Our Immigrant Heritage: Bechtel

Written by Forrest Moyer on December 1, 2017

This series of posts highlights 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 through March 31, 2018. The stories reflect the enrichment brought to communities over centuries by the descendants of immigrants.

Hans Jacob, Hans George, and Abraham

A number of immigrants with the Swiss name Bechtel came to Pennsylvania in the colonial era. Two of these, Hans Jacob Bechtel (d. 1739) and Hans George Bechtel (d. 1759) were Mennonite ministers in the Manatawny district, which stretched from Pottstown to Hereford along the Manatawny Creek. Another was Reformed minister John Bechtel (1690-1777), who settled in Germantown and later joined the Moravians at Bethlehem.

Hans Jacob Bechtel settled just north of present-day Pottstown circa 1720, on a farm later known as “Ringing Rocks Farm”. The property includes a field of glacial-deposit boulders that ring when struck with a hammer, thus the name. Ringing Rocks was eventually transformed into a leisure and amusement park accessible from Pottstown by trolley, circa 1894; but during its years as a country farm, the house pictured below held a large collection of European and early American books collected by the Bechtel family. The collection was moved to Skippack by preacher Jacob Bechtel Mensch, and donated to the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Historical Library (precursor of the Mennonite Heritage Center) by his granddaughter Mary Mensch Lederach in 1968.

Mennonite Heritage Center Collection, Abraham & Jennie Heckler Mensch Papers (Hist. Mss. 82); gift of Hiram & Mary Jane Lederach Hershey.

You can read more about Ringing Rocks Farm and the Bechtel/Mensch family who lived there in the Fall 2017 issue of our MHC Quarterly.

The other Manatawny minister named Bechtel, Hans George, settled further north, in Hereford (now Washington) Township, Berks County, near present-day Bechtelsville, a village that was laid out by George’s grandson John S. Bechtel (1786-1868). A large Bible that belonged to immigrant George has survived and is today in the Mennonite Heritage Center collection. It was rebound by descendant Andrew B. Bauer (1817-1904), but an old inscription noting the history of the book was copied into the new binding. The old inscription, probably made by George’s son Gerhard, read (in translation): “This Bible was printed in Basel, Germany [actually Switzerland] in the year 1720.  In 1730 it was sent to George Bechtel in America from his father in Germany. Between 1750 and 1760 it came to Gerhard Bechtel.” When Andrew Bauer copied the note, he added information about the Bible’s ownership during the 19th century, and added his own family register in calligraphy.

Mennonite Heritage Center Collection; gift of Walter & Elsie Gabel Lutz (2004.9.1)

A third Mennonite immigrant, Abraham Bechtel (d. 1785), settled at Hereford in 1739. He may have been a brother of George. Abraham’s son Abraham (d. 1815) and grandson John (1779-1843) were preachers in the Hereford Mennonite congregation, continuing a tradition of solid Bechtel leadership in the first century of that congregation. In the earliest years of settlement, preacher Hans Jacob Bechtel provided leadership, commuting from his home near the Schuylkill River. After Hans George Bechtel and fellow minister Peter Moll (possibly his brother-in-law) arrived circa 1730, they provided leadership at Hereford, probably under supervision of the Skippack bishop until 1758 when Jacob Bechtel’s son Martin (1710-1786) was chosen as bishop for the Schuylkill Valley churches.

George Bechtel and Peter Moll both died in 1759, within 12 hours of one another. They were succeeded by George’s son John Bechtel (d. 1795), who in turn was succeeded by (his cousin?) Abraham Bechtel, along with John Boyer, who moved west in 1814. A couple other Bechtel’s have served as ministers at Hereford and other places more recently, but not to the extent that the family was involved in 18th century leadership.

Another leader who must be mentioned is Samuel Bechtel (d. 1802), who probably came to Pennsylvania as a child with his father Hans Jacob in 1717. Samuel married Mary Oberholtzer in 1742 and they lived first in Upper Hanover, and then at Saucon, where he was chosen as a preacher about 1750. In 1764, they moved to Rockhill, where they purchased the farm of bishop Isaac Kolb (the MHC holds the deed for this transaction). When Kolb died in 1776, Samuel was one of two candidates to take his place as bishop. The other was Christian Funk, son of pioneer bishop Henry Funk. The lot fell to Funk, and Bechtel remained only a minister. A few years later, we find Bechtel’s wife Mary and daughter, Elizabeth Bechtel Gehman (1746-1792)—whose husband Abraham served with her father in ministry at Rockhill—taking key roles in the “Funkite” controversy that divided the Mennonite community during the War for Independence. Mary and Elizabeth were spreading word that “they had it on good authority from their Reformed neighbors, and others also reported hearing” that bishop Christian Funk had pledged loyalty to the new Revolutionary government and was encouraging others to do the same (Ruth, Maintaining the Right Fellowship, 151). Funk denied this strenuously, but nevertheless was silenced and excommunicated. Whatever harmony existed between these church members and leaders, the stress of wartime hardened inklings of distrust into a sharp division.

We are fortunate to have at the MHC a sermon book used by three generations of Rockhill preachers from this family—Samuel Bechtel, his son-in-law Abraham Gehman, and grandson Samuel Gehman (1767-1845). Samuel Bechtel’s ownership inscription of 1741 is followed by a “celebrated American remedy” for rheumatic limbs “aus der Pennsylvanische Chronick”.

Gift of John L. Ruth (1985.21.1).

Bechtel fraktur

Several interesting pieces of fraktur relate to the Bechtel family. One is this commemorative fraktur by John D. Souder showing himself with nephew (and fellow Rockhill cemetery trustee) Harvey Souder, standing by preacher Samuel Bechtel’s grave.

Mennonite Heritage Center Collection; gift of Paul and Grace Detwiler Souder (1990.15.1)

One of the earliest pieces of Pennsylvania fraktur that has survived, and the earliest dated piece attributed to schoolmaster Christopher Dock, is this Vorschrift (writing model) made in 1747 for Gerhard Bechtel (1738-1796), son of preacher George. Though George Bechtel was almost certainly living at Hereford by 1747, it is possible that son Gerhard was living with friends or relatives in Skippack, Salford or Germantown, where Dock taught school. Unless Dock also taught a bit in Hereford?

Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center Collection, Pennsburg, PA (2015.02.06).

A few small pieces in the MHC collection come from the Bechtel family, including this drawing of two owls from the family of Jacob M. and Susanna Reiff Bechtel of Upper Hanover Township, Montgomery County; and a bright floral drawing inscribed Jacob B. Bechtel, 1835. These were probably rewards of merit for students in Mennonite parochial schools.

Left: Gift of Mary Jane Lederach Hershey & Hiram R. Hershey (2013.68.10).
Right: Acquired through the donation of an MHC member (2015.37.5).

Jacob B. Bechtel (1822-1912) was a grandson of Gerhard Bechtel (on his mother’s side) and preacher Abraham Bechtel (on his father’s side). He lived at Boyertown and was a member of the traditional “Old” Mennonite congregation after the 1847 division. The “Old” and “New” Mennonites of Boyertown shared a meetinghouse at the center of town (where the bank building expansion is today) until the 1870s, when they got into a court battle over ownership. Jacob Bechtel was called on to give testimony, including his memory of the 1847 division. His testimony was published with other documents of the division in Mennonite Quarterly Review XLVI (Oct 1972).

Bechtel clothing

The MHC collection contains some wonderful clothing from the Bechtel family, including a group of women’s clothes from unmarried sisters Annie and Katie Bechtel of Boyertown, granddaughters of Jacob B. Bechtel. This dress was probably worn by their mother, Elizabeth Bower Bechtel (1854-1927), circa 1900, in the era before plain (cape) dresses were required for women of the “Old” Mennonite Church. Most Pennsylvania German women wore plain dark dresses.

Gift of Lois B. Mest & Rhoda G. Lyons (2006.16.2)

The oldest dress in the MHC collection is Elizabeth Bechtel’s blue silk wedding dress from her marriage to Henry Schantz in 1837. They resided at the Schantz homestead on Limeport Pike at Hosensack and were members of Upper Milford Mennonite Church. The portrait shown here of Elizabeth is circa 1885, when she was about 70 years of age. She wore a traditional cap and Halsduck (neckerchief), as Elizabeth Bower Bechtel would have also worn with the dress pictured above.

Gifts of Dorothy Longacre McGann (1987.66.1 and 2010.28.2)

A later wedding dress included this bodice made and worn by Catharine Diehl Bechtel at her 1896 marriage to Joseph B. Bechtel. Catharine was a professional dressmaker in Philadelphia at the time. After marriage, she and Joseph joined the “Old” Mennonite Church of their upbringing, and left fashionable clothing behind. They were early workers at Norris Square Mennonite Mission in Philadelphia.

Mennonite Heritage Center Collection; gift of Helen Bechtel Yoder (1993.31.1)

Two Joseph Bechtel’s of Philadelphia

There were two Joseph B. Bechtel’s in Philadelphia in the early 20th century. Both were successful businessmen, jokingly referring to each other at times as “the rich Joseph Bechtel” (Ruth, Maintaining the Right Fellowship, 417); and both were involved in Mennonite leadership. One was “Old” Mennonite (traditional), the other “New” Mennonite (progressive).

Catharine’s husband, Joseph Bliem Bechtel (1856-1928), was Sunday School superintendent of the “Old” Mennonite Mission at Norris Square, Philadelphia until his death in 1928. He provided a third of the money necessary to purchase the mission house. Bechtel was a successful contractor who took part in the construction of the Pennsylvania State Capitol, Widener Library at Harvard University, the Widener family’s Newport mansion, the Campbell’s Soup building at Camden, and Pennsylvania State University buildings in State College. He also built the Eastern Mennonite Home at Souderton in 1916.

Joseph Bechtel construction projects: Widener Memorial Library, Harvard; “Miramar”, the Widener-Rice home at Newport, Rhode Island; and the Eastern Mennonite Home, Souderton, circa 1920.

Joseph Bechtel Bechtel (1865-1946) was deacon of First Mennonite Church, Philadelphia, a congregation of several hundred members in the early 20th century. He was president of Jos. B. Bechtel & Co. Jewelers at 729 Sansom Street in downtown Philadelphia. Born and raised near Bechtelsville, Berks County, Joseph apprenticed with E. S. Gehman, jeweler in Bally, before moving to Philadelphia and establishing his own store. The memorial flyer pictured below states that Bechtel “will always be remembered for his inherent qualities of honesty, kindness and mildness. His absolute faith in all humanity was an example of fine moral living. Many retail jewelers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey are in business today because of the understanding heart, the wise counsel and financial help of Joseph B. Bechtel.”

Mennonite Heritage Center Collection (2017.67.1)

Sources on the Bechtel family

Bower, Henry S.  Bower-Bechtel-Stauffer Family and Relationship Book. Unpublished. 1895. Transcription available in the MHC library.

Montgomery, Morton L.  Historical and Biographical Annals of Berks County, Pennsylvania. Chicago: J. H. Beers & Co., 1909. Available online at https://archive.org/details/cu31924097286300

Ruth, John L.  Maintaining the Right Fellowship: A narrative account of life in the oldest Mennonite community in North America. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1984.

More needs to be published about this family!