Fun Facts From Historical Society Archives
Posted by firstname.lastname@example.org at December 7th, 2017
By Jean-Paul benowitz
According to the national monthly magazine Wired, which focuses on how emerging technologies affect culture, the economy, and politics, Dec. 8 has been promoted by a number of websites as “Pretend to Be A Time Traveler Day.” With this in mind, let us go back in time and examine life in Elizabethtown in bygone days. What follows is a number of interesting tidbits I have discovered in the deep recesses of the archives at the Elizabethtown Historical Society.
As we enter this Christmas-tide let us begin with discussing the candy known as sugar plums. Plum in the name of this confection does not mean plum in the sense of the fruit of the same name, but refers to a hardened sugar lump in a spherical or oval shape. Sugar plums are widely associated with Christmas, through cultural phenomena such as the Sugar Plum Fairy in Pyotr I. Tchaikvosky’s (1840-1893) “The Nutcracker” (1892) as well as the line “Visions of sugar plums danced in their heads,” from Clement C. Moore’s (1779-1863) poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” better known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas” (1823).
If we were to travel back in time and wanted to purchase sugar plums, we would go to the corner of North Market and East Hummelstown Streets. Although today it is a laundromat, once upon a time this was the Henner Ruhl Grocery Store. Ruhl specialized in hard, striped stick candy, sweet apple cider, and a grand selection of penny candy which made this old fashioned corner store immensely popular with children. Sugar plums were in stock and enjoyed by children who were given the candy to keep them busy while their parents waited for Henner Ruhl to ﬁnish grinding their coffee order in a huge red hand cranked coffee grinder.
According to the online magazine Slate, which focuses on current affairs, politics, and American culture; historically and currently Hollywood releases a disproportionate number of ﬁlms in December and the greatest times for movie ticket sales is Christmas week. So, let’s travel back in time and go to the movies in Elizabethtown. For this we need to go to 48 S. Market St., which is now Berkshire Hathaway Home Services Home Sale Realty.
Mr. and Mrs. Wolf Greenblatt built this building where they operated a clothing store for men and boys. The Wolf store started in the Levenight building at 35 W. High St., currently the location for Highland Cleaners. Their son, Morris Greenblatt, was the proprietor of a shoe store. The W. T. Grant Company department store was located on the ground ﬂoor and the basement at 48 S. Market. In 1962 the Brethren in Christ denomination moved their corporate headquarters for Christian Light Bookstore, The Brethren in Christ Mission Board, and denominational administrative ofﬁces to the Greenblatt Building.
On the second ﬂoor of the Greenblatt Building was a movie theater with Ross Keller and Frank Sweigart (always known as “Swig”) as the projectionists. The ﬁrst image to be ﬂashed on the screen, prior to the ﬁlm, was a slide with a picture of a women’s head wearing an enormous hat with plumes and feathers. Under the picture was printed a line: “Hats Off, Please!”
Before we head into the movie theater we should get some concessions, for this we need to go across the street to Mrs. Hornaﬁus’s candy store. This was in the Redsecker family home. The last member of the family to live here was bachelor George Redsecker (always known as “Skinny”). On the sidewalk, outside the store, Mrs. Hornaﬁus operated a peanut roaster. Folks on their way to the movies purchased roasted peanuts in colorfully striped bags. If you wanted to bring a soda to the movie theater you went next door to Mrs. Hornaﬁus and bought a soft drink at Martin and Maud Lindemuth’s soda fountain. By the time the movie was over, practically the entire ﬂoor was covered with peanut shells.
We had fun at the movies but now it is time to stretch our legs; how about we go ice skating? The principal point for ice skating was Reese’s pond just off West High Street, later owned as a reservoir by the Elizabethtown Water Company. Christ G. Reese, secretary of the Elizabethtown Board of Health, operated the Elizabethtown Ice Manufacturing Company. His brother Samuel Reese was the ﬁrst head of landscaping at the Masonic Village. Christ Reese owned two wooden frame ice houses near Winnemore Alley.
The ice was cut from the rectangular pond. The reason for the shape of the pond is because the area was excavated by the Reese family when they operated a brick yard at this location. Clay for the bricks came from this land and evidence of the kilns and brick storage buildings remained years after the industry had ceased operations. Many homes in the area were built on the foundations of the buildings for the Reese Brick Company.
Ice was treated as a crop. Farmers, meat markets, hotels, etc. cut ice off their ponds in winter time and stored the ice blocks in sawdust for use in the warm weather. The sawdust was supplied by the local saw mills such as George Hoffer Brothers Planning Mill at 54 Brown Street, later Elizabethtown Planning Mill, and eventually B&G Lumber formed by the planning mill bookkeeper Paul Brubaker and architect Paul Gerber who also formed the subsidiary BGS Constriction Company. According to the severity of the winter, Reese could harvest ice a couple times in one winter. In the meantime, the rectangular ice pond was used as a community skating rink. Worn out from ice skating, let’s sit back in a sled and enjoy gliding through the snow.
The present vacant lot, between Brown Street and the railroad siding, across from White Oak Mills (formerly Paul Grubb and Isaac Maderia Mills and the site of the ﬁrst rail road station) on 419 West High Street; was the site of the Hickory Coaster Sled Factory. When you purchased a Hickory Coaster, William Bringman (always known as “Billy Briggs”) painted your name on the sled.
While we are having fun, we have not lost track of time. In the old days, steam was used to power machinery and provide heat. It was no problem to tell the time of the day by the factory steam whistles. Kreider’s Shoe Factory, Klein’s Chocolate Factory, and Buch’s Manufacturing sounded whistles at 6:55 a.m. and 7:00 a.m., Noon, 12:55 p.m., and 1:00 p.m. with the last whistle at 6:00 p.m. St. Peter’s Church bell rang at Noon and 6:00 p.m. The passenger train’s deep throated whistles announced the hour. If you had memorized the Pennsylvania Railroad train schedule you could easily do without a watch by keeping track of the train whistles.
We better get home as night is falling and we need to dress in our costumes for the Christmas Eve festival of Belsnickling. In the early years of Elizabethtown everyone masqueraded around town going door to door being greeted by neighbors distributing candy and cookies. As people paraded around town in their costumes they “mummed.” Mumming, it is believed, began as an imitation of the kallikantzaroi, a malevolent goblin who dwells underground but comes to the surface during the 12 days of Christmas when, during the winter solstice, for a fortnight the sun ceases its seasonal movement.
In the 1700s Elizabethtown held masquerade balls accompanied by mummers’ parades such as the one in Philadelphia which has continued for over three centuries. In Elizabethtown everyone masqueraded to Center Square, mumming along the way, and then making much noise with bells, noise makers, and pot lids banged together. A local group of musicians called the “Schnitzelbunk Band” played tunes and people sang in four-part harmony.
This festival was a communal response to the Belsnickel, the forerunner to Santa Claus. The Belsnickel carried a stick or whip and visited each home warning the children to behave well. Parents bribed the Belsnickel with food and wine. The Belsnickel would leave cakes, candies, and nuts in the stockings of good children and a birch rod in the stocking of naughty children. The Elizabethtown Schnitzelbank Band sang songs about the Bell Schnickel.
A schnitzelbunk is a short rhyming verse or song with humorous content. Each verse in a schnitzelbunk introduces a topic and ends with a comedic twist. Mummers would go door to door singing, “Here we stand before your door/ As we stood the year before/ Give us whiskey/ Give us gin/ Open the door and let us in/ Or give us something nice and hot/ Like a steaming hot bowl of pepper pot.”
Eventually the ogre Belsinickel, who was the culmination of the kallikantzaroi, morphed into jolly Saint Nicholas, a.k.a. Santa Claus. Costumes and candy door to door moved to Halloween. Mumming was replaced with Christmas caroling. Mumming parades moved to New Year’s celebrations. Holiday hospitality of whiskey, wine, and gin gave way to Christmas cookie exchanges. You know the old song “We won’t go until we get some/ so bring some out here/ We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”
In the bygone days of Elizabethtown, and as we are time travelers, on Christmas Eve we would have donned wild costumes, shared a cup of mulled wine “a cup of good cheer,” going door to door mumming and collecting our neighbors, parading to Center Square and ringing bells as the Schnitzelbunk Band musically whisked us into Christmas morn.
This newspaper The Elizabethtown Advocate, was established in 2010 by veteran Associated Press journalist Dan Robrish. A native of Washington, D.C., Robrish studied journalism at Los Angeles City College and the University of Minnesota. He was a newspaper journalist in Ely, Nev.; New Ulm, Minn.; and Pottstown, Pa., until starting work in the Philadelphia bureau of the AP in 1998. Robrish is still the editor of this newspaper which since 2017 has become part of the LNP Media Group.
The predecessor to the Elizabethtown Advocate was the Elizabethtown Chronicle, which was shut down in 2009. The paper began in 1869 and was known simply as the Chronicle from 1982 to 1988, after which “Elizabethtown” returned to the title. The Elizabethtown Chronicle was established by John G. Westafer (1850-1920). Upon his death it was taken over by his son George Washington Westafer (1873-1947). Upon his death it was taken over by his son Ray Westafer (1906-1991).
I leave you now with a memory authored by Ray Westafer in the bicentennial year 1976. Westafer was reminiscing about winter evenings in Elizabethtown when he was a child in the years just prior to the First World War. Westafer remembered, “The home was the center of interest, really. [There were] taffy-pulling parties. Corn was popped over the glowing coals in the kitchen range; the women were forever baking cakes and cookies and making all kinds of candies. And there were huge dishes of cracked walnuts and shell-barks on the kitchen table. All one had to do was pick out the kernels with the nut picks placed beside the bowl. Chestnuts were either boiled in saltwater or roasted on top of the kitchen range. We played hausenpfeffer (a trick taking card game played with four people. Based on the French game ecarte introduced to Elizabethtown by French fur traders and called hausen-pfeffer by the Pennsylvania Dutch after their recipe for peppered rabbit stew). Nearly every family had a piano and someone would play it. (Mary E. and Robert L. Madeira gave piano lessons at 460 East Park Street. Jacob C. Shafer from 106 West Park Street tuned pianos). The family and neighbors and friends gathered for evenings of fun and singing.”
So when you hear those lyrics from 1945, “Chestnuts roasting on an open ﬁre/Jack Frost nipping at your nose/Yuletide carols being sung by a choir” close your eyes, be a time traveler, and imagine or recall Christmastide in Elizabethtown in a bygone era.
This monthly column about local history is written by Jean-Paul Benowitz, president of the Elizabethtown Historical Society who teaches courses on local history for the honors program at Elizabethtown College. It is illustrated by Shanise Marshall, a 2015 graduate of Elizabethtown College.
Category: Feature Articles