This Old House: Secrets in the Attic

The Means home. 1896. L to R. William Jr., Elsie, Otis, William and Nellie, Harriet. Descendants of William and Nellie Means lived in this home for 120 years.

I grew up in the house on the corner of Broadway and Gardner Avenue, built by Nathan and Ruth Gardner in 1869. My great-grandmother Nellie Getchell Means bought the house in 1887, not long after her marriage to William Means. The home was inherited by my maternal grandmother, Harriet Means Johnson in 1937. My mother and father bought it from Harriet’s estate in 1948 and moved in just before I was born in September of 1952.

This visit to my childhood home, I was cleaning and organizing the sprawling home and barn, filled with 90% junk, 10% priceless family heirlooms, my history. Dad was gone, a stroke victim. Mom could no longer come upstairs, her mobility limited by osteoarthritis. It was my task now, or all would be lost.

The attic was stuffed with cartons and boxes amid glorious, old wide boards and beams, another universe. The outgrown clothes of all my five children rested in a corner under the eves waiting for my grandchildren. Beside the old wooden stairs, I found the petticoats I dearly loved as a five-year old, the insulated skipants and jacket I last wore in the 60s, my mother’s square dancing outfits. How will I ever sort this stuff? I kept the baby clothes and blankets for little ones and my skipants, then packed the rest to donate to a non-profit. By one of the chimneys, I opened one of the old shipping chests of my great-grandparents and gazed at their wedding clothes, well preserved. I moved to another chest, dug deep under school work by me and my two brothers, and found a trove of old letters dated 1908. I carried them downstairs to my bedroom, lined them up according to their date. Each night, I read the letters written by my grandmother Harriet who died before I was born. For as long I could remember, I longed to talk to her, imagined she had written something that told me what she thought about, her struggles, hopes and dreams. It was as though I knew the letters were there, waiting to be found. Through her words, I got to know Harriet and realized that she was a lot like a younger version of me. She fell in love, took risks, defied her parents. Born into a prestigious family, she eloped in 1908 with Ezekiel Johnson from Kennebec, the wrong side of the river, and traveled to Oregon by train without telling her parents.

In 2015, I transcribed Harriet’s letters to share with my family. And, I began to write about the grandmother I never knew, weaving my mother’s stories with the letters written in 1908. To read these eight posts in sequence, begin with “Harriet” and end with “Home at Last.”


The Train Can Take Us Anywhere

Papa’s Letter

Papa To The Rescue

Sightseeing and Homesick

Nellie’s Sister Dora Pleads: Please Write To Your Daughter

Christmas Eve 1908

Home at Last: Tough Times Ahead






21 thoughts on “This Old House: Secrets in the Attic”

    1. I’m so grateful for that old house holding such treasures. I am doing my best to preserve them for future generations. I always yearned to know more about my grands and great grands. What were their lives like? What did they think about? What was important to them? I believe I will have great grandchildren who will want to know them – and me too. Love your blog!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it was a wonderful house to grow up in – and the house my parents lived in for over 50 years! It was a huge task to sort through everything but well worth the effort. I am very fortunate to have so many treasures from my ancestors!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I was also brought up in a very big house (but in the U.K.) and when my mum died it took my sister, our dad, and I, absolutely ages to sort through it, so I sympathise!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Then you know exactly what a task it is! It actually took me several years, while I was taking care of my mother in the last 4 years of her life. I regret not taking notes on who was in all her photos (thought I’d remember) and wish I had recorded her stories.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. What treasures you found in the attic… and those letters! Yes I would have squirreled them away in my bedroom also. My grandparents had s trunk full of letters but unfortunately they were thrown out after they let me have the old stamps off them as a child. I still feel sad knowing all I missed.


      1. I had just gotten into stamp collecting and they let me have the stamps and then mama said she dumped the letters. Breaks my heart to think of all I lost… as my grandmother saved every letter sent to her.


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