Last fall, our American Folklife Institute did an article on the Sacred Oak of the Oley Valley (“Godhead Trees and Virgin Forests”), and while working on the Oley Valley History II: The Federal Years, I had become reacquainted with the knowledge that this iconic natural wonder was on the farmstead once owned by Congressman Daniel Hoch in Oley Township.
Hoch, an ardent patriotic supporter of the Berks County Historical Society, Daniel Knabb Hoch, often listed simply as D.K. Hoch (1866-1960), was a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Pennsylvania.
And although the most notably farm nearby may have been the Gideon Hoch farm, located at Hoch’s Corner near Lobachsville, this early American pioneer family (The Hoch’s) was one of the most patriotic PA Deitsch families in the Oley Valley. This pioneer along with many other Oley Valley farmers were dependant on farming and exporting their grain and crops via Conestoga wagons to the Colonial port of Philadelphia. Dr. George Shumway, author of The Conestoga Wagon: 1750-1850, was one of the foremost, outstanding authorities on these early American wagons. Shumway had also visited Richard Shaner in his research, and when Dick was a collector of Conestoga wagons at Lobachsville.
Shaner, having a Bieber ancestor that’s been well documented, who in Colonial times as many others drove his wagon during the grain rush to Philadelphia at a time when hundreds of Conestoga waggoners were also harvesting wheat and when sea captains paid hard cash to farmers for early delivery. Unfortunately, his descendant, (Johan) John Bieber was robbed of his money, however, his team of horses made it back to their stable on the (Johan Bieber farm) near Rockland Township. John, though, was never heard from again, possibly the victim of British soldiers who were looking for someone whose Conestoga wagon they could confiscate for military action, but more likely looters with this time period being the French and Indian war period, but some of his property returned to his farmstead by a Good Samaritan.
Daniel Hoch, born on a farm outside of Reading, served as a printer apprenticeship along with various other positions for the Reading Eagle newspaper. D.K. Hoch was a member of our Pennsylvania State House of Representatives during (1899-1901), elected as a Democrat to the 78th and 79th Congresses. He was also a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1908, and served as Controller of Berks County from (1912-1916).
The more than 500-year-old Sacred Oak of the Oley Valley is about one and a half miles south of the village of Oley, west of Freidensburg Road, on the former farm of D. K. Hoch, Congressman, whose farm was at the edge of the virgin Oley valley forest. In 1967, students of Daniel Boone High School Science Club erected a brass plaque to commemorate the importance of this oldest Yellow Oak in the entire United States, but also recognizing its Indian religious ceremonies.
Elderly Native Americans of the Oley Valley paid homage to the Sacred Oak “Spirit” by making pilgrimages there on occasion, sometimes traveling very long distances. This ceremoniously important “Godhead” specimen was believed not only to cure the sick and afflicted, but also provide wisdom for any individual or group who gathered for council, under its enormous spreading branches.
This oral history and tradition among pioneer families and the Natives Americans of the region has been remembered over the years by more than a few descendants (neighbors) of the Sacred Oak farm and has been passed down, thus, still common lore of the area today.
Richard L.T. Orth is assistant director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.