A Look Back in History: American Oral History Recalled by Natives at Salem Church Picnic

The Colonial stone foundation of a building, excavated at Lesherís Oley Forge in Oley Township reveals a secret chamber (inserted eight foot ladder) between two stone walls in an out-building thought to once house pigs. Military supplies were hidden there from the British, via a trap door in the roof.

Sunday, August 3rd, Salem UCC Church of Spangsville, Oley Township, held its annual church picnic among the picturesque grove of trees in historic Earl Township. Frequently known as “Wood Choppertown,” among the Colonial natives of Oley Township, who recalled descendants supplying the Oley Furnace and Oley Forge with charcoal to produce iron manufactured goods to meet the needs of the United States Republic during Colonial times.

Ironically, the land at Spangsville for our reformed church was donated by John Lesher, the owner of the Oley iron Forge. So naturally our church members were aware of the significance of Earl Township to the village of Spangsville. Sitting alongside Richard Hartline and his wife, Christine, he naturally recalled that when I was a teacher at Oley Valley High School, I by chance, became a friend of Eli Deturk, a large potato farmer at Spangsville.

A local Bieber French Huguenot like, John Lesher, who favored the reformed church denomination, I was a historian who was related to John Lesher’s family and was interested in his abandoned Oley Forge mansion, which was located there along the Manatawny Creek. But being the department head of the Social Studies Department of the Oley Valley High School, I realized that this historic Oley Forge Mansion should be restored and made a monumental dwelling for all citizens who cherished our local American heritage sites and industries.

Therefore, I asked Eli Deturk years ago (a Bucknell graduate), if he would sell me this historic house which was part of his farming tract where he used the Oley Forge barn in his farming operation. Thus, in 1968, I bought the Lesher Forge mansion, and with the help of Oley High School students restored this 1750 period home with five historic period fireplaces. This home had been abandoned and vandalized by wayward teenagers, but was prize example of Oley Valley architecture celebrated by the Historic Preservation Trust of Berks County for several years, although the original forge building at the creek side was demolished.

Only several foundations were still visible at the forge site, where a swinging bridge was still used to cross the Manatawny stream for neighbors living on the south side of the Oley Forge to do business at the Spangsville general store. But one curious stone foundation where pigs were kept had a false compartment that had been used (via) a trap door in its attic where legendary iron rifles were stored for George Washington’s Continental soldiers, since Col. John Lesher was in charge of foraging for the American Revolutionary War.

Ironmaster Lesher had a large farming operation involved with the Oley Forge business together with his export commerce with the port of Philadelphia, he also had four black slaves in his employment, one of which was considered an excellent worker operating the Oley Forge business, according to local historical notes by Dr. Peter G. Bertolet in 1860. Ironmaster John Lesher was a revered Pennsylvania statesman, besides being an honorable United States patriot, serving George Washington’s troops in the American Revolution.

So while talking to Richard Hartline, I was not surprised when he uttered the legend that Lesher was involved with the underground railroad of slaves seeking freedom from southern Colonies. After all, his very best worker who operated the Oley Forge site was a muscular black slave, one whose productivity was admired by the Oley Valley PA Dutch people. His ability to skillfully forge local iron was envied by fellow craftsmen as well as PA German indentured servants who immigrated to America to become outstanding Colonial American iron artisans.

Involved with Udree’s Oley Valley Iron Foundry, John Lesher was an enterprising Pennsylvania citizen and may have eventually been involved with the “underground railroad,” helping negro slaves become free citizens. A religious American who believed in free private enterprise, as giver of land to Salem Reformed Church in 1754, it is not impossible to think that this Christian citizen wasn’t an active participant of extending freedom to Colonial negro slaves who escaped from the Southern Colonies.

Perhaps the double walled storage space used to hide guns from the British in the American Revolution war years was also used to hide Southern slaves who sought a path to freedom in the years prior to Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. At any rate, the Christian hospitality afforded Lesher’s Negro slaves, blossomed into true freedom of Liberty, according to the local Oley Valley legend of the pre-Civil War period.

Richard Shaner is director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.