Home is where you make it
Thomas Wolfe wrote a book titled, You Can’t Go Home Again. The phrase has become a part of American culture – not in a literal sense, as meaning that you can’t physically go back to the place where you grew up, but in a metaphorical way: if you do go back there, nothing is the same as it was.
Gordon and Eilene Urmson, however, literally cannot go home again – at least, not without SCUBA diving equipment. They were both born and raised in Clarksville, PA, which is now at the bottom of Shenango Lake.
Gordon, an only child, was born at home there on December 10, 1928. His father Leonard Urmson was the town’s blacksmith. He had served as a blacksmith during World War I, shoeing horses for the army.
“Anything that got broken went up to my dad. He’d weld it or fix it some other way.”
Gordon’s elementary school was a two-room building, with grades one through four in one room, five through eight in the other.
“As soon as I got home from school, I rode my bike until suppertime. And I loved to make model airplanes. Those were the good old days. I thought it would always be that way.”
Eilene Nickel was born at home in Clarksville in 1931, the second of five children – and the only girl. Her father owned Nickel Garage, a gas station in Clarksville.
“Her father fixed cars and sold gas,” Gordon said. “My father fixed farm machinery and sold gas – at thirteen cents a gallon. You could go a long way on a dollar’s worth of gas.”
They were probably in the same room in elementary school, but with Eilene being three years younger, Gordon didn’t know her then. After elementary school, Gordon and Eilene attended Hickory High School.
“There were no school buses the first two years I went there,” Gordon said. “You had to find your own way to get to school. The aunt of a friend of mine, Michael Lado, took me to school until the buses started.”
Gordon’s main activity in high school was playing trombone in the band. “I got to go to all of the games that way,” he said.
Gordon and Eilene started dating when they were both attending Hickory High School.
“I wanted to get up the nerve to ask her to the prom, but she already had a date. We started dating after that.”
During the summer after Gordon’s sophomore year, he worked as an apprentice to a carpenter in town.
“ We had a lot of friends who were carpenters,” Gordon said. “So after I graduated, they suggested I go down to a guy by the name of Cal Banse. Mother took me down there and he put me on as an apprentice. I loved it and stayed with it all these years.”
But learning the trade wasn’t easy.
“The older carpenters wouldn’t tell you anything. It was all secret. I decided I wanted to know how to do things, so I took night classes in Sharon High School. I learned how to use a steel square. It can give you the length of your rafters, and square a building. Once you knew the rules, there was nothing to it. Every job was a piece of cake. First time something came up I started laying out rafters. A guy says, ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ I said laying out rafters. He asked, ‘How did you learn that?’ I said I went to school.”
Eilene and Gordon got married in 1950. Roger, the first of their three children, was born in 1951. In 1952, Gordon built a house for his family on Lamor Road.
Unfortunately, Gordon was the last one hired where he worked, so he was the first one to get laid off in the winter.
“He was working for Johnson MacIntire shortly after we got married, and he lost his job,” Eilene said. “I thought the world was coming to an end.”
“A friend named Leo Stoyer was a carpenter,” Gordon said. “He suggested going into business for myself. I was already building cabinets in my basement. So I went out and bought a truck, put my name on it, and started taking jobs. I have never been out of work since.”
“We’d get so excited when the phone would ring and somebody wanted a garage built,” Eilene said.
Their first daughter, Julie, was born in 1955; their youngest child, Amy, followed in 1961.
That was about the time when Clarksville started moving to higher ground to make way for the Shenango River Dam.
“They started moving houses in the early 1960s,” Eilene said. “The first house they moved was a large two-story brick house. That was an event. The whole town was there. You didn’t even have to take lamps off the tables, pictures off the walls, or dishes out of the cupboard. It was so slow the way they winched it along. It had to go up a hill on Valley View. The power company came to raise the power lines. The house is still on Valley View. Both of our parents’ houses were moved.”
Not every building got saved.
“The Methodist church was hundred years old,” Eilene said. They trashed it and built a new church up in the new town.”
Nickel Garage met the same fate.
“It was a ramshackle old building,” Eilene said. “Dad didn’t get enough out of it to start anything else, so he retired when the town moved.”
In the meantime, Gordon’s business continued to grow, strictly through word of mouth. The first house he built was for Vic Petrini of Petrini Real Estate. He built many other homes, as well as commercial buildings: among others, the first MacDonald’s Restaurant on State Street in Hermitage, Friendly Ice Cream Restaurant, the Subway Restaurant in Greenville, and the original Bill Rudge Ministries Building, which is now the Shenango Valley Senior Center. He also built additions to Kraynak’s and Tara.
In the early 1980s, Gordon and Eilene were founding members of the Lakeside Evangelical Church. Not surprisingly, Gordon was on the building committee. That led him into a new business venture.
“The architect recommended using stress-skinned panels,” he said.
Those are thick foam panels with plywood glued to both sides.
“I didn’t know anything about them. He said they’re made down in Florida. When we went down to Florida for vacation, I went to see the plant. I wanted to get panels sent up here and I’d be the distributor. He said it would cost over a thousand dollars to ship them up. He said, ‘We’ve got other machinery here that’s not being used. You could buy that and start your own business.’ Sounded like a good idea. It was too late for the church, but we used it for the second addition. We also used it for the addition to Tara and in many homes.”
Gordon also put in about 125 in-ground swimming pools in the Valley, including three at Tara and one at Oak Tree Country Club.
The older Gordon got, the busier he became.
“When I was about 65, I had the pool business, my construction business, and the plant for building panels. I thought, I can’t do this much longer.”
But rather than slowing down, Gordon got involved in another project: building a subdivision just off Route 18 on the north side of Shenango Lake, just above the Lakeside Evangelical Church. The area was known as Beacon Hill, because there used to be a beacon on it as a guide for airplanes.
“A woman wanted to build a house up here because she wanted to go to our church,” Gordon said. “We were walking around down here, and there was a sign saying 85 acres for sale. I said, ‘That’s a pretty big chunk.’ But her husband had died, and she had money. She says, ‘Will you build a house up here for me if I bought the property?’ I said yeah.”
With so much land, there was room for lots of other houses.
“ We went into business together. She financed it and I put the roads in, laid out the lots, and built twelve houses, all with stress-skinned panels.”
The main non-work activities of both Gordon and Eilene were related to the Lakeside Church.
“I had started playing piano when I was 14,” Eilene said, “so I played piano in church for 25 years before retiring from it a few years ago. I was also head of the Missions Committee for 15 years.”
Eilene is still on the Missions Committee, and quilts at the church every Tuesday.
Gordon was a member of the Administration Board in the start-up years, and a member of the Board of Trustees. In 1982, he built the first worship building, largely with volunteer labor. He sang in the choir, taught Sunday School to both junior and senior high students, and worked with the youth, taking them on trips to Kentucky and New Jersey, and snowmobiling in Wesley Woods.
Gordon also loves model trains, and has an extensive setup in his basement.
So does it bother them that they can’t go home again? When you create new homes for your family and many others, there is no need to go back. Home, after all, is where you make it.
Gordon and Eilene have five grandchildren and one great grandchild.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 4, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2010