Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Born Along the Tow Path - The Life of Herman Ahner

Herman Nathaniel Ahner of East Weissport was born in a converted wooden work shed near lock two of the Lehigh Canal.  He was extraordinary by today's standards.  Not in an achieving great wealth way, but in a simple, resourceful way, a life based solely on the wit and work ethic of his mind and in the strength of his hands.
Herman and Mary Ahner with their youngest child
Nancy at the fair in the middle 1940s.

He was born “along the towpath” April 10, 1899. His parents were Amos and Harriet Ahner and they first set up house next to Amos’s father Calvin. Calvin was the lock tender at the Weigh Lock, Lock #2 on the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company’s Lehigh Canal (Also known simply as “The Old Company”). Calvin was the third born of nine children of Daniel and Henrietta (Hill) Ahner. The Old Company wouldn’t put just anyone at this important lock. All lock tenders needed to be trustworthy, reliable and most of all hard working, therefore any snag, particularly at the Weigh Lock, could seriously affect the flow of coal to market.
Just below the "Guard Lock," lock #1 - You can see how busy
and how tenuous life was along this section of the canal
just above the Weigh Lock where the Ahner's lived. 

This picture was taken in 1886 when artist and glass designer
Louis C. Tiffany, Henry Holt a known NYC publisher, Robert
Wade Forest, general counsel for the Jersey Central RR and others
took a 2-week excursion on the canal.  The man on the right
could be Calvin Ahner. (Much credit and thanks goes to local
historian Jack Sterling of Jim Thorpe.)

Life along that section of the canal is hard to imagine today. The beginning of the canal started just north of today’s Jim Thorpe sewage plant. “Packer’s Dam” was built to make the Lehigh River into a slack water port to even out the rapids and deepen the water to make canal boat navigation easier. It was located just north of the Mansion House Bridge for access to the Lehigh Valley Railroad station on the east bank. Coal was originally loaded onto boats from chutes at around the modern-day Post Office. Later, boats were loaded from rail car across the river.

Once loaded, the boats approached the eastern bank and entered the canal through the guard lock, which regulated water entering the canal. Boats then proceed to the Weigh Lock which was about one-half mile down, in between Mauch Chunk and Flagstaff mountains in a section known as "the Narrows." This important stop ensured a proper accounting of the tonnage on each boat.

This lock was part of a bustling community on a precarious strip of land between the canal and river. There were several dwellings and canal work sheds and outbuildings and an old iron foundry. The foundry’s foundation and water baffles are still visible on the river across from Lock #2 today.

The lock where the Ahners lived had some history to it. The first lock tender at the Weigh Lock was William Sayre in 1828. His son, Robert Sayre became a friend and business partner of Asa Packer and was a key founder of Bethlehem Iron (later to become Bethlehem Steel). He still lived there until the great flood of 1862.  The party of Louis Tiffany, of Tiffany glass, made a well documented two week trip from Bristol to Mauch Chunk on the canal in 1886. There is a picture of members of the group hamming it up with wrong hats on at the Weigh Lock with what could be Calvin Ahner Sr.  The group traveled on a converted work boat they named the “Molly-Polly-Chunker” after the two mules that towed them.  Any boat returning to Mauch Chunk was known as a "chunker."

The First Ahner:
Whether Amos Ahner who was a "hoisting engine engineer"
worked the mechanisms to weigh the boats or worked
some other place is not known.  He did live next door to
his father Calvin who was the Weigh Lock tender.

The first Ahner to this area was most likely Johann Ahner/Arner.  He was born in 1750 in Heidelberg, Northampton County and later moved to Towamensing Township where he died in 1815.

Johann's son, Abraham, looks to be the first Ahner to moved to present day Franklin Township.  He was born in 1791.  He married Maria Eva nee Diel.  She was born July 2, 1785 and died February 20, 1866.  Abraham died November 17, 1873 and they are buried at Bunker Hill Cemetery of East Weissport, the same cemetery where Jacob Weiss is buried.

Also buried with Abraham and Maria is: Josua (7/12/1819-6/18/1848), Margaret, daughter of Daniel and Henriette (3/18/1841-2/17/1844).  There is also a Maria Ahner (10/11/1790-6/16/1842) there too, perhaps a sister to Abraham.  Maria's being the first burial, therefore the Ahners most likely moved here sometime before 1842.  However it does appear that it was sometime after 1840, as there is an "Abr Arner" still listed in Towamensing in the 1840 Federal Census.

A further indication that the Ahners were here by then is corroborated when the newly formed Carbon County did an inaugural assessment roll of the county.  Making this list are: Abraham and Daniel Ahner, both listed as "cordwainers" (shoemakers).

So, Herman's great grandfather, Daniel Ahner (b. 1819), was listed as a “saddler” in the 1850 Census and was also known to be a canal boatman.  Daniel married Henrietta Hill (b. 1826), who was the daughter of Joel and Sarah (Beers) Strohl from “Big Creek.”  One of Daniel Ahner’s sons, Calvin (Herman’s grandfather), looks to have lived next door to his father an 1875 county list shows “D. Ahner” next to “C. Ahner.”

Warren Ahner one of Calvin Ahner's
children.  Warren's brother Erwin was
also a lock tender and his daughter
Esther, born in 1910, is still alive and
perhaps the last person alive with first
hand knowledge of working at a lock.
Calvin Ahner married Mary Jane Strohl on November 10, 1872. They raised ten children: Joel (1873-1943), Herman’s father Amos (1874-1953), Nathaniel (1876-1893), John Calvin (1882-1954), Ervin Garfield (1882-1940), Sarah (b. 1884), Warren (1886-1951), Dennis (1888-1916), Harrison Benjamin (b. 1889) and Mary (1/22/1890 to 8/26/1912).  Mary married Samuel Henry Smith, a baker from Weatherly.  She died at a young age at her parents' home on Lock #4 of tuberculosis.

Calvin’s wife Mary Jane passed away in 1899 leaving Calvin and 21 year old son Joel, who was a much needed lock assistant.  Lock tending was a full time job. There was a constant flow of boats on the canal. Sometimes boats entered the locks in two's and still waited for service. Boat captains had a schedule and they expected prompt service. Tenders were on the job during all the daylight hours except during the winter freeze.  Repair crews released water for repairs of muskrat holes and lock repair.

Joel’s eighteen year old wife Ida also lived there along with siblings Erwin (17), John (22), Sarah (16), Warren (14), Dennis (12), Mary (10) and Harrison “Harry” (9).
The Weigh Lock nestled in the Narrows between Mauch Chunk Mtn
to the left and the Mansion House road to the right.  You can see how
dangerous it was to live here during high water.  (Photo taken from Flagstaff.)

The remains of the Ahner's (and Sayre's) Locktender's house.
The Weigh Lock is in view beyond.
Living next door at the Weigh Lock was the newly married couple of Amos and Harriet Ahner with their one year old son Herman. Amos was an engineer on a “hoisting engine.” Whether this engine was in one of the many businesses right at the canal or at the weigh lock is not known. But it is possible he may have operated the fixed steam engine of the Switchback Railroad atop Mount Pisgah.

Flooding had always been a problem on the river and canal. The June 6th, 1862 flood was particularly devastating. Lehigh Coal and Navigation company superintendent John Leisenring Jr. estimated that over 200 people lost their lives. The flooding was extremely damaging due to the Upper Grand section of the canal that ran from White Haven down to Mauch Chunk. There were a series of dams and locks used to tame the river along that 23-mile descent.

Unfortunately the natural rise of the flood waters combined with the sea of timbers floating on the river by the logging industry became battering rams against these dams. As dam after dam was crushed by these surging tidal waves, lives and millions of dollars in damage occurred.

(A December of 1863 newspaper passage reads: “Another victim of the Freshet Found – On last Monday, while John Schmidt was leveling some earth near the head of the Island, he alighted upon the remains of another victim of that terrible disaster. They were those apparently of a boy about ten years of age; the skeleton was divested of all flesh, and but a small quantity of hair adhered to the skull. Possibly the hair and the teeth which were perfect might serve to identify the individual. The remains were decently interred near where they were found.”)

This destructive night had to be on the minds of those living along the Weigh Lock.

The Ahners must have decided it was a risk worth taking.
The destructive aftermath of the 1902 flood that sent
the Ahner's running to the hills.
The Ahner’s survived at least two floods while they lived there. The first happened on December 15, 1901 and served as a dangerous harbinger of the things to come. The following winter, the ice-jammed river flooded over on February 28th, 1902. It tore up railroad tracks and ripped many locks apart.

The damage was so bad that no coal was shipped on the canal for two years. Certainly there would be plenty of carpentry and masonry work to be done, but Calvin and Amos Ahner decided to move their families away from this place.

In 1900, Amos, 26 and now a foreman at the boatyard, and Harriet, 29, decided to move their family to the high ground of “Indian Mountain.”  The family now consisted of Herman, now 11, Russell (10), Amos Jr. (7), John (5), and Abram (2). The habit of the Ahners living near one another continued as they lived next door to his brother Warren Ahner.

Most likely the Locktender's outhouse
pit or cistern from Lock #5.

Whether Amos’s father Calvin (now 62) also wanted to put the low land and high water behind him or simply needed to find other work until the canal was back in operation is not known. But in 1910, he was remarried to Mary Ann Snyder Mohr (1873-1931) and living in Washington Township on Slatington Road. He was working as a “street huckster.” Children still residing with them as of May of 1910 were Harrison (20) who was a laborer in a slate-quarry, Samuel (2) and Emma (8 months).

By 1920, Calvin was living on Long Run Road. and was once again lock tending, most likely somewhere from lock four to lock seven. Family at home then was Calvin Jr. (8) and granddaughters Sarah Ahner (6) and Cora Sterling (22). Also he had a step son Edwin Snyder (20) who was a carpenter at the boatyard. This would be his final home, as he died in 1922 in service at his lock due to complications to diabetes and gangrenous legs.

Though high above the flood waters now on their farm on Indian Hill, they were not removed however from the reaches of the deadly Spanish Flu or Great Influenza Epidemic that killed millions world-wide in the Fall of 1918.  (It wiped out so many soldiers, most histrorians cite it as having a major influence on the hasty ending to WWI, which some say is the reason for WWII just twenty years later.)

The Spanish Flu touched the Ahner family in the Fall of
1918.  This clip is from the October 25th issue of the 
Lehighton Press.

Herman Ahner's WWI draft
registration card.
As the above clipping shows, Amos's first wife Harriet, the mother of Herman, Russel, Amos Jr, John and Abraham died of the flu and was buried in Long Run.  She was only 41.  Also ill with the flu were four of the five boys and Amos as well.

However the rest of the Amos family were able to recover and were farming full time. Herman (now 19) and his brother Russell (17) were blacksmiths for the railroad. A few houses down, Herman's Uncle Frank Ahner too was farming. Both of his sons George (blacksmith) and Clinton (laborer) worked for the railroad and lived with him there. In the 1920 census he’s living with Herman (19) Russell (17), Amos Jr. (16), John (14) and Abraham (12). All these boys and not a woman’s care or influence in the house.

But this changed on February 2, 1925. As the oral tradition goes, Amos traveled to Terre Haute, Indiana to marry Elizabeth Ann Jane Lenhart.

 (There is a misnomer in the family oral lore that says she was "Native American." It has also been said that a newspaper account of that time said, "Franklin Man Marries Indian Woman," which is where the native legend started from.  Others in the Ahner clan claim that the headline apparently dropped the final 'a' of 'Indiana' and thus the genesis for the Native American falsehood.)

Herman’s youngest daughter Nancy (b. 1941) remembers visiting her grandfather who still lived with electricity. She was promised an ice cream at Joe Schaeffer’s Store if she sat quietly, with folded hands on her wooden bench, while the adults sat around a kerosene lamp and spoke in “Dutch.”
Amos Ahner - Herman's father.
He lived on Indian Hill until the late 1940s
without electricity.
Herman and Mary on the front porch of their new home.
The original Dreher farmstead is in the background.

A visit to the burial site at Long Run shows a sad end for this patriarch of the Ahner clan: Amos does not have a stone to mark his grave.
Amos Ahner's grave in Long Run does not have a permanent marker.
Perhaps some future effort by the Ahner Reunion Committee can
change that. 

Herman and Mary (Green) Ahner (b. September 28, 1903) were married in 1921 and set up house near his father Amos and his new wife Elizabeth. Amos lived next door to his widowed brother Warren Ahner and his large family of three daughters (Alice, Lizzie, and Irene) and four sons (Charles, Warren Jr., Eugene, and Harry) on Indian Hill.

Wilbur Ahner in 1932 - His children are:Ardella,
Wilbur Jr., Dennis, Jesse, and Brian. 
By April of 1930, Herman was a carpenter for Palmerton’s zinc factory. He was seriously injured here. He was working in a baffle and was unexpectedly struck by something that knocked out his eye. Though he never sued the company, they did replace it with a glass one. His children who lived with him on the Indian Hill farm where daughter Mabel “Toot” (1922), Clayton (1923), Lois (1924) and Wilbur (1926).

Lehighton Press Saturday 4 April 1930 - Herman sells his 47-acre farm atop
Indian Hill and relocates to a 10-acre Rickertsville truckpatch.

Sometime around 1930, Herman moved his family to the old Dreher home on today’s Fairyland Road. By 1934, he had built his own large frame home with a grocery store and gas station on the lower side. Above the store he kept a large room for “democratic” club meetings.
Mother Toot and Willis - The family sing-alongs were
important to Toot.

Herman and Mary added to their family with Keen (1932), Grover (1933), Dorothy “Dots” (1934), and Nancy (1941). They also had at least three children who died in childhood, Wilson Amos, Della Fern, and Mae Virginia. Daughter Mabel “Toot” Ahner met Charles “Charlie” May when he was plowing the fields (of Sheep Mountain for Bobby Diehl of Fairyland Farms across from Ahner's Store) and asked for some water.  After they married, they set up an apartment above the store.

Sunoco Gasoline among the products from Herman
Ahner's store from the early 1930s.

Hip Reichard pumps gas at Ahner's in the middle 1930s.  Hip was a good friend to Mable and Charlie.  His wife Emma
gave many of these pictures to both Thomas Eckhart for his Carbon History series as well as to
Kim (Ahner-Schleicher) Rabenold.

The original home was owned by the Dreher family
which the Herman Ahner family lived in temporarily
until the later home and store was built.  Years later,
Herman's son Keen lived in the home until the
1960s when he built his brick home behind this one.
(See the construction/destruction color picture below.)
It was the height of the Great Depression and many corner and country stores sold to their neighbor’s “on the tick.” He no doubt had competition from Schaeffer’s store just north and Chester Snyder’s Store to the south, where Motola’s paving is located today. The store didn’t last more than a few years as Herman’s thinning patience for unpaid bills put a strain on him and his family.

The Herman Ahner homestead with Sunoco gas pumps.  The tower is gone
but it was said it was Herman's favorite place to get some quiet to read.
Besides the store, Herman farmed his ten acre farm. He had his own saw mill, concrete smokehouse, pig sty and a few head of cattle. He grew tomatoes for Campbell’s Soup and made his own crates on his homemade drill press and shop in his basement.  Each spring's plowing brought Indian artifact seekers who found many arrowheads, axe heads and pottery behind Herman's plow.  To his children he was a great and powerful man, able to bend thick steel rods in his bare hands.
Nancy with mom and pop in the early 1940s.

He also had enough room for a pot still, distilling “hooch" while many of his Franklin Township neighbors were fermenting "applejack." He once had to replace his kitchen floor due to one accidental explosion. Years later after Herman died, one of his sons continued the tradition at his own homestead.
Around the family table: Herman, Nancy, Mary, Willis and Mary.  Mabel "Toot" stands behind.

The Ahners raised enough chickens for their own use as well as selling some to market. On one occasion, a rabbi contracted with Herman for a number of chickens to be slaughtered according to kosher code: strung up on a wash line and having their throats sliced open, one after the other, in swift succession. Amid the flurry of feathers, blood and fuss, Mary stepped in and put a stop to it. Not another Ahner chicken would be killed this way again.

Herman also worked carpentry and construction jobs. He worked on the construction of the Thomas J. McCall Bridge in Lehighton, completing it in 1938.  (Obviously it wasn't called  that yet.)   During the war years, he and his teenage sons Keen and Grover, built and repaired coal breakers throughout the coal regions. After the war, cutting the great beams himself at his sawmill, Herman built the large cathedral-like banquet hall of the American Legion Post #314 in Lehighton.
Clayton in Louisiana with his hand
bandaged the night after a fight.
Clayton's proud retelling of his fight to his mother
was typed onto the back of the previous photo.
The other guy paid for calling him a "dam dutchman."

Wilbur Ahner
Though he registered for the draft in WWI, Herman never served. However, all four of his sons did. Clayton served in the Army during WWII. And from what can be gathered from his letter home from Louisiana and his later life as a worker in the shipyards of Baltimore, Clayton was a tough, no nonsense Dutchmen. Wilbur served in the Navy toward the end of the war. Keen served in the Navy during Korean conflict on the USS Wright. Grover served in the army.
Grover Ahner

Keen Ahner

In addition to Toot’s apartment, Herman continued the Ahner tradition by keeping his family close. First Clayton, then Wilbur and finally Keen lived in the old Dreher home, the original homestead Herman purchased before building his home next
Mabel "Toot" (Ahner) May in front of her
father's store and the home where she first
set up her own home in an apartment above the
store after she married Charles May.

From left: Charles and Toot May, with Hip Reichard in the apartment
of the Herman Ahner homestead
door. Keen and Mildred (Borger of Trachsville) Ahner moved in it in 1958.

With the help of Herman and brother Wilbur making the cabinets, Keen and Mildred built their own home behind it in 1961. Then the original homestead was torn down. In 1955, Herman built a home on the corner across from today’s Motola’s paving. First, his daughter Dorothy lived there. Later he built another house, one door up, for Wilbur.
Keen and Mildred's new home behind the soon to be gone
original Dreher home.  That's Brian Ahner on the second floor.

Keen with Sherry and Mildred with Wendy
in one of the two rooms fit to live in
before their new home was built.
Mabel "Toot" on the left is all smiles
with mother Mary.

A handsome Clayton
who worked and fought
with his hands.  He is
buried alone beside his
brother Grover in St.
Matthew's Cemetery.
Mary died in 1966 and Herman followed in 1970. Their daughter Nancy purchased the homestead and converted it into a double home. Nancy’s sister Dorothy and Keen’s daughter Wendy lived there for a time. Later, Nancy’s daughters Cynthia and Kimberly lived there side by side.

Willis practices in front of the store side.

In the 1990s, Kimberly and her husband purchased the home and they are raising Herman Nathaniel Ahner’s great grandsons, Nathaniel and Jonathan there.

Sadly, the family with roots on the Lehigh Canal has dwindled down. Dorothy and Nancy are the only remaining children of Herman and Mary. The eldest daughter, Mabel “Toot” May passed away in the last year (1922-August 5, 2010). And perhaps more than any, she lived most as Herman did, surrounded by family on her truck patch farm in Franklin Township, she lived a simple and contented life among her apple orchards, peacocks and chickens. She always enjoyed the down home comforts and sounds of the family sing-along’s, with son Willis on the accordion and daughter Mary on the organ. Her husband Charlie and their children Willis and Mary are left to carry onward on their truckpatch farm.  Keen Ahner passed away in 2009.


Herman Ahner’s legacy had been calling me for a while. Last Sunday I received my final push. Mike Ebert, retired Lehighton educator, principal and trusted local historian of note paid me a visit suggested it was time to write it. Then on last week’s snowy Tuesday, putting the finish onto my rough draft, I drove out Fairyland Road to gather some family photos from Nancy Ahner. But I departed from my normal route and drove by Jerome Dotter’s place. He was securing his load, an old 1940s sedan and a cyan 1949 GMC Suburban. It caught my eye and I was lucky to have my camera. I asked Jerome what he had going.  He paused and stared before saying he was on his way to the scrap yard. I asked what was the story with the truck.   He told me it belonged to Herman Ahner and when it wouldn’t go any more he parked it here. And now it’s been here long enough.
Herman Ahner's 1949 GMC Suburban the day it went to the
 scrap yard January 18, 2011.

St. Matthew's Cemetery, Franklin Township, overlooking his
old farm.

The Ahner Farm today - A kitchen garden near the sawmill foundation,
a bee hive, and a few Christmas trees are about the only farming done today. 
The cement smokehouse and wooden outhouse are the only
remaining out buildings.

Originally about 10 acres, the main property is down to about 5.  Keen's red home and Christmas trees are on
the right took about 3 acres.  Dorothy's 1955 white home to the left took about 2 acres.  Wilbur's yellow home
center, took less than 1 acre.

Further Back:
Herman’s grandfather Daniel Ahner lived in Towamensing Township where Calvin was born. Daniel’s father was Abraham Ahner (June 11, 1791-December 17-1873). He married Maria Magdalena Heffelfinger (July 2, 1785-Februrary 20, 1866). They were married on October 31, 1812. Abraham’s father was Johannes Ahner (September 1750-December 1815) born in Heidelberg Township, Lehigh County. His father was Johann Ulrich Arner (1729-1781) who was born in Stadel, Zurich, Switzerland and arrived in Philadelphia when he was six years old. Johann’s father was also Johann Ulrich Arner (1699-1777) who married Verena Feronica Eberhard in Stadel bei Niederglatt, Zurich, Switzerland on January 13th, 1723. He was an early pastor of the Goshenhoppen Reformed Church and other churches in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. They arrived in Whitehall Township in 1742 and by 1744 owned 105 acres along the Jordan Creek. He was one of the founders of the Heidelberg Reformed Church in 1746. He died in Towamensing Township. All Pennsylvania records of Johann spell the surname ‘Arner.’

There is a baptismal record for Joel Strohl at St. John's Union Church of Towamensing.  Calvin and Mary Jane seemed to let current events affect the naming of their children: Ervin Garfield Ahner was born one year after President James Garfield was shot.  Harrison Benjamin was born the same year President Benjamin Harrison took office.  Their son Erwin was most likely a lock tender in the Long Run area into the 1920s.  Erwin's daughter Esther was born April 12, 1910 and as of this writing is still alive and active.  She would be the last living person who has first hand knowledge of working living at a lock. Mary Jane Strohl is buried on Union Hill Cemetery and her death date could give a clue as when they lived in Long Run.  It is not known if Calvin or other family memebers are buried there.  Amos Ahner's Indian Hill home was near Indian Hill and Evergreen Roads.


  1. Thanks for all of the awesome information! I've also been researching this for awhile now. We're very fortunate to have these records available to us. I posted a few old photos in my Facebook photo album collection, if you are at all interested.

    Take Care,

    Jeremy Rex

  2. My mother was born on the lock at parryville and her brother drowned there her father was a lock tender my mother has one sister (Lillian (Haman Padgett) still living my mother (Betty Laura (Haman) kelowitz died 12-31-2011 O have a sister living in Jom Thorpe my borther and I live in Franklin Twnsp I have cousins that Live on Indian Hill Keith and Susan (Borger) Strohl. we all had lived out in Big creek until Beltsville was put in

  3. Herman is my 1st cousin 2x removed.
    My great grandmother is Mary Christine Ahner, daughter of Calvin D Ahner 1846-1922.
    You have her as being born the same year as Harrison...
    "Harrison Benjamin (b. 1889) was born the same year as his sister Mary"
    which is incorrect.
    She was born 22 Jan 1890 and died 26 Aug 1912
    If you have an ancestry account her/my family information is here...

    Thank you for the story!

  4. Clayton Ahner is my grandfather and the father to my mother Mary Emma Ahner born July 16th 1965. She asked me to come over ber house to read this to her as it contains info of her father and his family.

    1. Clayton Nathaniel Ahner is my grand father and father to my mother. His brother was Grover and Keen and sister Nancy and Mabel is what my mother Mary Emma Ahner told me. She passed her father's name down to my 2nd brother Clayton Nathaniel Baublitz and my brother looks just like him. If any of the Ahner family would like to contact me i would love for my other Mary Emma Ahner to be runited with her father's side of the family. Please contact me at 443.813.6123 or