Virginville >> Time comes to a standstill where history chooses to leave its footprints.
Yet, inside the Dreibelbis ancestral farmhouse near Virginville, the grandfather clock in the tea-room keeps time to this day, decades after it was first installed, ticking away the seconds and counting the minutes as it bears witness to the labyrinth of genealogy and march of successive generations.
To hear Becky Dreibelbis, who is expecting her first child, say it, one can almost hear the echo of generations past in the timeless perpetuation of life.
“I am the 10th generation Dreibelbis, carrying the 11th,” she said, before rushing off to usher visitors through her ancestral home that had been opened to the public at the Aug. 23 PA German Farm Festival.
A teenager when her father Mark Dreibelbis purchased the property, Becky, a geologist by profession, recalls, “I was 18 when father bought the farm, and we had been here before, our distant relatives lived here so we would come and explore the property, go hunting a few times. It was thrilling to be a part of this house and its heritage, and knowing that this is where we came from.
“Though I have never lived on this property, I always lived in Berks, but I always had this strong sense of pride where we came from. Artifacts in this house were used by my direct ancestors and it was rather exciting to be acquiring these articles.”
Protecting Family History
For Mark, it was the vital question of preserving and protecting the family’s heritage. Remarkably, the farm has been in the family since 1778 and is the second oldest continuously owned family farm in Berks County.
“In 1998, my kin Parker Dreibelbis, who owned the house, needed money to pay for his nursing home bills,” recalls Mark, “and when he approached me I decided to buy the house and form the Dreibelbis Farm Historical Society.”
A non-profit organization, the society works toward preserving and protecting this historic farm, besides making it available to the public for educational, historical and environmental purposes.
Home to generations of the Dreibelbis family and boasting of a rich history, the cherished Dreibelbis family seat showcases its own treasure trove of priceless artifacts, out-of-fashion clothesline, ornate lamps and chandeliers, carved wooden furniture, ancient wall paper, exquisite tableware, sepia-tinted almanacs and risqué wall calendars, and yes, a resident ghost.
Michael and Darlene LaFaver of the K.A.S.P.E.R. Paranormal Group even vouch to have established contact with the spirit residing in the Dreibelbis farmhouse.
“It is 9-year-old William Dreibelbis,” says Michael. William, so the story goes, fell to his death after tumbling down from the first floor window. “And we established contact with him in the basement, where he likes to play.”
Inside the house, one of the five bedrooms on the first floor still has William’s crib with his stuffed toys lying around it “for him to play with.”
Be that as it may, the house itself is a timeless piece of historic architecture, showcasing the oddities and unique characteristics that distinguished buildings of the 1800s.
The land on which it stands was home to the Lenni Lenape tribe that had the largest Native American camp in this region long before Berks became a county. Fishing was good here at the confluence of the Saucony and Ontelaunee creeks (both are Native American names, the latter translating into Maidencreek).
As far back as memory serves, the Penns and the Boones owned the land, which was passed on to George Merkel in 1770 and then to his daughter Mary Magdalena’s husband, Jacob B. Dreibelbis. Born in 1754, Jacob was only 7 when his father, John Jacob Dreibelbis, died. On his death, Merkel, a close friend of John Jacob Dreibelbis, assumed guardianship of his children. In 1777, Jacob enlisted and rose to the rank of Lieutenant of the Third Company of the Second Battalion of the Berks County Militia during the Revolution.
Eventually Jacob B. Dreibelbis bought the property from his father-in-law Merkel and constructed a two-story log cabin that stood on the property until 1868, when Joel Dreibelbis built the house we see today.
Built with great care and with a sharp eye toward aesthetics and utility, the new farmhouse was first home to Joel and his wife Elizabeth Swoyer Deisher Dreibelbis. No expense was spared in the exterior and furnishings.
The Farm Today
Stretching across 181 acres, the farm is at present only a fraction of the acreage of the original land grant owned by the Dreibelbis. Almost everything on the property has remained the same from 1868 through 1875, with the exception of the barn that had to be rebuilt around 1910 after a fire. The main house, Heisel (the summer kitchen), icehouse, chicken house, butcher house and wagon shed are all of the same period. At one time, the Maidencreek ran through the property. Today, it runs alongside.
“We got lucky the artifacts, furniture and other furnishings were left in their original state when we bought the place,” says Janine, Mark’s wife. “We are still working on keeping them safe from the damp and humidity. Actually it is probably more the structural aspect – the roof, the fence, the buildings -- that require constant upkeep and painting, and so on. The things inside, well for now, the main challenge is to keep everything maintained and intact.”
Mark’s mother Eleanor Dreibelbis agrees, pointing ruefully to the barn roof. “A storm came along and ripped away a large section of the (barn) roof and we had to spend $18,000 on repairs. So yes, maintenance can be challenging and the estimates daunting.”
“The first goal is to preserve. To keep it from getting sold off or disbursed,” Mark is emphatic. “The next big challenge is to get our foundation working, to keep it going in the future,” says Janine. “It would be a big operation, so we will need more than just one person to carry it forward. We want it to evolve into a big organization.”
For the Dreibelbis, it is a celebration of family heritage and an extended lineage that mentions 19,000 cousins, with the oldest living member John Dreibelbis at the ripe age of 99.
At the Aug. 23 event, weaving chair seats and baskets with natural fibers on the farm grounds, Scott W. Miller reminisces, “This is my ancestral home. My great-great-great grandfather was born here but not in this house. His youngest brother built the house.”
Footprints in history.