Walking to Ohio in the 1820s

Written by Forrest Moyer on January 9, 2019

The following is a translation of a Pennsylvania Dutch story submitted to the Souderton Independent newspaper by local historian Henry Hagey and printed December 22, 1933. It appears to be a true story, collected by Hagey from deacon Jake Freed (1851-1929) of the Franconia Mennonite congregation. The story was told to him by one Martin Bechtel, presumably Martin G. Bechtel (1797-1890), buried at Blooming Glen.

While only the barest details flesh the story, it does give some idea of what traveling must have been like in the 1820s, when it was not uncommon to journey on foot long distances. Also, because of the source, we may assume that it is about two young Mennonite men traveling west and staying overnight with a Mennonite family. In any case, it’s a story about¬† tentative hospitality and the fears accompanying a lonely life in the wilderness. Translation was done by Mrs. Arlene Clemmer [editor Joyce Munro’s mother] for the MHEP Newsletter, March 1980.

Before we launch into the story, it’s helpful to know something about the personality of the story teller, Jake Freed, as Hagey would have known him growing up in Franconia. Freed represents the last vestige of an older Mennonite culture that changed rapidly in the 20th century under the influence of modern evangelicalism.

From Paul Lederach’s history of Franconia Mennonite Church:

Jacob A. Freed was one of the more colorful ordained leaders of the Franconia congregation. He was well liked in the community as a successful businessman, and in the congregation as a practical, down-to-earth deacon. In the nineteenth century the church did not have convictions against the use of alcohol and tobacco, such as emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Today, ministers and deacons would be faulted for the use of alcohol and tobacco. Freed, however, was a man of his time. As was the custom then, Freed would stop at the hotel for a drink. Once in a while it happened that he overindulged.

When this occurred, at the next Sunday worship service he made a confession. He did this with the expectation that members of the congregation who experienced this same shortcoming would be equally ready to confess their failures. When conviction grew against the use of tobacco and the spittoon behind the pulpit, members confronted Freed about his habit. He responded to them, “No tobacco, no Jake Freed!” And that was that.

In his way, Jacob Freed was a spiritual man. One of his testimonies following a Sunday sermon has long been remembered. He said, “Good Christian people, who have the Holy Spirit, should act upon the first voice you hear when you have a decision to make. The first voice you hear is the Holy Spirit speaking. If you fool around and don’t take action, then the next voice you hear is the devil slipping around from behind to confuse you by saying, ‘Are you sure that is right?’ or ‘Have you considered this other thing?'” This may explain why Deacon Freed was a man of decision.

Now on to the story…. The Pennsylvania Dutch version follows, as it was published in 1933.

“A story from 100 years ago”

There was once a man who lived in our town [Souderton] with the name Martin Bechtel, who once told Jake Freed that when he was young and single, he had been a tramp.

He told him that he and another fellow once walked to Ohio, now about 100 years ago.

A preacher told him at which house they should stop for a room, where good people lived that he knew well. There was at that time still a big wilderness between here and that house in Ohio. They walked paths that went through big, thick woods where they didn’t see man or house.

A trail in the Pennsylvania wilderness, Sproul State Forest, Centre County. Source: PxHere.com

One evening when it was beginning to get dark they came out of a big woods and to a small house, where the preacher had said the good people lived.

The boys decided they wanted to see whether these were such good people. They asked whether they could stay overnight. The man said that they could. The boys didn’t introduce themselves and also didn’t tell them who told them to stop there.

That evening they told the people that when they were going through the woods they had heard a man holler or cry, but they didn’t go and look for him. The man told them that it was lucky for them that they hadn’t gone to look for him, because it was a hungry panther that was crying.

The boys were tired, hungry, and thirsty, but the people didn’t bring them anything to eat. They also thought the man watched them all evening with one eye. It was a small one-story house. On the end was a ladder, and when it was bedtime, the man told them they could climb up the ladder and sleep upstairs. When they were almost asleep, they heard the man saying something downstairs. Then they heard that he was praying to God for them and his family, to keep them from evil people. Then they felt safe.

In the morning when they were ready to leave, the boys told them who they were and who told them that they had rooms and were good people. This made the man sorrowful, and he told them to eat breakfast before they left. But they said “no” and left.

En Sthory Fuun Ae Huunard Yohr Z’rick

Note: Pennsylvania Dutch was a spoken, rather than written, language; thus spelling is phonetic.

Es hud a-mohl en Mon in unserm Stheddel ga-wooned beim naa-ma Martin Bechtel, derr hud mohl em Jake Freed ferr-zaeld wee err noch youn un led-ich ga-wesd ware, ware err aw a-mohl en tramp ga-wesd.

Err hud ihm g’sawd, err un noch en Kerrl ware-en a-mohl noch em Sthade Ohio ga-lo-fa. Now ae Huunard yohr z’rick.

Es hud ee-na en Bredicher do g’sawd, on wos ferm House os see sthub-a sudda, derrd da-den Gude-a Leid woon-a, os err Gude ba-kond ware.

Es wore sella-mohl noch en grosa Wilderniss quish-ich do, un sellem House in Ohio. See sin uf Sthrosa, odda fore¬≠wae-ya ga-draveled os dorrich Gro-sa, Dicka, Dunkla Bisch gong-a sin, wuh see wide kae menscha un ken Heiser g’sae-na hen.

“…a house, where the preacher said the good people lived…” Image source: H. L. Fischer, Die Alte Zeit, 1879.

Mohl ae a-wid we es shoon aw-fong-a hud dunk-el wor-ra, sin see ous rna grosa Bush kum-ma un sin glei on aw klae House kum-ma, un des wor derr blotz wuh derr Bredicher ee-na g’sawd hud os de gu-da Leid wohn-a dade-a.

De Buu-va hen ous-ga-macht see wud-da mohl sane-a eb des aw so Gu-da Leid ware-a. See hen g’froked eb see iwer-nacht bleiva ken-da, derr Mon hud g’sawd, Yerr, see kenda. De Buu-va hen sich awer ned ga-introduced, un hen aw ned g’sawd werr ee-na g’sawd hud os see derrd sthub-a sud-den.

Sella a-wid hen see da Leid fer-zaehled, we see dor-ich seller Gross Bush gong-a waer-a hedda see en Mensch haera Greisha od-da Heila, awer see waer-a ned gong-a guucka noch ihm: derr Mon hud ee-na g’sawd es ware ihra Glick, os see sellem Mensch ned noch g’loff waern, for sell waer en “huung-rich-er Bender” (panther) ga-wessd, os om heila gawessd waer.

Dee Buu-va wahren Meed, Huung-er-rich, un Derrsh-dich, awer de Leid hen ee-na nix zu Ess-a aw-ga-budda, see hen aw ga-maend derr Mon dade see da gon-sa a-wed watch-a mid aem Awk. Es wor en glae ae-stheck-ich House, on aem end wor en Lae-der ga-wesd, we es Bed-zeid wor hud derr Mon g’sawd see kenda on sella Lae-der nuuf grod-la un “Drova Schlo-fa.” We see aboud red-a wahr-en for Schlofa, hen see kared os derr Mon ebbis om Bloud-ra is dru-na, nu hen see kared os err om Bae-da is zu Gudd os err een un sei Fa-mil-ya ba-wora sud for Schlect-a Mensch-a. Nu hen de Buu-va safe g’feeld.

Merr-a-yids we see red-da worn for ferrd gae, hen de Buu-va ee-na g’sawd vow see ware-a, wuh see herr-a kaem-din, un vow ee-na g’sawd hed os see bei ee-na sthub-ba sud-da, weil see Gu-da Leid ware-en. Des hud den Mon err-ick ba-dowered, err hud ee-na g’sawd see sud-den doch Breck-feshd ess-a eb see ferrd ging-din, awer see hen g’sawd nae, see wud-da ned, un sin so ferrd.

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3 replies to “Walking to Ohio in the 1820s

  1. Brian -

    Oh, what a great insight into our history and culture. Can see and feel the uncertainty from both the guests and the hosts

    Reply

  2. Alton Longenecker -

    I enjoyed this story of travel in the early 1800’s in Pennsylvania. I have tried to imagine where this house may have been during this time period. I assume that other Mennonites may have lived nearby and that the occupants who lived in the house may not have seen other people for even weeks. Might this house have been a settlement near Johnstown, originally called Schantzstadt as it was originally laid out by Josef Schantz in 1800 who was Amish. Or may it have been Westmoreland County where the Overholts migrated in very early 1800. My own speculation is that it may have been in Butler County PA. Mennonites bought large tracks of land from the Harmonists who left for southern Indiana in 1815. There is still standing a Harmony Mennonite Church with services once a year. I have no idea where this house may have been

    Reply

    1. Post Author Forrest Moyer -

      All good possibilities. Could also have been early settlers in Columbiana County, Ohio, just over the line from PA.

      Reply

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