A Look Back in History: American Folklife Alive In The Oley Valley

Lynn Cawley of the village of Oley poses with Bill Morgan posing at an authentic Conestoga wagon at the 1753 Keim Farmstead in 1973 for the American Folklife Society of the Oley Valley.
Submitted Lynn Cawley of the village of Oley poses with Bill Morgan posing at an authentic Conestoga wagon at the 1753 Keim Farmstead in 1973 for the American Folklife Society of the Oley Valley.

In the 1960s, when I moved to the Oley Valley from modern sophisticated Allentown, where I was the Secretary of the Lehigh County Historical Society, I was overwhelmed by the Oley Valley Community Fair.

Its Americana ethnic people, dating back to the 17th Century, still followed Americana frontier folkways. Demonstrating our United States democracy and following steadfast American Civilization, Farm Granges and Christian rural churches celebrated their agrarian harvest at the Oley Valley Fire Company Community Fairgrounds to the delight of many Pennsylvania citizens who appreciated their wholesome hardworking PA Dutch ethnic early American lifestyle still apparent in the modern 21st Century of our commercialized technological society.

With urban poverty and inner-city crime rates, which overcome the current news media that we Americans forget how wholesome true-grit Americans can really live.

Since my grandmother, Mary Bieber, was born in the Oley Valley, I had come to expect the wholesome and Christian behavior of her native Oley Valley neighbors to be ideal American citizens, somewhat the opposite of terrible urban inner-city citizens and crime victims. But having lived among the Oley Valley PA Dutch farm families, whose Americana folkways still practiced a personal belief in God and Country, I first realized how important the nations belief in freedom of opportunity and religion had evolved in America. Working and living among these faithful PA Dutch people, I was in awe of their respect for each other and love of mankind.


However, nowhere was this quite as evident as the Oley Valley Community Fair, where these volunteers celebrated their Americana farming practices demonstrating their skills at harvesting and animal husbandry, as well as all the household skills practiced by these two and three hundred year old farming families. Since most of the Oley Valley farmers were descendants of PA Dutch frontier immigrants who came to America to escape the inhumane religious and nationalistic wars of Europe, their livelihoods were nurtured in a belief in God and Country, promoting a rural utopian community believing in the United States Constitution.

My grandmother, Mary Bieber-Hilbert, was a French Huguenot born among those Oley Valley descendants who were lifelong farmers. So, when I came to live in the Oley Valley in the 1960s, I knew of the high ideals, which most of the community shared. But as inner-city American crime and poverty became more evident, I realized how unique this PA Deitsch community had become. So in 1971, I wrote a photographic American Folk Cultural Study on the Oley Valley with Life Time photographer, Robert S. Walch from Brooklyn, New York, who also was awed at the innocence and true-grit values with which Oley farmers lived their lives.

The crowning achievement to prove my theory was when Mr. Walch had a chance to become familiar with the citizens who staged the annual Oley Community Fair on the Oley Fire Company grounds, an ideal group of American citizens who still believed in the principles of democracy for which their PA Dutch ancestors had come to the Oley Valley. But in 2013, when I continued to help my wife volunteer as a native Oley Fair organizer, I again, at seventy-five years of age, realized how blessed the people of the Oley territory were to have continued their wholesome American folklife with a number of Christian churches still endorsed by their natives.

They are traditional Americana people who survived on typical homemade PA Dutch food, with occasional folk custom proverbs handed down through the ages. Their healthy modern offspring generations are to be envied by urban teenagers born in less desirable cities known for poverty and crime rates. As I helped the Oley Fair staff send many competing prized baked goods to be auctioned off at the Agricultural building the last day of the fair by George Frey, I recalled the people in America who would have loved for the opportunity to have eaten this food, some of which had to be thrown out since it was stale. However, all American farmers whose expertise allows them to feed a large proportion of the worlds population as do the people of the Oley Valley, deserve our moral and patriotic support.

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