Here in the New World in a land of plenty, pioneer immigrants had the resources to develop an American style of folk art never dreamed about in the Old Country, hence the creativity of these Rhinelanders blossomed into an amazing folk art form that was nurtured by freedom of religion and free private enterprise, thus becoming American Folk Art! Although the Plain Dutch, such as the Amish and Old Order Mennonites, seldom engaged in bold colorful folk art as seen by the Church PA Dutch, both groups were known for their religious folk art writings, known as Fraktur, in the 17th and 18th Centuries. However, many of the offspring born in the New World were given colorful folk art dower chests to celebrate the beginnings of that branch of the family in a land of freedom of religion and liberty.
Although there are still a few isolated PA Dutch dialect-speaking Plain People still following primitive folkways, not adjusted to modern America, many of these religious sects born out of Freedom of religion are true-grit Americans, subscribing to the United States Constitution. But, in sharing the modern PA Dutch folklife of local German Dialect-speaking descendants with any European German visitors to our “Dutch Country,” the conclusion usually drawn was how much we Dutchmen cherish our American ideals, and no longer have completely retained our hardcore Germanic “ethnocentrisms.”
And, in time, I found out that exceptional frontier dower chests and decorated furniture could easily bring well over $100,000 at high-end Auction Galleries with special emphasis on last month’s column concerning the French Huguenot PA Dutch Bieber father-son team who created the 1775 Wardrobe for fellow Huguenot Deturk that fetched just under a million on the auction block. As other Patriots in the Great, East Penn, and Oley Valleys, some of our families played a role in the American Revolution; and as farmers and Conestoga Wagoneers hauling grain to Philadelphia, they were influential citizens of our young Republic all the while keeping records of newborn family members recorded in decorative German script. Some of these our family had retained as heirlooms, with a decorative PA Dutch dower chest or two, and a Pennsylvania Long Rifle from our early American period with powder horns.
My important historic memories as I age too become the times I spend with my Grandmother and Dad who revealed our PA Deitsch heritage that paralleled my American citizenship, as a descendant, who was given the best opportunity to fill my life as a German-American from the Rhineland under the 1776 Declaration of Independence. Besides having other proud Pennsylvania Dutchman (the Victor Millers, Dick Machmers, George Meisers, Carl Snyders, et al) and neighbors to assist in my PA Dutch collection of Americana, none as important as the Shaners! I was fortunate to have met Richard Shaner as my folklore mentor, who personally made me aware of the magnificent PA Dutch culture on a national level, as did his mentor before him, famed Dr. Alfred L. Shoemaker. All the more, this made me aware of the fact that the Dutch Country was not just an ethnic cultural island, but the heart of American folklife. It indeed represented the best of our American social customs and our unique rural folk art and furniture.
America’s national museums have competed with each other to build an inventory of classic American works of art displaying 18th Century folk art furniture, documents, utilitarian objects, etc. that best describe the unique life of ethnic American citizens in their early American period. Every ethnic immigrant group which came to the New World for life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness had created unique household furniture and items that represented the love of generations of their ethnic peers.