New Back Bones 1/28/1944
One of the choicest bits of local lore centers about the village of Mt. Aetna in the northwestern tip of Berks County. In spite of its classical name on post office records the community is better known by its dialect name – Wohlheberstettle, named for Peter Wholheber, around one whose descendants this curious bit of folklore develops.
Have you ever heard of people who, complaining of a weak backbone, declared that they would have to go to “Wohlheberstettle fer en neier Rickschtrang griege,” or to go to Mt. Aetna to get a new backbone? The origin of that expression has intrigued Der Ewich Yeager for some time. Now with the assistance of several persons, namely, Ira Fisher, Ammon Weik, and Harvey Zeller, of Mr. Aetna; George Oxenreider and George Ruth, of North Heidelberg, and Albert Herbein, of Womelsdorf, we have pieced together the following sketch.
One, Peter Wohlheber, living near the western limits of the village named for his family, was a craftsman who meneded pocket-knives, replaced end clamps for scythes and did general repair work in iron materials. The spring blade of the pocket-knife is referred to as the “backbone” of the knife, and Wohlheber was the one man in the community who could replace the “backbone,” if broken. Facetiously, local people began to twit Wohlheber about replacing ailing backbones in humans.
At first this bit of fun-poking was not resented by the dwellers on the hill-top known as Mr. Aetna, but when strangers began to saunter into barrooms swaggeringly asking: “Is this the place where I can get a new backbone?” the villagers tired of the, by then, out-worn joke. Enough was enough.
To mention the word “Rickschtrang,” or backbone, became a fighting word wherever Mt. Aetnaens were assembled. Soon the taunting question was answered by:
“Yah! Mir kenne dir en neier Rickschtrang gewwe, awwer mer misse der Alt es aerscht raus schlage.” Yes, we can give you a new backbone but first we must knock out the old one.
Then the fight was on. Natives of the village assailed the jester with fists and claws bent upon protecting the fair name of their village. Sometimes the fight ended in a knockout for the one who had baited townspeople. When the fight terminated in this way it was customary to carry the unconscious victim to the banks of the Swatara and dip his body into the cooling waters of the creek to revive him. Such treatment, they assured the patient was necessary to restore an efficient backbone.
Once in a while the tables were reversed and the villagers received a drubbing. One Christel Hornish triumphed over a half dozen of this assailants. Whenever this happened it was decided that the patient did not need a new backbone after all and peace was restored.
Perhaps the most fitting conclusion to this account is a direct quotation from one of our informers. Ira Fisher, a young man, who averred: “Folks were not as civilized in those days as they are now.”