State hospital farm colony taught service
My friend and fellow historian Mr. Larry Oberly of Allen Township also has fond memories of the Allentown State Hospital farm in Weaversville. In today’s column, Larry turns back the clock and revisits the farm colony in this concluding column. He recalls:
Growing up in the environs of Howertown and Weaversville might lead one to be told that he led a sheltered life in the 1950s and ’60s. It may have been true, but it was certainly not isolation from the world outside. Our schools and churches that occupied so much of our time saw to the expansion of our horizons in many ways.
My focus for this article is some recollections of contact with the men of the Weaversville Colony and their attachment to the Allentown State Hospital. My contact began as a teenage member of the choir at St. John’s (Reformed) UCC in Howertown.
In those days, St. John’s was a union church that consisted of both Lutheran and Reformed congregations. If you sang in the choir, you would sing for services, and on one Sunday a month, you would travel with the pastor and other volunteers to the day room of the hospital farm dormitory to conduct a service of worship for the men.
I would often see the men out in the fields and around the dairy herd, tending to the basic work of the farm as it produced staples for the patients who were at both the farm and the hospital on Hanover Avenue in Allentown. Later I would learn that they provided food items for many other hospital locations as well.
I remember that other churches from the area also came on designated Sundays, so that the men had more than one opportunity per month to worship.
When it was that I first started to attend these services, I can’t say for sure, but I remember the pastor was the Rev. George Laubach, who served three congregations for more than 40 years — St. John’s, Howertown; St. Peter’s, Seemsville; and Christ Church, Schoenersville. At one time, all three congregations may have held services there on a rotating basis.
The Lutheran pastor at the time was Rev. Henry Eisenhart, who also served as the Lutheran pastor at Zion Stone. These pastors and those who came after them all recognized the need for this type of outreach for their churches.
My favorite time of year for these services was Christmas. In December, the service included the distribution of a box of candy and an orange to the men. The joy they showed when receiving this small gift was almost immeasurable. It had a big impact on me as I saw, firsthand, the joy that the holiday of giving could bring to others.
Another highlight of the seasons for me was summer. As the summer fruit season would get into full swing, the ladies of Howertown Church would lend a hand to the farm, picking peaches, apples and pears and then traveling to the hospital kitchens in Allentown to prepare the fruit for freezing.
The dietitian at the hospital was none other than Betty Underkoffler of Weaversville, who was a member of St. John’s, with her husband, Richard, and son Jerry. Her mother, Mabel Deemer, is a lifelong member of Howertown, and I believe the oldest living member today.
Betty would arrange the schedule, days of picking by both the church volunteers and the patients of the farm colony, ensuring plenty of work in the kitchens on Hanover Avenue. This was my chance to work on the farm as a volunteer, ride the wagons to the field and help pick the fruit and unload it back at the loading dock for shipment to Allentown.
As the fruit arrived, it had to be washed, pitted or cored, peeled and prepared for freezing. Here some patients helped as well. I remember we all had to be finished in the early afternoon, as the time of the return trip would allow the women to prepare the evening meal at home. Often, several days of this labor was necessary to complete the task, and we all know that all the fruit is not ripe for picking on just one or two days. For a young teen just getting exposed to the labor of the day, it was a very interesting time in my life.
Exposure to the patients was also a great learning experience. I remember asking my parents what was wrong with these people. They were isolated from the community in many respects, yet worked very well together in the day-to-day operation of the farm, at least from my experience.
I also remember many of the people who ran the farm, the employees and managers. I went to church with some of them, went to school with their children and later served in the fire department with some of them.
At the risk of forgetting someone, here is a list of those I can remember: James Kilgore, Herb Bilheimer, George Stein, Wally Grube, Harry Williams, Charles Miller and John McDevitt.
Mr. and Mrs. Kil- gore were very active in a 4-H Club that met in the parish house of the Howertown church. It met regularly and ended soon after they moved from the farm. I helped remove the house that was occupied by Herb Bilheimer and his wife after they left the farm. That caused lots of memories to come back, especially going to their home on Christmas Eve to sing carols with the group from St. John’s.
I learned a great deal from my few days at the farm colony every year. One lesson was respect for others, no matter what their condition. Another is that service to others is always better than complaining about others. And finally, a little bit of time by many of us is always greater than a lot more time by just a few of us.
This concludes the series on the state hospital farm. In two weeks — local cement history from 1944.