The Train Can Take Us Anywhere!

Union Street Station, Bangor, Maine. 1908. Completed in 1907, the entire country opened up for residents of Maine. It was a new world. Anything was possible at the turn of the century. 

Little more than two weeks after receiving Harriet’s reassuring letter, early on Monday morning February 17th, William received a call from his sister-in-law Dora who lived in Brewer. Hearing her news, he left his breakfast untouched and caught the train to Bangor. He met Dora at the Union Street Station. They walked to Harriet’s Studio where they found it and Christy in disarray, then visited Mrs. Johnson at the boarding house. Harriet was gone. They arrived too late. William returned home to Machias broken-hearted. After a long day and not a bite of food, he sat in his library lit by lamplight, stared into the darkness that loomed outside the windows. Alone at last, he put his hands over his face and quietly cried. That same day, Harriet wrote to her parents. She was on a train bound for the West Coast with Zeke. They were on the adventure of a lifetime. This letter, hand-written in pencil on lined notepaper, was mailed from Vancouver, Washington on February 27th, the same day she wrote to her little sister Elsie. Soon, she sent a letter to Christy. What did Father say once he heard the news? We just escaped by going Sunday didn’t we?


Monday A.M. 

On the train. 

February 17, 1908

My dear Mother and Father, 

This letter will be the biggest surprise I know you have ever had from Harriet. First, I will say Father I could not keep my agreement to you any longer regarding Zeke. I understood how you felt about it and still love him too dearly to be away from him long. I had that if I got Christy started at my Studio in June I would come home. I could give up my music for good but in the last wk. everything has changed and I am beginning a new life and I am happier than I ever was before. Otto wrote from N.Y. and asked me if I would like to go West and stay until June with Mattie and he would pay my bills to go out as he could not go out quite yet. Well! it was a hard thing to decide for I knew what I wanted to do and I knew also what you wanted me to do. It is an education in traveling which I knew never would come my way again as I am on my way out to Portland, Oregon then to Vancouver, Washington. I knew when I came to leave I would have a hard time without going home first and yet if I came home to see you all I think so much of you I could not leave; so unless the news has traveled by wire you will not know until you get this letter. When it came time to leave I found I could not leave Zeke behind and so we were married Sat. Eve at 8:30 at the Parsonage on Union St. by Rev. T. S. Tessendeau. We were published a wk. ago and got a license Sat. A.M. We had a nice wedding supper which Mrs. Johnson prepared to all those in the house and Marie Stewart and Mr. Blanchard; Marie belonged in Machias you know. It was your birthday, a day I decided to be married on as it seemed all the better for me. It is leap year Mama and I am the same age you were. Our wedding was a very pretty and happy one and if you had only felt as you should toward my marrying I should have loved dearly to have had you all there. You will feel badly as no doubt Mrs. Johnson will also for they do not know until Zeke writes them that we are married. I have the dearest and best boy in the world for a husband, you can say what you like as to it but within five years you will decide in my favor. He has plenty of ambition, no bad habits and will take good care of me. We are young and happy so please think the whole thing over and see if you can’t forgive me for it. We left Bangor at 1PM Sunday and arrived in Portland at 5:30. Zeke sent a dispatch to Mr. Coombs and the whole family came to meet us with Lewis Palmer who is in Union Station. We stayed with Mr. and Mrs. Coombs until this A.M. at 8:50 and now are on our way to Montreal. We go thro’ the White Mountains and on to Chicago there take the Union Pacific to Portland Oregon – Just think what a fine trip – Christy or none of my friends knew until Sat. I was to be married so don’t blame anyone but me. I tho’t if I went West alone I might be better contented to live in the East. Mr. Harden has given Zeke a fine recommendation and his chances are as good as in the East but we start with little and I think we can hold our own. We can surely come back as well as we went out. I sold my furnishings to Christy and got cash for all and got full as much as I paid for them so I tho’t I had done well. I collected nearly all but from Addie Cousins and as soon as I write her she will pay me so I have enough to last a while. Tell everyone that I had a good opportunity to go West and that I am married and if you don’t mourn they won’t talk long. I shall write as soon as I arrive and let you know how we are situated and all about it and I hope you will not shed a tear for I am far better off than I was before and shall never regret this. Go down and read this to Gram and Aunt Thirza, write Aunt Dora and all feel glad if you can and when I come back which will be before long. I want you to think as much of Zeke as you do of me. It was very sudden the whole thing but sometimes what we don’t plan on comes out better. May God bless and keep you all. Much love to you all from us both.

Your aff. Daughter,



1314 Chumasero Ave. Thurs. P.M.

Vancouver, Wash. February 27, 1908

My dear Elsie: —

I will write you a letter now I am actually out here and have gotten a little rested from my long trip. This is all so strange out here that even the houses look odd to me they are so small. Zeke and I arriv’d at Mattie’s Sunday A.M. at 10 o’clock and find her in a very cozy new house built like Mrs. Dinsmore’s only I like it even better. I was greatly surprised to see how nicely it was furnished but a school teacher built the house and furnished it and run in debt so much she was obliged to leave it. Mattie rents it all furnished so it is dandy. She and the children were delighted to see us and they talk of Elsie because she sent them Valentines. Fritz says you owe him a letter but I told him you never write to me so I doubted if he heard from you very often. We had a fine trip out here and I never shall regret seeing this part of the country. They have just room enough to live comfortable and the kind of house Mama ought to have now. To give you an idea I will tell you what this one is like. There is a front hall, sitting room with arch between that and the dining room, kitchen and pantry and back porch and front piazza downstairs then upstairs there is a bathroom and three sleeping rooms. It is painted white half way and room and upper part stained green. Otto’s people are very pleasant and have been over quite a little and they have a pleasant home here. Of course you were surprised to hear that Zeke and I were married and that we came West but I hope Elsie you will write me real often for I am just as interested in home as I ever was and want to hear all the news. The weather is fine here and seems like May at home. The grass is green and no snow this winter here and the rose bushes and trees are budded. It is a great country so far but I haven’t had time to look around much. Yesterday I washed and today I have ironed and there is quite a little to do. We had lettuce for dinner and strawberries last night for supper. I must close as Zeke and Fritz are going to the Garrison the largest in the U.S. is here. Much love and write soon.

Your Aff. Sister,



#570 Union Ave. North 

Portland, Oregon

March 18, 1908.

My dear Christy: —

You will surely think it’s time I wrote you but somehow each day has gone by since I arrived and I have written no letters. We had a nice trip out but was very tired and half sick as we were a day late on acct. of snow in Michigan. I think the West is great out thro’ Iowa etc. and I never saw such nice farming land – We went right by Iowa State College. Mattie was very glad to see us and I was lucky on her acct. to get here for she is not well at all. I am doing all the work and taking care of the children so I work very hard but it is a change and having Zeke with me we are certainly very happy and I am very glad we were married when we we were. This is a very cozy new house Mattie has and nicely furnished so we are comfortable. Zeke is going over to Portland to make final arrangements with a Mr. Arthur Architect and Contractor for whom he begins work to-morrow. I think he is lucky being a stranger to get a good position so soon. I suppose we will all move over to Portland very soon and there are so many good positions for me open that I am going to work as soon as Mattie is alright again. We stopped in Chicago a day coming out and visited Papa’s friends but it was because our train was late. I just had a grand time and am not sorry it happened so. Well! Christy how are you getting on with my pupils? I hope alright but I am anxious to hear from each one. Mrs. Johnson wrote me that Papa and Aunt Dora called on her the day after I left and that she told him how happy I was and all about my wedding. But she didn’t say one word about what he said so I am crazy to find out more. He must have called on you so do write me what he said and how he took it etc. You see I have not heard one word from them for no doubt they are too mad. Tell me if there was an acct. of my going or anything in the paper. It seems so long to get letters out here that I am tired of waiting so long to hear from folks. We just escaped by going Sunday didn’t we?

Tues. Eve

Well! Christy two weeks ago I began this letter and I am almost ashamed to send it now but I will tell you what has happened since then. Zeke and I went house hunting over in Portland and found what Mattie wanted so I have been moving her and getting settled. We have a 6 room cottage with bathroom all on one floor and I find it much easier to do the work than before. A wk. ago I stuck a splinter in my 3rd finger on my right hand and it swelled and matterated so I had to go to a Dr. and have it lanced and today is the first day I could hold a pen. I always have something come to me but I am O.K. now. I have been lonely here at times because I haven’t felt like writing letters and I haven’t heard from any but Mrs. Johnson. It takes so long to get a letter East and get an answer back, that I haven’t gotten used to it yet. I have sewed quite a lot for the Mattie’s new baby and today I have done a large washing. Usually after supper Zeke and I go for a little walk so the days are full. Portland is a very pretty city and I know when the roses are in bloom here it will be beautiful. I can imagine you hustling at the Studio in the cold and snow and I wish you were in a climate like this. I can see tho’ just why you like the East where it is such a change from Iowa. I suppose Papa tho’t I was crazy coming out here and I imagine they have said all kinds of things about me but it seems the best thing I could have done for you see they would not come to see me in the East for a while so I am better off out here where I know ’tis too far for them to come. I long so much for my clavier but it has not come yet so I can’t practice any. I think of every one I left behind me Christy and wonder how they are etc. and still I didn’t care for any of them but I did like you and Rolf. Write me what he said and how you and he are coming Much love and best wishes. Tell Miss Reynolds I am going to write to her soon. Zeke sends his regards. Yours as ever, 







Harriet Putnam Means. Graduation from Bangor Piano School 1905.




Harriet sat before the piano with a straight back, her dark brown curly hair gathered in a tidy bun. Her hands glided across the piano keys as her body leaned in and out of the music. Dressed in a soft grey dress with a ruffled high collar and sleeves, she began the evening with Mozart, Adagio and Allegretto in C major: the soft sounds of Piano Sonata No. 2; a playful rendition of No. 10. She moved effortlessly into Beethoven’s romantic Moonlight Sonata.

Music filled the three-story clapboard house on Fourth Street in Bangor, notes lilted in the corners of the dormered rooms under the mansard roof. A fire crackled in the fireplace of the parlor, a pine garland covered the burnished mantle. In the corner between the windows, a spruce tree stood tall and lush decorated with ornaments in a multitude of bright colors, shapes, and sizes, among strings of beaded cranberry. The heady smell of balsam mixed with pipe tobacco filled the air. Mrs. Johnson sat on the Victorian sofa wearing a red dress, hands in her lap, skirts primly tucked in around the edges. Her husband, perched beside her, barely filled his dark blue suit. Their faces held a look of deep contentment. Despite their childless home, their lives were full. On the opposite end, Sophie was a bit tousled as she always was, brown hair hastily tucked in a bun with fringes escaping around the edges. Tonight she was dressed for a special occasion in deep brown that accentuated her green eyes. Curtis and Zeke sat in high-back armchairs, both men dressed in their Sunday best but exact opposites in appearance. Zeke was of medium build and height, had neat blond hair, piercing blue eyes and the sculpted face of a Scandinavian. He was Mr. Johnson’s nephew. Curtis was tall and broad-chested, black hair parted in the middle and slicked down. He was not handsome. His eyes roved the room until settling upon Christy who sat demurely beside the piano. Her blond hair was coifed in a stylish upsweep with curls that encircled her face and blue eyes; she wore a deep green dress that fit like a glove but exuded an air of sophistication. Her full lips smiled as she intently watched her best friend at the piano.

Impromptu gatherings around the piano happened often. This was an unusual boarding house for Harriet resided in it. After an hour, sweat beaded on her brow as she played Liszt’s passionate La Campanella, her hands rapidly moved up and down the length of the keyboard,  at times passing over each other, as her long fingers struck notes with exacting precision in a crescendo, her body now at one with the piano. Applause resounded in response to her finale: The Nutcracker, Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Harriet rose from the stool, turned and bowed with an air of formality, standing with hands out from her sides, palms forward, in the pose of an actress accepting praise for an outstanding performance. Her face held a soft smile as her hazel eyes scanned the room from face to face, rested briefly on Zeke, then she took a seat beside Christy. Mrs. Johnson went to fetch hot cocoa and sugar cookies. It was Christmas Eve 1907.

Harriet did not possess the classic beauty of Christy but she was striking. She had strong facial curves, a small perfectly aligned nose, a deep dimple in her right cheek, and lips that pouted regally. Her cheeks were flushed, one might think from her energetic performance, but tonight this was not the reason. Zeke had proposed today. She was sure she would burst from happiness but only Christy knew the secret.

At every opportunity, Harriet and Zeke plotted and planned their future. Harriet knew she must defy her parents. She was in love. Given time, they would forgive her. It wasn’t possible to be away from Zeke, no matter what they thought. She had introduced the idea to them during the summer, tried to hint about her feelings, but her pleas met deaf ears. Her father, William, had heard that Zeke moved into his uncle’s boarding house where Harriet lived. He did not approve. Yes, the girls’ rooms were close to the Johnson’s, on a different floor than the men. But the whole arrangement was not proper. There was trouble ahead. She was forbidden to have any relationship with Zeke Johnson. He was from Kennebec, the wrong side of the river. He recently acquired work as a clerk in the Bangor railroad office but had a checkered employment history. That summer, William made his impetuous eldest daughter promise to abide by his wishes. It was their “agreement.” She had established her own studio and must attract more children eager to learn piano as her students. She was 23 years old and held a degree in music and Fine Arts.

William and Nellie Means had arranged for Harriet’s training as a pianist four years earlier. They sent their daughter to Bangor to study under the renowned Frederick Mariner who had a summer home on the Penobscot River. Mariner’s studio was in NYC but he accepted gifted students at the Bangor Piano School. Harriet was recommended by her elder cousin Grace who lived in NYC and had established a promising career at a well-known publishing house. Grace rubbed shoulders with high society and had more connections than one could count. It was a golden opportunity, her father pointed out, and Grace was single and not the least bit interested in marriage. Aunt Thirza had married well, was a hat maker, and owned a popular millinery in Machias. Harriet could marry one day, once she established her own career, a man of a social class that ensured financial security. In this family, women were expected to be educated and independent. She had completed her training in music with awards in excellence, then held the prestigious position of instructor at the Mariner Studio. The year before she had returned to Machias and established a Studio but soon prevailed on her father that she could better further her ambitions and career in Bangor. Her Studio would gain more recognition there. Besides, she needed more skills in business and wanted to complete night classes in typing and shorthand.

One hundred miles from Bangor in the shire town of Machias, the Means family lived in in a large, stately home on the corner of 24 Broadway and Gardner Avenue with a two-story attached barn for horses and hay; a series of stout buildings for the carriage and lorries lined the drive. As a baby, Harriet wore white gloves when she was pushed about by a Nanny in her pram. William was a successful businessman of note who bought and sold real estate, he and his father were Republican legislators. Nellie was a teacher before marriage and their four children were born. Her father was Marshfield Getchell, whose family gained prominence in grain trade and built the Grist Mill on the Machias River, the largest in the county.  Her family traced their heritage back to the “original 10” settlers of Machias and the first white child born there. The Means and Getchell families were staunch protestants and Republicans with a proud history to uphold.

A month had passed since Christmas. Her father had visited on his last trip to Bangor conducting business. Harriet wasn’t sure what rumors he might have heard but he asked a lot of questions about Zeke. Once again, William made her promise to honor their agreement. If she would not return to Machias, he suggested that she go into business with Christy and find a place for the two of them to live. Christy had a solid head on her shoulders and a degree from Iowa State College in music. Harriet had sorted through all the options and knew that her plans with Zeke must remain secret until there was no opportunity for family intervention. She typed a letter to her father.

Bangor Maine, January 31, 1908

My dear Father,

I received your letter this noon when I went to dinner and was glad to hear again. It is strange that you should think that Christy and I could join work for I was going to write and tell you that we are intending to do that way. She and her sister played at my recital yesterday, and they did finely and where she has no children to have any of her own it will be pleasant for her to hear mine. I don’t know how soon she will do this but no doubt before long. 

I am going to send Murray Bridgham an acct. of the recital, and you will see it in the news. I don’t know as I can get her to room with me but perhaps so. She is going to Houlton to give a recital next week. One of the boys that graduated from the University where she did is Secretary of the Y.M.C.A. up there has gotten it up for her then when she comes back we will arrange about her coming here.

Yes, I have kept my agreement with you that I made while you were here and have been so busy all the time I have not thought of it much. I do not find it hard at all. I do not have to have any company home from night school and I do not have anyone. He doesn’t go to night school and I do not meet him on the street very often. I did not say anything in my last letter about it because I was in a rush when I wrote.

Christy has just come in and will have to stop now. It has been very cold here for a few days and this morning it was 10 below zero. I have been making up lessons all this week and I am tired of it but Sunday comes before long. I will write more next time. I am feeling all right now and am glad to hear that you are also.

Much love to all.

Your aff. daughter,


P. S. I like typewriting very much and my shorthand is doing well. 

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