'Miss Virgie' serves up lifetime of stories

September 05, 2007|By DENNIS SHAW

Editor's note: This is one in an occasional series of profiles of area residents who share the stories of their lives and experiences.

SMITHSBURG - Although she lived 52 of her 88 years in Cavetown and Smithsburg, Virginia Shaver Harshman feels she scarcely knows the place anymore. But from 1923 until 1998, she was a part of the area's history.

The only child of J. Clyde Shaver and Luella M. Eyler Shaver, Harshman was born in 1919 in Thurmont, Md., where her father ran a canning factory. Four years later, he moved his family to Cavetown and to a canning factory that was situated where the Pro Home Center now stands.

Until she was 16, she helped out with the business, snipping beans and peeling tomatoes while her mother was busy filling cans. When she reached legal working age, her parents put her in charge of the 90 women workers.


"They were always nice to me," she remembers. "I learned the names of each one of them, and that helped me later when I was a teacher and I could remember the names of all the kids."

At age 18, she entered Hood College. She got a degree in education in 1941 and began a 14-year career teaching home economics, including 10 years at Hagerstown High School and four years at Smithsburg High School.

During the same period, she helped manage a camp set up to house and care for migrant workers who came to the area each summer to harvest fruits and vegetables.

The camp was established when the nation entered World War II, and local men joined the armed forces to fight in Europe and the Pacific. Set on 2 acres on Camp Hill between Cavetown and Smithsburg, it was established by the War Food Administration to provide migrant farm workers with housing and other basic services.

Workers from the Bahamas and later, Jamaica, came to the area, sometimes with their families, where they earned a farm wage rate of 40 cents per hour. They were housed in a camp that consisted of four barracks buildings, a mess hall, a shower house and a few other wooden buildings. The camp was taken over later by the Washington County extension service, and then by the Smithsburg Farmers and Fruit Growers AssocIation.

Harshman was employed by the Board of Education, and worked for four years as a teacher and dietitian with the migrants. Among other things, she helped set up a day-care operation after seeing them take their babies out into the fields in bushel baskets. But there were plenty of other things to do, too.

"They called me 'Miss Virgie,'" she says. "There was no drinking, no profanity and no gambling in the barracks. There were no black people in Smithsburg then. They couldn't go to the stores, because they wouldn't wait on them. I went shopping for them and to the post office. They liked it at our camp because we treated them like human beings."

Harshman 's work with the migrants stopped when the war came to an end, but she continued teaching until 1955, when she took a job as dietitian at Brook Lane Farm, north of Smithsburg. The farm had been set up as a site to provide alternative service for Mennonites who, as conscientious objectors, didn't serve in the armed forces. The farm became a mental hospital after it was discovered how well Mennonites worked with mentally disturbed patients in hospitals. Virginia's job there was as a dietitian, and a teacher of first aid and home nursing.

"It was the most relaxing place I ever worked," she says. "There were devotions every morning."

But after less than two years, her life took another turn. In 1946, she married John "Jack" Harshman, a repairman for AT&T. By 1954, the couple had saved money to buy a home of their own, and when a house on Water Street was to be auctioned in the town square, they decided they could offer as much as $5,000 for it.

"There were two other bidders who must have thought the same thing," she says. "We went $50 higher, and we got it."

When Harshman got pregnant in 1956, she left her job at Brook Lane to become the mother of the couple's first son, Kent, and later a second son, Lynn, in 1961. Still, she couldn't stop working, and started a baking business in her home.

"Many of the girls I taught in home ec were getting married," she says. "They'd come to the house and we'd bake wedding cakes."

That turned into a small business, and for the next 10 years, Harshman made cakes, fancy sandwiches and mint candies to order for a steady stream of clients.

She also was involved in a wide range of volunteer work. She has been a member for 70 years of the Chewsville Bethel (United) Methodist Church, where she was a Sunday school teacher and also choir director for 41 years. She helped found and operate a food bank in Smithsburg, and she is a member and past president of the Washington County chapter of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, which still holds meetings at her home.

The Harshmans moved to Middletown, Md., in 1998 to live with their son, Lynn. Two years later, John Harshman died.

Though legally blind now, Harshman remains active. Among her activities, she's in charge of the birthday roll for her church, calling all members on their birthdays, singing "Happy Birthday" to them and wishing them God's blessing.

She looks back with mixed feelings on the more than half a century she lived in the Smithsburg area.

"The town has grown to the place that I don't know a soul there anymore," she says. "Most of the ones I knew have died or are in nursing homes. I look in the paper and see deaths and babies born, and I don't know the names. Except Smith. There are a lot of Smiths!"

But, she adds, "on a positive note, we got a police force and a new library."

Harshman donated her childhood toys to the Smithsburg Historical Society, where they are on display in a glass case.

"That's for kids to see what toys were like back in the dark ages," she says.

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