Selections from Mahlon Moyer’s “Parcemia”

Written by Forrest Moyer on January 10, 2020

Mahlon G. Moyer (1853-1939) was raised in a Mennonite family of New Britain Township, Bucks County. As a young man he moved to Philadelphia and became a telegraph operator; married and started a family. Later he settled in North Wales, where he lived the rest of his life.

Unwilling to join the conservative Mennonite Church of his parents, Mahlon was baptized in the Presbyterian Church at age 28. His great-grandson, Robert “Bob” Walters, returned to the Mennonites and served as pastor in several local congregations. Bob donated a photocopy of Mahlon’s 171-page manuscript memoir to the Mennonite Heritage Center. It was written in 1928 and entitled Parcemia, or the Story of an Obscure Life; it is full of fascinating details of the mid-19th century. Here are just a few interesting excerpts (headings added).

Faithful Parcemia [Parchment]:

In one of my wakeful periods last night my mind reverted to scenes and incidents in my youth, and the thought occurred to me that I should commit to your retentive plaque some details of a life lived under the gracious merciful unerring guidance of my Holy Father.

To God’s glory and praise, I want to say that I had my ancestry among the German’s, and the Dutch, who were Christians as far back as I have been able to trace the stock.

My mother was Barbara Godshalk [1816-1890], daughter of John Godshalk, who lived on a farm near New Galena in Bucks County, Pennsylvania…. My father was born in Montgomery County, where he lived until about fourteen years of age when he, after his Father’s death, went to Bucks County, finally finding a home in the family of John Godshalk, whose daughter Barbara he later married. At this time the Godshalk home was located on a farm, which contained a saw, grist and flour mill.

My Father’s name was Christian Moyer [1814-1897]. He later assumed the management of farm and mill, and here seven of the eight children born to this union first saw the light of day. Isaiah the youngest of the family being born at another farm-mill property a few miles distant to which the family moved about 1855…which had been known as the Solomon Wetherill farm, and where we remained for about six years.

Map of New Britain Township, 1850. Source: Library of Congress.
The Weatherill farm and grist mill to which the Moyer family moved about 1855 is circled. The area’s name changed from “Gurden Glen” to Galena when Christian Moyer and his neighbor Daniel Barndt discovered galena–lead ore that contains silver–on their farms, and the valley went to mining. After the mines were exhausted, the creek was dammed and the old farms are now under Lake Galena in Peace Valley County Park.

Childhood on the farm

…what a delightful sensation it was to our feet to press the softened roadbed on the run to the orchard!

The buildings were situated about fifty yards from the public road, a lane leading to the house and another to the barn, with a drive way also leading from the house to the barn a half block distant, and a little meadow along-side this driveway, where [brother] Isaiah and I spent many joyous hours romping on the lush meadow grass, while the birds, such as swallows, robins, blue-jays and others filled the air with song and frolic.

On the opposite side of this short drive-way, and extending the distance between the two lanes, was the apple orchard; and I recollect vividly the luscious fruit these trees yielded in those days without any knowledge of the various sprays that are now so essential to productive harvests. I remember too, how, after the early summer showers, we kiddies used to run to the orchard, barefooted, to pick up the windfalls of harvest apples and early varieties that the wind and rain would precipitate to mother earth for our eager delectation; and what a delightful sensation it was to our feet to press the softened roadbed on the run to the orchard!

…My Father had unbounded faith in God’s word, and believed it wrong to distrust His promise of protection, hence would not have any lightning rods on his buildings; but lightning is one of the forces that the farmer is at least apprehensive [of]. And I can see now, how, during lightning storms Father would sit in the open doorway of the living room, with his eyes on the barn ready if necessary to rescue the live-stock in case of necessity. During all our life however, no such precaution was necessary in our home.

School memories

Our school year consisted of five and one half months—all the time the farmer could spare his children from the pressing toil of the home. Our little school house was about a mile or more from the home beyond a long steep hill. In my earlier school experience when there was snow on the ground, Isaac used to carry me on his back up the steep slippery hill.

A typical 19th-century schoolhouse. Image from H. L. Fischer’s Die Alte Zeit (1879).

The Pennsylvania Dutch language, or dialect, was spoken in the family, so that my earliest contact with the English language was in the little square school house, where the curriculum consisted of the three R’s with some Geography, and grammar thrown in. My first teacher was Zenith (or Asenath) Rowland. Followed by Enos M. Kratz. Then Isaiah Clymer from whom most of my tutoring was received. The last winter of my school life, however, was under the tutelage of Christian Gross, whose fine Christian character I am sure left an enduring impress upon my own career.

I recall that during one summer when I was about seven years old, Amanda and I were permitted to attend summer school as it was then called; these summer schools were maintained by a sufficient number of tax payers willing to compensate a teacher at a certain rate per capita such teacher would take the school for a few summer months. Amanda and I were accordingly sent to Iron Hill School, distant about two miles, where we walked daily. On the way lived a very kind-hearted old lady whom we called “Aunty Myers”, who made just such cakes and other delicious baking as is an irresistible bait for hungry little mouths, and we frequently found excuse to call at Aunty’s house in our journeys to and fro, where we always found a warm welcome and a nice toothsome treat.

Mother’s work in the 1850s

In those remote days it was necessary for the requirements of home and family that the farm provide most of the necessities of life; therefore the sheep furnished the wool for clothing in winter, and flax served the same purpose for summer weather; mother spun both wool and flax, and one of the sweet memories is the singing of Mother while sitting at the distaff spinning flax, or walking to and fro singing to the humming accompaniment of the large wool­ spinning wheel.

Mother at the wool spinning wheel. Image from H. L. Fischer’s Die Alte Zeit (1879).

There were no commercial bakeries in those days; therefore the housewife, instead of being served at the door daily with the staff of life, she early necessarily learned the art; and the same bi-weekly odor of fresh baking of bread, cakes, and pies—a raft of them—comes floating down to me through the years like the perfume of Araby. Besides the immediate family, on account of mill and farm work, it was necessary to have one or two hired men to assist, so that our family consisted of ten or eleven, and to feed this household entailed no small amount of planning and labor. Besides, the work of the dairy also fell to the women of the home, and one wonders how it was possible for them to have accomplished so much. Mother usually had one woman to help her and also to have the children’s clothes made, but she herself knit the stockings and mitts for the kiddies and men.

I remember that Orpha Hofford did much of the sewing, and that she made the first pair of trousers I wore, and that they were made of home-grown flax, which was spun by my Mother, woven by Joseph Bishop, a neighbor, and that they were patterned after the style of broad­falls. What I did not remember, however, Orpha told me about twenty years ago—namely—that when they tried to put these fashionable trousers on me, I fought like a tiger against the innovation, preferring my frock [toddler dress].

Church at Line Lexington

The Mennonite meeting house was about three miles from our house, and services only every alternate Sunday, but then every member of the family was required to be in attendance, services beginning at nine a.m. and continuing until twelve, usually sermons by two or more persons…. The services were conducted entirely in the German language. The seats were plain board benches without back-rests, the women in one portion, the men in the other portion of the building, the young and old men occupying the high benches near the wall, the boys on lower benches at the front. The singing was under the leadership of a precener [preceptor?]; there were no musical instruments in any of these meetinghouses.

“…Services beginning at nine a.m. and continuing until twelve, usually sermons by two or more persons…entirely in the German language. The seats were plain board benches without back-rests….” Similar interior: Delp’s Meetinghouse, Franconia.

And as it was customary for every mother to begin to bring to meeting her children from the time they were six weeks old—and all wives bare children then, except in cases of physical disability—no minister would think of showing any annoyance because of the wail of infancy, although whenever a child would become very troublesome the mother would take it into the ante-room provided for the purpose, and pacify it.

I was of a very timid temperament, and sometimes, even when five or six years of age, when the minister would speak very loud or in a vehement manner I would become frightened and cry, one of my brothers would take me outside until the vehement orator had been relieved, or until after the service—characteristics that certainly did not presage boisterous Methodism, on my part. [Moyer chose Presbyterianism instead.]

Christian Moyer founds New Galena

…Father was induced to buy four acres of land at the cross-roads near the Solomon Wetherill farm…and thereon erect a store and other buildings for the future home, to which we moved on April 10th, 1862…. The new store was expected to be a paying proposition, because of the influx of miners required to work the developing leadmines; besides, with the progress of the war, prices were constantly rising, thus adding to profits. Enos [Mahlon’s eldest brother], who had been in a store at Line Lexington for several years, was familiar with the business, and was taken home to aid in making the business a success; but on account of various building operations, etc., the whole venture proved…unwise and brought deep sorrow to Mother and Father….

My Father named the new village “New Galena”, and he became its first Post-Master.

Bucks County Atlas, 1876. Notice the lead mines around New Galena.

In this new home there was at least one feature absent, that had been an adjunct of the former homes. I refer to the “guest chamber” so called; formerly there had been provided one or two beds for the accommodation of wayfarers, peddlers, and beggarmen who roamed the country; and it was the custom never to turn away any member of this transient guesthood without entertainment—if they called in daytime, mother fed them, and if the “day was far spent” they would be provided with a comfortable bed together with supper and breakfast. How many “angels” were thus “entertained unawares”, deponent saith not. But in those primitive customs my sainted Mother took great delight; now however, living in a village with hotel accommodations, this did not seem necessary, and the Guest-Chamber was reserved exclusively for “besuch”, i.e. personal friends.

First trip to Philadelphia

…I fell asleep early in the night, and toward morning awoke to find myself doubled up in a tub of grapes, which had been intended for market.

Up to the age of twelve, I had never been to Philadelphia; about that time Enos, who had married some time before, and was then carrying on a Commission Market business, and was driving to the City weekly with a load of Farmer’s produce, permitted me to go along and see the great city.

The start was made from New Galena in the evening, and driving all night so as to reach the market early next day. The load consisted of poultry, butter, eggs, fruit, and vegetables. Of course I fell asleep early in the night, and early toward morning I awoke to find myself doubled up in a tub of grapes, which had been intended for market. My brother was a good­natured sort of fellow, and I am quite sure my regret was equal to his disappointment, but that did not satisfy the demand of the patron who supplied the grapes, which were to be sold on commission, and what satisfaction Enos made I never learned.

I remember on this trip that somewhere in North Philadelphia, we stopped, among many other places, at a very nice hotel, and in his conversation with the matron there, Enos spoke of my skill in music. Now my skill consisted of such music as we sang in day school, and which I had learned to play on the Melodeon, which Father had bought a year or two before. When the lady asked me into her parlor to play her piano, I had to tell her I had never even seen a piano—which was the truth—nevertheless, I made the attempt to display my Mendelssohnian skill; and I doubt not the Lady told all her friends of the musical prodigy! that had honored her with his masterpieces.

Sunday School

…these boys induced me to ask permission of my Father to accompany them to Sunday School…. After a bit of hesitation, Father said, “I don’t care”; accordingly I was enrolled…

In the days of which I am speaking the Mennonites had no Sunday Schools, and I think rather disapproved of them as being a necessary adjunct of the Mennonite Gemeinde—but of the ”churches” only [Moyer may be referring to progressive Mennonite congregations]. The time came however, when several of my intimate friends, also sons of Mennonites, went to the Dunkard Sunday School at Fountainville, and these boys induced me to ask permission of my Father to accompany them to Sunday School, which was about two miles from New Galena, the sessions being held on Sunday afternoon. After a bit of hesitation, Father said, “I don’t care”; accordingly I was enrolled as a member of the school. Our text book was the Catechism—at least that is all I recall—and we were awarded red and blue tickets for committing to memory answers to the Catechetical questions….

As I grew older I came under the influence of Revival meetings, and the little coterie of young fellows with whom I associated used to confer upon the great spiritual themes we would hear emphasized, and confess to each other how desirable it would be to avail ourselves of the rich offers of mercy as they were presented; and while the Mennonite doctrine conforms to that of the Revivalists, the methods of presentation, and the Church government were so foreign to that of our ancestral religion that we were restrained at that time from taking the step that would have meant so much in after life. This reflection leads me to say that it is dangerous for parents to interpose, on any ecclesiastical grounds, their objections to the free exercise of conscientious spiritual inclinations on the part of the children; the only consideration should be, is it of the Holy Ghost? If so, no human objection should be allowed to intervene.

Sabbath restrictions (and breaking them)

…one Sunday some of our local boys discovered a bumble-bee’s nest in sight of the hotel porch, and raised the war-cry for an onslaught…which the Neely boys thought a horrible desecration of the day….

With the progress of the mining of lead, there was a gradual influx of miners from other sections of the country, and as a result an increased demand for houses. Enos therefore started building in the neighborhood, selling or renting the houses as was expedient. A hotel was also erected across from the store, all of which were occupied without delay. Enos himself conducted the hotel for a time, filling the house with boarders from the city.

Among these were the Neely boys. They were Charles about my own age, and Frank (I think). These boys were real Christians and strict Sabbatarians; and I recall that one Sunday some of our local boys discovered a bumble-bee’s nest in sight of the hotel porch, and raised the war-cry for an onslaught on the find, for which all the neighborhood were ready, either on Sunday or any other day. As a matter of course I assayed to join in the melee, which the Neely boys thought a horrible desecration of the day, and as I now see it I quite agree with them, but with the peculiar training of that day I had no scruples; until after the fray was over and Charley and Frank pointed out to me what it meant to a real Christian. To me it now seems strange that, conscientious as my Father was, on many Christian lines, he had no objections to games of play around the place on Sunday, but did object to the boys coming to our place to play during week days, claiming that then was the time to be at work.

Tailor Huber, the interesting drunk

…kneeling down, he three times touched his head with his hand, and with a motion of adoration waved his hand at the remains lying in the coffin….

When Father first opened the store, there was the necessity for a practical Tailor near at hand to enhance the sales of material for men’s clothing, as ready made clothing was virtually unknown at that time, at least for the rural folks. So it was that he found a Tailor in the person of John Huber, about sixty years old, a German, to come and live with us. He occupied the second story room over the store end of the building in which we also lived.

Huber was a fine specimen of a German gentleman when sober, but with the characteristic love of beer, there were times when his appetite for the intoxicating mug ran away with his discretion—and his decency. When my Uncle Enos Hunsberger was buried, Huber, who knew my Uncle well, wished to attend the funeral, and was permitted to do so, and being a good walker, he with cane in hand sallied forth on the three mile walk. On the way he stopped at Hoffman’s Hotel to refresh himself, but inadvisedly inebriated himself, and during the solemn services of the funeral he approached the coffin, and kneeling down, he three times touched his head with his hand, and with a motion of adoration waved his hand at the remains lying in the coffin, and then arising, passed out.

My Father witnessed this procedure with horror, but with discreet reserve, until he got home. Later when Huber reached our house, he, in his maudlin politeness, offered his hand to Father with some commonplace remark, which Father resented with manifestations of disgust, and then severely reprimanded Huber for his outrageous ceremonial at the funeral. Notwithstanding his drunken condition, Huber was crushed beyond expression and gave way to bitter tears because of Father’s attitude, explaining that he meant to show his respect for the deceased.

Huber’s working hours were without limit. He slept in the same room in which he wrought, and worked sometimes late in the evening, so that I spent many hours in this shop after darkness set in; he was full of anecdote and narrative of life in the homeland, and I loved to hear his stories of adventures and travels, but incidentally I also developed a liking for his pipe, and cards, the former of which later cost me bitter struggle to break away from.

Indeed the habit formed before the age of adolescence, I feel sure, was the means of my stunted growth. Of course the habit was at first unknown to my parents and as the habit was so general, I found opportunities, even outside the shop, to indulge without at first being discovered by the family.

Teenage years in Dublin

I had agreed to enter the employ of Jonas D. Moyer & Co. at the Dublin store; accordingly I went there on the first of April 1870. This was the largest store in this part of the state, as a country store. They carried a full line of hardware, iron, harness and carriage findings, queensware, and furniture, indeed almost anything from needle to warship! There were four members in the firm and five or six employees. Here I was to receive $150.00 for the first year, that with board and washing also. I boarded in the Moyer family, and roomed with one of the employees.

Image from Bucks County Atlas, 1876.

The work was very hard, and the hours indefinitely long, but the fellowship was pleasant, and I enjoyed the work. After hours we took time to play backgammon, of which I was very fond. Edwin R. Jones, one of the firm, was still single, and took a liking to me; which was fortunate for me, as he had a splendid horse and carriage, and took me on many delightful drives, and into nice company. His pacing mare had been on the Doylestown race track in various races, and it was our pride to pass almost anything on the road in the days when that meant so much to the young fellows.

During watermelon-time Isaac Rickert, who lived on a farm near Dublin, used to ask us out to a watermelon feast. He raised the finest watermelons and cantaloupes that I have ever eaten, and those occasions used to be looked forward to eagerly….

One Saturday afternoon there came to the store a gentleman with his two daughters, both dressed in city fashion; and all the fellows were on the qui vive [lookout] as to who they might be, and each maneuvered to get the opportunity to wait on them, but Ella Moyer succeeded to the welcome task. After the departure of the strangers we learned that the ladies were Misses Annie and Lizzie Keller from Plumsteadville. There was a prosperous Presbyterian Church at that place those days, and Ed Jones and I divined the Ladies would probably be at Church the next morning and we agreed to go to that service!, which we did, taking seats in the gallery so as to get a view of the charmers, when they came in; and our wish was realized, but we did not get an introduction to them, and went away disappointed, and I never saw them again until a year or two later, of which, more later in this narrative [Lizzie Keller later became Mahlon’s wife].

There was in Dublin a Lutheran Church, but so far as I now know the Store folks were mostly unchurched; and while all of my associates were of average moral probity, there were none of a virile religious mold. Jonas D. Moyer was a Dunkard, and a man of splendid Christian character, but I was never, to my recollection approached with reference to my relation to the Saviour. The preaching in the Dublin Church was not of the Evangelistic type, so that I drifted with the crowd.

There were occasional entertainments in the church in which some of the young men took part, but none of these had the Evangelistic appeal. I remember going once with Ben. Shearer to the Episcopal Church in Doylestown, and also with a friend to the Catholic Church at the same place, merely as a matter of curiosity; I wonder now that I was not oftener appealed to by some of the Christians, some of whom I met daily. This reflection brings home the thought that I should do for those out of Christ, whom I now meet, what I feel should have been done to me at a time when my mind was so impressionable. How little we think of the sublime opportunities, and the great responsibility that is ours, in a world in which we are maintained as witnesses to Him who loved us with a sacrificial love….

Mahlon’s tale goes on for many more pages, including accounts of world travels. Stop in the Heritage Center Library if you’d like to read it. The manuscript call number is Hist. Mss. 228.