A Look Back in History: Pa Dutch Kutztown barber shares his wisdom

Living a comfortable existence in Kutztown, I need only to open my side yard gate to see if Lamar Bailey’s barber shop pole is turning around, to know that I can go down to get a haircut. This red, white and blue traditional symbol has been a welcoming sign on Main Street for decades, serving area citizens as well as college students who can get their hair trimmed with other community PA Dutchmen.

On this particular day, in early May, I was fortunate to be among area senior citizens who were in need of a haircut as the warm spring weather was now upon us. Bailey, a senior citizen himself, not only cuts your hair, but imparted local news that was of value to old timers as well as college students just getting a feel for the area.

One of the model train enthusiasts of the Kutztown Area Historical Society, Lamar’s barber shop ambience features a beautiful hand painted vista of Kutztown’s Main Street on the east wall of his shop from the historic trolley car days that runs the entire length of the shop high above the mirrored wall.

This particular day a dignified customer sitting on the barber chair, attempting to be sociable said to those of us waiting for our turn, that he was from “Newt Trapoley,” the Dutchified term for the local town of New Tripoli, to which another senior citizen remarked that he once spoke the Pennsylvanish Deitsch dialect at home, but did not use it frequently enough to recall how to converse in it. Like the proverb, “If you do not use it, you will lose it!” But everyone seated in the barber shop knew that the local town of New Tripoli was always referred to in the vernacular PA Dutch term as “Newt Trapoley.”

An educated man getting his grey hair trimmed by Bailey, I suspect that he knew Lamar was also a PA Dutchman, and he wanted to fit in with our morning conversation. But since Bailey and his wife, Brenda, liked traveling to distant places it got us thinking about other Dutchified nicknames for other area place names, like Nazareth, Bethlehem, and New Jerusalem, or my favorite one Vera Cruz in Lehigh County.

Just then a college student entered the barber shop to enjoy our cultural conversation, and we all realized that our PA Dutch ancestors knew that they did not live alone in the corner of the world. Therefore, the names of towns in the Dutch Country went far beyond Biblical text names and German Rhineland towns, like Hamburg.

However, even the Deitsch dialect had changed from one county to the next. Viola Miller, who introduced funnel cake to the Kutztown Folk Festival became perturbed when demonstrating in Lancaster County. Some Amish speaking the local dialect would use the term “Smack Good” when complimenting the smell of her delicious PA Dutch cooking. But in Berks County “Smack” means taste good, not smells good. So Viola thought her Amish friends were begging for a sample of her food when they were sincerely raving about its smell! A dialect mix up in meaning to this very day.

Not to confuse the Islamic religion with the PA Dutch village of Moselem Springs, one must remember it dates back to 1746 when the Zion Lutheran Moselem Church was founded, near the Moselem Creek, where American Indians used the term “Meschilamehanne” (Moselem) to describe the spot where trout were caught in its crystal clear water, an early American Indian word still used by local individuals, like “Musseeley,” for this part of the East Penn Valley. But few Indian terms survive among our early villages, like Oley for Olink, where our Deturk and Bieber descendants actually knew these natives and learned their farming routines.

But this grass roots conversation was somewhat academic to the patient college student waiting for his turn at getting a haircut by Mr. Bailey, who was more than a barber; he was an Americana individual who knew his citizens and their history. However, no local Dutchmen would mistake Moselem Springs for the term “Muslim Springs,” since the most famous local Dutchman, “Butcher George Adam” (1910 to 2002) is buried at Zion Lutheran Moselem Church, having been one of the most popular PA Deitsch dialect farmers associated with the Kutztown PA Dutch Folk Festival. Our discussion ended with the fact that America’s ethnicity in modern times has seen the election of an African American president whose actual name, Obama, is not a typical household name!

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