A Look Back in History: The PA Dutch & Fredericksville Tavern

Submitted Photo Many people of Pennsylvania Dutch origin enjoy a friendly card game of Haas and Peffer, which became the sole reason to socialize with one another. Stahl's tavern was one of the most popular spots to play, as seen in this picture, with Alma seated to the left watching.

Living in the PA German territory were almost all ancestors of the PA Dutch people, who still were bilingual and spoke their ethnic German dialect; they did not fully understand the American English language. So these natives conversed in PA German among themselves but knew that American English was their national language, thus, they were bilingual citizens familiar with both languages. For those who were more familiar with the PA German dialect, they joined the 1891 PA German Society where the dialect was used exclusively in their publications, until they knew American English as well as their native ethnic language. However, most successful immigrants knew that the sooner they learned American English, the more successful they would become in American civilization.

Although many Colonial PA German immigrants arrived in the Port of Philadelphia when the United States was created, the economic opportunities that were available for 18th century immigrants were synonymous with successful citizenship and progressive capitalism. These German immigrants loyal to American ideals were known as the “PA Dutch” who continued to speak the Dialect for 300 years after our nation was founded. Even though they were intimate friends of William Penn’s Quaker followers who shared democracy and the natural resources including Pennsylvania’s agricultural resources, they believed in free private enterprise devoutly.

Today, there is no Colonial ethnic immigrant culture that is as loyal as the PA Dutch people who saved the United States Liberty Bell in Philadelphia when the British forces occupied Philadelphia in 1777, thereby endorsing the American Constitution. To quote a statesman in Washington DC, there is no more a loyal American than the PA Dutchman that still occupies the seven counties around Philadelphia, where bilingual citizens speak PA Dutch, and worship Christian religions. These patriots saved the Liberty Bell by taking it to Allentown, during the American Revolution, and hiding it in a church foundation in Colonial days until our Independence was won from the British. Furthermore, loyal PA Dutch farmers became successful farmers in the modern Industrial Revolution, feeding our nation and the world’s population for decades, shipping their grain and food supplies from the area to the Port of Philadelphia.

The Fredericksville Hotel was acquired early in the 1950s by the famous Russell R. Stahl, the last of the Stahl redware potters, after he returned home from World War II to his father’s pottery shop at Powder Valley, Lehigh County. Pottery business was dwindling and Russ Stahl’s investment in the purchase of the Fredericksville Hotel and Store was a wise choice, for his deed included almost the entire village plus 70 acres of nearby countryside. However, the electrification of the Oley Hills around Fredericksville was barely completed by the 1950s.

The territory was primitive with very little traffic going through the village except to the villages of Huff’s Church, Dryville or Landis Store. A tavern keeper and owner of the town, Russ energetically refurbished the Hotel-Store building, repairing the Erb home across the street as well as fixing up the rental compartments adjacent to the once fashionable two-story Victorian hotel. Perhaps his most striking improvement was to have an itinerant folk artist paint all the plaster areas above the wainscoted walls of the bar and the interior dining room vicinity with an old-time country landscape.

As an outpost hotel far from Reading and Allentown, its rustic charm was unique in the post war period, since much of America was being updated in the modern age. Realizing that visitors of his father’s old fashioned pottery works loved its antiquity, Russ did not modernize the Fredericksville Hotel, but instead he continued to have three kerosene hanging lamps on the ceiling in front of the old fashioned handmade back bar. The shelves were elegantly dressed up with earthenware pottery Russ made at the Stahl pottery, amid bottles of whiskey, brandy and tobacco products. On special occasions, Alma would prepare meals such as baked pig stomach stuffed with smoked sausage, parsley and potatoes. During the hunting season when the tavern would be frequented by a large number of game enthusiasts, Alma made several of her mouth-watering soups with barbecue sandwiches seasoned with bacon drippings.

Like many Pennsylvania Dutch country hotels of the bygone era, the focal point of Russell Stahl’s tavern was the old circular card table in the middle of the barroom, where villagers and guests convened regularly to compete in harmless games of chance. If card players felt they were unlucky that day, they would often get up out of their chairs and walk around them to break the spell of bad luck! Both Alma and Russ took turns bartending and their opinions and friendships were appreciated by many patrons from far and near. Alma was a devout Catholic whose benevolent care of the poor and needy could not be doubted. One of the only sources of help in the wilderness, the tavern operated by the Stahls was an important part of community life.

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

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