The Queen of Hearts: Miss Esther Keim

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The Berks History Center recently discovered several invitations from 1787, each requesting that a Miss Esther Keim accompany the sender to dances held at venues in the Reading area.  While the identity of the admirer remains a mystery, his affection for Esther is clear.  Interestingly, each of the invitations is written on the reverse side of a playing card.

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While the recipient may have been Esther Keim Schlegel (1771-1843) of Fleetwood, circumstantial evidence suggests that the recipient was likely Esther de Benneville Keim (1774-1830) of Reading.  Unfortunately for her mystery admirer, Esther never married.

The author of these invitations was not the only person who thought highly of Esther Keim.  Writing in 1874, her relative Henry May Keim said that “the old people of Reading to this day speak of her many deeds of good will and charity.  Her heart and means went for the encouragement of every act”.

Scholla: Four Generations of Wagoners August 3, 1943

Four Generations of Wagoners- 8/3/1943
Valentine, Philip, Daniel and Daniel Junior represent four generations of Moyers of Berks County who gained local fame as wagoners of the covered wagon days.

Valentine Moyer, teamster of the days of Braddock’s expedition toward Fort Duquense, was the first of the dynasty. Philip, his son, was an officer in the revolution and a wagon-master carrying supplies to Washington’s Army at Valley Forge. Daniel, the son of Philip, was the most famous of the four.

Great canvas-covered wagons, drawn by four jet-black Conestoga horses plied their way across the mountains between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Landis and Omwake in their “The Conestoga Six-Horse Bell Teams of Pennsylvania” are convinced that many of the early taverns named “Black Horse Inn” derived the name from Daniel Moyer’s powerful team of four blacks. It was custom in the early days of wagoning that whenever one teamster came to the rescue of another team that was stalled or mired the rescued teamster was obliged to surrender one or more of his hame bells to the rescuer. Daniel Moyer collected more such trophies than any other driver, hence the glory for his array of four black steeds.

Nevin Moyer, of Linglestown states that Daniel Moyer brought the first piano that reached Berks County to his home in a covered wagon. The plan called for instructing his son, Daniel Junior, in music and an instructor was engaged for that purpose. But young Daniel did not practice faithfully. Only on occasions when his father was at home could the young man be brought to touch the keys, and yet each time Daniel ‘(senior)’ arrived home his son was seated at the piano. The boy had heard the tinkle of the hame bells which announced his father’s approach. However it appears that the musical training of young Daniel Moyer was not wasted because it was he who held the post of bugler for the cavalry which escorted Lafayette during his visit to Lancaster in 1825. The escort was made up of a cavalcade of covered wagons.

From a local standpoint, the most remarkable fact about Daniel Moyer (senior) is a feat of herculean strength as recorded by Ann Hark in her book “Hex Marks the Spot”. The test of strength took place at Charming Forge in western Berks County. Moyer and a rival teamster were testing which of the two was the stronger.

The two men stood erect while pieces of pig iron were placed upon their backs until each man was weighed with over a half-ton of metal. Neither man broke under the terrific strain, but onlookers gave a resounding cheer when Daniel Moyer strode forward carrying his load on his back while the other man remained rooted to the spot.

Conestoga Wagon. Source:
Conestoga Wagon. Source:

Scholla: Fighting Cocks

Fighting Cocks

Mr. M. Walter Dundore, of Beloit Wis., sends us a clipping from the Reading Times of May 12, 1937, under the caption “Fifty Years Ago”. In the clipping there is a brief account of a cockfight on the outskirts of Reading which in 1887, attracted 100 “sportsmen.” The cocking main was between two birds, one from Pottsville and the other from Reading, and the Reading bird was the winner.

Mr. Dundore also enclosed a short sketch describing this “sport.” We quote directly from the account.

“The fights would be scheduled to take place in a barn back of the leading tavern and one had to be properly vouched for to gain admittance to the fighting arena and betting ring.

“The pit was about 12 feet square, with sides built of board two  feet high and sloping outward. The floor of the pit was of red clay. Several rows of planked seats surrounded the pit where spectators sat discussing the merits of the contending birds.

“Suddenly two men enter the pit from opposite sides, each holding a game cock. The birds have been weighed and matched to within a few ounces. Both men come together in the center of the pit and both hold out their birds so that their beaks touch. For a few seconds the jaunty cocks are allowed to peck at each other until they are thought to be primed for the fray. A referee looks on.

“Now the two owners set their birds down, four feet apart and at a signal from the referee they release them and the contest begins. The fighters suddenly strike. In the lightning –like flutter of flying feathers  they rise three feet off the pit floor, each cock trying to pass over the head of the other, striking backward with their deadly spurs in the struggle for supremacy.

“Much of the time is consumed by the cocks walking about, eyeing each other and sparring for position. After a half hour of gaffing and pecking, one of the birds usually succumbed. The winner struts over to the beaten bird and pecks at It, thus declaring its own victory.”

This type of “sport” is now outlawed and properly so. Animal baiting is a survival of ancient and pagan lore and has no place in our scheme of things. We present the story here because it does format part of the pleasures of the past and therefore is Scholla, or an Echo of the past.


Scholla: Barn Raising (Scheier uffschlage) April 7, 1943

Barn Raising        4/7/1943

Barn raisings, or Scheier uffschlage, are not as common today, as they were a generation or two ago. Now and then barns are replaced and new ones built but the time has passed when new farms are being developed, calling for new houses and barns.

In times past barn raisings were social gatherings attended by almost a hundred neighbors who donated their time and effort to place the beams and rafters and push the huge sides of the barn into place.

Timber was cut and hewn in advance of the day set for raising the barns. Every piece of lumber was marked, usually with some code, designating the place it was to occupy in the completed structure. All of the timber was brought to the spot where the barn was to be erected and placed in readiness for many hands that would arrive on raising day.

Stone masons built the foundation walls in advance of the actual raising. Master carpenters had cut the notches and pegs; measured all of the areas, and sawed the pieces to fit. Frequently the sides of the barn were completed in advance with all boards nailed into place while the huge frames lay upon the ground like wooden platforms.

On raising day the neighbors assembled. The more agile ones climbed with the rising structure to fit the rafters and beams into a roof while the husky ones applied brawn and sinew to carrying the heavy pieces and raising the barn sides into position.

After the work was done all hands moved to the cellar of the farm house where great kegs of cider or whiskey were disgorging their contents to the thirsty ones.  The long butcher-table was loaded with food for the hungry. This was their reward picnic time all over again.

The Swiss-type bank-barn is to be found only in Pennsylvania Dutch communities. If you espy a barn with a “forebrau” in some other section of the country you will find that it was built by a Pennsylvania Dutchman. Because of this unique feature on the American scene it may be worthwhile to list the names of parts of the barn as they are known in the dialect and ask readers to give the English equivalents, if possible.

Here are some of the dialect words, referring to parts of a barn, with which we challenge you. Send your answers in care of Scholla:

  1. Spanpett
  2. Darrich zug
  3. Mauer-latt
  4. Forebau
  5. Owwer-den
  6. Frucht Kammer
  7. Dachstuhl
  8. Fuder-gang
  9. Leede
  10. Zoppe
  11. Bohre
  12. Schprusse
Barn Raising in Berks County. November 25, 1913. Courtesy of the Historical Society of Berks County.
Barn Raising in Berks County. November 25, 1913. Courtesy of the Historical Society of Berks County.

Scholla: Witch of the Schuykill

Scholla: The Witch of the Schuykill  June, 1941

In 1872 Reading boasted of a literary publication which bore the caption “Reading Lyceum Review.” It was neither magazine nor newspaper, but rather a combination of both. In its November issue one who signed himself as “H.W.Z.” related the story of the witch of the Schuykill. Because of its local setting the tale may be of interest to Scholla readers.

A beggar approached a group of newspapermen in Reading and asked for a pittance. The gentleman of the “fourth estate,” ever anxious for a scoop wand with noses for news promised to meet his request provided he would tell a good story. Accordingly, he regaled the scribes with the following account.

Early in the 19th century there lived an elderly woman, known to the Berks residents as “Dame Ellen.”  Her home was on the banks of the Schuykill River, on Green Tree Road, near Green Tree Tavern: According to “H.W.Z.”  she was an “an attenuated female of most hideous countenance, ogle-eyed and crooked-kneed” all of which means that she was ugly. There were stories of her rides on a broomstick with her demon lover; of the orgies of her feast on the occasion of the Witches’ Sabbath; of the farmer’s milk that sour when she passed his barn; of thefts and depredations of all sorts that were charged to her evil incantations and of the evil eye and other manifestations of sorcery.

She gained her livelihood by telling fortunes of the credulous and by light-fingered pilfering at public gatherings. This income was supplemented by the produce from her small garden and charitable gifts of cast-off clothing and the like.

One day Dame Ellen was missed by some of her neighbors. They had not seen her stir about her garden the blinds and shutters of her house were in the same position for weeks on end and something must be wrong. A group of young men decided to investigate. They approached her house and shouted “Hail, Evil One.” There was no response. Braving the wrath of the spirits the men entered the house and found the partly decomposed body of the unhappy woman.

Placed upon a table, alongside a spirit lamp there lay a sealed packet. The investigating neighbors opened the packet and found, therein, the sad story of Ellen Hurton’s life. She had been reared near Providence, RI. Disaster beset her family when she was quite young and all of her relatives had perished in an epidemic. Alone in the world she had accepted marriage to a coarse drunkard who beat her and disfigured her features by his cruel tortures. Although almost penniless she had left her New England home and had built for herself a hermitage on the banks of the Schuykill. There she had been forced to eke out an existence by methods which had earned her the title of the Witch of the Schuykill.

Archival Notes: It is well documented that there was a Green Tree Tavern on the northwest corner of 6th and Penn Streets. Later owners renamed it the Keystone House, and the property eventually became the site of Hotel Penn. The article says that she lived near Green Tree Tavern on Green Tree Road, but 6th street’s previous name was Prince Street. Which makes this archivist reluctant to name that as our tavern in question. Further information provided from the township of Cumru mentions a Green Tree Tavern. “Schuylkill Road, opened in 1750, followed along the Western bank of the Schuylkill River by way of Plow Tavern and Green Trees Tavern through Cumru, Caernarvon and Robeson Townships.” ( ). By Researching Plow Tavern in the Passing Scene vol. 14 pg. 186 George Meiser IX provides us that Schuykill Road is now Route 10. As to the particular location, due to time constraints I must end my investigation. Anyone who is interested please pick up where I left off and feel free to provide your answer in the comments section. Thank you! Have a great weekend!

View of Schuykill River Courtesy of the Berks County Historical Society.
View of the Schuykill River Courtesy of the Berks County Historical Society.

Scholla: Tally Ho! May 5, 1941

Scholla: Tally Ho! 5/5/1941

We cannot help wondering just what the dialect equivalent was for the ringing call “Tally Ho!” so reminiscent of the old stage coach days. A few generations ago, and within the memory of many of us there were a number of stage lines extending from Reading into the more remote parts of the county. There were lines leading to Shillington and westward, to Boyertown and to Bernville. They carried express, freight, passengers and the mail.

The coaches were closed and built to accommodate from six to a dozen passengers. At the rear there was a section of the coach set apart for freight and a large canvass which was fastened to the roof could be dropped over the protruding cargo. This section was called the Boot. Most coaches had the inscription U.S. MAIL lettered on each side.

The Bernville route was the longest. It extended from Reading to the Bernville Station at the Eagle Hotel and then continued on through Schaefferstown, Rehresburg, and Bethel. From the Bernville Station a spur line extended to Mohrsville.

The stage coach left Reading for Bernville at 2 p.m. and traveled by way of Leinbach’s Hotel or State Hill. It reached Bernville at 6 p.m. and then continued during the night to Bethel, returning to the Bernville depot early the next morning.

In bad weather it was almost a herculean task to keep the mails moving. Usually two horses were used but when the roads were bad and snow drifted four steeds were hitched to the wagons. The following words are expressed by one who remembers the scenes he describes. “It was a thrilling sightp; four steaming horses bringing the stage through the bad roads. The drivers deserved much praise.”

The drivers of the old time stage coach were a hardy lot. Among those driving back in the 1880’s was Jacob Bordner who covered the Bernville route for many years. He held the government contract to carry the mails to Bernville and all intersecting points and routes. Another driver was John Haas, a quiet, reserved man, who drove the Bethel stage. The Mohrsville spur line was in charge of a genial old fellow named Christ Koenig.

Conerning Koenig there is a story told that he was impatient with visitors who remained too long. On one occasion he remarked to his wife sleepily “Sarah, mir welle ins Bett, Die Leit welle Haem.” His guests took the hint and departed.

One of the earliest stage coach drivers on the wild and wooly west was nick named Curly. His route led from Sacramento, California to the gold mines. Passengers would schedule their trips in order to ride on Curly’s coach because he drove so well and regaled his passengers with native Pennsylvania Dutch humor. His real name was Gerhart, and his home was Reading, PA.  TALLY HO!

Graeff, Arhur D. Scholla: Tally Ho! Reading TImes. May 5, 1941

Old Stage Coach. Taken June 29, 1923 by M.A. Gruber at a Parade in Womelsdorf, PA. Courtesy of the Berks County Historical Society
Old Stage Coach. Taken June 29, 1923 by M.A. Gruber at a Parade in Womelsdorf, PA. Courtesy of the Berks County Historical Society

Scholla: Broom Making May 2, 1941

Scholla 5/2/1941 Broom making

One of the handcrafts that is rapidly disappearing is described in the following letter sent to the column by Frank W. Matz, of Mohnton.

Broom corn is a variety of maize and its cultivation is similar to that of ordinary field corn. However the seeds of broom corn grow on sprays and not on the ears. These seed sprays become top heavy as they reach maturity and stalks must be bent at the stem, causing the seed pods to hang downward almost perpendicularly. This will insure the development of straight straws. Once the straws are mature they are cut and dried. The seeds are removed with a curry comb.

The first process in broom making is to assort the straws into two classes, those with thick heart-stems and those that have thin heart stems. The latter will provide a finer texture of straw materials for broom manufacture. The ends of the stem are cut thin. The straws are tied into bundles according to the size of the broom that is planned. The thick stemmed hearts are placed on the interior of the bundle and the finer straws form the circumference.

The next step calls for the fastening a one-fourth-inch rope to a door or some secure place. The thinned stems which have previously been soaked in boiling water are wound tightly by wrapping the loose end of the rope around the bundle and drawing on it. In this way the bundle becomes a tight mass. At this point thick twine is wound about the straw bundle  and the rope can be removed. The result is a cylindrical broom, without a handle.

A pointed handle is inserted into the bundle and two nails driven into the end of which holds the broom straws.

The cylindrical mass must be flattened. A home-made clamp or press is used for this purpose.

The clamp is held on the craftsman’s lap while he sewed the ends of the straws together. After the broom is fastened securely in the press a twine is wound around the bundle where the stitching is to be done. Each stitch is looped through the surrounding twine. Small brooms usually have two rows of stitches and larger ones have three or four rows. A steel needle, about four and one-half inches long is used. The needle is bent slightly near the point and flat at the bend. After the sewing operation is completed the ends of the protruding straws are cut and a new broom is ready for spring cleaning.

Broom manufacturing in Kutztown courtesy of the Berks History Center.
Broom manufacturing in Kutztown courtesy of the Berks History Center.