A Look Back in History: American acculturation of the Pennsylvania Dutch

Submitted Photo An Amishman tends to his fields in Lancaster County. Note the common Schweitzer (Swiss) bank barn in the background, but painted traditionally white by Plain People.

Nowhere in America is there a Germanic “Cultural Island” of ethnic PA Dutch people than in the historic East Penn, Oley and Great Valleys of Pennsylvania, “The Dutch Country,” where there are Germanic Hex-sign barns, Colonial clay-tiled bake ovens and farm buildings still exude the quaint folklife of Europe’s Rhine Valley. Yet these PA Deitsch American immigrants who survive with their Fatherland folk culture have built some of early America’s most outstanding native English Georgian architecture. Considered one of America’s most loyal groups of citizens, they saved Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell from being melted down in 1777 during the American Revolution, and these early American immigrants who still preferred speaking their native German Dialect were devoted to the ideals and principles of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.

Successful farmers with iron forges and iron furnace manufacturing, they hauled their farm and iron products to the nation’s capitol daily in participating with the Republic’s economy, thereby, these upstate Dutchmen were very familiar with English Georgian architecture as they passed the Quaker mansions of William Penn’s “Society of Friends” and the Grand Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. And later, these same Pennsylvania Dutch people who frequented the port city of Philadelphia supported and signed the United States Constitution.

Although these Philadelphians enjoyed buying local PA Dutch scrapple from Oley Valley and area farmers, the Dutchmen’s “Schmearcase” was so popular, it became known as Philadelphia cream cheese, commercially. Thus, no trade fair in Philadelphia was complete without area PA Dutch farmers in attendance with their large Conestoga wagons filled with foodstuffs. Engaged in free market capitalism, some local farmers even went to the extent of allowing their farm children to live and work on New Jersey farms to become familiar with speaking the English language, since the PA Dutch Dialect was not spoken over there.

Forcing their children to become affluent with American English was to their advantage when they took turns going to market in Philadelphia where Philadelphians only spoke English when buying PA Dutch farm goods. Since PA Deitsch immigrants in the Oley Valley, for example, and surrounding seven Dutch counties only spoke their native Dialect, few were bilingual (able to speak English); their folk world was limited to Berks County, Lehigh County and so forth. But in becoming intelligent citizens of our young Republic, “modernized,” older Dutchmen built fashionable English Georgian mansions in keeping with the American way of life, following main line Philadelphia, borrowing the architecture of William Penn’s Society of Friends, for which there was also admiration among the Amish and Old Order Mennonites.

Pennsylvania’s Amish, Old Order Mennonites and Brethren sects are among the best models of Christian living in the United States, regardless of their Horse and Buggy mode. Not falling into the trap of conspicuous consumption to impress neighbors, they are never boastful. Plain Dutch homes are semi-modern, clean and practical. Most of all, the Bible is not replaced by high def TV’s, tablets, iPhones or any other devious modern invention. Ever since Colonial times, William Penn’s Quaker Commonwealth has been a utopia for Plain People throughout the World and a pastoral setting of rural farmsteads with man and beast sharing in a land of milk and honey. Now in its 21st Century, Amish and Old Order Mennonite religious principles have been challenged by secular innovation, making their lives difficult to live a Christ-like existence.

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

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