The Biography of a House – Part 3

by | Sep 1, 2019 | Features

Photo by Liz Chrisman

Living and Dying

As one of the few houses of any substance in Russellville, I was a regular hub of activity during the decade before the Civil War. Family and neighbors came by to talk about local goings-on and to introduce new arrivals; in particular if they were from the Carolinas or belonging to the Presbyterian Church. The tannery brought us both visitors and information as well as the occasional suitor who had heard of John’s girls.
When my family arrived from North Carolina, Katie was just two. Vashti, the eldest, had recently married and was settled back in Gaston County. In between them were five sisters, all pious and pretty.
Euphemia was the next to marry, to a Mr. Newton Turnage in 1857. He came from Texas and managed to talk his way into employment at the tannery, claiming an interest in saddlery. The wedding took place just six months later. I can still see him at the supper table, as polite as anything and obviously interested in more than making saddles. Sundays were spent reading from the Holy Word, and Newton took his turn with the rest. He had a rather high voice, but from the look on Euphemia’s face it was the voice of an angel.
They had a daughter right off. Oh, 1858 was a busy year, for then Jane married a certain George Washington Harkey that July. He was a local favorite, the son of Elizabeth Shinn (cousin to Jacob Shinn – the very one who took on the store at the corner of Main and Denver…but I told you all that before).
Newton wanted nothing more than to return to his homestead in Texas, and as happened with any interesting new experience, George was eager to go along and see what the place was like. The two couples headed out in October, and not so long afterward we heard they’d lost everything. The Turnage house burned to the ground while they were out surveying the countryside. George didn’t seem to take it hard – he sent word back that he was pleased with the area, and they planned to stay at least long enough to help rebuild.
Mrs. Torrence was sick about it, but the Harkeys settled in and had their first child there, Miss Dora. Then Arkansas seceded and George was back among us to support the town while Leroy, John’s eldest boy, headed south to work with Newton. We later heard he was staying with Newton’s brother Elisha. This was a worry since Elisha was keen to join the Texas Volunteers.
Now, the war, that’s a story all its own. The muttering began around 1860, or at least that’s when the discussions invaded my walls even if John quickly shut them down. When secession was announced, we began to see good people becoming hateful. It was no longer enough to avoid the questions that burned across the nation; some preachers ended every sermon with a call for able-bodied men to join the confederacy. John made it a point to stop all political conversations at the tannery, no matter how anybody felt. We were surrounded by both union and Confederate sympathizers, and fights were already breaking out around town. Ransom Shinn was dependent on his slaves, you know, and it was clear that the loss of them would bring ruin to his family.
Soon enough, more and more of our men left Pope County to report for duty. Those who didn’t leave faced anger from those who thought they should. Others felt we needed some to stay and guard the community. Even as we heard the reports of battles and skirmishes from Little Rock all the way out to Indian territory, there was the equally dismaying news of hungry gangs of soldiers pillaging local farms. Then entire companies came in and camped — a blight that devoured all of our food and supplies.
As a man famous for his pretty daughters, John made a decision. For the first time in centuries, the road to the river was closed. John planted his property from one side to the other with corn, right on up to the house. The road alongside his 40 acres, which would eventually be called Oak Street and today is Arkansas Avenue, became the road to the post at Dardanelle. I have heard more than one person say it was a bold move but also a wise one.
He couldn’t hide the tannery, as he had a reputation for good work and honest dealings. At the same time out-of-towners did not necessarily know which of his daughters were away, which were at home, and which were married.
When the trouble started brewing, young Sidney Bradley, who had been living with us while making harnesses, married Martha and bought the property between the tannery and town to keep an eye on things.
Emily was away at school in 1861 and wed there, but that still left Mary, 19, at home. Little Katie was 11 when the war broke out. I kept them well-hidden in my attic when soldiers came around. John Junior was 14 then, and stayed in the fields lest he be snatched away for cannon fodder. Others who sought shelter were sometimes stowed in the barn across from the tannery. It’s still there if you want to have a look at it.
After George and Jane returned with Dora, we were quickly blessed with the arrival of Miss Lillian Belle Harkey. She has always reminded me of the verse, “For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth.” Lillian Belle was a consolation indeed. The women worked away at their home duties and spent what spare time they had knitting for the soldiers. Lillian Belle seemed to know that she was to be the entertainment, and her happy visage lit up many a gloomy day.
Another clear memory I have is when we heard Cousin Edwin Mendenhall had died in a skirmish near Smithville, Virginia. His insults were still a fresh sting – in fact his disrespect toward Ezra stays with me to this day. I have tried to let it go, as well as the disappointment in myself that I did not mourn Edwin’s passing with as much sorrow as the rest of the family; but each of us struggles with forgiveness in our own way.
It’s so strange that these moments continue to have such meaning to me. More than a century has passed since I last heard my dear ones’ voices. The desire to hear them is not as desperate as it once was, but grief has no end; it only finds itself a lodging deep down and settles in to rest.
But where was I in my story? I told you Emily married very young. She was the smart one of the family. In fact, before the war she attended Russellville College, a private academy up the road. There was only so much that could be learned there, but Emily found herself a fellow lover of knowledge in a certain John Gordon. As it happened, they met again in 1861 when they both continued their studies in Arkansas City.
They were married at the end of the school year. She was just 16, but considering the state of things it was a relief to the family. Moreover, John’s father was a respected physician who had trained all of his sons in his practice.
A year or so later we had a fright when Emily returned home and reported that her husband had been conscripted as a medic by the Confederate Army, even though the Gordons were notoriously pro-Union. Eventually they returned him to us, too ill to be of any further use. The pair quickly moved into a cabin up near Crow Mountain. There, they awaited the end of the war and only afterward continued to St. Louis Medical College. John soon had a practice in Pocahontas, Illinois, where Emily served as midwife. They were both highly respected in the community for many, many years.
George and Jane also stayed in Pocahontas for a time, and in fact their boy Robert was born there. They returned home again, but the Gordons and Harkeys remained close-knit. I can think of many times when Emily came to visit and John and George would sit together and discuss their various cases and experiments. For you see George Harkey also practiced medicine. He didn’t stay with it very long; maybe as much time as he spent building up the First Christian Church with Jacob Shinn and serving as its pastor. Eventually he built a steam mill and ran it the rest of his working life. Today you would call George a very “Jeffersonian” person due to his many interests.
In addition to being one of the most lovable characters about town, George was quite famous as the purveyor of fine remedies which he sold through Jacob’s store. You may know of the Harkeys, since the annex built onto the Pope County Library was funded by none other than George’s grandson Donald.
But that is well and truly getting ahead of myself. Oh dear, I was talking about the war and I think I got to the end of it. Sadly, the end of the war did not bring about an end to the hostilities, which only seemed to get worse. Pope County became notorious enough to warrant national attention. In 1865 the governor appointed a Federal officer to be our sheriff, and he was killed right off. After that we were officially under militia law, served coldly by a gang of Northerners.
Let me tell you, they hated us. In any disagreement the Russellvillian was wrong and the Northerner was right even if they were stealing from us or picking fights with an aim to murder.
Jacob tried to stand up to them, at his peril. He was forced to flee to Little Rock until things settled down.
The stress eventually took its toll on Mrs. Torrence. Oh, not just the goings-on about town, but so many things. Emily had delivered several babies as a midwife, but several of her own were lost before their first birthdays. And then Leroy hadn’t been heard from in years. Newton and Elisha returned from the war safely, only to be lost to the Yellow Fever Epidemic of LaGrange in 1867. My goodness, nearly a quarter of the town was lost. Mrs. Torrence got it into her head that even if Leroy had survived the war, it was unlikely he had survived this plague as well.
That Christmas, she developed a cough. Euphemia was home with us then, as tired and worn as could be, and then when we lost her in the summer of ’68 why Mrs. Torrence sank even lower. Miss Nanny – that was Euphemia’s child – was such a sight to behold. She would help about the house whenever anything was wanted, but those moments she had to herself she spent with me in some dark corner, not crying nor making any kind of sound but just looking so sad your heart would break. I think Mrs. Torrence wanted to hold on for her sake, but the tuberculosis had gotten hold of her and then come the following Christmas, why she too was gone.
It was good that John had the railroad and a new church to think about. The railroad had arrived in Russellville, thanks in no small part to Jacob making land available through the center of town. This too became a worry for the family, since railroad work brought with it the roustabouts who journeyed westward to build tracks beyond us into Indian territory. The street we today call Commerce was then known as Smoky Row between the railroad tracks and Main. None of the family would have been caught dead there among the many saloons that lined the block. Why, it’s said the outlaws Frank and Jessie James owned the biggest one.
Around the spring of 1870, our last Federal law officer was shot and killed on Smoky Row. Sidney and George met with others in the family and around town. They enlisted George Berryman to act as their attorney and filed a plea for incorporation so as to establish the office of Town Marshall and build a jail. Sidney was the first to sign, George was the third, and eventually John Torrence and even young John had their turns.
We the undersigned citizens of Russellville by Geo. W Berryman our attorney feeling desirous of calling your attention to the necessity of Incorporating the town of Russellville, would respectfully ask your Honor to grant an order for the Incorporation of said town as made and provided by law upon the following grounds,
To wit,
From the fact that there are no officers in said town having power to quell disturbances and riotous conduct which is almost of a daily occurrence and moreover that we deem it necessary to our protection and security of life and property and conducive to the growth and prosperity of our place.
After incorporation we got our Marshall and the jail was built right across from the saloons. I never heard about the James brothers after that, so maybe they took their wild ways elsewhere.
Be that as it may, John never did allow the street to come through his property again, not for the rest of his days. Can you imagine? Corn and cows where you now see a busy road lined with houses. Perhaps he worried that there would be another war, or perhaps his concern was regarding the wild sort of fellows he saw at the tannery. Whatever the reason, our fence was well away from my front porch and if he spoke anything of it, it was to extol the country air and the peaceful life he enjoyed.
He did keep his promise to Cousin Emily and built the church not a half mile away from us, but that is another long story and one that ends in sorrow. The years thus far were good ones, even though there were hardships. Soon enough there would be silence for decades to come.

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