2013 marks the 100th birth year of celebrated folklorist, Dr. Alfred L. Shoemaker born in 1913, who together with Dr. Don Yoder and Dr. J. William Fry founded the PA Dutch Folklore Center at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster County in 1948. The trio established the PA Dutch Folk Festival in Kutztown in 1950 to celebrate the regional folklore of the PA Dutch people; an Americana folklife festival to present our 300-year old PA Dutch folk culture to the American public at large on the Kutztown Fairgrounds in the Heart of our PA Dutch Country.
Now in its 64th year, the American public has continued to support our rural agrarian people who still excel at PA Dutch cooking, American folk art, wood crafts, together with homemade household artistry. The large attendance at 2013’s Kutztown Folk Festival may have been an overwhelming salute to the memory of Dr. Shoemaker on his 100th birthday year, an outstanding scholar of our Pennsylvania Dutch people who will never be forgotten among our Dutchmen.
In spite of a weak economy, the Pennsylvania Dutch people have continued their masterful crafts and folk art traditions in a rural agrarian lifestyle and annually have presented their folk crafts to a modern American public, who have been amazed at this early Americana culture that still survives in the 21st Century. Much like the many Plain Dutch religious groups which also continue to follow our horse and buggy folk culture in modern times.
In fact, shortly after Dr. Shoemaker and Don Yoder established our first PA Dutch Folk Festival in 1950, the Wenger horse and buggy Dutch sect began a Plain Dutch meeting-house sect, south of Kutztown to take advantage of cheaper farmlands in Berks County, as opposed to the expensive farms on the Lancaster Plain, which were no longer available in the 20th Century. Assisting Dr. Shoemaker exhibiting his folklore books at the Kutztown Folk Festival, I and Alliene DeChant, a local folk historian, thought how wonderful it was to have humble Plain Dutch Mennonites as part of the Kutztown community in an age in which industrial expansion was threatening our rural culture from both suburban Allentown and Reading, as our good farmland was disappearing year by year.
But as soon as the Wenger Mennonite built their successful Produce auction in 1990, our farmers in the East Penn Valley realized the Plain Dutch were not competitors for our agrarian way of life, but in their age old farming ability, they have encouraged successful farming procedures which without them, we could not survive. So since the Plain Dutch and Wordly Dutch loved speaking their traditional PA Deitsch dialect, together they soon became an agrarian economy, which rivaled all others in southeastern Pennsylvania. A colleague of Dr. Alfred Shoemaker, who was a friend of Wenger Mennonite leader, Ezra Burkholder Sr. who began the Kutztown Mennonite community, I often believed that this new colony of Mennonite farmers in the Kutztown area was encouraged by Dr. Shoemaker who felt it was the best chance for both farming groups to survive in face of the growing megalopolis in this part of the East Penn Valley.
Shoemaker, a very wise folklorist was dedicated to making Kutztown Folk Festival, one of the best in the nation, but realized there were no Plain Dutch farmers in Kutztown, so he decided to build a Pennsylvania Folklife Museum in the heart of the Lancaster Amish territory along U.S. Route 30. So I assisted him in those years and became familiar with that Amish community. Unfortunately when he scheduled the opening of his Amish folklife farm museum, it rained all that weekend and his Pennsylvania Folklife Society became bankrupt. Having received shares in his Lancaster adventure instead of a paycheck, I too, was disappointed when the museum failed. But I knew Doc was an honorable man and I stuck by him as well as Alan Keiser and other folklorists.
But it was not enough to make him feel better, and later he suffered from manic depression from losing both his prized museum, and the leadership of the Pennsylvania Folklife Society, which was turned over by the Federal Bankruptcy Judge to Attorney Mark R. Eaby until the creditors of the bankruptcy were paid off in full. Attorney Eaby was an efficient officer of the Court and paid off all creditors including myself when I forewent my wages and accepted shares in Shoemaker’s Lancaster museum.
A very religious and honorable person, Shoemaker never was the same after the bankruptcy episode and wandered aimlessly to find himself, visiting friends in New York City. But Viola Miller, his secretary from a farm north of Kutztown, and myself who had bought the Lobachsville Gristmill were about the only close friends he would stop in to visit. And sometime in the 1960s, he mysteriously disappeared for good, but the Kuztown Folk Festival continued to operate by Attorney, Mark Eaby.
However, the true folklife exhibits were not the same without the wisdom of this PA Deitsch icon, and more and more the Kutztown Folk festival became a commercial craft fair without the human insight, which had made it the most important Folk Festival in the United States. Due to the fact that Professor Shoemaker was a very religious person with insight to our folk people, he could not be replaced at the Franklin and Marshall College. Now since the Folk Festival has been taken over by the Kutztown University Foundation, it no longer follows the wisdom of Shoemaker and Dr. Don Yoder, in matters of true folklore and folklife, but has become a secular institution unlike the former religious philosophy which guided by Franklin and Marshall College.
Postscript: Unfortunately, Dr. Shoemaker disappeared in the 1960s, and although the Pennsylvania Folklife paid off its bankruptcy debts honorably, the loss of Alfred Shoemaker’s leadership of the Kutztown Folk Festival during bankruptcy receivership (in 1963) brought about his mental depression. Not quite able to come to grips with himself, Alfred wondered aimlessly to the City of New York looking for a folklife benefactor, where it is presumed he died. If any has any information of Dr. Shoemaker in these later years or where he might be buried, please contact the American Folklife Institute.
Richard H. Shaner is director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown. Call Shaner at 610-683-9257.