Our Immigrant Heritage: Fretz

Written by Forrest Moyer on March 20, 2018

This is the last in a series of posts highlighting families descended from 18th-century Mennonite immigrants to eastern Pennsylvania, in connection with the MHC’s exhibit Opportunity & Conscience: Mennonite Immigration to Pennsylvania, on display until March 31, 2018. The stories reflect the enrichment brought to communities over centuries by the descendants of immigrants.

Bedminster and Tinicum settlers

The American Mennonite Fretz family is descended from two immigrants, thought to be brothers, who came from near Mannheim, Germany, and settled in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. John Fretz (d. 1772), a weaver by trade, pioneered in Bedminster Township; Christian Fretz (d. 1784) farmed across the Tohickon Creek in Tinicum Township.

Until the Walking Purchase of 1737, the Tohickon was the boundary between Pennsylvania and Indian territory in this part of Bucks County. John Fretz bought his farm on the Bedminster side of the creek in 1737/38, and it was at that time surrounded by wilderness. It is unknown to this author when Christian Fretz settled on the north side of the creek. The Fretz’s likely had interaction with native Lenape people as they carved farmland out of ancient forest. Soon, the Lenape were driven away by the deceptive Walking Purchase and ever-increasing European settlement. In all likelihood, the Fretz’s and other Deep Run Mennonites, along with Scots-Irish, English and German neighbors, were happy to see the native people go. Equity and justice for non-European people was not a primary consideration.

“…To teach me and honor God”

Mennonites were, however, very concerned with teaching their own children to live obedient Christian lives. An unusual set of artifacts illustrate this—three Bibles with large fraktur bookplates that belonged to sisters—Barbara, Catherine and Magdalena Fretz. Each plate states the name and birthdate of the girl, and that the Bible was “a gift from Grandmother Stauffer”. The later two plates add a purpose: “to teach me and honor God.”

The Bibles are all the same German-language edition, printed at Somerset, PA in 1813. Grandmother Barbara Stover (1752-1822), who must have had extra money, purchased these large new Bibles for her granddaughters. The bookplate for the oldest, Barbara, was probably made at the time of the gift or soon after, circa 1815. It is attributed to artist David Kulp.

The plate for Magdalena is dated 1829, and Catherine’s was probably also made that year or slightly before. Catherine married Joel Strawn in November 1829, and her Bible contains Strawn family records. It was donated to the MHC in 2006 by Isaac Clarence Kulp (2006.4.3), and is a highlight of our fraktur collection, with its unusual flicker-type bird and “sausage tree”, as Kulp called it. The other two Bibles are in private collections.

A folk art drawing in the collection of Montgomery County Historical Society bears similarity to the Magdalena and Catherine Fretz bookplates, and interestingly, is attributed to their younger half-sister, Elizabeth (1810-1873). It is a very unusual piece, picturing cats, and roosters blowing trumpets!

Photo courtesy of John L. Ruth.

The floral border on this piece is almost identical to that on Catherine Fretz’s bookplate. In addition, another drawing of this size (8”x10”), sold at Alderfer Auction in 2000, includes a wide floral border, the initials “E.F.” and date 1829 in cross-stitch style (perhaps suggesting a feminine hand), and the same roses and urn that appear on Magdalena Fretz’s bookplate. A paper copy of this piece is available to view at the MHC.

All these coincidences lead one to wonder: Could Elizabeth Fretz Kratz (1810-1873) have been the fraktur artist who created bookplates for her sisters in the late 1820s? There is no “grandmother Stauffer” Bible for Elizabeth; at least none has surfaced. Elizabeth, as a half-sister with a different mother, was not a granddaughter of Barbara Stover; but she was likely present as a child when the Bibles were given and may have had personal motivation to create plates similar to that of oldest sister Barbara. It’s an interesting possibility. The attribution of the cats and roosters drawing to Elizabeth is by Rudolf Hommel in The Pennsylvania Dutchman, Vol. 1, No. 3 (1949). He got it from either the catalog record at Montgomery County Historical Society, where the drawing was donated by Elizabeth’s daughter Emma Kratz Weinberger in 1909, or directly from Elizabeth’s granddaughter Minerva Weinberger, who was still living in 1949.

Fretz needlework

Also from women of the Fretz family come beautiful needleworks.

These decorated towels (for show, not for use) were made by sisters Mary and Eliza H. Fretz of Hilltown Township in 1846 and 1848 respectively. Both incorporate a central motif with letters OEHBDDE representing the phrase: “O edel Herz, bedenk dein End [O noble heart, think on thine end].” This was a common motif on Mennonite show towels and in Mennonite spirituality. Towels like this were made by teenage girls in preparation for decorating their home after marriage. As it happened, neither Mary nor Elizabeth married, and the towels were preserved by their niece Lizzie D. Fretz, who was also unmarried. Mennonite Heritage Center Collection; gift of Jeane Stutzman Fretz (2013.10.7 and 2013.10.8)

Lizzie Fretz completed a quilt that Aunt Eliza began before her death in 1908—a “Dutch Rose” in red and green that makes one think of Christmas. Lizzie also made a Dutch Rose quilt of her own that brings in bright yellow with red and green. MHC Collection; gift of Jeane Stutman Fretz (2009.33.1 and 2010.32.1)

The MHC also holds two crazy quilts from the Fretz family. One was made and signed by Dorothy “Dora” K. Fretz (Funk) of Hilltown Township in 1901 when she was 15 years old (pictured first below, on left). The backing of this piece is flannel for warmth. Gift of Dora’s daughter Helen Funk Urbanchuk (2000.27.1).

The other (second below, on right) was made by 17-year-old Ella D. Landis (Gross Fretz) of Bedminster Township, circa 1890. After her first husband died, Ella married J. Clarence Fretz, and the quilt was donated to the MHC by their daughter Gladys Fretz Diehl (1995.9.1)

Mennonite leaders

One of Ella Landis Fretz’s children became a gifted sociologist and founding president of Conrad Grebel College at the University of Waterloo, Ontario. Joseph Winfield Fretz (1910-2005)—he went by Winfield—began life on the family farm in Bedminster Township, but never lived in Pennsylvania as an adult. After attending Bluffton College and the University of Chicago, he taught twenty years at Bethel College in Kansas and then Conrad Grebel College for the rest of his career. His writings are too numerous to mention here, but he is well-known for his published studies of Mennonite sociology and mutual aid, especially regarding the Mennonite colonies in Paraguay. His memoir, Simple Life Fretz: A Kitchen Table Memoir of the first Mennonite Sociologist, was edited and published recently by his daughter Sara Fretz-Goering. It is available in the MHC library.

A Fretz descendant who provided significant religious leadership among local Mennonites was Allen M. Fretz (1853-1943). He was pastor and elder (i.e. bishop) at Deep Run West Mennonite Church in Bedminster Township. Additionally, he took on leadership at various town missions, including Pottstown, Perkasie (Bethel Mennonite) and Allentown—none of which survive today, though the buildings remain. In the case of Souderton, where he served as the first pastor of Zion Mennonite Church from 1893 to 1909, Fretz actually moved to town and bought a house next to the church on Broad Street. The Zion congregation, now in a newer building on Cherry Lane, continues to thrive in the 21st century.

Allen & Anna Rittenhouse Fretz family, 1906

Zion Mennonite Church and the Rittenhouse home, Broad Street, Souderton, circa 1900. This original church building, remodeled and with bell tower added, is used today by the Souderton Seventh-Day Adventist Church.

Pastor Allen Fretz seated behind the pulpit of Zion Mennonite Church, circa 1908

A good collection of Allen Fretz’s papers are preserved at the MHC (Hist. Mss. 414), along with interesting photographs, including those shown above. The collection, a gift of grandson J. Herbert Fretz, includes historical material collected by Herbert, who also served as pastor at Deep Run West Mennonite Church for a time.

A. J. Fretz: genealogy pioneer

The most widely-known name in the family is probably Abraham James “A. J.” Fretz (1849-1912). Fretz was a productive genealogist who published histories of numerous local Mennonite families during the years 1890-1911. Fretz was positioned in a unique time, when descendants of families had spread across the continent and into various religious groups, but still had enough connection to Pennsylvania that Fretz could gather their information. Himself a migrant from Mennonite to Methodist community, and from Bucks County to northern New Jersey, Fretz captured the story of our people in the midst of dispersal, just before many connections would be obscured by 20th century mobility and diversification. Because of the books’ detailed content and accuracy, they continue to be standard references on families such as Moyer, Fretz, Funk, Stover, and Wismer. All of them can be accessed for free on the Internet Archive.

Sources on the Fretz family

Fretz, A. J.  A brief history of John and Christian Fretz and a complete genealogical family register…. Elkhart, IN: Mennonite Publishing Co.  1890. Available online at https://archive.org/details/briefhistoryofjo00infret

Fretz, J. Herbert. “A Stranger and an Exile: Abraham J. Fretz (1849-1912), Genealogist and Minister.” Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage XV:2 (Apr 1992), pp. 2-8.

Fretz, J. Herbert. “Allen M. Fretz (1853-1943), Shepherd of Souls, Dean of Ministers in the Eastern District Conference.” MHEP Newsletter 24:2 (Aug 1997), pp. 3-9.

Fretz-Goering, Sara. Simple Life Fretz: A Kitchen Table Memoir of the first Mennonite Sociologist. Victoria, BC: Friesen Press. 2016. Biography of J. Winfield Fretz, by his daughter.

Wenger, John C. “Fretz (Frätz, Fraetz) family.” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Web. 14 Mar 2018. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Fretz_(Fr%C3%A4tz,_Fraetz)_family