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Marion Thomas Harbaugh: Biglerville remembers an icon

Written by Jennifer Wentz, The Evening Sun | May 12, 2015 10:20 AM
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Photo by The Evening Sun

Thomas Bros. Country Store owner Marion Thomas Harbaugh listens to a visitor at her Biglerville store on Dec. 13, 2013. The general store and museum was established in 1909 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

(Biglerville) -- Walk into any business in Biglerville, and you'll probably stumble across a story about Marion Thomas Harbaugh.

The barber remembers buying penny candy from her big glass display case at Thomas Bros. Country Store when he was 12. A librarian knows the building where she works is named for the woman, although she never met her personally. A chiropractor helped her run her store in her later years, and he fondly recalls her love for Biglerville, its history and its residents.

Phrases like "pillar of the town" and "end of an era" are hard to avoid in any conversation involving her name.

Harbaugh, who would have been 91 on May 12 , died May 8 at Gennesis Gettysburg Center, according to her obituary. She left behind a community that still bears her mark, from the white brick library she helped design to the old country store where her handwritten notes still hang in the window.

After growing up in rural Adams County, Harbaugh attended Wilson College, where she majored in English, and New York University, where she took graduate classes in merchandising, according to her obituary. She worked in the city at Lord and Taylor Department Store before coming home to run the family business, Thomas Bros. Country Store, with her sister, Jean.

Although she left the big city behind, she took some of its fashions back to Biglerville, where customers could often find her sporting lacquered nails, feather boas and other accessories reminiscent of her time in New York, friends recalled.

She also made trips back to the city when she could to pick up clothing to sell at the family store, said James Spertzel, a chiropractor who runs a business down the street and helped Harbaugh run her store in her later years.

The store, revitalized by Harbaugh's fashions, became a destination for locals and tourists, and even was a favorite of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his family. Harbaugh took pride in her friendship with Mamie Eisenhower and kept a collection of their correspondences, Spertzel said.

The shop, now more than 100 years old, contains a mix of merchandise as unique as Harbaugh herself, with everything from penny candy to wedding gowns available for customers to peruse. It has a museum, which includes everything from antique tools to the sled from the movie 'Dr. Zhivago.'

Not everything was for sale, friends said, but Harbaugh was happy to share her knowledge of each item's history with anyone who walked in the door.

This unique history granted the store a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008, according to a plaque by its door.

While the store gave Harbaugh her start in Biglerville, it was far from her only contribution.

In 2006, the community broke ground on the Harbaugh-Thomas Public Library, the only building in Adams County's library system to be built specifically to house a library, said Bill Bucher, a past president of the library's board.

Harbaugh, a life-long advocate for education, had big dreams for the building from the start and was never shy about sharing them, he said. Inspired by a book of presidential homes, she wanted a grand, white-brick facade with an ornate outdoor courtyard and presidential-inspired decor.

Those dreams came to fruition in 2006, when crews broke ground on the building, thanks in part to donations from the Harbaugh family. The library opened in 2008.

The success was no surprise to people who knew her. When Harbaugh decided she wanted something for the town, she always found a way to make it happen, said Pam Wagner, who attended St. Paul's Lutheran Church with Harbaugh.

Harbaugh's obituary contains a long list of groups she touched over the years. In addition to her work with the store and the library, she co-founded the Biglerville Historical Society and founded the Biglerville Senior Citizens. She also received the Callie Award for her community service in 2004.

Bucher, Spertzel and Harbaugh's other acquaintances have no doubt her legacy will continue. The library is in good hands with the Adams County Library System and the Harbaugh-Thomas Foundation, Bucher said, and friends of Harbaugh's hope to carry out her wishes to preserve her store.

"She was definitely an icon for the community," Spertzel said.

More about Harbaugh

Biglerville store has a story

'Dr. Zhivago' sleigh on display in Biglerville

Biglerville sled display preserves history


This article comes to us through a partnership between the Evening Sun and WITF. 

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