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Haven History: The sisters and their goats

By Lou Bernard in Arts & Entertainment

March 29, 2012


Lou Bernard/Eagle Eye

Some years ago, when I first got this job, I began writing columns for a local magazine. It was called Lycoming/Clinton Woman, and it was a women-centered magazine. Yes, at the time I wrote for a women’s’ magazine and worked in a pink museum. Make of it what you will.

I came up with a female each month, and wrote a column on them. Every issue contained an article about some notable woman from Clinton County. As a result, now that I write for other publications, I sometimes automatically gravitate back to women when I’m stuck for a column.

Which, in this case, works out wonderfully. As the Eagle Eye staff recently pointed out, it is Women’s History Month.  I am, right now, very excited that I get to introduce the Burrows sisters to you.

There were three of them, like half the Brady Bunch. Belle, Nell, and Ruth Burrows were born to Charles and Annie Burrows at 440 West Church Street in Lock Haven. None of them ever married; all of them went to Lock Haven State College.

Belle was the first born. Charles, hoping for both a daughter and a son, was disappointed when Nell was born, but she made up for it—Early on, she acquired the nickname of Tomboy Nell. As she grew up, she played games with boys, and avoided doing anything too girly. Charles died in 1899, when the girls were young, and the family became entirely female.

Belle and Ruth Burrows both grew up to become teachers. Ruth, the youngest sister, taught elementary school, often traveling around the state. She taught for a long time at a private school called Pennbrook, near Harrisburg.

Belle went into teaching the handicapped. She was recognized as an early expert at it, and made great strides in teaching differently-abled children. In Pittsburgh, she taught at a school for the blind, and in New York, she worked with deaf children.

Nell wasn’t interested in teaching. She was having nothing so feminine as a career. She went into the telegraph business, working on the lines for the Pennsylvania Railroad. There’s no other way to say it—Nell Burrows was bad-ass.

She got the job during World War One, when the men were away fighting the war, and more women were entering the work force. She continued to work after the war, packing a gun and handling problems that nobody else could. Often, she would be sent into the forests to repair the telegraph lines in areas where the men were afraid to go. She would work tours of duty in railroad towers in isolated corners of the county, and she made a career of it for over thirty years.

After the death of their mother in 1945, the girls got together and purchased a property about six miles up the Renovo Road, in Bald Eagle Township. They lived there together. Belle set up a loom and began weaving, and it was Ruth’s idea to buy a herd of goats and sell goat milk to the public.

Neither one of them got to enjoy their new place for very long, however. Ruth died in 1946, and Belle in 1948, leaving Nell to tend the goats alone.

Nell was protective of her goats, often letting them have the run of the farm. More than once, the goats roamed into the nearby highway, stopping traffic. At one point, Nell wrote a cousin out of her will because he scared the goats with his car horn.

She would often get into arguments with Mervin Shaffer, engineer on a local railroad line. Shaffer would invariably hit the train whistle as he passed Nell’s place, frightening the goats. On weekends, he and his daughter Jane would go to Nell’s place to buy some goat milk, and Nell would snap at him for having scared the goats. Which was, of course, why he always did it.

Nell outlived the rest of her family by over a decade, finally dying of a blood clot in September 1961. She was buried beside them in Highland Cemetery, her will directing that a small gravestone be established for the whole family. It still stands today, with all five family members listed on it.

If you go for a walk up there, take a moment to notice the stone, and perhaps, in memory of the Burrows family, have a drink.

Goat milk, of course.


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