Our Immigrant Heritage: Alderfer

Written by Joel Alderfer on August 17, 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.

The Alderfer name is one of those unique to the Mennonite communities of Montgomery and Bucks Counties. The name was not found in other Mennonite settlements, except through later migration and intermarriage. However, the immigrant ancestor of this family was not Mennonite when he arrived here in 1733. But once the family became part of the Mennonite fellowship, through circumstance and marriage, the name stuck and is still prominent in Mennonite communities in eastern Pennsylvania.

An indentured servant, a young widow, a marriage of necessity?

Immigrant Frederick Alderfer (Friedrich Alldörfer) (1715-1801) was of the Reformed faith and came from Steinsfurt in the Kraichgau, Germany. He arrived in Philadelphia on the ship Samuel in August 1733 as a single young man with no money. He then needed to sell himself into a period of indentured service to pay for his passage. This was a common method in the 18th century for poor immigrants, whether single or married with children, to arrange transport to America.

Alderfer’s service was bought by Hans Clemmer, a young Mennonite farmer of Salford in Philadelphia (now Montgomery) County — himself an immigrant of just three years earlier. Clemmer must have been looking for a male servant, went down to the city docks to check out the human “freights”, found and made a contract with young Alderfer, and paid the ship’s captain. Alderfer then lived with and worked for young Hans and Anna Detweiler Clemmer at Salford for what turned out to be four years.

As life would have it, Clemmer died unexpectedly in a horse-related accident (according to tradition) in the fall of 1737, near the end of Alderfer’s service, leaving his young widow Anna with two daughters, a 156-acre farm to manage (and pay for), and a recently freed 22-year-old male servant. What would the widow do? She married the former servant Alderfer, within several months! Within a year, Frederick and Anna (Clemmer) Alderfer assumed the lease or mortgage on the farm, and Frederick became a member of Anna’s congregation, Salford Mennonite. Anna’s two young daughters accepted Alderfer as their father, and she and Frederick eventually had two more daughters and four sons of their own. All the Alderfers in the Bucks-Montgomery area today are descended from them.

Frederick and Anna apparently worked hard, managed their farm well and prospered, adding to their landholdings and livestock over the years. Anna died in 1767, but in 1774 Frederick was taxed on a total of 490 acres of land in Lower Salford, with three dwelling houses, three barns, one gristmill, four horses, five cows, and eight sheep! He had purchased a 150-acre farm with a grist mill on the Branch Creek from John Clemens in 1764 (immigrant Gerhart Clemens’ mill), and in 1772 bought a neighboring 159-acre farm (plus 51 acres in Upper Salford) from George Shambach.  Alderfer was planning for his sons. On July 1, 1776, he sold his three farms (150-160 acres each) to Jacob, John, and Joseph Alderfer. That spring he also helped his son Abraham buy a 150-acre farm along the Great Road (Sumneytown Pike) at the lower end of present-day Harleysville. That means in the spring of 1776, Frederick owned a total of 516 acres, and provided the funding for an additional 150-acre purchase!

Map of the landholdings of Frederick Alderfer and his four sons, in Lower Salford Township.

Anna’s original gravestone of 1767, from the Salford cemetery, is currently on display in the immigration exhibit at the Heritage Center. Frederick’s gravestone of 1801 is long gone, but a new memorial to him and Anna was erected by descendants at Salford circa 1885.

A precious item in the Heritage Center collection survives from Hans Clemmer’s and Frederick Alderfer’s ownership – a 1702 copy of the Swiss Anabaptist devotional book, Güldene Äpffel im Silbern Schalen (Golden Apples in Silver Bowls), with inscriptions by both Clemmer and Alderfer. Part of Clemmer’s inscription reads (translated from German): “I, Hans Clemmer, had this book rebound and it cost me two shillings, in the year 1731.” Alderfer’s inscription, ten years later, reads: “This book belongs to me, Frederick Alderfer, and whoever steals it from me is a thief [!]. In the year 1741.” Clemmer’s widow Anna perhaps gave the book to her new husband Frederick after they married.


Frederick Alderfer’s inscription, and the decorated title page for Etliche Christliche Gebethe (Several Christian Prayers), a second volume bound in with Güldene Äpffel im Silbern Schalen. Mennonite Heritage Center Collection; gift of Helen Alderfer Stanley.

Another immigrant Frederick Alderfer!

Curiously, there was another immigrant Frederick Aldörffer (1707-1745) who arrived in Philadelphia in August 1732, exactly one year before the immigrant of 1733, on the same ship (Samuel). Perhaps a close relative of the 1733 immigrant, this Frederick settled near what is now Annville, Lebanon County, PA, and with his wife Margaret joined the German Baptist Brethren (now Church of the Brethren) at Conestoga in 1741. He died in Lebanon County in 1745 at age 38, and had one son Frederick Aldörffer (1742-1818) who moved to Shenandoah County, Virginia, with descendants in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. These Alderfers and the local Alderfers had no awareness of each other until the 1960s, when the Alderfers of America book was being researched. In fact, for decades before that, historians in the local Alderfer family were confused and mistaken about the arrival date of their own ancestor Frederick Alderfer.

Descendants common at Salford

In 1886, historian James Y. Heckler of Lower Salford Township said this about the Alderfers: “The early Alderfers were prominent in the affairs of the township…. They were generally very tenacious in adhering to the Mennonite faith…. As a general thing they are well-to-do farmers and some of them are quite wealthy. Thirty-three Alderfers are at present [1886] assessed as taxpayers in Lower Salford.”

For several generations, the descendants of Frederick & Anna Alderfer remained mostly in Lower Salford. In the fourth generation, a few descendants moved into neighboring townships; but a significant number of descendants continued to live in Lower Salford and have been members of the Salford Mennonite congregation. About 225 Alderfers (of record) are buried in the Salford Mennonite Cemetery! It’s interesting to consider how or why a particular immigrant family, not of Mennonite origin, would become so thoroughly connected with one Mennonite congregation for almost three centuries.

To illustrate how “thick” the Alderfers were in Lower Salford around the turn of the 20th century, note these several Alderfer inter-marriages from the years 1890 to 1905: Sisters Mary and Annie Alderfer married Alvin and Elmer Alderfer. Their cousins Susan and Martha Alderfer married Rein and Clement Alderfer. Elmer and Clement were brothers who married cousins. In addition, Susan and Rein were second cousins (the others were no closer than third). But Susan and Martha were already “Alderfer Alderfers” (both their parents were Alderfers); and now marrying another Alderfer, in both cases their children ended up with three grandparents of the same family name!

Church and business leaders

Isaac K. Alderfer (1773-1842), grandson of Mennonite bishop Isaac Kolb, served as a minister in the Salford congregation. His wives, Hannah Oberholtzer and later her sister Elizabeth, were daughters of preacher Jacob Oberholtzer of the Franconia Mennonite congregation. Isaac bought part of his father’s homestead along the “Little Branch” Creek in Lower Salford, and was ordained a preacher at Salford circa 1830. An 1840 list of bishops and ministers indicates that he and co-minister John Bergey also preached at Towamencin. His son-in-law, Jacob M. Kulp, was ordained at Salford; but Kulp, it is said, “couldn’t preach” (Wenger, History of the Mennonites of the Franconia Conference, p. 274).

Birth record, lettered circa 1868, for Abraham O. Alderfer (son of preacher Isaac and Elizabeth Oberholtzer) and of his grandson Jeremiah. The Jewish calligrapher, Martin Wetzler (note his trademark Star of David), did a beautiful job, but he got the name of Elizabeth’s father, Jacob Oberholtzer, incorrect. He was working with an unusual number of generations in this record. Mennonite Heritage Center Collection.

Alvin C. Alderfer (1869-1941), a great-grandson of preacher Isaac, was born on an old family farm on the “Little Branch” Creek, just below Harleysville. He married Mary L. Alderfer (1873-1955), daughter of Levi S. & Sarah Landis Alderfer, from another old Alderfer farm on the main “Branch” Creek near Lederach. As a young man, Alvin taught school for nine years at “Alderfer’s” School (near the corner of Oak Drive & Sumneytown Pike), where his father George had taught before him. In the 1890s, Alvin also worked as a surveyor, and several of his skillful land surveys are in the MHC collection.

Survey of Levi Alderfer’s farm on the Branch Creek, Lower Salford, by Alvin Alderfer, 1890. Mennonite Heritage Center Collection; gift of Jacob C. Landis (2006.12.1)

Alvin’s father had grown up in the Salford Mennonite congregation, but because of his progressive tendencies never joined, even though his wife Mary was a faithful member. Alvin also married a Salford Mennonite girl, but they joined the more progressive “New Mennonite” Eden congregation at Schwenksville in 1897, where Alvin’s friend William S. Gottshall was the pastor.

Alderfer worked to “put Harleysville on the map.” After clerking in Menno Clemens’ store, Alvin became a partner both in Manasses Clemens’ creamery and in a local clothing factory, and in 1909 was a key organizer and first president of Harleysville National Bank. He also founded in 1915 what later became the Harleysville Insurance Company, and around the same time helped organize the Harleysville Beneficial Association and Harleysville Savings & Loan Association (now Harleysville Bank). For a number of years, he served as chairman of the board of Grand View Hospital, and as treasurer of Eden Mennonite Church and the Eastern District Mennonite Conference. Alvin and Mary Alderfer’s family of five daughters and sons-in-law all lived in Harleysville and were active in business, church, and community ventures.

Alvin C. Alderfer, as a surveyor circa 1890, and with wife Mary and children, 1927.

Rein A. Alderfer (1877-1962), the son of Abram B. & Helena Allebach Alderfer, was born on his parents’ farm near the village of Mainland in Lower Salford. After an eighth grade education in the local one-room school, he began working for his father on the farm.  In 1902, he married 18-year-old Susan A. Alderfer (1884-1981), a daughter of “Gentleman” Jacob S. & Caroline Alderfer Alderfer of Upper Salford. (There’s no mistake here – Susan’s full name after marriage was, Susan Alderfer Alderfer Alderfer!)  In early marriage, they both worked for Rein’s father, were baptized into the Salford Mennonite congregation, and began raising a family.  They bought the family farm around 1909.

Into this hard-working, musically-inclined, farm family came a major lifestyle change in 1915. Through the traditional “casting of lots”, Rein was ordained a minister in the Salford congregation, to the shock of many, and without any training or preparation.  He was now expected to stand before the congregation and preach a sermon every couple weeks, with little preparation. There was no compensation for this and other pastoral work, except an occasional “love gift”, and he would have to continue his farming operation. The ordination was for life.  Both he and Susan were now expected to uphold the discipline of the church, especially in their dress and other outward forms of piety, and they were expected to host many church visitors in their home, especially visiting preachers and their spouses.

Rein and Susan Alderfer at their marriage in 1902 and as preacher and wife in 1947.

After Rein’s ordination, it was rumored by some that his name had been specifically placed in the lot to influence him toward more loyalty to the church. Several of Susan’s siblings had been drawn to the local Mennonite Brethren in Christ (now Bible Fellowship Church), a more charismatic and emotional group. Even though he never became a gifted preacher, Rein and Susan did become loyal and devout servants of the congregation.  Among the beliefs undergirding the calling and ordination of men with no training for ministry, was that whether or not the person became a good speaker, the congregation would be expected to pray for him, and “submit” to his preaching.  Rein was the first English preacher at Salford and continued in ministry until about a year before his death in 1962.

Sources on the Alderfer family

Alderfer, Joel D. Peace Be Unto This House: A History of the Salford Mennonite Congregation, 1717-1988.  Harleysville, PA: Salford Mennonite Church, 1988.

Heckler, James Y. The History of Harleysville and Lower Salford Township. Harleysville, PA: Harleysville News Office, 1888.  Available online at https://archive.org/details/historyoflowersa00heck

Ruth, Jay. Looking at Lower Salford: A Visual History of the Township. Harleysville, PA: Harleysville National Bank and Trust Company, 1984.

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.

Ruth, Phil Johnson, editor. Lower Salford, 1741-1991: A Pictorial Souvenir of the Township’s 250th Anniversary.  Lower Salford Historical Society, 1991.

Stanley, Helen Alderfer. The Alderfers of America, History and Genealogy. Allentown, PA: Schlechter’s, for the Alderfer Family, 1972.