Sunday, April 29, 2012

Hans Herr--My 18th Century Immigrant Ancestor

Is there a Historical Romance writer or reader who wouldn't enjoy a trip to visit their ancestoral homestead?

I just traveled with my dear mom to Lancaster, Pennsylvania for a week long visit with her first cousins. In addition to visiting family, we signed up for a genealogy conference at the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society. We learned and saw lots of fun things--and of course--ate great home cooked food!

We stayed with my first cousin (once removed), Ella and her mother Emma who is 93 years old. Since they are Old Order Mennonite, I was off the "grid" for my trip. Except for one day at the hotel for the conference, I had no internet or television. It was a great reconnection with my roots.

If anyone else out there is a fan of the television series, Who Do You Think You Are?--I felt as if I'd embarked on my own investigation!

The highlight of our trip was a visit to my 8-times Great Grandfather Hans Herr's homestead. It still stands as the oldest house in Lancaster County, and since they held church services in this home, it is considered the oldest Mennonite Meetinghouse in all of America. Built in 1719, this house became the home of my ancestors for 150 years to follow. This was a great freedom to stay in one place and practice their faith peacefully after having been persecuted for their faith in Switzerland since the Reformation in the mid 1500's.

In the 1710, 10,000 acres of land was granted by William Penn to nine Mennonite families who came by way of the ancient native path called the "Great Conestoga Road". Penn was given the land by King Charles II, as payment for a debt owed Penn's father. Though the King of Britain had given this charter to Penn, it didn't mean he'd paid the Natives already living here for the charter! Several Native American tribes still occupied the neighboring lands, from tribes including the Shenk's Ferry, Conoy, Lenape, Mohawk, Nanticoke, Seneca, Shawnee, Sesquehannock, and primarily the Conestoga. Another of my Mennonite immigrant ancestor's history recounts a telling that Hans Groff lived peaceably with his Native neighbors, speaking their tongue as fluently as his own mother tongue, and traded goods with them on a regular basis. Visit the website, to read about a present day peace-making venture with the Native Americans near the Hans Herr Museum.

Above the entrance, it fascinated me to see the date 1719, along with Hans' son, Christian Herr's initials, "17 CH HR 19".  I also loved to think that my 8-times Great Grandfather cleaned his boots on this iron crafted piece at the entrance steps of the house.

The house had a root cellar that would have stored cabbage, turnips, apples, onions, smoked meats, and their main drink of the time--apple cider. This kitchen hearth is original and very large. Behind it in the adjoining room was the "kachelofen"--a brick and plaster part of the hearth that held heat for hours after the hearth fire had gone out.

The kachelofen that extended into the "stube" or family room, made it the warmest room in the house, and likely the place that church meetings took place. On the table in the stube is a stand called a rush light. It used the stem of a bullrush or cattail which was soaked in fat or grease and once lit, provided flame free light and was less expensive than candles.

The bedroom holds a rope bed and straw mattress, with a feather bed on top for warmth. Though the immigrants had precious little furniture when they arrived, they prospered and by about 1750 many had schranks like this one for their clothing. Until then, they may have only had a trunk.

The plaster has been left off part of the ceiling in this room to show the insulation used. They wrapped long planks of wood with rye straw and caked them with clay mud. The rye straw was bitter to rats and mice, and the dried clay acted as insulation and a firebreak between floors and rooms. The children would have slept in the first attic that was also used as storage, while the second attic served as additional storage and could be heated by an iron stove.

"Even though there appear to be gaps between the shingles, the roof is watertight sidelap as well as an overlap. The roof shingles are quite long and have a some of the tools used to build houses like the 1719 Herr House are located in the attic. These include broadaxe, used for hewing logs into beams, and a froe, used to split shingles. After splitting a shingle it was shaved down using a schnitzelbank-, which held the shingles in place for working." 

(from The Swiss Herr Family of Lancaster

I was also fascinated with the windows, shutters, latches, and hingework. They must have had a blacksmith in the family, or nearby.

There is a local story that one night the Herrs warmed a hunting party of Natives for the night beside the kitchen hearth. Having been persecuted themselves, I wonder what kinship they might have struck with the Natives, and I'm glad to know there is currently an effort to restore a right relationship with them.

And of course, my writer's mind was flying fast and furious about what possible stories might abound...

If you travel to Lancaster, take time to see this wonderfully restored piece of history and visit