Sunday, March 22, 2015

Albrightsville: The Fire and the Fury (Part 1: "The Fire")

"The sky turned as black as midnight," said survivor Charles Gambler.

(Part #2 of this post "the Fury" can be seen by clicking here...)

Things were beginning to feel normal again.
Johanna Kibler survived the "Great
Fire of 1875" when she was just nine.
Her father Reuben Kibler worked or
owned a stave-mill that was lost.
She later married Jacob Heydt and
they had a large family.  She died in 1945.

A group of survivors gathered at the Pine Grove House.  The owner, Jacob Christman, hosted his neighbors for a Thanksgiving feast and day of remembrance of those lost in the “Great Fire” that tore through the Pine Swamp eighteen months earlier.

Many surviving families were represented, owners of the destroyed mills along with stave-mill workers like Reuben Kibler.  Reuben fought in vain to save his mill.  His daughter, young Johanna was there, the little nine-year-old witness who not only saw her school and her whole world burn, but who stoically watched the flames devour her home as well.

Sabylla Getz attended the meal with her widowed father William.  Her mother Elizabeth Getz died in the flames.  Other surviving families that attended Christman’s meal were the Deppe’s, Snyder’s, Silfies’s, Bollinger’s, Moyer’s, and Schelley’s.
Indian Run Lake near Rockport as seen in about 1908.

 Though heavy hearted and gathered in sober testimony to those lost, most eyes were likely to be dry.  As Sam Hoffman, a former member of this community wrote years later, “The people of the Pine Swamp country hardly ever cry when strangers are present, tears may enter their eyes but they try hard not to show their sorrow.” 
News of Carbon's "Great Fire" reached as far as the Pittsburgh Commerical
paper on May 25, 1875.

The forest was thinned, charred hemlocks and diminished browse allowed more light to hit the forest floor.  The huckleberries and winter green were flourishing.

Folks were coming back to the area from the cities of Wilkes-Barre, Allentown and Reading to hike for berries and for trout fishing.  Many would stay at Francis “Franz” Wernet’s “Wernet House.”

Franz was widely known as the “huckleberry king.”  He owned over 4,000 acres of prime huckleberry land which included his large saw mill he rebuilt at the headwaters of Mud Run in Meckesville.

Normal indeed for some friendly competition too.  Wernet’s neighbor, W. H. Rausch, specialized in fly fishing. He harvested four and a half pounds of meat from just three trout he caught on Mud Run. 

Not to be outdone, Wernet drained his sawmill pond on the Mud and took several sixteen each suckers for a meal.

Scorched trees stood as ever salient and constant reminders of the horror of the fire that started in the coal regions, around Beaver Meadow in Schuylkill County in early May 1875. 

The fire jumped the Lehigh River and followed the Mud Run and Hickory Run ravines across northern Carbon County.

It burned through the logging villages of Hickory Run, through Mud Run, through Meckesville and Albrightsville, over Hell’s Kettle and Hell Hollow.  

To great sighs of relief to the residents, it reach the northern extreme of Weissport and Parryville just as an isolated rain shower miraculously appeared and extinguish if shortly before May 28th.  
This account from Lehighton's newspaper, "The Carbon Advocate,"
on May 29, 1875.  It stated that Getz's eldest son is suffering from
typhoid.  It is unknown if it is referring to his eldest son who actually
died the month before or if his current oldest son was also suffering
from the disease.  His wife and son Henry are the only
relatives that can be found on record to have died in 1875.

At that time, save for a few flare ups here and there, the fire was largely out.

The entire village of Mud Run, starting with Frederick Youndt’s sawmill at the mouth of Mud Run was gone except for: the railroad station, blacksmith shop and freight house and one hotel.  And despite losing his sawmill, at least Youndt’s home was spared.

Abel Kelsey lost everything.  Gone were his house, barn, cattle, and his entire lumbering works.  His wife Elenor’s life’s work, intricate wax sculptures, lost. 

Johanna Kibler remembered losing a souvenir from a church function, her prized ostrich feather.

Many saw the parallels to the sufferings of Job in William Getz’s sorrow.
In April, Getz lost his eldest son Henry to typhoid fever.  Another son and his wife were said to still be suffering from the fever’s effects when the fire struck.  He was able to get them out ahead of it and into an open field but it wasn’t enough. 

As the fire encircled them, it gradually burned everything they owned: their home, outbuildings, sawmill, and stock piles of lumber both still in timber and thousands of board feet already planed. 

But the fire took one more thing from William Getz.  He stood helpless to watch his wife of twenty-five years slowly succumb to the smoke.

Elizabeth Cox was eighty when the flames took her.  Her aged husband died the previous June.  She and her husband had buried three grown children from their Hickory Run and Stoddartsville homes.  The last anyone saw her forty-year-old son Miles, he was out doing what he could against the fire.

Of Elizabeth Cox’s death, a boy, who lost all his possessions in the fire reportedly said, “The fire took my all: I lost my box, my pet fox, and dear old lady Cox.”
Gambler's Neighborhood:
This is the only home that survived the fire from the village of Mud Run.
The picture taken in 1964.  The property to the mouth of Mud Run at the Lehigh
River is still owned by the family who owned the Trojan Powder Company.  Over
the years they conducted blasting and dynamite storage on the vast piece of
property.  The sole remaining member of the family still owns it as a private
fishing club.  The house was remodeled and used as the original clubhouse.

Charles Gambler was one of the oldest living survivors.  He was three at the time.  Known to be a hermit, some say he lived in caves from time to time along the Mud Run.  He never owned a car and could often be seen walking along the roads around Hickory Run.  He died in 1961.

“The daytime sky had turned as black as midnight,” Gambler had said.  The hemlocks seemed to be able to withstand the fire for a time, but then let loose into a fury flames.

He remembered his father loading him, his mother, and sister into a tiny rowboat.  They rowed into the middle of one of the small sawmill dams on the Mud Run. 

Huddling below the gunwales, he could feel intense heat on his back.
Everyone survived, but like many, they lost everything.

But eventually, life had to return to normal.  Slowly.
John Henry Deppe was a German immigrant
and pioneer lumberman of the Pine Swamp.
His father was an officer in the Prussian Army.
His mother not wanting him to follow his father
into the military life, purchased his voyage to
America in 1848.  He became widely known
for his wooden wheels and was also a
cabinet maker.  He died of pneumonia.

Abel Kelsey had seen enough though.  He and his wife and son picked up and carried westward to the Dakota Territory after the fire.  John Henry Deppe’s son Nelson took his blacksmith shop to Sullivan County.

Two years later, still found John Henry Deppey (sometimes known as Henry John) expanding and rebuilding his father’s grist mill that had been destroyed.

Their livelihoods depended on the stills that made wintergreen oil and applejack.  Three years after their baptism of fire, residents of the Penn Forest and South Kidder proudly received the distinction of casting all “nay’s” to the temperance vote put before them in the November 1878 election.  

The damage was extensive.  Countless homes, farms and businesses were lost.  Papers at the time estimated the losses to exceed an unheard of value of those days, $500,000.

The major players who lost the most were Wilhelm Getz, David Snyder, John Eckert, and Franz Wernet.

Isaac and Susan Gould were pioneers of Hickory Run in the early to mid 1800s.  Their son Stephen lost several million board feet of timber.
The firm of Shortz and Lewis lost over five million feet in logs.

John Eckert’s sawmill, house and lumber were valued at $7,000.  Josiah Kunkle’s mill works: valued at $4,000.  Getz and Searfoss’s operations: $10,000, David Snyder: $12,000.  Franz Wernet lost $12,000 in his house, logs and mill.

Long and Boileau lost 500,000 board feet valued at $4,000.  Jacob Hawk lost 20,000 board feet of sawed wood and 150,000 logs at a cost of $2,500.

Please check back for part two, the “Fury” part of the story.

Some photos from near that age of Rockport which was certainly too effected by the Great Fire of 1875.

Jacob and Caroline Christman's grave at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Albrightsville. ~ "Blessed are the Dead which Die in the Lord." 
This is one of the major fires of note subsequent to
the Great Fire, reported 9 May 1930.



~Specific names of those attending the Thanksgiving dinner of Jacob Christman: Mr. and Mrs. J.S. Hawk, G.W. Snyder, J. Monroe George, William H. George, Alice Getz, Sabylla and William Getz, Nelson Deppe (a blacksmith who shortly after moved to Sullivan County), Sarah Kibler, Hester Kibler, H.G. Deppe, Henry J. and Sarah Deppe, George and Mrs Christman, Henry Silfies, Matilda Snyder, Reuben Kibler, J.F. Silfies, Joseph Bollinger, Lydia Moyer, and Uriah Schelley.

~Miles Cox is believed to have been lost just as his mother Elizabeth too died in the flames.  His wife Helen (Swainback) Cox died when she was just twenty-two back in 1856.  

~Francis ‘Franz’ and Catharina Wernett were parents of Edward, Catherine, Frank, and Charles Wernett.  It appears Franz used just one ‘t’ in their surname while the children used two.  Catharina is buried at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church of Albrightsville, it is presumed Franz is buried with her.  Their son Charles owned and operated the Jamestown Hotel in Lehighton and is buried in Lehighton as well as his brother Frank.  Frank operated the Effort Village Inn. 
The Effort Village Inn as it appeared around 1900.  It was owned by Franz Wernet's
son Frank and his wife Amanda.

After his death in 1921, his wife Amanda and children, Frank “Homer” Wernett and Helen Wernett Kresge, ran it into the 1940s.

~Another “Charles Wernett” was born about nine years after the Charles of the Franz Wernett family and doesn’t appear to be related.  This Charles arrived from Germany in 1884 and eventually ran a hotel in Albrightsville known as the “Wernett Estate Hotel.”  
Pictured here are offspring of the first generation Charles Wernett: Xavier and
Fred as they look over the burnt ruins of their father's Albrightsville
hotel in October 1948.

It burned to the ground in October of 1948, shortly after his death.  His sons Xavier and Fred Wernett were running it at the time.

~Another fire, in 1966, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Christman's burns to the ground.  It was completely lost.
Member's Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church around 1910 at "Christmans," Penn Forest, just past where "Skirmish" is today.
Below, three frames of the church as it burned.  It doesn't appear that the fire company was able to arrive before it completely burned to the ground.  

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Lost Stills of the Pine Swamps of Meckesville -(My 150th Post!)

The “Swampers” or “Ridge Runners” and their contribution to the world (yes, I said world) is largely lost beneath the dust of memories of Carbon County’s mighty role in the Industrial Revolution.

One of the early known distillers of Albrightsville was
Timothy Serfass.  He sold his interest to his brother-in-law
William Getz in the 1870s.
Life on the mountain was as austere as anywhere so remote and wooded.  Families were known to get through a hard winter with nothing but a few bags of summer sausage and a couple of heads of cabbage. 

By late fall, with even butter scarce on the mountain, dinner would routinely center on a simple onion sandwich.  Many relied on nearby streams for washing and for drinking water, water that sometimes froze over in the hard months.  Deer and rabbit season lasted as long as one was hungry.

Though so removed from town life, families could still garner a living on the railroad through the access points  like the ones Mud Run and Stoney Creek provided.  Some set up stores, hotels and inns.  Some held valid liquor licenses and some didn’t bother going through such formalities.
This is the copper pitcher owned by Joyce
Gaumer's grandfather A. W. Smith who
distilled wintergreen in the 1920s and 1930s.

Robert Getz of Albrightsville had one of the largest potato farms in the early 1900s.  He also owned a stave mill, employing as many as twenty-two men.  His brother Emory also had a stave-mill.

In the 1870s, Henry J. Deppey had both a saw and grist mill there as well.

It was from the woods of the Pine Swamp that most made their living.  Many were lumbermen, more than not, who listed their occupations as “laborer in the woods.”

The plentiful hemlocks were sought for tanning hides in the many tanneries (The Lehigh Tannery near White Haven was said to be the largest in the world.)  Cottonwoods were a fast growing tree for crates and staves for barrels. 

The “wintergreen” industry though, is a mostly forgotten part of our area’s contribution to world economics.

It was an intensive process.  Each still held about 35 bushels of wood chips or wintergreen leaves (also known as teaberry) along with two hundred gallons of water.  The mixture was left to steep for up to twelve hours before a fire was lit.

Once lit, the fire was slowly fed from a low heat to one of gradual intensity over three hours.  Once the distillation started, the fire was then brought to a rapid boil for about an additional three hours, for a total cooking time of six to eight hours. 

One batch usually yielded about one quart of the oil which weighed about one and a half pounds.  In 1938, a quart of wintergreen oil sold for about $7.00.  This price stayed fairly constant over the years.

Without any adjustments for inflation, the price per pound in the early 1860s was as high as $16 per pound, dropping sharply to between $7 and $8 by 1870.  By 1920, the price paid to local distillers went as high as $5.25 per pound.  Wholesalers purchased it in 25-pound containers.
A 1918 letter from wintergreen essential oil buying
agent in New York City to Albrightsville distiller
Alexander "Willis" Smith, the grandfather
of current and life-long swamper Joyce Gaumer.

Another figure that held about the same over the years was the price paid to the harvesters of the leaves.  Newspaper accounts of 1870s and 1910s both stated they were paid about one dollar per one hundred pounds of leaves.  

They also reported that experienced pickers were said to gather between 75 to 150 pounds per day. 

It was estimated that the Albrightsville area alone boasted about two hundred wintergreen (‘teaberry’) stills. 

Its scientific name is chimaphila maculate.  “Chimaphila” comes from the Greek meaning ‘to love winter.’  Easy to see how this low growing plant, evergreen through winter, stood out in contrast against the brown and lifeless forest floor of winter.

When wintergreen was out of season, distillers would render the oil of the black birch tree as a substitute.  Its chemical constitution not the same, but as for wintergreen flavorings, it was close enough.

Besides confectioners and apothecaries, compounding pharmacists bought the oil to be used as an analgesic.  The chemical make-up in one fluid ounce is equal to 171 adult aspirins. 

The oil was sold in balms such as Ben-Gay and other remedies for “rheumatism” or any arthritic pain.  It was also touted to cure “baby itch” and in the 1930s was used in experimental cancer research.

These were the early days of “Big Pharma,” and Carbon and Monroe Counties were said to produce 90 percent of the world market wintergreen.

A 1914 account in the Allentown Democrat said 7,000 pounds were distilled world-wide each year.  Of that, 80% was made in Carbon’s woods, while another 10% was made in Monroe County. 

Add in the Pike County totals, according to articles gleamed from around the state at this time, and this section of Pennsylvania accounted for near 100% of the world supply.

Joyce Gaumer, of Albrightsville today, said she and her grandmother would go pick on the days of a church picnic or whenever money was low.

They’d crawl on hands and knees, ever mindful of timber rattlers, raking away debris with their short rakes with two inch dowel tines, to stuff their burlap sacks with the  harvest of the three to five inch plants.

They’d take their harvest to Paury “Purie” Green’s store.  Though he knew and trusted them well, Purie would always sort out any extraneous debris of twigs and stone before he weighed their bags.

“He’d pay a nickel a pound.  I’d make enough in a day to enter the cake walk four or five times.”
Joyce Gaumer in her Penn Forest or
"Christmans"home today
with distilling pitcher, it's capacity equal
to one batch of the still.

And though it was seen only as a more modern problem, as early as 1882, folks were concerned with hiding their income from the government.  

It was said that “internal revenue collectors” would “drop down upon them” to collect a $36 per still tax.

Obviously the headwaters of the Yellow, Mud Run, Drakes, Stoney and other area creeks provided abundant cover for those hiding from the government.  But the cold water of these streams was also a necessary function in the process of the distilleries.

In order for the water and oil to condense, distillers ran their copper coils through a stream to be cooled.  From there it dripped into either a glass jar or a copper pitcher.  The oil was heavier, so the top water was simply poured off.

Joyce Gaumer’s grandfather Alexander “Willis” Smith ran a still.  (He was also superintendent of Penn Forest roads as well).  He had yearly contracts with New York firms.  He typically sent 25 to 50 pounds a season, and got paid at a rate of $5.25 per pound of essential oil.

Read the companion Post "Ode to Spring" - Making Horseradish with Joyce Gaumer by clicking here.

One of the earliest known distillers in Albrightsville was Timothy Serfass (1845-1908).  His sister married another founder of the area William Getz (1824-1910).  August Huseman was another early distiller.
William or Wilhelm Getz was an
early resident and distiller of the
Pine Swamp.

Sometime before the late 1870s, the distillery was handed from Serfass to his brother-in-law Getz and by fall of 1878, it was in the hands of Samuel Moyer. 
This Dreher brother's 1873 drug store ad from
 Stroudsburg boasted to pay the
highest prices to the wintergreen
distillers of Carbon and Monroe Counties.

And as with all new brooms, Moyer wanted to sweep well.  His rate to the pickers went from the 60 to 70 cent per hundred pound rate of Serfass and Getz to a new area high of 75 cents with Moyer.

Going into the First World War, wintergreen production in Pennsylvania was at its height.  Trade though was disrupted due to German U-boats and sharply hurt the local economy.  That was also the time when artificial substitutes first began to appear as well. 

Still, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, many of Carbon’s unemployed did find a salary solace in it.  In 1942, Pennsylvania’s Deputy Secretary of Forests and Waters Charles Baer said given the near 100 year history of the industry in the Carbon area, he saw the beginning of the Second World War as a possible boon for area incomes.

Baer was correct.  By war’s end, with America’s lead in providing analgesic and other supplies to many of our allied hospitals, the wintergreen economy once again surged.

But today, some 70 years later, the days of a still providing a livelihood there are all gone.

Talk to any descendant of the “Ridge” or the “Swamp” and you’ll find a palpable pride that bubbles up from this austere distilling past.

A. W. and Alice Smith from Drake's Creek,
a wintergreen distiller.

The Smith home along Drake's Creek.

Looking at Eugene Albert Meckes’s December 1966 obituary will tell you the same thing. 

It didn’t report that the life-long resident of the Pine Swamp first worked at the White Haven Fish Hatchery, or for a time in a stave-mill, or even how he lived in Bowmanstown working for the Zinc factory or how he retired from the state highway department in the 1950s. 

His obituary proudly listed only one, solitary occupation of his life work as “distiller of wintergreen.”
From the Allentown Democrat November 1915.

AA Fertilizer Ad from Indiana Progress (Indiana, PA) from April 1927 featuring the above testimonial
of Albrightsville native Robert Getz.
An 1855 advertisement for 1500 acres
of timberland in the Pine Swamp,
Albrightsville, PA.

August Huseman and his wife Fredericka in Old Albrightsville Cemetery.

Paury and Bessie Green's graves at Christmans' Christ Lutheran Church graveyard.