May 1990

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Harpending's Corners


Edwin N. Harris

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My Parents

George Mottram Harris, 1886 - 1941
Clara Dillistin Harris, 1893 - 1973

My father got his middle name from Dr. George H. Mottram who practised in Tyrone, New York, and was the attending physician at dad's birth in 1886. Dad had two sisters and six brothers.

He was five years old when his mother, Caroline Price Harris died at the birth of her ninth child. That was in May of 1891. His father left home to seek work. The three older brothers struck out on their own and dad's eldest sister, Lizzie, then only fifteen, kept the family together as long as she could. Newton, the baby, was taken in by a kindly family and dad went in a few years to live in Michigan with Alice, an older sister who had married by then.

For several years he lived with a Dutch family there and later worked in the forests of northern Michigan as a lumberjack. When he came back to New York he found work in the George Schoeffler vineyards on the west side of Keuka Lake, near Hammondsport, where his three brothers, Alfred, Edward and Newton were already working. The brothers were close and they enjoyed singing together and sang as a quartet at weddings, funerals and area celebrations, all just for fun.

Dad also acted and sang in several amateur stage productions, and was often vocal soloist with the Dundee band. My father played the violin all his life and participated in old-time fiddler's contests, always losing first place to Bert Shannon, a man of evident determination. Shannon had been an able right-handed fiddle player before he lost his left hand in an accident. After this happened he reversed the string positions on his fiddle to be able to finger with his right hand, held the bow with a wooden hand attached to his left arm, and, unbelievably, won the contests by his lively playing. Think of the number of hours he must have worked to become the premiere country fiddler of our area.

Clara Dillistin, my mother, was born June 18, 1893 in the same farmhouse that her grandparents had built and where later she would give birth to me. Her parents were Elbert Dillistin and Harriet Harkness Dillistin. After mother graduated from the Dundee High School she took a teacher training class in Watkins Glen and then taught school at Tyrone District No. 6 on the corner of Pre-emption Road and Glen Road. It was the same school she had attended; later I went to the same school.

My parents married in 1915. I was born January 29, 1918, and that year father moved us to Corning where he worked as a machinist for the Ingersoll Rand Corporation at Painted Post. My brother, Elbert, was born at this time. When the work ended after the war we returned to my grandfather's farm on the Pre-emption Road. In awhile our family settled about a half mile south in a house owned by Sid Drake and his wife, Fannie. Here at two year intervals my brothers Lauren Ernest, and John Dillistin Harris were born.

My earliest recollections include going to live with my grandparents, the Dillistins, just up the road, during and after each arrival. I resented these uninvited intrusions. However, I was quite fond of Grandma "D" who had an important influence on my formative years and thus my life.

Mother handled the corporal punishment in our family. Raising four imaginative boys, two years apart in age, could drive her to irate frustration. I, probably the worst, often paid the penalty that she administered with strength and determination. Elbert received his share; Lauren and John seemed to be treated more gently as mother grew in experience. Dad never struck us, he probably feeling that we received more than enough. A generous woman, mother was always an easy mark for the many indigents that appeared at her door during the great depression. Wandering hoboes were fed on the south porch, and other young unfortunates found lodgings and understanding care from her willing hands—for all her life.

One of my early recollections of dad on the farm was his daily ritual at five in the morning and the accompanying noises made when he started the fire in the kitchen stove. With my three brothers in two beds in the room above we listened to each step of the operation until he finished. With a cast-iron crank dad shook the cold ashes from the grates into a pan below. He then removed the stove lids from the top of the stove to place small pine kindling sticks on the empty grates. Over these he stoked heavier pieces of hickory, ash, and other hardwoods that had been brought from the woodlot during the previous winter. He then sprinkled the wood with a liberal dollup of kerosene from a one-gallon can that had a small potato stuck in its spout for a stopper. With the stovepipe damper open the fire started with a pulsating roar rattling the tin pipe that ran from the stove up through our room on its way to the brick chimney based just below our ceiling. Dad filled and lit his pipe that sent its pungent aroma up to us, finished his dressing, closed the damper part way to calm the fire, and left through the woodshed door, headed for the barn for an hour and a half of milking the cows and taking care of the horses.

The noise we did not want to hear was the special snapping roar of a creosote fire in the chimney, a fire that was probably spouting flames from the outside chimney top. Many a farm house was reduced to ashes from chimney fires, even when only seasoned wood was used. Lauren was always the first to detect the threat, and his wild yell brought mother pounding down the stairs to throw handsful of salt into the stove to stifle the fire. Then her loud wail toward the barn brought dad on the run.

Once, the fire was in a heat-drum section of pipe in our parent's bedroom and Dad was forced to disconnect the red hot drum from the pipe and throw it out the front window to become a rolling ball of fire across the front lawn. His leather gloves were burned to a crisp, and he declared, "That's the end of any more patent heat drums in this house." It was a new device to collect heat that would otherwise flow out the chimney. Clary & Van Liew Hardware soon discontinued the line.

On winter mornings the living room stove, too, had to be fired. We four boys waited about ten minutes for the room to warm up, then charged, roaring and yelling, down the stairs to dress huddled around the stove while mother readied the pancakes for breakfast. In my best young years I would eat ten or twelve of them at a sitting.

© 1990, Edwin N. Harris
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