William A. Derstine: Mennonite entrepreneur and leader

Written by Joel Alderfer on August 17, 2021

Over the last two years, grandchildren of William A. Derstine (1888-1961), of near Sellersville, PA, and a member of the Rockhill Mennonite congregation, have donated a small but interesting collection of his correspondence and photographs.

Derstine was an entrepreneur who owned several automotive garages, as well as a farm; became a lay leader in the Rockhill congregation, the Franconia Mennonite Conference, and in wider Mennonite Church concerns; and was active in civic organizations in the Sellersville-Telford area. Perhaps his most important church-related contributions were during the World War I years and following, advocating for the concerns of conscientious objectors, and involvement in post-war relief work in the Middle East.

Youth and starting in business

William was born and raised on the original Derstine homestead, along the North Penn Railroad, near the Rockhill Mennonite meetinghouse. Like most area farm boys, he attended the neighborhood grammar school, but went on to attend and graduate from the Sellersville High School in 1904. More unusual, he then took about a school year’s worth of business courses at Temple College (now University) in Philadelphia.

In 1907, he married his second cousin Ella A. Derstine (1888-1955), daughter of Andrew G. & Sallie Alderfer Derstine of the Rockhill congregation. They eventually had eight children, one of whom died in infancy.

Successful rabbit hunt: William Derstine (in driver seat) with his brother-in-law Harry A. Derstine (front passenger) in front of William’s “Palace Garage” in Quakertown, circa 1915. Men in back seat not identified.

Mechanically inclined, Derstine was involved in the early automotive business in the area, eventually establishing and operating several sales and repair garages in Quakertown, Souderton, Telford and Lansdale. His business in Quakertown, known as the “Palace Garage”, existed by 1914 – it’s listed in that year’s Farm and Business Directory of Bucks County. He operated that garage until about 1930, and sold Fords, Chryslers, Plymouths, Willys-Overlands and others. 

About 1924, William was elected president of the board of Grand View Hospital, Sellersville, and served for six years. He was also chairman of the building committee for the new Rockhill Mennonite meetinghouse, built in 1925.

Wartime peace service

During World War I (1917-18) Derstine made several trips with ordained Mennonite leaders to Washington D.C. to arrange meetings with senators and military leaders, and seek accommodations or exemptions for young conscientious objectors who were drafted. He was also in communication with members of the American Friends Service Committee during these years. It is not known how Derstine made these contacts and negotiations (none of that correspondence has been found), but according to later written accounts he was assertive in contacts with government leaders.

In early January 1919, the Mennonite Relief Commission for War Sufferers, based in Scottdale, PA, decided to send a group of workers to the “Near” East under the direction of the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief. William Derstine and Aaron Loucks (of Scottdale) were chosen to be leaders of this delegation of young men. Within weeks, the group was assembled and sailed January 25th from New York City for Syria aboard the Pensacola with tons of relief supplies. After reaching Beirut, then Constantinople [now Istanbul], Loucks accompanied a train-load of supplies into the interior and Derstine, with his mechanical knowledge, oversaw the huge operation of assembling hundreds of trucks to haul relief goods from seaport to countryside. They also investigated whether a separate Mennonite relief unit could be started there. Derstine and Loucks’ trip lasted about four months — on their way home they stopped in France to visit with young Mennonite relief workers serving there under the American Friends Service Committee.

Mennonite relief delegation at New York harbor just before sailing, January 25, 1919. Leaders Aaron Loucks on left, William Derstine on right. The young workers include Frank Stoltzfus, Orie O. Miller, Christian Graber, Ezra Deter, Silas Hertzler and David Zimmerman.

While Derstine was gone from home, his mother-in-law Sallie Alderfer Derstine died suddenly on January 31, a week after he had left New York City. He didn’t get word of this until March 29, while in Beirut. While he was in France, his wife Ella gave birth to their sixth child (a daughter) on April 22. He finally arrived home about four weeks later. The letters written to his wife and family while he was away are rather formal, fairly pious and paternalistic, and reveal the expectations of an absent father from a conservative religious community. We have to wonder how his wife experienced his absence.

Detail of letter dated February 8, 1919 on Derstine’s “Palace Garage” letterhead. This was apparently Derstine’s first letter written home after sailing from New York on the USS Pensacola. (See transcription below.) Twelve of his letters from this trip survive.
Ella Derstine Derstine, wife of William.

After returning home in May 1919, Derstine resumed his management of the Palace Garage in Quakertown and the operation of his farm near Sellersville. For a number of years, he served as superintendent of the Rockhill Mennonite Sunday School, and oversaw the construction of the new Rockhill meetinghouse in 1925. 

Rockhill Mennonite Meetinghouse, built 1925.

Conflict at church

Not long after this, William was disciplined by the Rockhill ministers and was either “set back” from communion or excommunicated for a time. Apparently, his progressive lifestyle had been questioned by some conservative members and the ministry of the congregation, and it became known that he was a member of the Rotary Club of Quakertown and had helped to organize a Rotary Club in Souderton-Telford. 

Eventually, likely through a confession, he was restored to full fellowship in the congregation. A second blow came to Derstine in 1930, when he went bankrupt in business. This caused financial distress for his two older brothers who had loaned him money, and it would have caused difficulty for his relationship with the congregation.

William with youngest son Richard and grandsons Harold Derstine & Ken Nase, circa 1937.

Even though he experienced financial failure during the Great Depression, he later became involved in fundraising for various Mennonite institutions and local and regional non-profit organizations. These included Goshen College, Hesston College, a Mennonite hospital in Puerto Rico, Grand View Hospital, Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Salvation Army. His financial and business management skills were known and respected.

William Derstine, circa 1945.

A letter home

Transcription of Derstine’s first letter home after sailing for the Near East:

On Board [USS] Pensacola, Feb. 8, 1919

Dear folks at home:

Finally got under way from New York at 10:45 Sat. Jan. 25.  Expect to arrive at Gibraltar at noon where we take on fresh water and some provisions after which we resume the journey for Beirut [Syria; now Lebanon], expecting to arrive about the 20th. The voyage has been rather a rough one having had rain & storm every day until Thursday; since then we have had some sunshine; sea is very calm this morning.

The boat is a U.S.S. cargo carrier, rather slow – 200 miles being about the average for 24 hours. There are 42 on board in our party, a crew of something over 100. We know very little more about our work than we did before leaving; we have two missionaries on board who have told us some things we didn’t know. These have had experience both before and during the war. It seems that these people whom we want to reach are trying to worship the true God, have been massacred and tortured for centuries but they are still holding on. They considered in the past that it was a necessary adjunct to their religion to sacrifice some of their people, considering it still a privilege to worship the true God. They cannot understand in what kind of country we are living where we can worship God according to the dictates of our conscience without being molested – perhaps we do not realize our privileges the way we should.

We have all felt the effects of the voyage more or less. I have not had to “throw up” so far, have felt most every other sensation, have been vaccinated, inoculated against typhoid and cholera, and have two more inoculations coming for dysentery. When a fellow isn’t seasick he feels bad from the effects of the inoculations. Have been feeling real good for the past few days. The experience thus far has been a valuable one for me; this [on board ship] was the most inactive period of my life – have had time for reflection and consideration. See many opportunities for improvement. We are studying Turkish, can better realize now why Billy [son] couldn’t count just as quickly as I wanted him to. Takes us older fellows several days to learn to count to ten in Turkish: Vir, Iki, uch, deort, bish, alti, yedi, sekiz, dokouz, on [?] is one to ten – you can learn awhile. Have a vocabulary of about 100 words – do not expect to get a working knowledge of the language during the short time we expect to stay. We are supposed to look [go] into Russia and stop off at France coming home.

I wrote to most everybody I know, seemingly so anyhow. Am writing to Mae, Anna & Eva trying to get them straightened out into the Church. Perhaps my writing to them away from home may have a different effect than appealing to them from home.

Wonder how everybody is getting along, trust all of you are happier than ever before. Remember me to the children, tell them that I want them to listen to what the older ones have to say to them. When spring comes have Harold and Helen whitewash the fences – they should be able to do it once in three years. Watch out for the garden as early as possible – I suppose H.W.C.[?] will get after the fences toward spring.

Have wondered how many people think that a fellow is foolish for leaving the comforts of home, associates and the like, to mind other people’s business. My thoughts run home continually, don’t work anything; don’t sleep anymore until 2 or 3 o’clock; have not eaten very much during the past week; cannot stand navy grub. I imagine I must have lost 10 or 15 lbs., expect to lose some more unless grub improves. I cannot eat “dog” meat.

Wonder how many think of us, whether those who were very much interested in us remember us, whether after their day’s work is done they reflect or whether we are not missed at all. Trust you are getting along better than ever before. Better have an understanding with Eva and pay her regularly for anything she does. I will try and settle with Lizzie, all depending on how well she behaves. I am concerned not in one of you, but all.

Expect to cable from Gibraltar if possible. Remember [pray for] us and the work.

W.A.D [William A. Derstine]

[P.S.] Letters will be appreciated. We are missing the company of those who think they talk too much. If you want the kitchen and upstairs papered, get after some paperer and do it. Tell father to get a furnace and put it in fireplace for heating water; tell him to get it big enough; put water in cistern as soon as weather permits. I insist that Lizzie washes over there then too. Get money from Quakertown to pay for furnace.

[P.P.S.] Dropped anchor at 12:30am. at Gib.[raltar] Spain on one side, Africa on the other. Remember me to all the children – Harold, Helen, Wm., Walter.

The Mennonite Heritage Center thanks Robert D. Moyer and Karen Moyer Weaver, grandchildren of William & Ella Derstine, for donating the surviving letters and photos.

William Derstine, circa 1955.


Joy Derstine Harris, Our Father’s Lamp and Mother’s Light: Ten Generations of the Dierstein Family in America (Harleysville, PA, 1981), 113, 119-120.

John L. Ruth, Maintaining the Right Fellowship: A narrative account of life… (Scottdale, PA, 1984), 441, 446-448.

John C. Wenger, “William A. Derstine: Franconia leader”, Mennonite Quarterly Review, LXII (October 1988), 455-460.

John C. Wenger, History of the Mennonites of the Franconia Conference (Telford, PA, 1937), 65-66, 72-73.

William A. Derstine Papers & Photos (MHEP Hist. Mss. 330), Mennonite Heritage Center, Harleysville, PA.