Valentine: The Life and Travels of Johann Valentine (Veltan) Griesemer

For Valentine’s Day, I am writing about my 7th great-grandfather, Johann Valentine (Veltan) Griesemer. He was born in Lampertheim, Hesse on January 4, 1699 and died in Hereford Township, Berks County, Pennsylvania on May 31, 1773. He was the son of Johann Valentine Griesemer (1658-1735) and Anna Kiesser Griesemer (1690-1712). He married Anna Margarete Kern (1690-1721) in 1712 and Anna Maria Zugk in 1723, having four children with his first wife and six with his second wife. I am descended from two of his children: Casper (1715-1794) on my mother’s side and Anna Maria Gerdtraut (Gertrude) (1728-1802) on my father’s side.

Johann Valentine Griesemer received permission from Frantz Ludwig, Archbishop of Worms Count Palatinate, etc. on April 28, 1730 to travel to Pennsylvania. The passport was for “John Valentine Griesheimer, wife, and four children” (actually, five): Johann Wilhelm, Casper, Anna Margaret, Jacob, and Anna Maria Gertraut. The form was signed by John Adam von Hohamus, Governor of the Grand Duchy of Worms. “Valtein Griesemer” and his family traveled to Rotterdam, arrived in Dover on June 19, 1730, and arrived in Philadelphia on the ship Thistle of Glasgow on August 29, 1730. He took the oath of allegiance to King George II upon his arrival and first settled in the Goshenhoppen Valley in present-day Montgomery County before finally establishing a permanent homestead in Hereford Township in present-day Berks County.

Valentine Griesemer became a prominent landowner in Hereford Township, at one point owning nearly 600 acres. He became a naturalized citizen in April 1743, traveling to Philadelphia to go before the Supreme Court to swear his allegiance to King George II. He built a log house that lasted over 140 years before a descendant tore it down. In 1759, the Penn family granted him a patent to 149 acres; officially, the patent states they did “grant release & confirm unto the said Valentine Griesemer by the name of Felton Kreesmer alias Cresmore.” Griesemer would pay 1/2 penny quitrent sterling per acre annually to the proprietors for the property.

A year later, Valentine Griesemer and his wife Anna Maria sold the land to their youngest son Leonard for 400 pounds. Leonard took over the payments to the proprietors, which would end in 1776 after the United States declared independence from England and the Penn family ceased being proprietors of Pennsylvania. There is no indication that Valentine and Anna Maria would be permitted to remain on the land; perhaps they went couch surfing among their other eight children until they died.

Valentine’s second oldest son, Casper, became one of the founders of Oley Reformed Church, and Casper’s son (subject of the Witness to History: Jacob Griesemer Crossing the Delaware post from December 2020) served in a Berks County regiment during the American Revolution and accompanied General George Washington when the Continental Army crossed the Delaware River prior to the Battle of Trenton. His third child and first daughter with Anna Maria Zugk, Anna Maria Gerdtraut (Gertrude), married Jacob Gery, a native of Alsace, France and a Redemptioner who arrived in Philadelphia in 1739 and had been hired by Valentine Griesemer to work on the farm. Gery is an ancestor of my 2nd great-grandmother of Sariah Hassler Wheeler (paternal ancestor). Casper is an ancestor of Harriet Bland Griesemer Spohn, my 2nd great-grandmother (maternal ancestor). My father died before I got to tell him that one of my mother’s ancestors (Valentine) owned one of my father’s ancestors (Jacob Gery) and that he married the daughter of his master.

Johann Valentine Griesemer died on May 31, 1773 and was buried at New Goshenhoppen Reformed (now UCC) Church cemetery alongside his wife. He was survived by nine children.

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In the Kitchen: Church Dinners

An encore performance from November 2020:

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Namesake: George Washington Loucks

My 2nd great-grandfather George Washington Loucks (1859-1936) was one of nine children born to Johann Jacob Loucks (1820-1892) and Magdalena Geist Loucks (1824-1893). However, he wasn’t the only child in the family with a famous name, as his younger brother Ulysses Simpson Grant Loucks (1864-1893) was named after the successful Civil War general.

The Loucks family name is one of those that has a variety of spellings, appearing in census records as Lowkse, Loux, and Laucks in addition to Loucks. The Loucks ancestors came to the British colonies as part of the Palatine migration to New York in 1709-1710, and they originated in France before fleeing to present-day Germany after Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685 (which eliminated toleration for French Protestants/Huguenots). Some of the Loucks made their way down the Susquehanna River and settled in present-day York County, Pennsylvania; George’s ancestors moved to Lancaster (his father was born in Lancaster County). By 1850, Johann Jacob and Magdalena Loucks had moved to Schuylkill County, and Jacob was a plasterer–a trade all of his sons would follow.

George Washington Loucks married Mary Matilda Davidson (1862-1946), daughter of Jonathan Davidson (subject of the Unexpected: The Death of Pvt. Jonathan Davidson blog post in June 2020) in 1882, and their daughter Amelia (my great-grandmother) was born that October (subject of the Unforgettable: Amelia Homestead Loucks Wheeler Kilhefner blog post in August 2020). Two additional children, Elvira (1884) and Raymond (1886), completed the family.

George W. Loucks and his family had moved to Reading by 1900, and he became active in a local sporting group. The Reading Times reported in August 1903 that he was a member of the Independent Camping Club, and they noted: “George Loucks, instead of following his trade of plasterer, is serving as chef of the camp. He is giving us splendid meals and the boys say he is a ‘corker.’ We have breakfast between 6 and 7 o’clock in the morning, dinner at 1 o’clock in the afternoon, and supper at 6 o’clock in the evening.” The article also noted that he played shortstop on the Married Men baseball team at camp. Loucks also joined the Independent Gun Club in March 1903, and, when the club celebrated its 18th anniversary in March 1909, the Reading Times noted, “The success of the affair was due to the untiring efforts of George W. Loucks, chairman.”

Loucks’s participation in the Independent Gun Club and Independent Camping Club was not the only time he appeared in the Reading Times. In September 1903, he was charged with “keeping a vicious dog.” Peter Keller walked by Loucks’s house, where the dog was gnawing on a bone. The dog proceeded to attack Keller, biting him and leaving 13 teeth marks on his right hand. According to the report, Keller struck the dog with a cane three times after the attack. A neighbor collaborated the account in court and said the dog also tried to jump at Keller’s face. Keller also noted in court that the dog had bitten someone else the previous day. The verdict in the case does not appear in the paper, but I suspect the dog was put down for his behavior.

George W. Loucks and Mary M. Davidson Loucks divorced in December 1920. The announcement in the Reading Times indicated that Loucks lived in Tamaqua by then, and the cause for divorce was “cruel treatment.” They separated at least a decade before the divorce; Mary M. Loucks was a servant according to the 1910 census and a seamstress in the 1920 census, living with her sister’s family that year. In 1930, he lived with his daugher Amelia, her husband Norman, her son Earl, and Earl’s wife Alberta. Mary married Daniel Ruckstool in Februrary 1921, and the newspaper announcement of their wedding identified her as Mary M. Davidson, not mentioning her first marriage.

George Washington Loucks died in Reading Hospital on February 1, 1936 and was survived by his ex-wife and three children. According to his death certificate, the cause of death was early bronchopneumonia, chronic degenerative myocarditis, left sided hydrothorax, and pneumoconios–probably from inhaling fumes when working as a plasterer for over fifty years. He was buried at Charles Evans Cemetery.

I never knew George Washington Loucks, and I don’t recall my paternal grandmother saying much about her grandfather. My father did remember Mary and her husband Daniel and spoke highly of both of them. He was alive when his great-grandfather Loucks was alive (and they both lived in Reading), but I suspect he didn’t have much interaction with him other than possibly seeing him in church.

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Family Legends: The Native American Princess

One time, when my mother asked her father about his ancestors, he mentioned that he had been told one of his great-great…grandmothers was a Native American princess. Now the area in which his ancestors lived–the Oley Valley in Berks County, Pennsylvania–did have Native Americans (the Lenni Lenape) in the area when his earliest ancestors arrived from Europe, so it was a possibility.

When researching the family history, we found the baptismal record for John Henry Augustus Spohn, my 2nd great-grandfather (and his grandfather). The sponsors for the baptism were John and Elizabeth Achey, who, as it turns out, were the parents of his mother, Sarah (Sallie) Achey Spohn. Elizabeth’s maiden name was a mystery, so my mother got excited–maybe she was the long lost Native American princess?

One way to resolve this question was through Ancestry DNA. Both my mother and I took the test a few years ago (surprise! it showed we were mother and daughter). According to the results, neither of us had any Native American ancestry, but it showed she had 16% Irish ancestry, and I had 6% Irish ancestry (since changed with upgrades/updates to their database). So it was highly unlikely that we had a Native American princess in our ancestry, especially when her current DNA results indicate that her ancestry is 73% Germanic/Northern Europe, 23% England and Northwestern Europe, and 4% Norway (!). Meanwhile, I am 58% Germanic Europe, 33% England and Northwestern Europe (I do have an ancestor from England on my father’s side), and 9% Scotland (!–although it does explain why I like plaid). The only explanation we can think of is that perhaps we had Viking ancestors who got around (possibly the Yoders, who reportedly originated in Scandinavia). In any case, we don’t have a Native American princess, although Ancestry DNA is correct in indicating that we both have Pennsylvania Settlers in our DNA.

So…if Elizabeth isn’t a Native American princess, then what is her maiden name? Fortunately, one of John and Elizabeth’s children died in 1907, which means that there is a death certificate available for him (Pennsylvania started recording deaths in 1906). According to the death certificate for their son Samuel, Elizabeth’s maiden name was Miller. Thus, my 3rd great-grandmother Achey was not a Native American princess, but a Miller–which is a rather common surname in Berks County. So far, I haven’t been able to locate her parents, but at least she has a maiden name, and I know from the 1850 census that she was born in Berks County (John Achey was born in Lebanon County). I don’t know when she died, but it was some time between the 1850 and 1860 census. One thing I also definitely know–I definitely do not trace my ancestry back to the Mayflower.

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Beginnings: The First Family History Blog of 2021

Once again, I will be participating in Amy Johnson Crow’s #52ancestors project. This year, each week I plan to write about a different ancestor, hopefully not repeating much information from last year (I have found more than 52 ancestors, so that shouldn’t be a problem).

Our family first began exploring family history when my brother was working on a Genealogy badge for Boy Scouts. He only needed to go back as far as his grandparents, and, since they were all alive at the time, it was relatively easy for him to earn it. But that was indeed just the beginning, because the main thing he recorded was their birth and marriage dates, along with those of my parents. By the time I wrote the research paper on women in my family’s history (explored in the blog How It All Began: Family History Research last January) I was able to include all of my great-grandparents and some of my great-great-grandparents, but it certainly was not as complete as it is now. All of my ancestral lines are complete through the 4th great-grandparents, with most of them going back at least two generations beyond that (and two of them back to the 12th century). No, I can’t trace my ancestry back to Adam and Eve, but I can trace one line back before the Black Plague (which obviously didn’t kill off the line).

What have I learned so far from this experience? I have one ancestor who I wrote about in my dissertation (not knowing at the time he was an ancestor). I have ancestors who fought on both sides of the American Revolution. I have an ancestor who died of typhoid during the Civil War, and one who was a drummer (and survived). I have an ancestor who was a member of the Pennsylvania General Assembly and another who served on the committee to draft the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776. But I also had an ancestor who led an unsavory life before he married my great-grandmother and one who told my mother that there was a Native American princess in his family, which I will write about next week.

Stay tuned for more stories from my family’s history as I explore each week’s themes in 2021.

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Resolution: What I Have Learned From This Experience

At the beginning of 2020, I became involved with the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks project, writing one blog a week (except for one) related to family history research. Throughout this year, I have written about my oldest ancestor (who died at 101) who followed a son from Switzerland to Pennsylvania, an ancestor who accompanied General George Washington as he crossed the Delaware and attacked Hessian troops stationed at Trenton, a family mystery (the “6th/7th Miller girl”), families being split up after the death of a parent, and families staying together after the death of a parent. I am looking forward to seeing what the themes will be for 2021, as I plan to participate again.

One thing I have learned from this experience is that blogging is a nice way to share information, and I am planning to incorporate it into one of my classes next fall. As I have shared in a few blogs, I teach a class on how to research family history, and, given how much I have enjoyed writing these blogs, I am planning on having students write blogs about what they learn in the class (I’m sure they will like that more than writing a research paper).

Now I must get back to research and find more exciting information about my ancestors. See you next year!

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Winter: The End?

When I think of winter, two things come to mind: people who die during the winter and who are not buried until after the ground has thawed, and people who graduate in December, when it is much colder than it is in May. My family history has included both.

On January 17, 1961, Edgar Morton Wheeler (1875-1961), my paternal great-grandfather through my grandmother Mabel Matilda Wheeler Guenther, died of pancreatic cancer. According to his obituary in the Reading Eagle, the funeral would be held on Friday, January 20, with burial to take place in Charles Evans Cemetery in Reading. However, the burial did not take place after the funeral. Because of the cold weather, his body was placed in cold storage until the ground thawed–and, with 16 inches of snow dumped on the ground on February 4, it would be almost Easter before he would be buried (meanwhile, my mother remembers that snowstorm on February 4 for a different reason, because my brother was born that day).

Unlike high school graduations, which typically take place in May and June, college graduations also occur in December. My sister and I both graduated from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas in December, she in 1991 with a B.S. in Interdisciplinary Studies degree (fancy name for elementary education) and me with a B.A. in History and Spanish in 1980. For my graduation, it was a somewhat big event, as both surviving grandparents made the trip from Pennsylvania to Texas to attend the ceremony, and my paternal grandmother brought along some friends from church (one of whom I knew, but one I didn’t). It must have been funny for my maternal grandfather accompanying three old ladies who he didn’t really know on the plane (my father’s parents didn’t associate with my mother’s parents, even though they went to the same church and served on the same church committees; my father’s parents looked down on my mother’s parents because they literally lived on the other side of the railroad tracks). They all stayed at my family’s home in Houston during the visit, which lasted through the Christmas holidays. My siblings and I slept in the living room and den while the “old people” took over our bedrooms. For my sister’s graduation, my oldest aunt, who was my sister’s favorite aunt, traveled to Houston for her graduation. Being a December graduate is one reason why, when I was physically able to do so, I tried to attend December commencement where I teach.

For someone who also attended graduate school in northern states, winter meant something else. While I was born in West Reading, Pennsylvania at Reading Hospital and lived in West Lawn, Pennsylvania and Enfield, Connecticut until 6th grade, I learned to drive in Houston, Texas, which does not have much “winter weather” (everything pretty much shuts down with flurries; school was closed for two days when I was in 8th grade because of 1 1/2″ of snow). I attended graduate school at Penn State (M.A. History) and the University of Connecticut (started Ph.D. there, left for medical reasons), both of which experience the white fluffy stuff during the winter months. Obviously, having grown up in Pennsylvania and Connecticut, snow wasn’t anything unusual for me. We even had snow every year I was at SFA (I’ll never forget the one history class that stopped when the professor blurted out, “It’s snowing!” in the middle of class and the students turned around to look out the window) and had a snow day my freshman year. But that was nothing like I saw at Penn State, where a foot of snow wasn’t enough to cancel classes, or at UConn, where you feared the ice more than the snow (because ice could knock out power, which isn’t good in the winter). When that white fluffy stuff started falling from the sky, I avoided driving as much as possible, because I hadn’t learned how to drive in snow (which, if you haven’t done it, is a rather frightening experience as you skid on the road). Even though I have lived in Mansfield more than 20 years (and we do get snow here–in fact, about 2 feet this past week), I still am a bit skittish about driving in the snow, even with a four wheel drive vehicle.

Winter, thus, means a lot of things to me. Snow does looks pretty, especially when it lands on the ground but melts when it hits the pavement. December graduations are just as important as those in May/June (and, on the plus side, are much quicker because of fewer graduates). And, when you die during the winter, sometimes you don’t get planted until after the spring thaw.

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Witness to History: Jacob Griesemer Crossing the Delaware

After a one week hiatus (sorry, got sidetracked grading research papers and final exams and averaging grades), I’m back to participating in the #52ancestors project. This week’s post is a relatively easy one to write, as I do have an ancestor who literally was a witness to history.

Jacob Griesemer (1758-1825), my 5th great-grandfather, was eighteen years old when he enlisted in the 6th Battalion of the Associators of Berks County in 1775. By 1777, he had been promoted to 2nd Lieutenant of the 4th Company (from Oley Township) in the 1st Battalion commanded by Colonel Daniel Hunter. By 1780, he had risen to the rank of Captain in the 5th Battalion commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John Cunius. Hunter’s Battalion was involved in the Battle of Trenton, and Jacob Griesemer, along with other German-speaking troops from Berks County, accompanied General George Washington when the Continental Army crossed the Delaware River on December 25, 1776 and then attacked the Hessian outpost at Trenton, New Jersey.

The purpose of the German-speaking troops like Jacob Griesemer was to serve as translators between the Continental Army and the Hessian troops who were hired by King George III to fight with the British Army in the American War for Independence. Because the Hessians were hired mercenaries from their ancestral homelands, there often was a bit of fear when encountering them, but with the surprise attack on December 26, 1776 the Continental Army and accompanying state troops like the Berks County Associators defeated the Hessian troops stationed at Trenton. Under Colonel Daniel Hunter’s command, Jacob Griesemer and other members of his battalion crossed the Delaware River with General George Washington, although they probably did not travel on the same boat.

These troops then returned to Berks County following the campaign, bringing with them prisoners who would be kept at Hessian Camp outside of Reading for the remainder of the war. Additional Hessian troops would be brought to Hessian Camp following the Battles of Saratoga, one of whom was Caspar Spahn (Casper Spohn), whose great-grandson John Henry Spohn would marry Jacob Griesemer’s great-granddaughter Harriet Bland Griesemer in 1869.

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Gratitude: Family Gatherings

My immediate family is originally from Reading, Pennsylvania. We moved to Enfield, Connecticut in 1966 after my father was transferred there to help start a new plant, and we moved from Enfield to Houston, Texas in 1970 after my father was transferred there to help start a new plant (he was an accountant for Continental Can Company, later Continental Fiber Drum). After we moved to Enfield, we frequently traveled back to Reading to visit relatives, and they occasionally came to visit us in Enfield. After we moved to Houston, the trips to Reading were less frequent–every year at first for 50th anniversary celebrations for each of my grandparents, then every three years (1975 and 1978). The family trips to Reading stopped after my siblings and I grew up and worked during the summers, which prevented the family from making a big trip–but my brother and I did take off work for the trip in 1978 (basically, we quit then came back, because vacation was not an option for seasonal employees at an amusement park). For me, I came back in 1981 to attend graduate school at Penn State, then I moved back to Houston in 1986 for medical reasons and finished my doctorate at the University of Houston. I still made occasional trips back to Pennsylvania for research (my dissertation was on the history of a Quaker meeting in Berks County in the 18th century) and work (I worked a few summers as a seasonal park ranger at Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site–two years in costume and one in uniform), but they often only included one parent, not the entire family. In fact, my entire family has not been in Pennsylvania at the same time since June 1978, even if all of them (except my brother’s children) have visited since then.

During that 1978 trip, my family essentially began the family history research experience in earnest. We met up with my mother’s cousin, who had already begun researching the family history history for the Bechtels, and my brother and I copied his information to verify (as a history major, I knew the importance of verifying sources). We visited cemeteries in Reading (Charles Evans Cemetery), Reiffton (Forest Hills Cemetery), Alsace Township (Alsace Cemetery), and Pricetown (Pricetown Cemetery). My father and I went to the Historical Society of Berks County to research in the library and found some information about my Guenther ancestors. Following that trip, I requested a couple of death certificates from the Register of Wills office and set it aside until I need that information (and more) for a research paper in a women’s history course in Fall 1979.

The family history research renewed while I was working as an intern at the Historical Society of Berks County in the summers of 1982 and 1983. On my off days, I would use the microfilm reader and go through old issues of the Reading Eagle and census records. I found books with information about my 3rd great-grandfather Charles William Guenther that contradicted what I had been told by my paternal grandparents. But I didn’t get really far on my mother’s side until I started researching online then going back to Reading to do more research at the Berks County Courthouse and at the Henry Janssen Library at the Berks History Center, along with visiting more cemeteries and archives.

I moved back to Pennsylvania in 1998 when I was hired to teach history at Mansfield University. My mother joined me a year later (she was my oldest niece’s primary caregiver/babysitter during her first year), and she has accompanied me on the road trips to find information on her family–which has taken us to cemeteries in Berks County, to the Mennonite Heritage Center in Montgomery County, and to Saratoga National Historical Park, where I saw a cannon that would have been worked on by Caspar Spahn (Casper Spohn), a wagoner in the Princely Hesse-Hanau Artillery Regiment (according to the Park Historian).

My siblings occasionally come to visit my mother and me in Pennsylvania, and we have periodically returned to the Houston area to visit them (most recently in 2017). We don’t do any family history research, although we do try to visit at least one amusement park (my siblings and I all worked at Astroworld, the Six Flags park that used to be in Houston). We haven’t all been together for holidays since 2001, when my mother and I traveled to Houston because I had a conference in San Antonio that December (when you’re driving to a conference from Mansfield, Pennsylvania to San Antonio, Texas, it certainly makes sense to visit relatives in the Houston area while you’re in the neighborhood).

My family got together through Zoom this past Thursday for Thanksgiving. First it was with my sister and her family (including my two nieces, my oldest niece’s boyfriend, and their dogs), then later in the day with my brother and his family (wife, three children, and their dog). We don’t get together for Thanksgiving; the last time we had anyone visit during the holiday was in 2016, when my sister and nieces visited that week and my oldest niece went to work with me and took a test (she was pleased that she passed a college test–it was a citizenship test I gave to students in Teaching Secondary Social Studies). They didn’t visit in 2018 because my sister and her youngest daughter had traveled here that August to go to Cooperstown to see the Astros World Series trophy at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, and I was sick at that time (I would have a second surgery in January 2019 for appendix cancer). My mother was amused by the “Brady Bunch” effect of Zoom meetings (she had her first Zoom meetings that day) but was a bit distracted by cats walking across computer keyboards (in other words, she got the full Zoom meeting experience). I am grateful for modern technology that enabled us to spend time with my siblings and their families, even if we’re 1500+ miles apart.

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Good Deeds: Cooking for Church Dinners

Church dinners are ways in which members of a congregation–and, in some cases, members of a community–get together to celebrate fellowship and eat. Throughout the 20th century, food was a way for the women of Zion’s Reformed Church (also known as Zion’s Evangelical & Reformed Church and Zion’s United Church of Christ) in Reading, Pennsylvania to be active participants in the congregation’s fund raising efforts. In the early years, profits went toward benevolences. Church dinners, festivals, and fastnacht sales during the 1930s and 1940s helped the congregation pay off the church mortgage and covered the cost of supporting members of Zion’s who served in the armed forces during World War II. By the 1980s, the soup sales that accompanied rummage sales not only helped the congregation meet expenses but also provided a service to the local community.

Church dinners during the 1930s included a homemade baked bean supper sponsored by the Young People of Zion’s Reformed, which would have included my paternal aunt Marie (who later became a waitress). At the supper in December 1939, the Young People decorated the church basement with Yuletide greens and sold cake, candy, ice cream, and chocolate milk. Young women like my aunt served as waitresses, while their mothers (like my grandmother) helped with food preparation in the kitchen.

During the 1940s, the annual strawberry festivals in June–which also were known as strawberry and ice cream festivals–were accompanied by peach festivals in August to raise money to purchase Bibles to be sent to church members serving in the armed forces. The peach festival on Tuesday, August 14, 1945, was especially memorable to my mother, as church bells rang, car horns honked, sirens blared, and children banged pots with metal spoons while marching around the block celebrating the news of Japan’s surrender to end World War II.

Types of church dinners included Ham and Egg Suppers, Chicken Pattie dinners, Ham and Baked Bean dinners, roast beef, pork and sauerkraut (this is a former German Reformed Church), chicken, and turkey, with sides including potatoes, pepper cabbage, and vegetables. Turkey dinners would include the canned cranberry sauce (including the can marks). Dinners would be free or a low cost (less than $1), with desserts available for sale. Cakes, pies, candy, and ice cream were the most common desserts. Waitresses like my aunt and later my mother would take tickets, fetch meals, get desserts, and cleared tables. Adults filled coffee cups and water glasses.

Church dinners were not the only way that members of Zion’s like my grandparents and their families served Zion’s with food sales. During the 1930s and 1940s, Zion’s became known for their fastnacht sales. Fastnachts are deep-fried doughnuts traditionally served in a German household on Shrove Tuesday. They are made with yeast-leavened dough and mashed or riced potatoes and fried in lard. A proper fastnacht is square with a hole cut out in the middle using a doughnut cutter. Women of Zion’s began selling the doughnuts in the first decade of the twentieth century and continued to do so through World War II. Lenten season in Reading, in fact, would not have been the same without the ladies of Zion’s baking fastnachts. In 1934, they made about 500 dozen–over 6,000 fastnachts–that were sold and eaten by members of the congregation and people from the surrounding area (including members of the police department who were stationed across the street at City Hall). They did the frying in shifts, and about fifty women (including my paternal grandmother) participated in the production. Because of shortages during World War II, Reading limited fastnacht sales to one church, and Zion’s was the “official” producer of fastnachts for the city. The Daughters of Zion’s stopped making fastnachts in 1945, but one of the leaders, my paternal grandmother Mabel Guenther, continued to make the “pre-Lenten dainties” for a few years and donated the proceeds to the church. Her fastnacht cutter was later passed down to my mother to use when she made fastnachts after we moved to Houston, Texas, in 1970, and when we made fastnachts we made sure to mail some to my paternal grandparents (and to her parents who lived outside Reading). That fastnacht cutter is the one mentioned in the Handed Down: Artifacts of My Family’s History blog in June.

My mother continued making fastnachts and shipping them while I was in college, and I had the honor of handing them out to my friends, fellow students, and teachers. One year she was working in the office at a meat distribution plant, and she brought home one of the boxes to ship the fastnachts to me. I asked her to mail them to the department office, and it was quite amusing to get a call from the secretary because they did not have a refrigerator large enough to hold the box labeled “Grilled Wieners–Keep Refrigerated.” I told her it didn’t need to be refrigerated, and I would be right down to get it. That year, the good deed was sharing the contents of the “grilled wieners” box, fastnachts from Houston, Texas.

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