It was a nice town and I could have stayed,
A part of me asks, “Will you ever go back?”
Another part answers, “I never did leave.”
And somewhere in California,
My life improved.
As I wound my way up California Highway #1 some years ago, en route to Big Sur, a road sign flashed by and triggered the memory of a recent article that I had read describing the picturesque coastline. Hardly a mention was given to the town that belonged to that road sign, “Harmony, pop. 18.”
As a curious photographer and a nosey nut for odd things, I took the exit for the town belonging to that road sign, budgeting ten minutes for a drive-through and a look-see.
Harmony, population 18, consisting of only a main street perhaps 500 feet long, reminded me of a dusted-off and revived ghost town. As I idled down the main street I couldn’t help laughing to myself when I saw a gasoline pump that still read 19¢ per gallon. And, further down the road of this small town of 18, a post office!
I blinked my eyes to ward off a timeless and detached feeling. “Was this town for real?” Perhaps I had wandered into a movie set.
But then another strange thing happened; there was hardly a space on that main road to park my car…the town was jammed!
Now I was really intrigued.
I ended up staying the day, into the night and even to near dawn next day. As I talked to the townspeople and the local shopkeepers, I came to know something about the little town of Harmony, pop. 18.
For instance, the town has a ghost, a “Butterfly Lady,” a postmistress and a church.
Couples travel hundreds of miles to be ‘married in Harmony.’
The often very busy town minister was formerly a successful advertising executive.
The Minister Himself
The “owner” of this once-abandoned town, which was literally up for sale by the state, originally came to Harmony in response to a newspaper ad for a used piano. He bought the town instead!
The one and only restaurant in Harmony is widely known for it’s fine cuisine. Many a politician and celebrity have dined in Harmony.
The town church, due to it’s proximity to the municipal water supply, is known as the “Cistern Chapel.”
In the middle of the town’s smallest store, measuring a scant 10 by 15 feet, stands a grand piano!
The fact that there was hardly a parking space on the main street has nothing to do with the quirky facts mentioned above. Rather, Harmony is a thriving town of working artisans. People were crowding the pottery shop, art gallery, antique store, curio shop, silversmith’s den or just dining in Harmony.
All this became quite clear to me after ambling into the post office. I simply asked, “Why does this town of 18 people have a federal post office. Isn’t that sort of a waste of money?”
The postmistress Julie advised that it was a long story but if I ventured across the street to “The House of Harmony” antique store, the owners would explain the whole story.
So I crossed the street and introduced myself to Martin and Judy Donald, mentioning that Julie, across the street, had said that you would tell me the whole story. Martin said, “It’s a long story (just as Julie said) but if you come back right about closing time, we’d love to answer your question.
So I set about seeing the town to discover it and to kill time. I visited the curio shop. The owner introduced herself as Dorothy, “The Butterfly Lady,” and promptly informed me that her shop, measuring10×15 feet, was the smallest in the world with a grand piano in it (is that a world record?). In addition to the piano, the little emporium was filled with assortments of sheet music, records, books and all sorts of artifacts relating to her passion, butterflies. I asked the obvious, “But what about the piano. It makes the shop hardly accessible?” She explained that her husband, musician and composer, James Sheldon, liked to practice at night at home but it kept her awake. So he installed the piano smack in them middle of her shop. Further, he liked the acoustics of the store. On many an evening after business hours, one can hear James at work.
In his “Harmony Valley Waltz,” Sheldon writes, “My heart’s at ease in Harmony, where cares disappear…and I’m free.”
Over at the pottery shop, John Shoenstein and Teresa Campbell showed me their ceramic sculptures, artfully decorated vases and plates, wind chimes and mobiles. All their work is original, created right there in the shop. They were very happy to tour me through their workshop and kiln area.
At the Harmony Gallery, owned by Lisa and Randy Stromsoe, I toured an exhibit by a well known California artist. In fact, many well known artists have been exhibited in the little gallery.
I peeked into the ever ready fire department.
Gosh, I hope they never have a fire!
I was coming to feel the ebb and flow of Harmony. It seemed that the collective friendship and talent of the townspeople had a magnetic effect, drawing many people to this little hamlet. I began to experience an inner feeling of calm, order and, like the name of the town…harmony. The town, even though named in the mid 1800’s, was living up to its moniker.
As the sun set over tiny Harmony and as the Martin and Judy Donald said good-bye to the last customers, their House of Harmony antique shop became their home. That’s right, people actually shopped in their home.
Over mugs of good coffee (luckily nobody had purchased their coffee pot!) we chatted into the night.
Martin, also the town minister who officiates of the “Cistern Chapel”, took me through his shop of lovely antique treasures and explained that he left the hectic corporate life as an advertising agency art director and graphic artist to pursue his true love of antique collecting and the art of fine paper making.
Judy, wife, assistant minister and part-time wedding photographer, also left a hectic but lucrative career as a Hollywood screenwriter (Lady Sings the Blues and Mahogany) to follow her passion of wreath-making.
They told me their story: At their high school reunion they reconnected after both having failed marriages. They eventually married and decided to follow their mutual dreams; they pooled their individual collection of antiques, purchased more, and headed to Harmony to open up shop.
They told me stories about the town’s ghost. They recounted the helicopter, loaded with traveling executives, that was forced to make an emergency landing not far away. They described how the men, dusty but with briefcases in hand, had marched into the town, humorously reminding them of soldiers returning from war, except that their uniforms were blue pin-stripe instead of army green. They went on to tell me of the famous and not-so-famous who visit and revisit the town. They told me that my feelings about Harmony were quite natural and similar to other visitors they’ve met.
And, yes, they told me why there’s a US Post Office in a town of eighteen. In the mid 1800’s, the town hosted one of California’s largest and well-known creameries, producing outstanding cheeses and butters. It was a thriving town and merited a post office. However, in the mid 1950’s, the dairy relocated to nearby San Louis Obispo, which effectively closed down the town. But it seems that the United States government forgot to close the post office! Harmony and the post office languished until 1972, when an eccentric from San Francisco came to purchase the piano, but instead, purchased the town and commenced to restore it to its previous state.
It was near dawn and we’d talked, laughed, shared stories and connected as friends. Martin and Judy needed rest in order to open their home/store in a few hours. I needed to move on to catch the morning light at Big Sur. We said good-bye and vowed to stay in touch (which we did for several years).
But before I could leave, Martin took me to his studio behind the store. He sat at his table and sketched something on a piece of paper. He wouldn’t show it to me until it was finished. What he sketched is now framed and on my wall and reads:
Indeed, I had found Harmony.
…and somewhere in California, my life improved.