A Look Back in History: Clearing William Penn’s forests & sweetening the soil

Submitted Photo The remnants of a Colonial Oley Valley plantation or two. Once all virgin forest upon William Penn's arrival, these rich bottomlands are still farmed today, but the photo was as seen through the lens of Robert Walch in the 1970s, former staff photographer of the AFI. There remains a number of surviving 18th century bake-ovens and gristmills of this limestone valley, a significant participant in the export trade of Philadelphia's Colonial grain, flour and "bread," commerce that was undertaken by Oley's farmers.

Benjamin Franklin remarked in 1766 that the unfavorable balance of trade with England was only tolerable by our immense exports to the Colonies and rest of the world. David Schopf, by 1783, mentioned how huge numbers of Pennsylvania Dutch/Germans from the Hinterland were sleeping in their Conestoga wagons at Philadelphia’s markets, and three-day trade fairs in order that they may be able to sell their foodstuffs in this port city. Of the standard dishes included in the Pennsylvania Dutch diet were bread and milk, as well as cornmeal mush and milk. Thus, by 1767, wheat grain, flour and “bread itself,” were significant contributions by Berks County inland communities to the export trade of Philadelphia.

Bread from Pennsylvania fed other colonies and surprisingly the prisons of Europe, as well! Farmland put under cultivation just cleared from Penn’s virgin forests at first could not grow wheat. But year after year, as the sour ground was sweetened with lime burned by local Rhineland immigrants, the soil became fertile. At first, only rye was suitable to grow on this deforested land, hence there was an overproduction of rye, and its price dropped significantly. But by their sheer physical energy, colonists in namely the Oley Valley cleared land, quarried stone, mined iron ore and had established a productive agribusiness center by 1765.

Philadelphia’s export trade of wheat and flour, oats, maize, beans, flaxseed, beeswax and salt beef together with cheese, butter and bacon were Colonial goods in great demand by Boston, the Carolina lowlands, Georgia and the West Indies. In 1775, farmers of the Oley Valley participated in Philadelphia’s export of goods worth 705,000 pounds sterling, by which flour accounted for 350,000 pounds and wheat 100,000 pounds. By 1791, the state of Pennsylvania led all the United States with an aggregate of imports and exports that equaled one third of the Republic’s total foreign trade!

But in those early Colonial days, the vast storm-swept Lancaster Plain was no match for the productivity of sheltered Oley Valley farms located along the Schuylkill River leading to the port City of Philadelphia. By the mid 1700s, when immigrant Colonial wagon trains passed through the beautiful Oley Valley from Philadelphia en route to frontier lands northeast of Kempton, the Germans called this new territory “Allemangel,” meaning all wants, for its lack of fertility and farmable land. A rugged terrain, which was eventually tamed, the land did not match the rich Oley Valley bottomlands or its rate of productivity. The Pennsylvania Dutch, though, were masters at farming wheat, and their over-brimming granaries inspired an excellence at bread baking that was unequalled in early America.

Still today, among the Plain Pennsylvania Dutch, bread is baked in quantities for home use and the surplus sold at roadside stands. For them, it may still be cheaper to bake their own bread than to buy a commercial product, not to mention perhaps a sense of pride in doing so. However, the preference is not one solely of economy or tradition, but a perseverance of goodness and quality. Home-baked bread, void of modern mechanical and chemical preparation, has a unique texture and moist yeasty taste that enhances every meal as a culinary delight. Many Dutchman can fondly recall eating slices of thick, warm bread spread with butter and topped with molasses, apple butter or strawberry jam. A simple teaser of appetite, bread eaten this way has no counterpart among the bland commercial store-bought breads of the secular world. And, any Plain Pennsylvania Dutch woman will tell you that the first step in baking good bread is in the selection of the wheat flour.

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

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