A Look Back in History: Colorful PA Dutch folk names are our ethnic heritage

1744 Oley Forge Ironmasters Mansion, now Raccoon Creek Antiques.
Submitted 1744 Oley Forge Ironmasters Mansion, now Raccoon Creek Antiques.

One needs only to examine a local phone directory to see if any PA Dutch people live in any U.S. state, as long as they have not Anglosized their German dialect name into American English: like Shoemacher into Shoemaker or Fenstermacher into Fenstamaker and Hoch into High. But while watching a state championship Pennsylvania high school wrestling match on television, I was particularly interested in a very good grabbler whose surname was Wasser, an interesting name for his German ethnic heritage. But if one translates his name into English, it would then change to Water; the German dialect meaning of water, which would have been an insult to this very fine wrestler!

When my wife and I lived at the Oley Forge mansion, of John Lesher who lived in 1750, along the Manatawny stream in Oley Township, we were told that the home was haunted, so we bought a large German Weimaraner watchdog, and gave it the traditional name of Wasser to protect our historical property. A large, intelligent, and lovable grey dog, he was our German Weimaraner protector for this property.

But the occult reason why PA Dutch people call their watchdogs Wasser is that in medieval times, witches accused of Hexerei (Witchcraft) were immersed in water to make themselves confess if they had committed an evil spell on a mortal.Thus, dialect speaking Dutch country people called their watchdogs Wasser to protect themselves and their farm animals from occult forces that may do them harm.

But this teenage wrestler did not need any assistance in defeating his school rival. However, his last name Wasser did recall the protection our watchdog did afford for my wife and I when we lived in the multi-room mansion.


But Wasser was not as crude a name as Hinnershits or Hinkle Dreck (chicken dirt)! When the Shoeners first came to Pennsylvania in Colonial times, they immediately anglicized their Dutch name to Shaner, good American craftsmen and tradesmen in the Industrial Revolution.

The watchdog Wasser had the run of the Oley Forge home and frontyard, greeting all of our visitors. But, since the ghost of the forge mansion lived within the mansion, we were not concerned with property outside the home, except that lovable Wasser had a chronic habit of sitting on a large antique blanket chest at the end of the second floor hallway where he had a better view of the frontyard, checking whether they were mortals visiting or had occult powers to do us harm.

However, he did dig his claws into the lid of the chest, showing stress or anxiety, waiting for us to get home. But in the library room upstairs, I did have my aunt Annies old rocking chair, which was mysteriously moved at times, which a paranormal act toward said she or another house ghost would sit in when we were away.

But loyal Wasser guarded the second floor master bedroom, sleeping with us upstairs. A Weimaraner dog is often called a grey ghost by German hunters.

Wasser was a very active dog, and although the 1750 Forge House was at a limestone cliff and visitors had to drive down to the wagon shed, where he checked everyone out. But he eventually met his demise when a neighbor might have missed the bend in the road, and in spite of barking to warn the driver, poor Wasser was mortally hit by the car, protecting our cliffside home. But my Dutch neighbors will never forget our calling Wasser to come into the house, as we yelled Wasser it echoed along the Manatawny stream, while my friends wondered why Shaner was always calling for water? in those days.

Living here in Kutztown for several years, we have become attached to stray village cats, like Tigger whom we adopted a few years ago and allowed to live in the wing of the Town Criers House. But a soulmate of Tiggers became a stowaway in our rear wagon shed sharing his cat food. Having put a small cat door in the wagon shed to escape winter storms, this stowaway cat has become a feline watchdog accompanying our daily routines to protect our backyard.

Since he has the same markings as Tigger and perhaps the same bloodline, we call this feline, Twinny, who has become our feline watchdog and sleeps in the wagon shed. He also has an empty dog house in the side yard of our home to shelter him from storms, which he can put to good use pretending to be a watchdog to scare away intruders.

Perhaps if there is a dog and feline Heaven, in which humans have provided worldly compassion for Gods protected companions like Wasser and Tigger, these animals will be part of it, as well as all the kind people who run animal shelters for helpless animals in Berks County.

Richard H. Shaner is director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.