Saturday, July 13, 2019

Sepia Saturday: Meet the Harmans

Sepia Saturday challenges bloggers to share family history through old photographs.

This week’s Sepia Saturday prompt sent me searching for the story of the Harman School of Music. I have written a few times about the little school in Shenandoah, Virginia where my mother studied piano and tap as a child.
Harman School of Music Shenandoah, VA
former Harman School of Music
Pennsylvania Avenue, Shenandoah, VA
I remembered a thread from one of my Facebook groups when members were reminiscing over their piano lessons and recitals at the Harman School. One had posted a link to an article from the Harrisonburg Daily News Record written as a tribute to the Harmans for their many years as the premier music teachers of the Shenandoah Valley.
from Daily News Record
18 Jan 1983
Gordon and Conjetta Harman married in 1933 and together they spent the next 50 years teaching over 2000 students to play violin, guitar, piano, and organ. They kept a studio in Waynesboro for a while, but for most of their career they taught at home or in their students’ homes charging 50 cents for a half hour lesson when they started out and $4 in their last years. Conjetta sometimes taught with her baby on her lap and her toddler on the floor.

Professor James A. Harman
from Daily News Record
7 Jan 1959
As passionate as the couple were about music, Gordon confessed that as a young boy, he just wanted to go play baseball. However, he was from a musical family in which everyone played an instrument. His father was James Harman, a professor of music at the local colleges Bridgewater, Shenandoah Conservatory, and State Teachers College (now James Madison University – Go DUKES!). He opened the Harman School of Music in Harrisonburg in 1921.

Professor Harman’s life and love of music is no less interesting. He fell in love with the violin as a youngster in Randolph County, West Virginia. He would walk 14 miles to take lessons. (I wonder if he walked barefoot in the snow?) He studied and taught himself how to make violins following the patterns of Stradivarius and other old masters of Italy and Germany. When a tribute to him was written for the newspaper in 1959, he had made 3 including the one he had been playing for the past ten years. 

James Harman’s six children (Gordon was the oldest) all played the violin plus other instruments. The Harman family often performed programs in the local churches on Sunday. One achievement that the Harmans were especially proud of was being crowned the Virginia winner in the Home Music Contest held nationally as part of National Music Week in 1929. The family’s performance was praised for being “natural and unaffected” and for the selection of music which all related to “home.” Their reward was a Majestic Radio, a combination radio and phonograph player, priced at $316. It must have been a humdinger of a radio as it was put on display in the local movie theater for all to see.

from Daily News Record
26 Jun 1929
Probably James Harman was just as proud that at least four of his children chose music as a profession, Gordon being just one of them. Daughters Priscilla, Mary Jane, and Dorothy became piano and violin teachers too. Each had his or her own “territory” stretching from Luray to Dayton.

With over 256,000 references to the Harman School of Music in the Newspaper Archive database, it’s a wonder I spied this little gem:
from Daily News Record
15 Jun 1939

It’s an announcement of a Harman School of Music recital under the direction of James Harman and daughter Priscilla Harman to be held at Shenandoah High School on June 15, 1939. There’s my mother, Mary Eleanor Davis. Her piece was “Mirth and Gayety” composed by Carl Wilhelm Kern. She was just 10 years old.
Mary Eleanor Davis school picture 1939
Mary Eleanor Davis
about 1939
1st of 4 pages of the music
in public domain

Those 16th notes in 2:4 time seem pretty challenging to me. YouTube has everything, but they don't seem to have this piece.

The stories and photos at Sepia Saturday will be music to your ears.

© 2019, Wendy Mathias. All rights reserved.


  1. What a great family story, people dedicated to sharing their music with so many others. It is a continuation of the joys of playing an instrument.

  2. They lived life well. A great, heartwarming story. Thanks for sharing.

  3. A wonderful story, Wendy! I'm still looking for a postcard of the Harman Family Orchestra. Maybe someday I'll make a tour the Shenandoah antique shops. Their history is very similar to other musical families, especially in this more recent era when radio, record players, and cinema competed with live entertainment. You can still find families that value music today, but they are just a fraction of what it was a century ago. And I bet your mother had a clear memory of that recital and maybe could still hum the tune!

  4. Impressive story! I was impressed with the cost of lessons then compared to the cost of lessons now! Such talent they had!


  5. Wow, so glad you spied the note about your mother!

  6. What a great post! And impressive research, too. I just returned from a neighborhood reunion in the upstate NY town where I grew up -- and so many of the "kids" at the event (now retired!) had fond memories of my mother teaching music at their school, or piano lessons at our home -- probably an equally economical rate.

  7. Family music and musicians - a neat story. All the family playing instruments and entertaining together at times reminded me of a time when my brother (baritone), two sisters (altos) and I (soprano) sang together in the church choir of (generally) 18 voices. It got to be s dilemma at times as our folks liked to take long Sunday drives starting early in the morning which left a bit of a 'hole' in the choir that Sunday. Whenever the choir had a particularly important number to sing, we were told (teasingly but hopefully) the Bradleys couldn't be taking any Sunday drives that day!