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strength, steer, wagons, barn raising, Candlemass, Pennsylvania Dutch dialect
A handwritten manuscript compiled by Victor C. Dieffenbach, dated February 2nd, 1953. Within he details stories of exceptional feats of strength by men of various families in his community. He recounts their strength and often their humbleness when fixing broken wagons and bridges or performing barn raisings, for example.
Packet 577-210-60 to 577-210-68
Our Sturdy Forefathers, Their Health and Longevity.
The Holtzmans were noted for their size and strength: Isaac H. of the Wernersville - Sinking Springs region, was a distant relation of my own grand-mother. He was a farmer; and he was an old man when I was a kid. He was over seven feet tall, and one day he came to our house on a visit. I kept back of the kitchen stove, because I was scared of such a big man. I had a bad cold, and a sore throat; and I was not supposed to go far from the stove. The women of the family were baking - the stove was hot, and the transom above the kitchen-door was open, to admit some fresh air.
This giant was chewing tobacco; and as none of my immediate relatives used the weed, so there was no spittoon available; so he just moved over a few steps and spat out through the open window, up at the ceiling. I am sure that he would not have impressed me one whit more if he had poked his head right up through the ceiling. Grand-dad used to say that this man went one day to a neighbor to borrow a heavy farm-wagon, for hauling manure. The farmer told him he could have it, but that he had a load of grain on it at that time. But by the time Isaac had fetched his horses, they could unload the grain.
”Yes, but I wanted to take it along at once!” So he helped to unload the wagon, and then hooking several fingers into “de schaar” (the iron in front of the wagon-tongue, he walked out through the lane; pulling that heavy farm wagon with only three fingers.
The Groffs, the Walborns and the Stracks were all tall and husky. And the Bickslers and the Oberholtzers of the Fredericksburg region were ditto.
Grand-dad still measured six foot plus, when in his eighties; and he used to relate how one day long ago, at a barn-raising in Lancaster County, he tried to push a log higher up, so the mortise would slip in place—“so os er lucha doot” – someone wanted to give him a boost, and a voice back of him said “Holdt mull, glainer!” (Hold it, small one!)
And there was a chap of almost eight feet, pushing up the log with the fingertips of one hand while he rested the left on his hip. Granddad wanted to hire him on the spot; but the man turned him down, saying == “Nay, Ich bin tsu dumm fer en schreiner – Ich bin usht gross un schtarrick!” ( No, I am too dumb to be a carpenter – all I am is big and strong!)
The Harnishes also were tall and exceptionally strong. “Der Grishtel” – (Old Christian) the progenitor of the clan, was an old man when I was a kid. One day as I was on my way to the mill I met three men, each with a big load of lumber for Joseph Merkey's new barn – the old one had burned down. (This was on what formerly was the big old Batdorff farm.) A long lane goes in, and no one was living on the place. So I went along to put a block under the big girder when they skid it off of the wagon. “Dar darrich-tsook” (the main girder) was 18” square and 60’ long, in one piece. Old Harnish had it on his wagon, and it extended way out in the rear. In front it could not go further than the double-tree. They removed “de runga ous em schaimel” (The stakes out of the bolster) and slid the girder over against the inside of the wheels. Short planks were laid on the bolster, and the other end on top of the rear wagon-wheel. Pressing down on the rear end, the front end lifted up in the air, and they swung it over on top of the front wheel. Now “Grishtel” braced it—“er hut en gschteyert” (balanced it on the wheel) and they skidded it up the plank, a few inches at a time. I put the block under so it don’t slip back. When they had it on top, they paused, took a good “breather” and flung it out; the old patriarch held his end—then he calmly laid it down, and said: ‘Sell hut owver gschnerrt!” (My but that jerked!) Neither of us three said a word – speech was inadequate for the occasion.
Levi De Weese used to go around among the farmers de-horning cattle; He was a gelder. I white-washed barns with my portable barrel sprayer and one morning we both came to Jona Scholl’s place near Stouchsburg at about the same time. I slacked line, and they tried to catch a steer. He had a cattle-leader – “en nawsa-petser,” but they could not get it over the big steer’s nose. There were about 12 or 15 steers in an old stable, loose, and all had big horns. Along came Harry, the big sow, who had gone to the creamery. He spat in his hands (they looked like hams) grabbed the steer round the neck with his right arm, and went across the stable, dragging that steer. He wrapped the left arm around a post supporting the trough, looked at Levi, and speaking over a man-sized quid of “Red Man”, he said: “Now petts see ob!” (Now pinch them off!) And he did, the while Harry held that struggling steer by brute force; that steer made no more trouble than a mouse in a bear trap.
When old Mose Harshberger was hauling manure with six horses, the hub of the hind-wheel hung on the gate-post when he made a very short turn. He grabbed “fesht on der long-gwitt” (a hold of the coupling-pole) and lifted (not skidded) that load of several tons over to one side; then he went on his way as if nothing had happened.
”Mose" Dissinger – The Methodist Evangelist – also was a strong man. At one place where he was expounding the Gospel in his spectacular manner, there were some very noisy young men in the gallery; they sat in the front row, and every now and then one would bend forwards and holler some insulting epithet at the old preacher. Finally when goaded beyond further endurance, he leaped up in the air, grabbed the prime offender by the shock of fiery red hair, and yanking him from his lofty perch he rammed him down on a bench so hard that the bench broke in the middle, and the culprit sat on the floor.
He told the now thoroughly subdued culprit: “Won sell nix bott, no gebt 's eppes doe!” (If that don’t help, something's going to happen here!) Presumably, it had happened already.
Most of these old-timers not only had the strength, but also the sound rugged health of the native oaks. Constantly exposed to Life’s vicissitudes, they stoically endured hardships beyond belief; theirs was a strenuous life – a life of labor and love. One time while a flitting (moving of household goods from one home to another) was under way, they had to cross a very old bridge, and one of the heavily loaded wagons caused the half-rotted timbers to give way. The remaining wagons could not cross as it was ready to collapse. The banks of the stream were too high for the teams to ford it.
An ingenious son of the soil gave his companions this harangue: --“Deer seidt net so dumm os doppich! Doe is kew tzeit fer sich tsu schemma – grickt ire ex!” (You are not as dumb as clumsy. This is not the occasion to be ashamed – get your axes!”) He then led them in cutting some poles in the nearby woods, and putting some flat rocks in place of piers, they placed the logs vertically under the sagging timbers, sledging them into position in the icy water up to their arm-pits, as naked as the day they were born. Meanwhile the women built a fire and boiled coffee, and when the men were finished they rubbed themselves dry at the fire, and put on their clothes, the women having retired behind the wagons; then, after the coffee was used up, they resumed their journey. Whenever Granddad related this anecdote he would conclude his narrative with these words: “Selly boova selly waura by Gott gsundt, udder Ich date eich des net fertsaila – Ich waur der kerl uff em shtumba, woo ihna hell gevva hut!” (Those boys were healthy, by God, or I would not be telling you this – I was the kid on the stump giving the rest of ‘em hell!)
He also told of how he caught a pretty girl peeping out from under a wagon; and admiring his splendid physique, and of how she subsequently became the writer’s grandmother.
”Licht-mess – schpinna fergess! Holb fooder g’fress! By dawg g-ess!”
Candlemass – forget the customary after supper spinning of flax for the needs of the family throughout the year. "Holb-fooder g’fress” meant that one half of the supply of fodder or provender of sorts had now been consumed. “By dawg-g’ess,” meant that the sun was now riding so high in the meridian, and the days consequently were so much longer, that the evening-meal could now be enjoyed at the usual hour, by daylight, without the unpleasantness of the inadequate lighting equipment of those days.
”Des grawd rous schpoutsa – see waura – weidt fun dumm!” (Spitting it out plain – they were – far from dumb!) (One of G. dad’s favorite aphorisms and usually “spiked” with some very choice adjectives.)
Many a husky lad of those days might well be called a poet; even though he were illiterate, yet he inscribed his thoughts on the bole of some old oak with a broad-axe or carved them in stone with mallet and chisel. I have yet to encounter a radio, a television set or even a car that may be viewed by someone in 2253 A.D., unless the selfsame article is sealed up in a museum.
Feb. 2nd, 1953
Der Oldt Bauer
English and Pennsylvania German
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Dieffenbach, Victor C., "Our Sturdy Forefathers, Their Health and Longevity: Strong Men, February 2, 1953" (1953). Alfred L. Shoemaker Folk Cultural Documents. 230.
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