Historic Farming with Horses in Berks County(And the day a team of horses saved the Liberty Bell)
2019 General Nonfiction Honorable Mention
© Copyright 2018 by Richard Orth
Of the surviving antediluvian farmers still plowing and harvesting their crops with horses in Berks County in the 1960s, none were more memorable than college educated, John E. Fox (1908-1988). Living near Bernville, he still operated his farm with six workhorses in his Swiss bank barn and a modest herd of cows. Traditionally running his farm like it was still the nineteenth Century, he and various others in Berks County proudly farmed with horses, or just kept them in the barn as though they brought them “good luck.” The major difference between farming with horses and converting to the 20th Century gasoline farm tractors at the time was the loss of horse manure to be spread on the fields. With six horses in Fox’s large barn, he had a considerable amount of fertilizer to produce his crops. As other horse farmers who knew the advantages of fertilizing with this manure, the absence of this traditional substance made a difference.
antiquated horse farmers, like the Amish in Lancaster County,
competed with modern agricultural automation not because they were
backward, religious, or poor, but because of the nostalgic lifestyle
they had come to respect and love from generation after generation
living among the Pennsylvania Dutch. High on the Pricetown Ridge,
Frank Mertz, another Pennsylvania Dutchman who lived near New
Jerusalem farmed with horses and mules far into the 20th Century on a
simple farm in Rockland Township. However, when neighbors passed his
farm, they noticed that in his old age he was unable to harvest his
crops on time. His wife though could remember Pennsylvania Dutch
ballads by heart, popular in the 19th Century, and was a typical
hard-working “Haus-frau,” (housewife) and still knew a
version of the Dialect ballad of Susanna Cox who was hung in Reading
in the early 1800's.
But the most notable farmer who used a team of horses in pursuing his lifelong desire, was a farmer whose farm operation was near to Reading along the Fleetwood-Blandon road at Walnuttown. Morris Hottenstein, whose antediluvian skills were under scrutiny by all who drove by his farm and compared his success with all the nearby modern tractor farmers around him. They were actually pleasantly surprised! He genuinely appeared to enjoy his workhorses and tasks and kept his farm in immaculate condition without weeds on fencerows or contaminating the earth with chemicals. He has long ago passed away, but my family considered themselves fortunate to have enjoyed his work ethic.
William Hottenstein Farmed with Horses Until Recent Times
Like other local old-timers, Morris had conversed with his wife in Pennsylvania Dutch and plowed his fields with horses as late as the 1980s, and even kept two cows in the early years for his own consumption. His son, William, still living on the farm there in Richmond Township has a pair of horses, which are offspring from the original team, and continues to work the land with horses as did his father before him! Horses, those beasts of burden, who brought this nation out of a primitive past were now only kept by a number of farmers and some enjoying a graceful retirement. Esquire Lawrence Machmer, for example, whose farm was between Dryville and Huffs Church kept an old white mare in his pasture for many years. One of several farmers who when converting to gasoline tractors, still kept a team of horses to plow where the early tricycle-type Farmall tractors could not plow safely on a steep hill.
A veteran farmer always appreciated the productivity of a horse in pulling hard to reach stumps and logs as the Amish they did not abandon them for being useless in today’s ultra-automated age. Old aforementioned John Fox, near Bernville, like others of his grit and age was robust and not afraid of hard work, thereby enjoyed partnering with his horses' tilling, cultivating, or making hay, and also saved in money by only buying gasoline for his car and by feeding his horses timothy hay. An outspoken Dutchman- nay, a “loud,” outspoken Dutchman, John taught his horses and animals to obey his Pennsylvania Dutch Dialect commands. Subsequently, this may also be his reason he spoke loud to human beings, as he believed humans, like horses, needed loud instructions less they misunderstood him. A story often told of him by his neighbors was John shouting while driving his team of horses up a hill saying, “Gee Haw, Gee Haw,” (Right Left, Right Left), dictating the cadence for which his horses’ hoofs would pull in unison. Not surprisingly, he had a lead horse that understood the German dialect better than most humans did.
Impatient with small talk, John Fox in his gravelly voice would retort, “Ya, Ya, Ya, Ya,” when talking to someone as to get to the point of his or her conversation without losing any more time. He respected his animals, however, and tried to do the best for them. Fox married a German born woman named Herta, his second wife, and the two of them were very industrious farmers as they farmed on his parents (Daniel and Katie’s) farm, about a mile and a half above Bernville in Jefferson Township along route 183. They lived in the large stone farmhouse to the right of a very huge Swiss bank barn, which had unfortunately burned down. John also had an old run-down station wagon and did rely on Farmall tractors in part to get all the farming done, while John’s mother, Katie, milked the cows, his sister, Dora, took care of the chickens and ducks, and Herta pitched in doing numerous other farm chores.
Lucky to have a sizable farm in Jefferson Township, in Pennsylvania, along route 183, John needed more than family to help operate it, and he always was able to hire energetic hands from farm families nearby whose admiration for his hard-working antediluvian lifestyle involved them, as well, in operating the farm as his horses. Perhaps because Bernville was so many miles away from modern Reading, I considered his hired hands very "Dutchy," but people who still farmed with horses were then only found in the state’s most remote mountain terrain. John Fox would showcase at the Kutztown Folk Festival where he brought six of his horses to pull a traditional Conestoga wagon around the Kutztown fairgrounds. Later on, taking pride in his horsemanship, he put together a better six-horse Conestoga team that he drove with a traditional jerk line tied to the lead horse and pulled his own Conestoga wagon, one that he had acquired from the area. John always talking about the various dispositions of his horses, emphasizing when one has a team of horses you have some who are lazy, and others too frisky, etc.
Like other local farmers who continued to have horses in the 20th Century, he had more horses than he needed or could afford. One year, knowing that my our founder's parents had a small farm in Macungie, Lehigh County, he asked Dick Shaner if he would like to board two of his horses for the winter. Since Shaner had a small collection of buggies and wagons and was familiar with hitching them up, he agreed to board two horses, named Thunder and Lightning. Dick too would become a horse lover as they transported him in his buggy through the Berks-Lehigh countryside. Lightning I'm told had a good gate, but Thunder was a little on the lazy side.
John Fox Drives A Six-Horse Bell Team
In the 1950s, during the inaugural Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Festival years, which still boast crowds of over 120,000 visitors, the names of his six draft horses he hitched to his Conestoga wagon were: Prince and Dick, Bob and Beth, and Bill and Doll. His lead horse was Prince, a white horse that led his six-horse team that he gave instructions to by using a traditional jerk line, hooked to his bit. In Fox’s early farming years, he plowed all the fields with his horses, but later in part would use an old tractor to finish the rest of the planting and cultivating he didn't do with his horses. His daughter, Sarah Christman, recalled that they hauled the hay into the barn, loose, unlike everyone else who used a bailer machine hooked to a tractor. John had become an expert Waggoner and became a personal friend of Dialect singer, Bill Frey, whose father, Howard, was a researcher for the original 1930 Conestoga Six-Horse Bell Teams book.
Following the true Lancaster County tradition, a heavy Amish stronghold, John always drove his six-horse bell team saddled on the rear left wheel horse and controlled the team with a lead horse hooked to a long, leather jerk line, together with verbal commands. He used an early Conestoga wagon with very high rear wheels at the Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Festival at Kutztown, and in the 1950s, his photograph appeared in many metropolitan newspapers dressed in a Waggoner's outfit. Years later, in 1962, when Allentown was celebrating its Bicentennial, and the community was interested in re-enacting the famous hiding of the Liberty Bell, it was John Fox and his team of horses who transported the Liberty Bell.
Removed from Philadelphia in 1777, the bell was hidden in the basement of Zion’s United Church of Christ on Hamilton Street to avoid being melted down during the British occupation of Philadelphia 1777-78 in the Revolutionary War by spiteful British, plundering the Continental capital. Thus, in 1777, American Patriots who the year previous on July 4th were exuberantly proclaiming their freedom by ringing the historic Liberty Bell on Pennsylvania’s Colonial state house, (known as Independence Hall) were now scurrying to collect war supplies and munitions to be hidden in the wilderness of the Lehigh Valley. Their fear of the inevitable conquering and plundering of the city by British troops did in fact occur! Elizabeth Drinker in her diary for September 23, 1777 states that “all ye bells in ye city (Philadelphia) are certainly taken away.” Furthermore, orders by the Continental Congress and the Colonial Assembly of Pennsylvania left the church steeples of Christ Church and Saint Peter’s bare. The Continental Army and some 3,000 wagons achieved the evacuation of the city to the delight of Tories, and the echo of the Liberty Bell ringing out freedom was now silent. For it was time for citizens to fulfill their destiny.
Allentown, known in Colonial times as Northampton, had its Patriots take up the floorboards of their early Colonial Zion's Church on Hamilton Street and concealed the famous Bell in the foundation beneath it, where a full-size commemorative replica of the Liberty Bell rests today, beneath the present edifice. According to local oral history, the Liberty Bell and other church bells from the port city of Philadelphia were moved to Allentown, September 25th 1777. The church records of Philadelphia’s Christ Church for October 22, 1778 mention that Colonel Benjamin Flower (Commissary General of military supplies) returned their church bells and reinstalled them at public expense on that date.
Liberty Bell Driven To Allentown By John Fox
Lehigh Valley history records that George Washington’s military baggage train leaving Philadelphia carrying the concealed Liberty Bell had stopped at Quakertown, PA on the way up to Allentown. Thus, for re-enactment accuracy, the Bicentennial Committee talked John Fox into supplying the draft horses and the wagons (at said place), so that we (The American Folklife Institute, Society at the time) could recreate the Colonial trek with a model of the Liberty Bell transported in an early hay wagon pulled by a four-horse team used at the time. The four horses were embellished with Conestoga bells and another two-horse team wagon pretended to carry other Philadelphia church bells, concealed in straw to be hidden from the British, followed behind.
John Fox, who was a responsible and masterful leader of the four-day wagon train, yelled out the instructions and directions for the horses in his colorful Berks County German dialect to the amazement of all the people in modern villages along the way. Furthermore, Fox was not paid for his time or the use of his horses for the Bicentennial Celebration, for he considered this event an ideal public relations fete to honor horses everywhere. Protected by the state police, the wagon train was allowed to go ahead of them on the highway announcing to all other traffic their presence by the loud clanging of four hame hoops of brass Conestoga bells on the backs of these huge marching draft horses.
This Trek was kicked off with a dinner at the Red Lion Hotel at Quakertown, officiated by author, James A. Michener, with another author giving a Colonial lecture to commemorate the event. Many years later, I was greeted by woman whose great grandmother lived on the National Road leading out West, and told me the story of her own mother going to sleep each night listening to the clanging of Conestoga hame bells (3, 4, and 5, bells per hoop) as the six-horse teams passed their house traveling westward. The Liberty Bell Trek was more dramatic than real, but maintained the documented stops.
John Jacob Mickley, which local history records as the Lehigh Valley farmer whose team of horses actually was drafted by the soldiers to pull the Liberty Bell to Allentown in 1777, had originally gone to Philadelphia to deliver barrels of whiskey. His wagon had unfortunately, or perhaps fortunate for his legacy, broke down on the return trip at the square in Moravian Bethlehem where the bell was likely transferred to Frederick Leaser’s wagon. The antique grain and hay wagon used on our re-enactment trip, without reinforcement, could not have held the heavy weight of the bell; however, the patriotic pageantry was enormously popular with the news media, and John Fox had indeed championed the importance of horses everywhere.
1777 LIBERTY BELL TIMELINE:
June 16th The Assembly of Pennsylvania voted to remove as soon as possible all the bells in churches and public buildings and all the copper and brass in Philadelphia to some place of safety.August 4th The Moravian archives at Bethlehem records that 200 local wagons were impressed by the Continental Army and went to Philadelphia to assist in the removal of the families.
September 14th The Continental Congress meeting at Independence Hall that Sunday recommended to Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council for an order to remove all public bells in Philadelphia to a place of security upon the near approach of the enemy to the City.
September 22nd General Howe crosses the Schuylkill River with his troops to capture Philadelphia.
23rd Elizabeth Drinker in her diary records
ye bells in ye city (Philadelphia) are certainly taken
September 24th Moravian archives records that a wagon train of 700 wagons arrived camping on the south side of the Lehigh River at Bethlehem. The wagon carrying the state house bell broke down here, at “Der Platz” (square) and had to be unloaded before it was taken to Allentown.
Stoudt, John Baer. The Liberty Bell in Allentown, Berkmeyer, Keck & Company, Allentown, PA (1927).