Oley Township marks 30th Anniversary of Historic Preservation District

Courtesy of AFI Two workers strain to lift the circular millstone into position on a crane to sharpen the other millstone below it, at Yoder's 1887 Lobachsville Folklife Museum.

In 2013, the Oley Heritage Association will mark the thirtieth anniversary of being a Historic Registered District by the Preservation Trust of the United States, for its outstanding early American architecture and landmark sites preserved in an authentic agrarian farming culture which pre-dates the American Revolution.

Although this historic Registered District only includes Oley Township, registered in 1983, when I had a family farmstead in Rockland Township, I bought feed and fertilizer from Clarence S. Yoder, a native Dutchman who operated the Lobachsville gristmill in adjacent Pike Township in the upper Oley Valley. The village dates from 1745, when French Huguenot Peter Lobach bought the village tract from Wilhelm Pott, his stepfather, the first owner of the Lobachsville gristmill on the Pine Creek. An original overshot water wheel operated gristmill from the Colonial days, Clarence bought the rebuilt 1887 three story mill from David M. Reinert and his wife Lillie in 1925 after they acquired it previously from a miller, still being operated as an overshot water wheel grinding corn and feed for local farmers. Yoder was an expert on farming.

The mill-farm operation consisted of a large bank barn, pig stable, and an ice house built along the mill pond where the miller harvested ice from the frozen mill pond for the community. Clarence Yoders wife, Maude was a good baker and still used the combination outdoor bakeoven and smokehouse, a very resourceful person. She also took advantage of raising a flock of scoby ducks that swam in the mill race way down below her well cared for family garden.

Since my grandmother Bieber-Hilbert grew up in the historic Lobachsville countryside on early American farmsteads, I took it for granted that Clarence Yoder would operate his gristmill with a huge overshot water wheel like one of the many other mills in Oley Township. But as time went on, America became industrialized and these mills in the Oley Valley were museum specimens not seen anywhere else in our modern nation. So when Clarence decided to retire from being a miller, in 1964, I decided to purchase his mill-farm for myself since my farmstead in Rockland Township was not nearly as good as his farmland in Pike Township.

Dignified Yoder, who was a clever businessman, was a well organized miller who knew better than to allow customers credit beyond their ability to pay him back. But as a member of the village church, he was a kind understanding human who loved to speak his native dialect to his customers.

A native folklife historian for Dr. Alfred Shoemakers Pennsylvania Folklife magazine at his Pennsylvania Folklife office in Kutztown, I took pride in recording our PA Deitsch folk people of the Oley Valley where I had purchased my Uncle Freddie Biebers farm. Having sold his farm, I decided to buy Clarence Yoders Gristmill which he had for sale in 1964. As a former secretary of the Lehigh County Historical Society, my colleagues urged me to turn Yoders Gristmill into a folklife museum since it operated with a historic overshot water wheel. My friend Alfred Shoemaker was amazed with the excellent condition of all the mill-farm buildings. Having a collection of wagons and two horses to pull them, it was an ideal situation for me.

Therefore, on Saturday, April 30, 1966, we held the grand opening of the Lobachsville Gristmill as a historic museum, dedicated to the memory of Clarence S. Yoder, the pillar of this PA Deitsch community operating this historic mill from 1925 to 1965, with a Citation presented to Clarence Yoder from Sylvester Stevens, Director of the Historical and Museum Preservation Commission of Pennsylvania. Eighteen years before the Preservation Trust of the United States would proclaim Oley Township a National Historic District in 1983, whose architectural designation pleased folklorist, Dr. Shoemaker who was very proud of the Oley Valley. From 1972 to 1979 my American Folklife Society held a Colonial American Cherry Fair at Lobachsville where this early American gristmill was the highlight of the community.

Eventually, I sold the cherished Lobachsville Gristmill to Steven Kindig a preservationist on mills in the United States who appreciated its unique rarity in the 20th Century and I bought the 1750 Oley Forge site in Oley Township when I married my wife Eleanor Trout. Dr. Don Yoder, my Folklife colleague, used the Yoder gristmill barn on the cover of his 1989 book on Hex Signs, but I am glad to report that this historic mill structure is still preserved for prosperity by the Kindig family, members of the Historic Preservation Trust of Berks County with the Shaners.

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

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