Remembering Boyertown's opera house fire, and its victims

Reuban with Horse, Franklin, Alice and Caroline by the house.

It’s that time of the year when I remind everyone that this is the anniversary of the infamous Boyertown Opera House Fire. Yes, it’s now 106 years since the fire. For those of you who might be thinking ‘Just let it rest,’ I’m sorry – I can’t. I’m like every other historian in our area that can’t let it go. We can’t forget.

Each year I decide to focus on a family from the disaster. I start this research in summer, since I never know how long it will take. This year I am looking at the Hoffman Family – specifically, the Reuban Hoffman family. Two members of this family were to die in the fire. But let’s start way before the fire.

Looking back at census records of 1860 we find that Caroline Keller was 18 years of age and living with her parents, Charles and Harriet Keller, brothers Jefferson, Frank, and Howard, as well as sister Diana.

By 1870 we find that Caroline is listed as living with her parents along with two brothers, but her name is listed as Caroline Hoffman. Her husband, Reuban Hoffman, is listed as a farm laborer and is listed as living with his parents. I’m not sure what the story is there but I am glad to report that by 1880 we find that Reuban (who is a 39-year-old farmer) and Caroline (who is a 37-year-old a bonnet maker) are living together. They have three children listed: Allen (age 7), his twin sister Alice, and Franklin (age 5).

When we get to the 1900 Census we find only two children listed: Alice (age 27) and Franklin (age 25). This census asks how many children were born and how many were living. It states that 5 children are born and only 2 children living. In walking the cemetery in Sassamansville I found a tombstone for Alice’s twin brother Allen, who died at age 21. I also found some small stones in front of Allen’s grave and due to the effects of weathering on the stones, I could only read one name, a son named Charles, but I know they were the young children of Caroline and Reuban.

We know that Caroline, Alice, and Franklin all went to the play on January 13, 1908. From word of mouth passed down through a few Hoffman generations we know that Franklin jumped out of the window after the fire occurred and ran all the way home to tell his father of what happened. For Franklin, “all the way home” is to his family farm on Gilbertsville Road.

Through verbal family history we know that Reuban’s brother and father both helped to dig graves for fire victims.

How sad that we learn that neither Caroline nor her daughter Alice could be identified and had to be buried with the unidentified on Fairview Cemetery. It was said that the funeral was in Sassamansville.

In the census records of 1910 we find that Franklin is now listed as married to Mary Hoffman, and they have a daughter. It also lists that Mary, whom Franklin married already, had two children: Mabel Frick (age 12) and Raymond Frick (age 4). Also Reuban Hoffman is now 69 years old and is listed as a boarder.

I did learn that Reuban died on February 21, 1915. I found his grave in Sassamansville and it saddened me to think that he could not be buried beside his wife.

Looking ahead in the 1930 census I found Frank (age 55) still a farmer living with his wife Mary (age 53), but the most interesting thing that I found was that it listed two children living with them: step-grandon Edward Meckler (age 14) and grandson Elwood Yerger (age 5). I think that there is another story here somewhere.

Special thanks is given to Mary Jane Schneider Lentz and Rich Hoffman for the information and picture they provided for this article.

If you would like to share something about your family in reference to the fire, please e-mail me at Boyertown1908@gmail.com. Also, if you know what Allen Hoffman died from, I’d like to know. I couldn’t find an obituary notice or any information on his death in the paper. The story of Frank and Mary could be interesting, too; if anyone has more information on them, please e-mail me.