s milk. As Stella noted, “If we had food, it was because Dad grew it.”
This father/husband/farmer/miner was a kind of horse whisperer as well. He plowed with horses until he owned a tractor. To tame an uncooperative horse, he would ride it bareback until the horse acquiesced. Admiring the illustrations of the Lone Ranger and his horse Silver rearing up on hind legs, George taught his father’s plow horse to rear up. One day when Grandpa was plowing the field, the horse suddenly reared up, like the Lone Ranger’s horse. Grandpa was not happy.
“Bakers Mills Is My Favorite Place on Earth”
George credits his mother and his pastor as the major influences on his life, and is most proud of his 63 years of marriage to Harriet. Noting that Bakers Mills is his favorite place on earth, he wishes to be remembered here simply as “an honest man.”
Harriet, proud mother of nine good, successful, hard-working, honest children, wishes to be remembered as a loving mother. For the immediate future Harriet plans to continue working three days a week at North Creek’s Grand Union, where she lights up customers’ lives with her sense of humor and with her sign, “Please be nice to me – You’ll be old some day.”
This heartwarming interview was interrupted by frequent loud laughter and the recounting of numerous hilarious family stories. Johnsburg Historical Society hopes to make this and other oral histories accessible from a new JHS web page, thanks to a generous grant from the North Creek Calendar fundraising project.
Interviewer was Kathy Maiorana; videocamera, taping and DVD were handled by David Braley.