Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Going Home, After 72 Years

Ira Smith returned to the home he lost when he was just 19.
It was the very homestead his father bought in the 1890s.

It was the Great Depression when he entered it last. His father Jonathan died in 1932, his mother Ida in 1937. By 1939, the farm was sold at public sale to the sheriff Ernest Kistler for $5,000.

He turned to the O.J. Fritz farm of New Smithville for work as a hired hand for $30 per month. Later he enlisted in the army and fought for his country, though he had no hearth or home.

Ira F. Smith of New Tripoli lost his parents
to old age before the war.  So he enlisted.
He was a man without a home and wounded
by friendly fire, twice, and then became
a prisoner of the notorious
Stalag 12A.

During the war, Kistler sold the farm to Allen and Verna Hamm for $10,000 and has remained in the Hamm family ever since. Their son, Ed and his wife Rose, have been living there since 1968.

Ira and his son Carson, dropped in on the Hamms unexpectedly. Ed and Rose dropped their painting and their mowing and gave Ira the welcome of a long lost relative.

Over the years, Ira had been back as a guest of his old neighbors for a few pheasant hunts. And In the 1990s, when his wife Geraldine died, Ira often drove back through Kistler’s Valley for the comforting memories of his former life. But this was the first time inside his old home since he left in 1939.

Ira, in his discerned Dutch tongue, said to Ed, “You know I drove by hier so many times but never stopped.”

To which Ed graciously replied, “Well I’m so glad you did.”

We loaded up into Ed’s Ford pickup, and drove to the top of the back acreage and viewed the stunning Kistler Valley. A sight that caused Ira to beam, gesture and motion to all the sections he once farmed in potatoes, corn and rye and how he learned to rotate them each year from his father and brother Elam.

The red barn is now sided in white asphalt shingles and a new smoke house was built. The shed roof rusted and leaks over where the Smiths used to smoke their meats. The 100-acres of farming hay, rye, corn and beans are now done by a corporate dairy farm.

The stand of woods on Shochary Ridge, where Ira went to chop fire wood for cooking and heating, is still part of the deed. Ira stood in the spot in the kitchen where the cook stove once stood. Otherwise, not much else has changed since those days.

Outside, Ira said, “My muther planted her garden hier,” with wild mint sprouting everywhere he gestured. The script signature of “J. Smith” is still visible on the barn’s cornerstone from 1901.

Ed and Ira exchanged stories of the old homestead that dates back to at least the mid-1800s. They talked of the old hand pump in the kitchen, how it drained out the side of the house, and where the one-man bar stood in its former days as an inn prior to the Smith family owning it.

The conversation then turned to a shooting that occurred here around the time of the Civil War.

The “Knights of the Golden Circle,” a southern sympathizer group that some say had spread into Pennsylvania, had eighty members in the valley. Plans and a location for a secret meeting at a nearby farm reached the ears of the unionists. One of them, Dr. Trexler, threatened to place “a keg of gunpowder and blow them all to atoms.”

According to the History of Lehigh County, Vol. 1, 1914, the group then changed the place to the farm owned by “Michael Brobst, now owned by Jonathan Smith.” On the night of the meeting, “shots were fired between the guard and one [unionist] who secreted himself in the currant bushes.”

This story was new to Ira and Carson.

As we turned away from the house, Ira recalled, as if for the first time in many years, how the Smith family relatives visited from Hamburg every other Sunday. He stared as though he could see them, sitting with him on that very same front porch.

Goodbyes were said at the shed built back when the state road came through. Ira raised his hand, touching the wooden slats, stirring his memory. He recalled how, as a boy of 8 or 9, the carpenters building the shed would play with him, placing quarters on these planks for him to find.

Before leaving, Ed had one more thing to share. Up and into the rafters he climbed to show some original farm implements that pre-dated Ed’s life on the farm: a straw cutter for making thatched roofs and a single-horse plow.
Ira remembered his father’s single-horse plow. One of many pleasant memories evoked that afternoon.

As we were left the hospitality of the Hamm farm, I thought to ask Ira if he enjoyed his day.

I didn’t need to.

His quiet smile said it all.

Ira Smith passed away May 13, 2011 after a short struggle with a broken hip from a fall at his home.  He was 91.


  1. Ron,

    What a great story...this should be published, somewhere...these are the stories of America that are lost forever when their livers and tellers die, if we don't tell them. I keep hearing more and more of these, and they need to become part of the real history of our country. I just don't know where, or how.

    I feel pressed to blog often, but that's because I'm a journalist, but blogging should not be something we do because we are forced to, but because we want to. You and I are kinfolk, Yankee, as story tellers.

    Maybe someday we can meet and share more, but this is one of the best things about the Internet.

    Keep it up.

    Thank you,


  2. Look up rural magazines in Writers Market...they should print this!
    Is there a Pennsylvania magazine? Go for it.

  3. Never thought that I would realize the power of journalism like this before...I've always loved hearing and telling stories...but your right Terry, this medium is perfect for preserving the essentials of our American culture...I am so thankful for having a thoughtful supporter as you...I'm much obliged to you...And yes there Johnny Reb, one day we'll be swapping stories on some front porch somehwere...I know it...Take care...Ron