A Look Back in History: The Pricetown Brethren Tradition: Part I

John Bixler, portraying a Pennsylvania Colonial Dutchman as an indentured servant, making a split oak basket on a Schnitzelbank at the 1753 Jacob Keim farmstead for the American Folklife Society's Cherry Fair in the 1970s. He was married in the 1777 Brethren Meetinghouse.

Nestled in the small village of Pricetown just off Route 12, passerbys and even newer residents are unaware of its 18th Century “Dunkard” or Brethren community that survives there. Except for a few rustic log barns and Colonial log houses built by the Conrad Price family, its original pioneer settlers, and the quaint, original fieldstone Brethren meetinghouse located on a knoll off the main thoroughfare, this plain community’s architecture permeates into the 21st Century, and what remains of the once Brethren stronghold.

The 1777 Pricetown Meetinghouse, known as “the oldest unaltered Church of the Brethren in America” is located by a historical marker just two blocks east of the old Village hotel (now Olyvia’s) and stoplight intersection. Mostly abandoned throughout the year, except for the annual congregational gathering held by the Mohrsville Church of the Brethren meeting the first Sunday in June of every year, and other Brethren sects from out of state tracing their roots and using this Meetinghouse for worship occasionally, and sometimes a historically-minded visitor, this historic Meetinghouse survives in pristine shape.

The last active Dunkard member of the Pricetown meeting was Elam Fox, Sr., who operated a nearby farm and cider press business one-half mile south of Pricetown who died in 1973, but was survived by four children, only one of which (Ben) still reside in Ruscombmanor Township but at least two attend branches of the Brethren church. However, Elam, Jr., a longtime resident, recently sold his house last August, and I can only surmise “God willing” will attend his 82nd straight annual service this June at the Pricetown Meetinghouse!

The person, for whom this community bears its name, Conrad Price, was among the original 12 Brethren pioneer families who settled here about 1754 and were an outgrowth of the Brethren Plain sect who settled in the Oley Valley. Although the Plain men of the Dunkard Community of Pricetown no longer wore their black-brimmed hats in public in the late 1900s, the religious social climate of this 18th Century farming community still bore the dogma of their conservative beliefs as late as the turn of the 20th century. Although only half dress in tradition garb anymore during this annual celebration, the men file into service placing their broad-brimmed hats on wooden pegs along the narrow aisle way as custom.

Brethren, like their Amish and Mennonite cousins, are frugal, successful farmers who always understood Adam Smith’s principles of capitalism in operating their farms and roadside stands. I remember, Elam, Jr. always selling apples and other orchard fruits along the Fleetwood-Oley Memorial Highway as his father did before him. Never wasting goods or their work time for fear of eventual want, anyone that met the elder Fox knew that he did not engage in frivolous ideas or endeavors. The dressed stone farmhouse (built 1782) on the Fox homestead, in which Elam Sr.’s other surviving son, Ben (Fox) and Betty Kurtz reside, bears evidence of the economic boom times of our early agrarian Republic, with buildings architecturally designed from the historic Federal period.

The attractive 18th Century Dunkard Preacher’s home, adjacent to the Brethren Meetinghouse, is credited as being built by Martin Gaube in 1775, who is buried in the church cemetery alongside. An early hand-built balcony above the main entrance calls attention to the fact that the Brethren like other Colonials stored grain in their attics. And perhaps this was just an architectural vestige of a bygone practice that was a convenient way of moving heavy furniture into the second floor in lieu of the narrow interior staircase, as was custom in Old World Germany.

Leaving the borough of Fleetwood on Route 662, many motorists drive past an ancient, historic Brethren log barn on the right about midway between Fleetwood and Pricetown. Obscured behind the barn is one of the earlier log houses of this Brethren settlement (1773), the first home of Conrad Price later given to his eldest son, Jacob, with its original hand hewn back porch still intact. A traditional one and a half story log home of the 18th Century with Continental Pennsylvania German floor plan, which once had a central fireplace; the log home survives in excellent shape. The whitewashed log wall of the back porch reminded me that almost all log homes were whitewashed annually, a Pennsylvania Dutch practice which has saved some of these structures from decay into the present day.

Richard L.T. Orth is assistant director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.