The Kutztown Area Historical Society installed signs in Pennsylvania Dutch and English at the 1892 Public School Building and the Centennial Monument in Kutztown on Dec. 7.
"Everyone at the society who has seen them so far has been very pleased. I hope that they will encourage more signage both in Kutztown (where the Borough has already expressed interest in having similar signs made for the train station and perhaps elsewhere) and in neighboring communities to foster awareness of the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect that many of our ancestors spoke as their primary (and sometimes only) language for almost 300 years," said Brendan Strasser, who serves on the Board of Directors for the Kutztown Area Historical Society and served on the bi-lingual signage project committee.
At one time, more than 90% of Kutztown's population was of German descent, some mingled with Swiss or French Huguenot.
"So we know that the dialect was the town's primary language at least through the late 19th century," said Strasser. "Church services, for instance, were conducted in German until World War I, and the dialect was still commonly heard around town, at the farmers market, and at local auctions into the 1960s and '70s. Thankfully, due to the efforts of the local Grundsau Lodges and language courses at Kutztown University, there is still an opportunity for younger residents to learn the dialect. We hope that these signs will encourage continued interest in, study of, and self-expression in the dialect."
The historical society was approached about collaborating on this project with the Elwetrittche-Verein 1982 E.V. Landau and the Deutsch-Pennsylvanischer Arbeitskreis (DPAK), two organizations based in the Pfalz region of Germany that, in various ways, promote German-American associations and recognitions of German heritage in Pennsylvania.
The Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at KU is an American Affiliate of DPAK. The Elwetrittche-Verein is a German organization in Landau, dedicated to creating an annual cultural event around the folklore of the "Elbedritsch (snipe) hunt" like was once practiced here in Pennsylvania.
Sandy Leiby, who chaired the bi-lingual signage project committee, said that the German-American Association proposed the idea of funding the creation of a sign with a culturally significant message in the Kutztown area with the hope that more bi-lingual signage might follow.
The criteria were “to place exterior bi-lingual signage at the Historical Society or other local venue with a culturally significant message in both English and Pennsylvania Dutch. This sign would be placed in acknowledgement of the historical and present-day role of the Pennsylvania Dutch language for our local community and the region's culture."
“Our 1892 building is a jewel of Victorian architecture and has been lovingly preserved to house a museum dedicated to preserving the history of the East Penn Valley,” said Leiby, who serves on the Board of Directors for the Historical Society. “The Pennsylvania Dutch dialect is a significant part of our culture, but fewer and fewer of us are able to speak and understand it. The signs are just one more way of making people, especially our young visitors, aware of the language. We are very grateful to our German benefactors and we hope that others might be encouraged to place bi-lingual signs at significant places in and around the Borough.”
The Historical Society formed a committee consisting of Leiby (chair), Karen DeLong, Mary Laub, Dennis DeTurk and Strasser. Patrick Donmoyer from the PA German Cultural Heritage Center at KU was asked to participate as well.
"In Lancaster County, for instance, some street signs have been translated into Pennsylvania German," said Strasser. "Here, the thought was that PennDOT regulations might prove frustrating, so the better option seemed to be to place dialect signs at prominent public buildings in the community."
"Given that we were receiving enough funding to pay for two signs, we opted to make one for the 1892 Public School Building and one for the 1876 Centennial Monument that stands on our grounds.," added Strasser.
Also, a sign, donated by Fegely Signs, was placed on the hitching post.
Strasser wrote the English text for the Public School Building sign, and Donmoyer wrote the English text for the monument sign.
"Once we had agreed on the final wording for both, Patrick, in consultation with several other native speakers of the dialect, translated both texts into the PA Dutch dialect. We finessed the wording a bit, then gave final approval to Kevin Fegely (Fegely Signs, Maxatawny), who made the signs," said Strasser.
Historical Society property crew members Dennis DeTurk and Jeff Schmoyer installed the signs on Dec. 7.
“The monument has an interesting history, having resided at various places over the years. Having inscriptions in four languages is rather unique, especially since there are probably no other monuments with a PA Dutch inscription,” said Leiby. “The 1892 building is beautiful and was erected with donations from the local residents. The renovation of the building was also accomplished with donated time and money.”
The 1892 building sign reads: "The Public School Building from 1892 is one of the best examples of Victorian school architecture that is still remaining in the Northeast United States. It cost $17,600 to build, with money that was given by people from the region, and was used until 1977. On the 23rd of February in the year 1979, the Kutztown Area Historical Society purchased the school to establish a museum dedicated to the history of the East Penn Valley. In July of 1980, the school was placed on the National Register of Historic Places."
The monument sign reads: "In the year 1876 the people of Kutztown erected a monument for the Centennial Celebration of the United States. With inscriptions in English, German, Latin and Pennsylvania Dutch, the monument honors religion, freedom, education and wisdom. The old Pennsylvania Dutch words read: "Our Free School System comes from the Pennsylvania Dutch. Governor Wolf planned and started it, and Ritner and Shunk carried it out." These words honor the Pennsylvania Dutch, Governor Wolf, and the administrators who established free schools in Pennsylvania."
“These signs are a great way to emphasize the significance of the Pennsylvania Dutch language as part of the diverse roots of our community,” said Donmoyer. “Pennsylvania Dutch was once the home language and mother tongue of generations of residents in Kutztown and throughout Southeastern Pennsylvania. These signs give us an opportunity to reflect on this aspect of our culture.”
This project was also a way to further the missions of the Deutsch Pennsylvanischer Arbeitskreis (DPAK), the Elwetrittsche Verein Landau, the Kutztown Historical Society, and the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University, he said.
“The project helps to further and strengthen the collaborative spirit of transatlantic exchange between our community and communities in the German Palatinate, where many Pennsylvania Dutch families find their roots,” said Donmoyer.