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.