Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Hacklebernie, Hetchel Tooth, Huckleberries and Henry Strauch: Common Uniqueness

The view from Hetchel's Tooth through the Huckleberries.  That is East
Side Jim Thorpe, the Kettle, in the background.

The Strauch’s were commonly unique. My Great Grandfather Heinrich Strauch and his family were just common folks, but strikingly unique. Perhaps a sampling of Strauch anecdotes will explain what I mean.

The Strauchs first lived in Hacklebernie, in the western extreme of upper Mauch Chunk (Today's Jim Thorpe). Heinrich was a butcher and may have worked in the Mauch Chunk sausage factory, which at the time employed many men in that vicinity. Sometime around 1908, the Strauch family moved to Jamestown, near Lehighton.  (The picture below is the Hacklebernie school house around 1900.  I can imagine my grandmother Mary as one of those indistinct faces.  Above right, huckleberries looking off Hetchel Tooth.)

The 1910 Census described Heinrich as a “slaughterhouse butcher.” I can imagine him working at Joe Obert’s Meat Packing plant. The cattle were shipped to downtown Lehighton and herded across First Street.  Fancy that in today's world.

My grandmother Mariah or simply ‘Mary’ was the oldest, born in 1889. She and sister Catherine (‘Kate’ b. 1890) married in their early 20s. Carolina (‘Lena’, b. 1892) died young of ‘consumption’. She was said to have uncommon beauty and to be her father’s favorite. In the family photo, taken around 1915 to preserve her memory, she is positioned at her father’s right hand. With her clear determined eyes, she is truly stunning to see. Other sisters were Elizabeth (‘Lizzie’ b. 1895) and Anna Margaret (‘Margaret’ b. 1906).  (Back row: Henry, Leonard, Kate, Louie, Willie, Mary and Edwin.  Front: Lena, Heinrich, Margaret and Carl, Anna Margaret and Lizzie.  Opposite photo: Willie in his WWI uniform.)

William (‘Willie’ b. 1893), Ludwig (‘Louis’ b. 1894), Leonard (b. 1899), Heinrich (‘Henry’ b. 1903), Edwin (b. 1904) and Carl (b. 1908) were the Strauch brothers. Willie, Louis and Leonard served in World War I. Leonard was in the navy and served in a lighthouse in New England.

Henry was too young for the first one, and an old-timer when drafted for the second. He served out the war in the Aleutian Islands. Edwin was said to be such the reader that he opted for the relative sedate job as Allentown library’s custodian, immersing his days in books. As far as I know, all the Strauchs had an uncommon love of books.

Aunt Margaret had a sophisticated air and classic Franco-angular cheeks. She was a longtime telephone operator and supervisor for Ma Bell. She would relay to us, with emotional freshness, the trauma the folks in eastern Pennsylvania and western New Jersey felt during Orson Welles’ ‘War of the Worlds’ program, sharing her memories of the frantic phone calls she fielded that night.

I’m told she had a few sensible suitors in her day, but I don’t think she ever appreciated or relished the idea of a man telling her what to do. Lizzie, the family matriarch, a Christian Scientist, never married either. Neither did Leonard. They shared a home together around 13th and Turner in Allentown. They chose not to own a car. In fact, the only Strauchs to ever own cars were Edwin and Carl.

This is one of my favorite Strauch distinctions: they were all great walkers. They walked everywhere. Uncle Carl was a self-proclaimed “Great Walker."  He claimed to "...take 10 and 15 and sometimes 20 mile hikes…fifty miles a week.” This, I’m sure, was said with much ado of natural proclivity and was certainly an allusion, a homage toward Thoreau and Emerson, for Uncle Carl was a man of letters, a scholar, a professor of note at Lehigh University.

Suffice for now, enough said: the Strauch’s were interestingly common, uncommonly unique.

Uncle Henry was my Dad’s favorite uncle. And of the Strauch Uncles, the one I remember best. He married late and delivered coal. During huckleberry season, his delivery truck would be parked at his sister’s, my grandmother’s home on Ninth Street Lehighton.
The Gorge from Hetchel's Tooth.

He’d walk up and over Flagstaff Mountain and pick all day. The mountain was scrubby due to over-timbering and a few forest fires, ideal for the low-growing huckleberries. Sometimes he’d come again a few weeks later to pick from the higher blueberry bushes. I remember the two, quart-sized lard cans he’d carry around his neck with butcher’s twine. This would keep both hands free for picking. I only wish that I had been more interested then, back in the 1970s, to ask him about the war, his great walks, and his adventures in the huckleberry scrubs.

Serendipitous prompts finally lead me to the huckleberry scrubs this past June. I carried two quarts of water plus my popcorn bucket from “Cirque du Soleil.” I looped it around my neck with a “U.S.A.” lanyard. If I picked enough, my empty Nalgene bottles, carabinered to my workpants, could serve as extra berry storage.

Huckleberries are small. They grow in the lowest of bushes. It takes a lot of picking and bending to accumulate much of any kind of stockpile. For a few years now, I’ve wanted to experience an extended berry pick of my own, to go out in the morning and arrive home in the evening with a haul of berries.

I found it takes patient persistence and some awareness. The berries can be few and spread out. They grow among the rocks and in the type of terrain suited for snakes. My awareness allowed me to see a brown rattlesnake rustle away from me. Thankfully it saw me and ran before I had time to be frightened.  (Right: My solitude and stillness even fooled this deer, who walked ever closer steps toward me before realizing I was not part of the forest.)

Certainly anxious frustration, perhaps disgust can easily settle upon one’s mood during a pick. I did find some of that. But surprisingly, I actually found some zen in the monk-like stillness and calm, there is an all encompassing quiet focus the pick requires of the picker.

After five hours, after the threatening black clouds finally made good on their promise, I descended from the Broad Mountain with just under a quart of berries. Exhausted and soaked from effort and rain, I found my car still unfinished at the tire shop. Mike Willingham, an old friend from an older generation waited there too. He lamented and I agreed: berry picking is a lost art. Or maybe it’s just a lost effort. Something surely seems lost in our current culture.

Odd effort sometimes has its own rewards. My Dad remembers going to the Lehighton AmVets with Uncle Henry. He remembered how he drank his beer with three fingers of whiskey. One story tells of his intemperance, how his wife nearly left him over it, and how his crisis sent him to his parent’s basement for several weeks, seeing no one. He put himself to the diligence of crafting wooden furniture, perhaps the bed I inherited from the Strauchs. He emerged without touching the drink again. Perhaps his berry picking grew out of his new alcohol-free persona.

By almost any definition of effort and outcome, huckleberry picking should be a lost art. I certainly could have mowed someone’s lawn or cleaned out my neighbor’s gutters in less time and effort. I could have been paid a conservative sum and still been able to buy more blueberries than I picked. Heck, I could have cleaned my own gutters and collected all the loose change from my sofa in less time, and had enough money to buy more berries than I picked.

But that would not have disconnected me from this hyper-connected, maximum-gratification, minimum-effort world of 2010. It would not have provided me the view from Hetchel Tooth. It would not have connected me to my long departed ancestor.

Something can be said for ‘great walks,’ for maximum effort for minimal reward, for stepping into an unknown place, in taking a chance, exploring uniqueness in quiet solitude.

And that is the best answer I can think of for my effort that day.

Maybe on some other day, I’ll do it again.


  1. Is that a photograph of the schoolhouse on Coal Street? (A/k/a "the Hacklebernie Hill")

    1. I wish I knew...Do you think you know where this was? (The structure cant still be there???)

  2. Is that a photograph of the schoolhouse on Coal Street? (A/k/a "the Hacklebernie Hill")

  3. Where is this schoolhouse located?

  4. I'm sorry but I dont know much about it...I got the picture from an old friend...Keith Bellhorn of Walnutport...I'll check into it...thanks for looking...What do you know of it?