Caroline Thomas Harnsberger

The Life and Times of James Oscar Thomas


In 1906, Pop made his decision to try his hand at farming. He and Mom made plans with an architect to build a two-story, four-bedroom, cement block house. It became a show-place at a cost of $10,000, and by October 1906, we were able to move into it.

Grandpa Hiss sold his house on Second Avenue and moved in with us, and in 1911, after Grandma Thomas sold her house she also came to live with us. By that time the snores at night resounded through the entire house. At full capacity there were nine of us.

Situated high on a hill the house attracted much attention It had all the modern improvements and a few features not seen generally: bay windows in the living room and master bedroom; a sleeping porch; cedar closets, white woodwork everywhere which the cleaning woman had to sponge every week; a wide front stairway with white paneling along the wall on one side and a white balustrade on the other; waxed hardwood (oak) floors which shone and usually sent visitors scurrying across the room and sometimes down in a heap; oak beams in the ceiling of the dining room and a high railing around the dining room wall on which to exhibit Mom's hand painted plates. (She had just finished painting and firing a set of dishes with yellow roses on them).

There were built-in white wooden benches on each side of the living room fireplace, with seats which lifted up to gain access to the firewood stored there. The space also provided a good hiding place during hide-and-seek. There was a fireplace in the dining room, as well, with a large iron basket for coal burning, and a storage bench on only one side.

The basement had many windows and a cement floor, ideal for roller-skating. In the laundry there were built-in tubs! In back of the coal-burning furnace was a storage room for canned foods, and soap. My mother always bought 100 bars of Ivory Soap at a time. Next to the laundry there was a toilet.

The tiled bathroom on the second floor was an innovation. It looked so inviting "we could hardly wait for Saturday to take a bath."

A stairway led to a large attic, where there was room for a couple of beds, and there was a separate "dark room" for my father's photography.

Pop had hired the tall, black Abe Long, whose mother had been a slave to help with the farm work, and he and his white wife (our first lesson in integration) lived with their three children in the old log cabin on the lower land of the farm.

The year of 1916 was also eventful in that Pop sold the farm to the Upper Arlington Real Estate Company to expand the Grandview territory. We stayed on in our house until 1920, and watched Northwest Boulevard being run through our corn fields, the land sub-divided into small lots and houses being built upon them We did not rebel too much until they began to erect a factory to make the popular soap "Skiddoo" in our former front yard.

One day a steam shovel dug up a skeleton in this yard. It had a jawbone 5 1/2 inches wide, leading authorities to believe that it once belonged to an Indian. A child's skeleton was found with it.

Now all our habits had to change. No more would we have to rush home from a visit to milk the cows. No more could we suspend a rope from the hay loft to a hay rack and slide down the rope on a pulley. No more could we climb up wooden steps we had nailed in the sumac tree to play on a platform we had built up there. No longer could we pick big violets along the creek. The entire farm was mutilated. Our endurance was somewhat like that of the horse which was fed sawdust. Just as he got used to it. he died. Just as we got used to the change we moved to Upper Arlington.

Another thing we could not do anymore was wave at Uncle Ossie as he went by the house on the Pennsylvania Railroad. He became a passenger engineer and remained with the Road for fifty years. It was his habit to whistle a certain signal (dash-dash-dot-dot) to us as he approached the house, and each time everyone inside scurried to the windows and front door with handkerchiefs, a towel or a diaper to wave at him. This had been one of the exciting events of the day for us.

We would miss the fields lit up with fireflies in the summer time. And the fun we had in trying to catch these "lightning bugs" to watch them glow. It we injured one we had to kill it "to put it out of its misery." No living thing must suffer on our account.

One of the excitements in the old house had come the day Mom frightened us by falling head-long down the basement stairs, breaking off her two front teeth against the door leading to the furnace room at the bottom. She survived without further injury. Some days afterward we found two marks on the door big enough to have been made by the buck teeth of a horse, and these were shown to everyone who came to visit. The marks had been made by a crow bar. We suspected Pop.

Which reminds me, each time one of us produced two new second front teeth, Pop talked about our "shovels."

World War I did not seem to touch us closely. We used to save peach pits, prune seeds, etc., to send to Columbus to be ground up for use in gas masks. Mom worked regularly with a Red Cross Unit in Grandview, and often took me to help fold bandages.

At this time it was exciting when one plane flew over our house. When six flew over it was a thrill beyond words. On October 20, 1917, when nineteen of them flew in formation.

When I was eleven years old, and incarcerated with the measles during the 1913 flood, I drew a picture for my Uncle John Hiss, away at college, and signed it "By Caroline Thomas alone only." He responded by drawing his version of our situation in the flood.

When the big flood of 1913 came to Columbus, with the Olentangy and Scioto Rivers overflowing their banks, inundating the farm, and sending out the alarm that the Storage Dam might burst, people in town rushed to the highest land at the State House and remained there until they were assured the danger had passed. We in the house saw the water come to within twenty feet of the back door, and the family watched all kinds of interesting things float by: tool sheds, wax busts, wagons, and much lumber, etc. I was in a darkened room with the measles and could not enjoy any of it, except through an occasional peek around the edge of the blind (shade), but my brothers brought reports to my door.

Of course, the log cabin was flooded completely and in some danger of being floated away, and until the waters subsided Abe and Mrs. Long and two of their kids lived in our attic, for they had nowhere else to go.

After butchering time we hung hams that were to be sugar cured from the rafters in this attic.

The furnace supplied hot air through registers in the base boards and on the floor, and it was fun to stand an these to warm our feet and to feel the cozy warmth come up around our bodies.

In a corner near the back stairway on both the second floor and the kitchen level there were small doors opening into a clothes chute. Aside from its practical use, this wide chute provided many hours of entertainment. My brothers and I used it to send messages tied to a string to one another from the second to either the first floor or the basement, where, a basket caught the clothes. When this grew tiresome, we used to call to the one below, watch him poke his head out the door and drop something casually on it. If he looked up it was fun to spit in his eye.

Possibly this was the origin of Pop's request, used on every occasion when our playing became too quiet: "Go see what the kids are doing and make them stop it!" This became a pat remark in the family.

Further about the basement: there was a small cooling room with a north sky-light, near the outside cement stairway leading to the basement. This contained troughs with cold water running into them, in which Pop placed large crocks of fresh milk which he had just brought in from the barn. Those stood overnight until the cream rose to the top so thick, rich and leathery it could almost be removed in one piece. It was placed in a tall churn with a plunger and this had to be pushed down and pulled up for over half an hour before the cream produced butter. It was a tiresome job, one to which I was sometimes elected.

At threshing time, long tables were set up in the basement to hold twenty or more men and Mom served them all a hearty meal. But if it rained and the threshers were delayed perhaps for several days, Mom was caught with all the food on her hands, and she had to call relatives and friends to come and help eat it up.

One of our perennial visitors was Uncle "Mad", he of the two watches, who came each time to stay several weeks. He looked well in anything he ate. All our city friends enjoyed coming to the farm, especially during the sweet corn season.

Once the house was complete, Pop began to build a large barn, and his first cousin. Floyd Franklin (Minnie Davis's son) came from Nunhall, Pa. to help. Floyd talked years afterward about how he enjoyed doing this work. After hay had been put into the loft, Mom went up the stairs one Sunday with Pop to admire his accomplishment. He was not often frolicsome but this time he began playing with the dog, frisking around in circles, dodging here and there, and cutting such cute capers that when he suddenly bumped his head on a rafter the abrupt halt sent Mom into fits of laughter. As he sat in the hay nursing the goose egg on his head she knew she should be sympathetic, but she could not stop laughing. She recalled the incident many times through her life.

Once the barn was built, Pop began to take his farming seriously. His records show that on July 8, 1911, he had threshed 295 bushels of wheat, a good crop. But there was a bad year, too, when he stored wheat in the barn, spreading it out in a bin to dry, but the wet summer caused it all to mold, and the loss was complete. Wheat became hog feed.

It was a big event when the threshers came with their big machine which spouted out straw. It was fun for everyone but Mom and one year when I had to peel almost a bushel of potatoes it wasnÕt much fun for me, either. One of my more pleasurable jobs was to take my pony, Buster, and haul jugs of water in his pony cart to the threshers in the field.

Pop used to allow us to follow him. wherever he worked. As a result, we had many interesting experiences - of finding, new homes for baby field mice in the furrows left behind PopÕs plow, far one. My father had a tender heart and taught us to be good to animals - even field mice. We had thrilling rides down the First Avenue hill on high loads of hay which threatened to spill every minute. It was fun to help plant potatoes, to cut them so there would be an eye in every piece planted. Weeding rows of corn was fun for only a short while. Killing tomato worms by smashing them onto the ground was gruesome. Potato bugs furnished us an occupation, and Pop paid us a penny for every hundred caught. We walked through the rows of potato vines with a pail of kerosene, removed each bug by hand and placed him in the bucket where he died immediately. There was no surer or quicker way. Pop used to tell us about an advertisement which guaranteed a sure remedy for potato bugs. If you sent in 1O cents you received a package containing two blocks of wood, labeled A and B, and the following directions:

"Place bug on block A, smash firmly with block B. A sure cure."

Watching straw being baled from a high position above the baler caused our imaginations to wonder what would happen if we fell in and got baled up with the straw?

By 1911, Pop had three or four cows and 197 chickens. I had twelve tame white Leghorn chickens that flew across the entire barnyard to land on my shoulders every time I came out the back door to feed them. I was saddened when these and several dozens of Pop's flock were stolen by chicken thieves. After this Pop had the house alarm system connected with the barn and the chicken coop, and there were times when the alarm went off and intruders were frightened away. I began to raise Bantam chickens then, and found them to be good pets, too.

Beside my shetland pony, Buster, I had another unusual pet - a white, ringtailed monkey named Jimmy. We kept him in a cage in the basement most of the time. Once when he was loose he slipped off the lid of a large tin container of Mom's lump starch, and started throwing pieces onto the floor. While Mom was trying to catch him he scampered to the top of the coal pile and sat up there chattering as he threw lumps of coal down at her. One day I let him climb up the cherry tree, where he picked ripe cherries and ate them until he could hold no more and began to hold his stomach with both hands as if he had the belly ache. If we gave him a strawberry to eat, he held it in one hand and caught the juice as it ran down his chin to his other, then he licked up every bit. We kept him as long as we could tolerate the smell of his cage, and finally felt compelled to sell him.

On September 19, 1911 Pop's notebook read: "A full sack of wheat weighs 140 lbs. I weigh 123 lbs; Edith 147." Quoting Emerson, as he did often: "the first farmer was the first man, and all historic nobility rests on the possession and use of land." My father was never without a farmer story . "A stranger came through Ohio and wondered how long it had been settled. He asked a farmer: 'How old is this part of the country?' 'Wal,' said the farmer, pointing, 'You see them hills over yonder? They was here when I came!!' "

The big house on the hill remains*, in spite of the encroachment of houses and factories all around it, and its having gone through many ownerships. Now in its 66th year [in 1974], it stands firm, looking only a little bit smaller to me than it did when I was a child.

* Editorial note: The house was razed in 1995 to make way for the Grand View of Columbus condominium complex

Several tributes to Caroline Thomas Harnsberger (1902-1991) have been published. The following is excerpted from several.

For an article from the 1988 First Community Village Up-date newsletter about Caroline, click here.

For a tribute from the Winnetka (Illinois) Historical Society, click here.

Caroline Thomas Harnsberger was born in 1902 in Columbus. Her father was James Oscar Thomas of Grandview Heights. She and her five brothers and sisters grew up on the 358 acre Thomas farm, which was located at Goodale and Northwest Blvd.

Caroline Thomas (1920)

After graduation from Grandview High School in 1920, she attended Northwestern University, the Julliard School of Music and the Conservatory de Paris studying violin.

She married Audley Harnsberger (an engineer for Pure Oil Co.) from Upper Arlington while in Paris, and in 1926 moved to Winnetka, Illinois, where she lived for 50 years and raised three children (while also golfing, painting, flying, writing, running a business and travelling!) Mrs. Harnsberger helped establish and played in the Evanston Symphony for 37 years and ran a music store in Northfield, where she repaired violins and guitars and sold stringed instruments and sheet music. She also played Carnegie Hall at age 22.

Caroline Harnsberger and Clara Clemens

"Harnsberger’s father introduced her as a child to Mark Twain’s wit and wisdom, and her avid interest in him continued throughout her life. In the early 1940s she traveled to Hollywood to meet Twain’s daughter, Clara. The two women became friends and corresponded for 20 years. Harnsberger read all of Twain’s 52 books but had trouble locating specific quotes. She therefore began the task of indexing his bon mots, a project that led to the compilation of her first book, Mark Twain at Your Fingertips, published in 1947. During the next three decades she wrote six other books about Twain and was a script consultant for television and stage productions about the humorist. Excelling at indexing, she once said, 'A book without an index is like soup without salt—no good.'

Caroline Harnsberger and George Bernard Shaw

One project often led her to another. After the success of her first book, Harnsberger’s publisher urged her to put together a book of Abraham Lincoln quotations. She also wrote the first biography of Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft, published the year he vied with Dwight D. Eisenhower for the presidential nomination. She later spent weeks at the Library of Congress researching American presidents for her Treasury of Presidential Quotations, which became a Literary Guild bonus book. Harnsberger also managed to meet George Bernard Shaw, the reclusive 92-year-old playwright, at his English country home, proclaiming him 'the wit of our generation.' After Shaw’s death, Harnsberger obtained the rights for a book in which she compiled his quotations. Advocating that humor was vital to one’s well being, she once said, 'A sense of humor is a sense of proportion.' " (Jane Lord, Winnetka (Illinois) Historical Society)

Caroline Harnsberger just prior to moving back to Ohio

In total Mrs. Harnsberger wrote thirteen books, including 9 books on Mark Twain (including Mark Twain's Clara, based on her relationship with Clara Clemens andpublished in 1982) and books on Abraham Lincoln, Bernard Shaw, Robert A. Taft, Greek and Roman mythology, The Life and Times of James Oscar Thomas, and a book on the history of Winnetka, Illinois. She was also a private pilot (one of the first women to get a pilot's license) and authored the reference book A Pilot's Ready Reference, which sold over 30,000 copies and was the definitive source for over 20 years and spanning 12 editions. Mrs. Harnsberger originally published the book under the name C.T. Harnsberger, because the publisher didn't feel that a reference book on flying by a woman would be taken seriously by pilots.

Caroline Harnsberger lived the last 7 years of her life at First Community Village, which was somewhat of a homecoming, since her father helped establish the First Community Church in Grandview and her mother was a resident of Hillside House at the Village when it first opened. She passed away in 1991 at 89 years old.




Selected Books by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger

1. Winnetka: The biography of a village : including a chronology, 1800 through 1976
2. Everyone's Mark Twain
3. Bernard Shaw: Selections of His Wit and Wisdom
4. Mark Twain, family man
5. A man of courage, Robert A. Taft (Living American statesmen series)
6. Mark Twain's Clara, or, What became of the Clemens family: Completing the story of the family as begun in Mark Twain, family man
7. Mark Twain loved cats
8. Pilot's ready reference: Flying data every pilot must know and use
9. Mark Twain on horseback
10. Pilot's ready reference
11. The life and times of James Oscar Thomas
12. Mark Twain's views of religion
13. A friendly chat with G.B. Shaw