Among the North American Indian folklore concepts which have intrigued me the most is that growing in the North American virgin forests were Godhead trees that had the power to cure sick and afflicted individuals. Native tribes in this part of Pennsylvania did believe in a most mysterious power which could be released in particular, by these horrendous virgin trees. In the Oley Valley there is a most magnificent yellow oak tree that local Indians believed was a “Godhead” specimen which could cure ill people or otherwise provide wisdom for any group of individuals who gathered for council under its enormous spreading branches.
The fabled “Sacred Oak” of the Oley Valley which is of the “yellow oak variety” is considered to be 300 or 500 years old, possibly it was transplanted there from a Godhead tree, which was growing somewhere else in our virgin American forests since yellow oak trees are not native to the Oley Valley area. However, our peace loving Indians who occupied the Oley Valley basin were not the warring faction that were part of the French and Indian Wars of the 18th Century, and may have purposely planted this Godhead tree!
Surviving as late as the 1970’s, old timers like the Ralph Bigoney family, recollected that in Colonial times elderly Indians in the Oley Valley paid homage to the Sacred Oak Godhead Spirit by making a pilgrimage their on occasion. This oral history among pioneer families was remembered by more than a few neighbors of the Sacred Oak farm in 1970. A brass plaque was built at the base of this Godhead Indian virgin Yellow Oak, by the Daniel Boone High School Science Club in 1967.
But when Johannes Keim, our first settler claimed his farm site in 1698, drawn to the area of Pike Township by virgin walnut trees, he must have been awed by the huge virgin native forests of Oley, which also was home to the Indians who believed in Mother Nature whom without learning knowledge of her fruits and native vegetables their families and tribes could not survive. Certainly, Johannes Keim was able to realize that the trail of the virgin walnut trees which led him to a fertile limestone farming area better than most others was the result of Mother Nature’s gracious lure to find him God’s preordained path to the Oley Valley, following the trail of virgin walnut trees.
However, when his son, Jacob Keim (1724-1799), started a farmstead near the forests of Lobachsville, he followed the same trail of virgin walnut tree which provided a site where an ever flowing spring fed virgin trees growing in the Oley Hills. As pioneers settling in the New World all the Keim children learn to live with Mother Nature and respected the huge virgin forests of America as a gift from God having suffered the inhumane wars of Europe. After Jacob Keim died his son, John (1756-1841), inherited the vast 1753 farmstead with a large portion of the virgin forest still intact.
A naturalist, like the Indians who lived there before him, the son, John Keim before he would eat breakfast himself would go out to the virgin forest and beneath these huge Godhead spreading oaks, he would feed the native birds and animals food for themselves; a ritual of benevolence which was in gratification of all that Mother Nature meant to him and his pioneer family.
Being a successful farmer on very fertile farming land, old John Keim considered his original patch of virgin forest as a cathedral to the living God for which he would never deny animals living in his forest their home. Therefore, in his will, he demanded that this original garden of virgin forests be never cut down, but whoever would cut these trees down would forfeit benefiting from his estate!
But in 1911, when his daughter, Betsy Keim (1829-1911) (the last family member) died, everyone in the Oley Valley wondered what would become of this virgin forest which stood since the days of Christopher Columbus! But as sure as God made green apples, a timber baron from Central Pennsylvania, attended this iconic heirloom auction and bought old John Keim’s farm with virgin forest.
With immense saws, he cut this virgin forest down to the ground, which had become the Colonial landmark of the Oley Valley; a merciless endeavor which saddened the local pioneer descendants’ lives forever. Boyer’s Road, which was named for the timber magnate who now owned the road that went by the historic 1753 Jacob Keim farm, was no longer the pride of the Oley Valley!
But of course this enchanted part of the Oley Hills, was now barren without a virgin tree for feathered or fur lined animal to be sheltered. Even local travelers swore they had seen the ghost of old bearded Betsy Keim shaving upstairs at her bedroom window. But she, like the iconic virgin woods which were now gone, was dead; however, her haunting ghost still lurks behind every corner and stable door in Lobachsville, looking to befriend the animals and birds who lost their enchanted earthly paradise, in Keim’s woods.
I visited the Sacred Oak Godhead when Jean Schutt owned the farm upon which it still lives, and found the cathedral ambience that still is present when one is in the company of an ancient tree that is hundreds of years old, equaling time in eternity, the type of heavenly essence that so many pilgrims felt nearer to God here in America than in the Old World! Happily, the new owner of the Sacred Oak, Chris Hartman, knows how important the Sacred Oak is to the American folklife traditions and will be an excellent guardian of Mother Nature’s legacy, with God.
Not all massive giant spreading oak trees are Godhead trees but many are ideal as boundary line markers between land owners, a natural way early map makers described early deed lines. Take for instance Oley Valley’s, “Tree in the middle of the road,” a boundary marker so important landowners were able to drive on either side of it, which was perhaps more important than the high speeds vehicles that are driven today. But in a day when horses were tied to trees, landholders were more amicable to drive around them than drive automobiles.
However, there are still quite a few farm fields where a substantial massive oak tree survives from virgin forest days when others were cut down for farming, as long as the tree was along a property line where a zig zag split rail fence could embrace its stature. Or should I say “seniority,” since they are usually very old. The Sacred Oak is eighty-five feet tall with a branch spread of a hundred and twenty feet. However, the ancient Oak tree in the middle of the road unfortunately died in the 1980’s, but the natives placed a marker near its hallowed spot on Oak Lane near the Daniel Hunter’s historic farm road.
*Birth/deaths dates researched by John Eshelman of Berks County
Historical Society, 1955.
Richard H. Shaner is director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.