The Ellen Turnbull Story

Frank and Ellen Turnbull were photographed in Palestine, West Virginia in 1976.


In 1956, the Frank and Ellen Turnbull family arrived in the community of Alpine in Overton County, Tennessee, where Rev. Turnbull had accepted the position as minister for the Christ Church Presbyterian. He served in this position for eight years. Rev. Turnbull was a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. He and his wife, Ellen Elisabeth McFeeters, were married in Hebron, New York, during the time he was pastoring a Presbyterian church there. When the Turnbulls arrived in Alpine, their family consisted of six children, David, Margaret, John, Joseph, Mary Ellen, and Paul. Elma and Jane were added to family after the family settled in Alpine. Prior to their move to Alpine, Frank and Ellen Turnbull served Presbyterian churches in New York, Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Iowa. After those eight years in Alpine, they moved on to West Virginia were they established a retreat center called Singing Hills. Then in 1986, the Turnbulls retired to Berea, Kentucky. Many in this area will remember the years the Turnbull family lived and served the church in Alpine.

It was 20 years ago, June of 1987, that Rev. Turnbull passed away. Then, this year, on June 6, 2007, Ellen Turnbull died. With this journal entry, I will be sharing a tiny little glimpse into the extraordinary life of Mrs. Turnbull.

Ellen Elisabeth McFeeters Turnbull was born March 30, 1916, in Assiut, Egypt. Her parents, Milo McFeeters and wife Elma Taylor McFeeters served as agricultural missionaries there for the United Presbyterian Church of North America. She lived most of her early life in Egypt with her parents and sisters, Mary Frances and Ruth. The importance of a good education was very much emphasized in the McFeeters home. Both Milo McFeeters and his wife, Elma, were college graduates. While encouraging their children to reach for the stars and experience life to the fullest, to me, one of the most priceless things both Milo McFeeters and then later, his daughter, Ellen, left behind were "Letters To The Children" that told about their lives as they were growing up. I am including parts of those letters here, beginning with information written by Milo McFeeters. But first, a little background information about Mr. McFeeters who was born in 1886 on the Crowe family farm home near Butler, Pennsylvania.

When Milo McFeeters was only three and one-half years old, his family moved west to Colorado with the hope that the high, clear air there would improve his parents' poor health. But within a few months, both parents died of tuberculosis. There were six children left behind to be placed in
various homes in Colorado. In one of his letters, he describes the home he was placed in. Here is what he says:

"My new pappa and mamma were not rich people. Their name was Boal, Mr. and Mrs. Boal. They were middle-aged folks and had no children of their own. They were pioneer farm folks. Neither of them could read or write. Mr. Boal had a long grayish black beard. He never talked nor laughed much, and he did not seem to care much for me. In fact, I was quite a little afraid of him. But Mrs. Boal was quite good to me and I liked her. My new home was on the open prairie. There were very few neighbors within sight. Away off on one side, there were mountains in the distance.

The house had only two rooms. The front room was the kitchen, dining room and living room. The back room was the bedroom. Some distance in front of the house was the well with a platform of boards over it. The water was raised by a bucket and a rope that was wound over a reel. A little distance behind the house was the big canal that was usually full of water which came all the way from the mountains that we could see so far away. I do not remember just how long it was after Mr. and Mrs. Boal had taken me into their home that they began to talk about getting a "brother" for me. I must have missed all my own brothers and sisters and perhaps was feeling a bit lost out of the wide prairie without any other kids. So one day I was left with someone while Mr. and Mrs. Boal went to an orphanage to get this other boy. They did not get back until after bedtime, so I did not see Jimmie until the next morning. Jimmie was about a year older than I, bigger and full of life. It wasn't long until I became his faithful follower, and got into whatever prank, good or bad, he might think of. After several incidents, each a little worse than the one before, Mr. and Mrs. Boal decided they would have to take Jimmie back to the orphanage. That was very bad news to me. In spite of the extra spankings and lickings I got, I liked Jimmie, for he was always thinking of so many new games and interesting things to do. So I began to cry. Mrs. Boal then tried to explain to me that Jimmie was a very bad boy, and that he was teaching me to say bad words and do bad things. That did not stop my crying in the least, but I dried up my tears a little when they promised that they would bring back another "brother" for me. Again there was the long and lonesome day of waiting. It was so much more lonesome this time because I was missing Jimmie so much. Arnold was the name of the new "brother". He was not much older nor bigger than I, and was not nearly so lively and interesting as Jimmie. But, at any rate, I got to keep him." When Milo was almost five years old, he was taken back to Pennsylvania into the home of John and Elizabeth McFeeters and a few months later was formally adopted.

In some papers written by Ellen Turnbull that she titled "Memories of A Mish Kid," (Mish stands for Missionary), she shares her memories of life in Egypt. She begins by saying: "When I was five, I thought the world was just about perfect and that it would always stay that way." One chapter of her writings describes a trip to the Pyramids. Here's what she says:

One spring day Papa took Mary Frances and me out to the pyramids, along with our American neighbor next door. At breakfast he jokingly asked Mary if he should bring the Sphinx home in his pocket. "No, it's too big," she answered, and he was pleased with her four year old wisdom. Mama didn't go. She had seen the pyramids and she did not like camels. We rode the tram out to Gizeh, and there they were, those three huge stone triangles in the desert. Then camel men came clamoring. Papa and the neighbor hired two. One had a saddle, with tassels, up on its hump. Papa and I were to ride it. The other had baskets, sort of little hammock on each side hung from a pair of crosswise poles fastened to the saddle. The neighbor felt safer in the baskets, and Mary Frances was to ride with her. The drivers made the camels kneel down. Papa helped me onto our saddle, then went to help the others. Our camel thought it had its load and got up. When the hind legs unfolded, everything tilted forward. I was surprised, but hung on. Then the forelegs straightened, and everything tilted back until the last section of hind legs straightened, and I was up. The driver shouted and Papa hurried over. Then the camel had to kneel down again for Papa to mount behind me, so I got the see-saw two more times. We rode with an interesting rocking motion around the two biggest pyramids and beside where some digging was going on. It seemed as though the camels were walking on top of a wide stone wall. If I slipped off now, I wouldn't just the hit the ground, I would go clear down into the trench. I hung on. We came to the Sphinx, half buried in the sand. Its great stone head with broken nose loomed above us, and we saw the big lion shaped shoulders and back. If it had paws or tail, they were hidden in the sand. Something about it made you want to look and look. It was time to go home. I hoped that someday I could climb to the top of that great pyramid."

The portions I selected to include in this journal entry are only a small part of the recorded information written by both Ellen Turnbull and her father. What wonderful gifts left to share with their family members as well as future generations!

Mrs. Turnbull was 91 years old at the time of her death, and was able to maintain her home and care for herself with very little assistance from her family. Just the week prior to her death, she sent an email to all her children to let them know she was looking forward to the Turnbull Family Reunion to be held at Standing Stone State Park in the Livingston area the last week in June of this year. Being able to use a computer at her age is quite an accomplishment in itself. I know her presence was greatly missed at the family reunion this year.

Ellen Turnbull's obituary includes this information: "She graduated summa cum laude from Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, with a major in Chemistry, and completed two years of medical school at the Women's Medical College in Philadelphia. She taught school in the Overton County school system, and was the last teacher at a one room school in the Cravenstown community of Overton County during the time her husband served as minister at Alpine. At Berea, she was an active member of Union Church, including its Woman's Industrial program and other church committees and activities. In the community, she was a volunteer at Berea Hospital and with Peace Craft. Peacemaking and concern for the Middle East and its conflicts were lifelong concerns of hers, due to her early upbringing in that region. She was intellectually bright, inquisitive, warm, sensitive, caring, and kind to all who knew her."