Retired Winfield teacher works to preserve memoir of pioneer woman
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Massey Harbison and her infant son spent six terrifying days in the Pennsylvania wilderness in the spring of 1792.
Because of the efforts of a retired schoolteacher from Winfield, history buffs once again can read about the pioneer woman's experiences in her own words.
Drenda Gostkowski has republished Mrs. Harbison's 1825 memoir of her capture by and escape from an American Indian war party.
The reprinting of the 66-page text represents the most recent effort by Ms. Gostkowski and several of her friends to keep Mrs. Harbison's story alive.
"I am both pro-woman and pro-Indian," she said. "Massey's story tells something important about life on the frontier and about the role of women in history."
Ms. Gostkowski, 61, has had a lifetime interest in the past. Even as a very young child, she recalled preferring history to fairy tales. "I would beg my mother for a story of the old days," she said.
Her love for exciting narratives was dampened by classroom emphasis on memorizing names and dates. When it came time for college, she majored in elementary education at Duquesne University and took library courses at Clarion University.
She grew up in Pittsburgh's East Liberty and taught for more than two decades, mostly in the city's elementary schools. She and her husband, Peter Watt, a retired steelworker, have lived for 25 years in Winfield, about three miles northwest of Saxonburg.
Mrs. Harbison's dramatic story is well known among local historians and has been the subject of several books and plays. Ms. Gostkowski became interested in her adventures in 1999, when she and Susan Przybylek, of Sarver, researched and wrote a script for a Saxonburg District Woman's Club tour that took visitors to some of the major points in Mrs. Harbison's 70-mile journey.
They expanded those tour materials into a booklet and audiotape titled "Escape: Massey Harbison, Wilderness Captive." They called on two friends, actress Janet Pazzynski, of Pittsburgh's North Side, and dulcimer player Mary Dugan, of Fawn, to provide narration and period music.
While almost 300 copies of the tape and booklet tour have been sold, Ms. Gostowski had plans to reach more people.
Finding a rare copy of Mrs. Harbison's 1825 memoir in the Darlington Memorial Library at the University of Pittsburgh, she planned to have Mechling Bookbindery produce a facsimile edition, copying the pages as they appeared in the original. Owner Al Mechling, who specializes in reprinting books of historical interest at his shop in Clinton, warned her that the quality would be poor.
Another friend, Doris Herceg, of Clinton, agreed to retype the text, retaining original spelling, grammar, punctuation and even typographical errors.
"At one point, two words run together and are separated by a line," Ms. Gostkowski said. "We kept that in there."
The only modern additions to the book were two pages of notes and a dozen illustrations.
Many of Mrs. Harbison's descendants still live in southwestern Pennsylvania.
"Drenda has done a fantastic job of getting all this information together," said Marcia Harbison, of Freeport. Her husband, LaVerne, is a descendent of Mrs. Harbison's son, Benjamin.
Among the most treasured family possessions is a powder horn engraved with the initials "HH" and dated "Fabuwary 26, 1793." While the second "H" stands for Harbison, it's not clear who the original owner was. But for two centuries, it has been passed down from oldest son to oldest son, Marcia Harbison said.
Even after six years of research and writing, Ms. Gostkowski still bubbles over with enthusiasm for her subject. "It's like a detective story," she said. "I talk to new people and details change."
Sometimes, it is more than details. Recently, Ms. Gostkowski took part in a KDKA radio program with the descendant of one of Mrs. Harbison's neighbors. Tom Powers claims it was his ancestor, James Bowers, not a man named James Closier, who rowed the pioneer woman across the Allegheny River after her escape.
"It's like a big puzzle," she said of efforts to arrive at an accurate retelling of the Harbison story. For many years, she has been seeking, without success, an authenticated sketch of Mrs. Harbison.
There is even disagreement on how Mrs. Harbison spelled her first name. Written variations include "Massey," "Massy" "Massie," "Massa" and "Mary."
Mrs. Harbison, who ultimately gave birth to 13 children, lived for many years in what is now Freeport. Her last cabin was likely to have been at the site of Freeport Elementary School. After she died in 1837, she was buried at what is now the site of Freeport Middle School's athletic field. Her grave was moved to Freeport Cemetery, where her gravestone stands today.
First Published July 30, 2006 12:00 am