Mountain Mary: The Medicine Woman of the Oley Valley

mountain mary.jpg
Log channel that carried water into Mountain Mary’s milk house. The outbuildings are part of her hill farm. Photo: BHC Research Library Collection

Nearly 200 years ago, this would have been Mountain Mary’s favorite time of year as she worked around her farm in the Oley Valley. The Oley area reminded her of the Rhine Valley, where she and her family emigrated from. They came here at about the time of the Revolution. Her farm was a hill farm of about 42 acres. Her farm consisted of a log home, an outdoor bake oven, a milk house, a lean-to for her cows, several large meadows and a small cemetery plot where her mother and two sisters were buried. She was very proud of her milk house, which was cooled by a stream of mountain water channeled into the building through hand-hewn logs. The stream began as a spring high on the hill and flowed through the building continuing downstream to irrigate a meadow.

Mountain Mary supported herself by making butter from her cow’s milk and by keeping bees for honey. She would then give the butter and honey to a neighbor, who would take it to market to sell in Philadelphia. She would often send along some food for the poor.

Mary was very religious and would read her German Bible; Piety, faith and charity were central to her life. In addition, Mountain Mary used many of the native herbs and plants which grew on the hillside for healing and poultices. She would collect and dry the herbs over the years. Then she used them to make lotions and salves. Her neighbors came regularly to her cabin for help or medical advice. She often prayed with them and shared her knowledge and teas, etc. She used peppermint and spearmint to make tea. Bergamot would come a little later in the spring. Dandelions even were used to make a spring tonic to pick up spirits. Berries made excellent sauces and juice.

Mountain Mary died on November 16, 1819 at age 73. More than 1,000 people attended her funeral, which was quite an honor. Some people call her Pennsylvania’s first “visiting nurse.” There are a lot of legends about Mountain Mary, including some that developed after her death. The strangest story is that she was engaged to a man named Theodore Benz, who fought and died with George Washington’s army in the Revolution. This has never been proven, but as they say, in every legend is a grain of truth.

Hallie Vaughan is a Women’s History enthusiast, instructor and reinactor and longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center. As a guest blogger Hallie will focus on Women’s History in Berks County. 


Mystery Woman #6 Answer 

Rachel Carson

10 thoughts on “Mountain Mary: The Medicine Woman of the Oley Valley

  1. Is there a description of her property location or the sign that designates the area she lived in?

    • The property is privately owned, and the owners have taken good care of the area around the grave of her, her mother and her two sisters. It is totally on private property and not “near the road” that you can drive by and see it. It’s on a back road in Berks county. There are not signs and the graves are only marked by stones, not headstone, but larger field stones.

    • Mountain Mary Road extends from Hill Church in Pike Township over the hillside to Hill Church Road, which ends in Pikeville. Most of the road is unpaved. Mountain Mary’s property is at the crest of the hill — look for the only streetlight along the road, in front of the property. There are still periodic group visits to her gravesite; friends of mine took one a few years ago.

  2. IN 1945 the first of many years of pilgrimage to Mt Mary’s grave was held. The event was held on a Sunday afternoon in May around the 15th of May. The group would meet at Hill church and process to her gravesite. At the gravesite they had a small service. They would have a hymn, invocation, greetings and an address by a local pastor. They would have more hymns. It sounds like it was a great tribute to an amazing woman. I believe, Ralph Berky of the Barto area, another naturalist in his own rite, was very instrumental in these pilgrimages. I have records from my aunt, Mary Riegner who was also a big part in the group doing preparations for the event. I’m so glad she has not been forgotten and I hope that Ralph Berky of the Barto area will have people who keep alive his memory.

  3. The name Jung is also associated with a large plant and seed resource. Wonder if there is more than coincidence?

  4. I really enjoyed this article! Thanks for sharing. I am trying to contact someone at the historical society who may be able to help me. I recently discovered two land warrants for an ancestor, Barnabas Rhodes, and the associated survey. Is it possible for someone at the center to determine where in Amity and near Colebrookdale these plots of land were if I were to send the survey? There is no overall map for their respective townships with the PMHC on their website. Kathy

    • Thanks for getting in touch Kathy! I forwarded your message to our archival staff at the Berks History Center’s Henry Janssen Library and they will be in touch via email. Take care!

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