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'My People'
Edward Abbey's Appalachian Roots in Indiana County, Pennsylvania

by James M. Cahalan

Part I, Section 2 : Abbey's Early Life

Let's begin with as simple a matter as birth -- the facts of which have been little known, even apparently to Abbey himself. Virtually all sources, ranging from the popular press to the scholarly publications, have followed Abbey in recording his birthplace as the village of Home, about 10 miles north of Indiana. Yet in fact, as reflected on his birth certificate and the baby book kept by his mother, Edward Paul Abbey was born at the Indiana Hospital.[9] Moreover, his first homes were in Indiana, and his family did not move to the area around Home until he was 4 years old. Why the inaccuracy? Because the family's many moves in his earliest years preceded or escaped Abbey's memory and because he so much loved to link himself to appealing place-names. Later he would claim "Wolf Hole" or "Oracle" as his place of residence; both are real places in Arizona, but Abbey never lived in either. He just liked the sound of their names, and preferred to mislead people after he became a cult figure.[10]

Home is indeed a real place with an appealing name -- so appealing that in history it supplanted another, earlier place-name. At Kellysburg, founded in 1838, the post office came to be known as "Home" because the mail was originally sorted at the home of Hugh Cannon, about a mile away. The name stuck so well that eventually it officially replaced "Kellysburg" altogether as the name of the village, though people often continued to refer to Kellysburg, as did Abbey in his journal and manuscripts as late as the 1970s.[11] Since the Home post office has rural delivery, while several other surrounding villages (such as Chambersville) do not, a number of people living not particularly close to Home are able to claim it as their address.

The appeal of "Home" in the Abbey family is expressed by Bill Abbey, Edward's youngest brother, who retired to Indiana County in 1995 after 27 years of teaching in Hawaii, and who collects his mail at the Home post office even though he lives closer to a different post office. "I like the name 'Home, Pa.' I wanted that all my life," Bill says. "When I came back here, I really needed to get a Home, Pa., address because nobody believes it back in Hawaii. I have a deal with the postmistress at Home where she stamps my letters to Hawaii 'Home."'[12]

Edward Abbey always referred to Home as his birthplace -- not only in print, but also in his private diary, much of which was published as Confessions of a Barbarian (1994): "Joy... where are you? Where were you on the night of January 29th, 1927, in that lamp-lit room in the old farmhouse near Home, Pennsylvania, when I was born?"[13]

Home has been dutifully repeated as his birthplace by virtually everyone else; only the FBI got it right, in the file on Abbey that he obtained under the Freedom of Information Act:
"Subject born January 29,1927, Indiana, Pa."[14]

His Aunt Betty George remembers boysitting Ed at his first boyhood home (1927-28),
top, at 254 N. Third St. in Indiana.

The first time Ed lived with his family in rural northern Indiana County was near Home on the Chambersville Road (1931-32).


The Abbeys lived in rural Tanoma,
top, for about four years before moving "into town" at nearby Home, bottom, in about 1936. See Indiana County map below for addresses of houses 2-4.

The Abbey family moved around a lot, in poverty and in the midst of the Depression; their dwellings were difficult to trace, since the earliest ones were not remembered well by surviving relatives and because they could not be traced through ownership records, as Abbey's parents always rented before 1941. Edward Abbey could remember, however, that "I found myself a displaced person shortly after birth."[15] Indeed, there were at least eight scattered residences in Indiana County at which he lived from just after birth to adolescence: two houses in Indiana and then two places in Saltsburg, about 20 miles southwest of Indiana, between 1927 and 1931; then three different houses in or near Chambersville, Tanoma, and Home between 1931 and 1941; and finally the farmhouse, cornfield, and acres of woods near Chambersville (but with a "Home RD" address) that Abbey memorialized as "the Old Lonesome Briar Patch."[16]

Moreover, in 1931, when Edward (or "Ned," as the family called him) was 4 years old, the Abbeys spent a summer on the road, in the middle of that string of eight different residences. Along with Howard (nicknamed "Hoots"), who was a year-and-a-half younger than Ned, and John, who was just a baby, Paul and Mildred Abbey drove from Indiana County eastward over the mountains to Harrisburg, then to New Jersey and back into Pennsylvania (and perhaps Ohio) before returning to Indiana County, all the time living in camps as Paul picked up various jobs to try to support them while he competed in sharp-shooting competitions. Mildred kept a remarkable diary of this trip. One of her most poignant entries was written somewhere in northeastern Pennsylvania: 'As we drove under the big apple tree Hootsie said 'Wake up, Ned, we're home.' Poor little kids! They haven't been getting much of a show this past year. Ned gets homesick to live in a house, and frequently when we drive past an empty one he will exclaim hopefully 'Momma, there's an empty house we could live in!"'[17]

Writers such as James Bishop, Jr., author of the journalistic biography Edward Abbey: Epitaph for a Desert Anarchist, have tended to romanticize Abbey's countryside boyhood: "It was a beautiful, though ragged, farm community where people were connected to the earth.... People knew the wildflowers by name, tending and appreciating them as they grew."[18] This may have been true, but it was also true, as Edward's sister Nancy told me, that "we lived so simply because we were so poor."

An early draft of The Fool's Progress (1988), written in Tucson some 30 years after he'd lived there, included a rendering of the house.
The only boyhood home remembered in all of the writing both by and about Ed Abbey is "the Old Lonesome Briar Patch," where he and the rest of the family must have been very glad to settle in 1941, after all of their previous moves. This was the scene of everything that mattered the most to Abbey about his boyhood, as recaptured in The Fool's Progress. Near here were the "Big Woods" that the Abbeys loved. Here was where he and his brothers wandered in and around Crooked Creek, organized baseball games, and followed the family tradition of liberating coal from passing trains on the Baltimore and Ohio line. This countryside was then much less "developed" than it is now, yet it was actually easier for children to get into the larger town of Indiana than it is now: all the Abbeys had to do was walk to the end of their road to catch the "Hoodlebug" train to town.

In The Fool's Progress, Abbey fictionalized this family home as "Lightcap Hollow" and, with wishful thinking, wrote of "the gray good gothic two-story clapboard farmhouse that remained, after a century still the Lightcap family home" (85). Paul and Mildred Abbey continued to live at the Old Lonesome Briar Patch from 1941 until 1967, when they moved to a little house on US ll9 just south of Home that became well known because of the rock shop next to it where Paul would sell and give away rocks collected from his trips west.

The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad tracks

The "Old Lonesome Briar Patch" house burnt down in the early 1970s. Later Ed Abbey wrote that the name revealed his brothers' and his own "attitude toward it":

We liked the woods, the hunting and trapping, fishing in Crooked Creek and small-town baseball, but tired quickly of pitching manure, milking cows, husking corn, fixing fence, plowing up potatoes, and the fifty other daily and seasonal chores that required, we thought, too much of our time. We had better things to do, though we had only the dimmest notion of what those better things might be. We envied our city cousins with their electric lights, indoor toilet, hot and cold running water, new car, neighbors living one hundred feet away; and the poolroom and movie-picture show only a few blocks down the street. When the war came and an opportunity to escape, we left -- in a hurry. Without regret. My father, not keen on farming himself -- he preferred the logging business -- sold our farm... We should have kept the place in the family.[19]

Edward Abbey's cherished childhood home, the "Old Lonesome Briar Patch" (after the Abbeys had moved and a fire destroyed its interior in the early 1970s). See map below for address.

The family's experience with their homestead was not as idyllic as imagined by some writers and perhaps sometimes by Abbey himself. It was never a complete or very successful farm; much of it was covered by woods, some of which Paul Abbey participated in clearing for strip-miners. Mildred Abbey was very upset when they moved in 1967 to a much smaller house and plot of land right next to the busy, noisy Route 119, writing to Ed: "I protested as much as I could. I'd been promised, when we moved there, that I'd never have to move again and there have been many times when I've felt that I just couldn't survive the fourteenth uprooting. I had resolved that I'd never go near the place again. To have watched its slow dying... If I can't live out my life there, then I don't want to be involved in it in any way."[20]

Ed Abbey remained very nostalgic about the Old Lonesome Briar Patch, writing about it repeatedly -- perhaps most memorably at the beginning of his significantly entitled book Appalachian Wilderness:

You go down into that valley... until you come to a big creek -- that's Crooked Creek, glowing with golden acids from the mines upstream -- and across the creek and up a red-dog road under a railroad trestle through a tunnel in the woods. I call it a tunnel because the road there is so narrow and winding that the trees on either side interlace their branches overhead, forming a canopy.... At the far end of the living tunnel, beyond it and in the open, under a shimmer of summer sun or behind a curtain of whirling snow or within a lavender mist of twilight condensing toward darkness, stood the house. An austere and ancient clapboarded farmhouse, taller than wide when seen from the road, it had filigreed porchwork, a steep-pitched roof and on the roof lightning rods pointing straight up at the sun or stars; half the year there would be smoke winding out of the chimney and amber lamps burning behind the curtains of the windows.... Nobody even knew if there was a key. Home again. Time to slop the hogs, Paw.[21]

However, Abbey's relatives and friends remember that as a boy he was not, in fact, anxious to "slop the hogs" or do other farm chores; he seemed interested only in nature, reading, and writing. Howard and Bill Abbey remember that Ned did not join them, their father, and their brother John in hoeing corn, and claimed that he had a heart problem. Nancy Abbey recounts this incident:

Ed was sitting in an apple tree eating an apple and reading a book and my dad was working in a garden not too far away and my dad yelled to Ed, "Ed, will you go down and get me a hoe?" And Ed says, "Where are they?" And my dad says, "You mean to tell me you live on this farm and you don't know where we keep the hoes?" And Ed says, "Yes, and I'm proud of it."

Similarly Ed's best boyhood friend, Ed Mears, recalls that "he went out to pick blackberries and he took a book along. How many blackberries are you going to pick with your hand on a book?"

Clearly Ed Abbey was an independent, rebellious, free spirit from an early age. Betty George, his aunt, recalls that she "couldn't hang on to Ned" while babysitting him when he was a year old. The baby book that Mildred Abbey kept on him includes entries like these: "Falls out of bed at 3 months," and "Goes everywhere at thirteen months."

The Abbeys in Indiana County After 1931
  1. The Abbeys' first house near Home, c. 1931-32. 800 Chambersville Road, Home, PA 15747-8605.
  2. In Tanoma, c. 1932-36. 3881 Tanoma Road, Clymer, PA 15728-6325.
  3. In the village of Home, c. 1936-1941. . 5565 Route 119 Highway North, Home, PA 15747-9105.
  4. The "Old Lonesome Briar Patch," 1941-1967. Adjacent to 255 Houser Road, Home, PA 15747-8419.
  5. Washington Presbyterian Church, where the gravestone of Paul, Mildred and John Abbey is located. 1820 Washington Church Road, Home, PA 15747-8222.
  6. Rayne Township Consolidated School, attended by Ed Abbey, 1934-1941, at corner of Route 119 Highway North and Tanoma Road, near Home.
  7. Marion Center High School, attended by Ed Abbey, 1941-42
  8. Paul and Mildred Abbey's home (and Paul's rock shop), 1967-1992. Adjacent to 5115 Route 119 Highway North, Home, PA 15747-9103.
  9. The Pennsylvania state historical marker commemorating Edward Abbey, erected in September 1996, directly opposite 5115 Route 119 Highway North.
Notes: The addresses listed above are mailing addresses that allow one to find more precise road locations by searching them on No. 3 above is Abbey's only house actually located in the village of Home itself; the others listed for Home illustrate the long reach of Home as a mailing address. Similarly, no. 2 is listed for Clymer, a larger town several miles away, because the tiny crossroads of Tanoma where that house is located does not carry a mailing address.

Next section: Abbey's Family


[9] I am thankful to Howard Abbey for helping me obtain Edward Abbey's birth certificate, and to both Howard and Iva Abbey for lending me Mildred Abbey's baby book about Ed.

[10] Garth McCann, in Edward Abbey, also mistakenly asserts that Jonathan Troy is about a boy in "central Pennsylvania" rather than the more specific western Pennsylvania (10).

[11] Abbey referred to Kellysburg in the draft manuscript of his unpublished novel The Good Life (Abbey collection, box 4, folder 8) and in the handwritten draft of The Fool's Progress (box 13, folder 2), and he changed "Kellysburg" to "Home" in the original printed version of his essay "Hallelujah, on the Bum" in American West Magazine at the beginning of the 1970s (box 24, folder 5, p.13), for its publication in The Journey Home (New York, 1975).

[12] All quotations from Bill Abbey are from my interview on 27 Oct.1995, unless otherwise indicated. In the rest of this article, I also quote from my interviews with Howard Abbey (18 Oct.1995), Iva Abbey (18 Oct.1995), Nancy Abbey (2 Dec.1995), Bill Betts (1 Dec.1995), Betty [Elizabeth Postlewait] George (27 Oct.1995), Ed Mears (4 Oct.1995), Isabel [Postlewait] Nesbitt (2 Dec.1995), and John Watta (18 May 1995). I am extremely grateful to all of these individuals, each of whom gave generously of their time and knowledge, and kindly permitted me to quote them. I also wish to express my thanks to Paul Roberts of Pittsburgh History, the best editor I've ever worked with; Eric Temple, who sent me transcripts of his interviews with Abbey's relatives and friends and was generous in several other ways, and whose 1993 video documentary "Edward Abbey: A Voice in the Wilderness" is an excellent resource; to Richard Higgason, my graduate assistant during 1995-96, who transcribed my interviews and several audiotapes from the Abbey collection, helped me gather sources, and generally assisted me expertly and in various ways in this project; Jim Wakefield, IUP photographer, who took most of the pictures accompanying this article and was helpful well beyond the call of duty; Bob Sechrist of IUP's Geography Department and his student assistant Mick Burkett, who generated maps for me; Cathy Bressler, who took the time to find and lend me her photo of the Abbey family farmstead; Virginia Brown, associate graduate dean for research at IUP who helped me administer an IUP Senate Fellowship that supported this work; Suzanne Brown of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education in Harrisburg, who facilitated the administration of my Faculty Professional Development Fund grant, which also made this project possible; my brother Bill, a bioregionalist and Cincinnati psychologist, who gave me my first book by Abbey; and Peter Narusewicz, an IUP doctoral student whose interest in Abbey helped to increase my own.

[13] Confessions of a Barbarian: Selections from the Journals of Edward Abbey, 1951-1989, ed. David Petersen (Boston and New York, 1994), 308; hereafter cited as Confessions.

[14] Abbey collection, box 1, folder 6. Abbey was disappointed that his FBI folder was not thicker and more interesting. A few examples of the many people who have misreported Abbey's birthplace as Home are Bruce Hamilton, "Edward Abbey, Druid of the Arches," High Country News, 27 March 1989, 12; Michael Moore, "Out There Somewhere Lies Edward Abbey" SMART No.5 (Sept.-Oct. 1989), 82; Carl L. Davis, "Thoughts on a Vulture: Edward Abbey, 1927-1989," RE Arts and Letters 15.2 (1989), 16; and John Macrae, ed., The Serpents of Paradise: A Reader (New York, 1995), 1.

[15] Abbey, introduction, The Journey Home: Some Words in Defense of the American West (1977; New York, 1991), xiv.

[16] Ed Abbey lived with his parents at 254 North Third St. from 1927 until late 1928 or early 1929, and then at 651 East Pike until about 1930; then a farmhouse at the edge of Saltsburg followed by a third-floor apartment in Saltsburg, until 1931; then a house on the main road between Chambersville and Home, until 1932 or 1933; another house several miles away in Tanoma, until about 1936; and at 57 U.S. 119, the only time the family lived in the village of Home itself, until 1941. In the absence of any official records of these residences, I operated on the assumption that if two relatives or close friends of the Abbeys told me the same thing, then it was true. My key sources in tracing these residences were Howard and Bill Abbey, Betty [Elizabeth Postlewait] George, Isabel [Postlewait] Nesbitt, and Ed Mears. Paul and Mildred Abbey bought the Old Lonesome Briar Patch on 31 Oct.1941 (Indiana County Deed Book 317, p.193) and closed its sale on 2 March 1968 (Deed Book 576, p.773).

[17] I am grateful to Iva Abbey for lending me her typed copy of Mildred Abbey's summer 1931 diary and to Nancy Abbey for bringing it to my attention.

[18] Bishop, 53. As another example of the romanticizing of Abbey's Appalachian boyhood, see also Carl L. Davis, "Thoughts on a Vulture" 16.

[19] Abbey, typescript of a review of books by Wendell Berry Abbey collection, box 25, folder 5, pp. 2-3.

[20] Mildred Abbey, 1967 letter to Ed Abbey Abbey collection, box 2, folder 1. Joseph and Emma McElhoes had transferred the rock shop property to Paul Abbey on 22 July 1960 (Indiana County Deed Book 489, p.665).

[21] Appalachian Wilderness: The Great Smoky Mountains, Eliot Porter photographer, with "Natural and Human History by Edward Abbey" (New York, 1970), 14. "Red-dog" is, by the way, a rock by-product of coal mining.

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