Back in late March, we published on this blog, Flu Epidemic of 1918: accounts from local diaries, which included excerpts from the diary of Henry D. Hagey, painter-paperhanger, artist and historian of Elroy, Franconia Township, PA. In this post, I’ll expand on his story and feature a selection of photos and artifacts from his camera and hand, donated to the Mennonite Heritage Center by his relatives over the last three decades.
For a full biography of Hagey, I must acknowledge the excellent work of area writer and historian Joyce Clemmer Munro, in her book, Some Local History of Franconia Township…by Henry D. Hagey (edited by J. C. M., 1979). In that work, Joyce transcribed, edited and professionally published several historical and genealogical manuscripts that Hagey had compiled in his later years, but never got published. Joyce’s book was (and still is) a wonderful contribution to local history, and her introduction is a good, interpretive biography of the man. My biographical notes here are taken mostly from Joyce’s writing.
Henry D. Hagey, born October 1868 to Jonas M. and Elizabeth Delp Hagey, Mennonite farmers in Franconia Township, grew up on the family homestead settled by his ancestors Daniel and Maria Hackman Hagey in the 1770s. Raised in the conservative Franconia Mennonite congregation of his family, he never chose to join that fellowship. As a young man who grew up on a farm, he developed interests beyond the farm. While most farm boys at age 18 or 19 received a falling top carriage to go courting, Henry didn’t want that – he asked for and received a telegraph machine, and taught himself to use it. His desires to become a telegraph operator went unfulfilled as he realized he was expected and needed to help his father on the farm.
To escape some of the drudgery of farm work in his first years as a hired man, Henry took a correspondence course in calligraphy. He later took courses in portraiture in Tyrone, PA and New York City. As a young man, he taught himself to play the organ and violin. Apparently at an early age, he decided against marriage. Henry’s sister used to say that he was too fussy for marriage and that he was afraid he’d choose a woman less particular than he was. For a time around Elroy, there was talk of Henry “seeing” Eliza Delp, a single woman who kept house for her father in a house next to the store, close to where Henry lived, but nothing ever came of the rumored romance.
In 1894, when his father retired from farming, Henry apprenticed himself as a painter and paperhanger, and followed that occupation for 38 years. When he started the new job, he also began boarding with his sister, Lucy Ann Moyer, living in the middle of the village of Elroy, less than two miles from the Hagey homestead. He lived with the Moyer family for about fifteen years, until he bought a home for himself next door.
Henry the artist
While living with the Moyers, Henry converted one corner of his bedroom into a “studio”, a space befitting his artistic interests. Though the room was unheated, he spent many hours there drawing and painting. At one point, he had a professional-looking photo taken of himself at work in his studio, surrounded by his art.
Hagey never owned a horse and carriage or a car. His diaries reveal how he viewed the automobile as an invasion of rural life, and often made notes of car accidents in the area. In his diary, he occasionally recorded the annual death toll from car accidents, both in the U.S. and in Philadelphia. Not owning a vehicle, he walked everywhere – to his painting job sites, in search of historical and genealogical information, on Sunday nature walks, and occasionally to church. One diary entry in 1934 recorded a hike from Elroy to near Harleysville, then to near Lederach, across the Skippack Creek to near Kulpsville, then home to Elroy by 1:00 pm. (stopping at several homes along the way), all “in the interest of the history I am writing.”
“The history I am writing”
As a young man, Henry Hagey began recording memories of old people in the neighborhood, questioning them about their way of life. This interest eventually broadened to motivate him to research and compile a history of the neighborhood in which he grew up (“600 Acres in Franconia Township”), as well as a genealogical record of the Hagey family, and a history of the village of Elroy. At some point, he bought a camera to use for documenting his historical and personal interests.
Leaving his mark
Predisposed to leaving behind traces of his existence, Henry left his mark on many things he touched. We find his name or initials, date, and other notations on many photographs he took, in books he owned, on chairs and housewares he painted, and of course on his paintings and drawings. When he hung wallpaper for someone, he usually left his name and date on the wall underneath. As late as 1980, residents in his old neighborhood still uncovered his name on their walls! Additions and renovations to his house were marked in his telltale ways. A neighbor once found a (live) turtle on which Henry had inscribed his name and the date, thirteen years earlier.
Henry’s diary volumes, kept meticulously from 1918 to 1935, were appropriately labeled, “Daily Happenings, Historical Datas, and Life in Elroy.” In them, he recorded events of national and international scale – things he had read about in the newspaper or heard on the radio, as well as happenings of local interest. “Historical Datas” were the facts he learned from deed searches and visits to historic sites. Of course, a comment on the weather was part of many entries.
Nature and spirituality
Henry was also interested in the natural world in his neighborhood. During a period when he didn’t regularly attend church, he often took hikes on Sunday mornings. He’d walk up to the bridge above Elroy, then follow the Skippack Creek either north or south, stopping quietly to watch some animal or bird. At his sister’s Sunday dinner table he would tell the children about what he’d seen. His walks must have served some spiritual function.
One Sunday morning in 1928 (at age 60), Henry walked over to his sister’s house and announced that he was going to be baptized that morning at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Souderton. It was the first his sister knew anything of his churchly interests! Once he made that commitment, he attended church there regularly and found it meaningful.
An archived legacy
The select photos and artifacts shown here represent Henry Hagey’s interests, talents, and legacy.