Helvetia Leather Company: A Ghost of Cabbage Hill Past

Jim Gerhart, November 2020

1887 advertisement for Helvetia Leather Company.

Cabbage Hill has been home to many successful businesses over the past 150 years, some of which have succeeded over several generations. Kunzler & Company, Inc. may be one of the first to come to mind. But not all successful Hill businesses lasted that long. One of the most successful businesses was the Helvetia Leather Company, which is largely forgotten today. However, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, working out of a large lot on Poplar Street, the company achieved nationwide recognition for its unique products, but it was in business for only about 30 years.

In the mid-1870s, Albert Wetter, a Swiss immigrant living on West Strawberry near South Water, began experimenting with a new way to make leather. By 1879, he had patented his new method, which used hot air instead of tannin to make leather from animal hides. Soon Wetter’s new method attracted several investors and together they started to manufacture “Helvetia leather”, a tough but pliable leather that was well suited to manufacturing applications. (Helvetia was the Roman name for Switzerland, Albert Wetter’s native country.)

The new venture, known by the names of its largest investors, Potts, Locher, & Dickey, needed a place to conduct its business. In 1879, Wetter purchased a large lot on the southeast side of the 500 block of Poplar, where the houses at 520-538 are located today. The lot extended 202 feet along Poplar, and 87 feet to an alley that is now South Arch. Later, the company would purchase another lot adjacent to the first, this one fronting on Fremont 100 feet and extending 85 feet to the same alley from the opposite direction.

Wetter and his partners built a large two-story brick factory and associated frame and brick buildings in which they started producing leather using Wetter’s new method. The factory was powered by a steam engine using coal as its fuel source. Wetter purchased the house next door at 518 Poplar in 1880 and he, his wife Lizzie, and their son Robert moved in beside the factory. In 1882, Wetter enlisted the noted Lancaster inventor, Anthony Iske, to design machinery that would make the hot-air method of producing leather more efficient, and together they patented that machinery. The company began to make a name for itself in the heavy-duty leather field.

Diagram from patent application for “Machine for Treating Leather with Hot Air”, U.S. Patent No. 266,695, October 31, 1882, by Anthony Iske and Albert Wetter.

Ever since its founding in 1729, Lancaster had always had numerous tanneries. Tanning leather was a difficult and messy process. Fresh animal hides had to be purchased from butcher shops and farms, and they had to be cleaned, de-haired, cured, and dried for several weeks before they were ready to be tanned. Tanning usually was accomplished through the use of tannin, which was obtained from tree bark through a time-consuming process, but with Wetter’s new hot-air method, that part of the process could be avoided.

Even so, the tanning that took place on Poplar must have been a dirty, noisy, smelly activity, becoming especially bothersome as that block of Poplar was built out with houses in the 1880s. Also, tanning no doubt resulted in some nasty waste products that were drained off downhill into the small stream that ran where New Dorwart is located today. Following the burial of that small stream in a sewer under New Dorwart by the late 1890s, the company built their own sewer to connect to the one under New Dorwart, and discharged their waste that way.

Unfortunately, due mostly to bad management, the first incarnation of Wetter’s business failed after a few years. Wetter and his partners were forced to sell the Potts, Locher, & Dickey business in 1882. The business was bought by a different group of investors headed by John Holman and Philip Snyder. After a few years of gradual success under its new management team, the business went public on September 7, 1886, sold shares, and became a corporation called the Helvetia Leather Company. (Wetter was not part of the newly incorporated business; in fact, he seems to have left Lancaster.) The growing company, chartered for the purpose of “tanning and manufacturing leather by patented or other process”, soon became famous for its leather, which was ideal for belts in machinery, laces for boots and shoes, industrial aprons, and similar uses.

1897 map showing the Helvetia Leather Company complex at 520-534 Poplar Street; from Sanborn fire insurance map

The nationwide recognition of the company was mainly due to its belt leather, that is, belts used to run heavy-duty machinery in sawmills, cotton mills, silk mills, printing plants, iron forges, railroad shops, and similar factories. Helvetia leather was made only from the high-quality centers of the animal hides, with the edges being cut off and sold to other manufacturers of different leather products. The company’s leather belts were said to be strong yet pliable, no matter their thickness, and they could run machinery with less tension required than with other types of leather belts. The company’s belts performed equally well in cold and hot temperatures, and did not slip as much as others.

The Helvetia Leather Company made heavy-duty leather belts for factories as far west as South Dakota, as far south as the Carolinas, and as far north as Massachusetts. Companies such as the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company, the Nonotuck Silk Mills, the Lancaster New Era, and the Clark Mile End Spool Cotton Company installed belts made by the Helvetia Leather Company. In fact, the Clark Mile End Spool Cotton Company in Massachusetts used nearly two miles of Helvetia belting in its factory, with one single belt being more than 2,100 feet long, a record for the time.

Throughout the 1880s and the 1890s, the Helvetia Leather Company on Poplar flourished under the leadership of John Holman and Philip Snyder, as well as several other prominent Lancaster businessmen. Robert Houston was President for most of those years, and local businessmen Allan Herr, Abraham Rohrer, Charles Landis, Elmer Steigerwalt, and Benjamin Atlee played important roles in officer positions. Gustavus Groezinger, owner of Groezinger’s Tannery at the foot of West Strawberry, also was an investor and officer. For many years, John Zercher was the factory superintendent, until he died suddenly at his desk one morning in 1906.

Advertisement for public sale of Helvetia Leather Company in 1909.

By the first decade of the twentieth century, Helvetia Leather Company had trouble paying its shareholders their annual dividends because of high prices for raw materials. By the end of the decade, the company struggled to meet expenses, no doubt partly because of the rising popularity of rubber belting. As a result, the company was put up for public sale in 1909, but the reserve amount was not met. It was finally sold in 1910 to Henry Schneider, and its buildings were almost immediately razed to make room for new houses. Within two years, eight two-story brick houses had been built at 520-534 Poplar.

Building at 536-538 Poplar that was once part of the complex of buildings of the Helvetia Leather Company tannery and factory. The eight two-story houses at 520-534 Poplar, just uphill from 536-538, were built about 1911 where the factory and other buildings once stood.

Two small, unusual  houses at 536-538 Poplar are all that remain of the Helvetia Leather Company’s complex of buildings; these two houses used to mark the southwestern extent of the tannery property. Looking at the row of eight tidy houses just uphill from 536-538 now, it is difficult to imagine that, in their place, a large, busy, noisy tannery once produced machinery belts and other products that helped run factories all around the country. Today, the Helvetia Leather Company is just another ghost of Cabbage Hill past.

The Long History of Schools on South Mulberry Street

Jim Gerhart, October 2020

The five-point intersection of West Strawberry, South Mulberry, and West Vine Streets, which is the gateway to Cabbage Hill from downtown Lancaster, has witnessed a lot of history. On the northeast corner of the intersection, bounded by South Mulberry and West Vine, a large school building now stands on a lot where 170 years ago some of the very first schools of Lancaster’s public-education system once stood. Let’s peel back the layers of school history at this site, starting with the first layer (today) and working back to 1850, with the emphasis on the fourth (earliest) layer, about which less is commonly known.

Layer 1, 1992-2020–The first and most recent layer of school history at this intersection covers 1992 to the present. Housed in the large Victorian-era brick building on the northeast corner of the intersection is the Intensive Day Treatment Program run by Catholic Charities of the Harrisburg Diocese. The program offers a five-day-a-week program of counseling, therapy, and life-skill education for at-risk Lancaster County children between the ages of nine and fifteen.


The Victorian-era school building on the northeast corner of South Mulberry and West Vine. Photo taken in 2020.

Layer 2, 1939-1992–The second layer of school history, just beneath today’s surface layer, covers 1939 to 1992. Many long-time residents of Cabbage Hill will remember this layer, when the current large brick building was the home of St. Joseph Catholic School. The Harrisburg Diocese bought the building on behalf of St. Joseph Catholic Church on July 10, 1939, and established a parochial school for the education of Catholic children on the Hill. The diocese purchased the building from the Lancaster City School District for $22,500 and renovated it to meet St. Joseph Church’s needs. The purchase was made to ease the crowding of the school located next to St. Joseph Church a block away. Many Cabbage Hill children received their primary-school education at St. Joseph School.

Layer 3, 1892-1939–Peeling back the second layer of school history, we expose the older third layer, which covers 1892 to 1939. No doubt there are a few old-timers who remember at least the later years of this layer, which begins with the completion of the current large brick school by the School District of Lancaster in 1892, and ends when the building was sold to the Harrisburg Diocese in 1939. The building currently at the site, then known as the South Mulberry Street School, was part of the City of Lancaster’s public-school system for nearly fifty years, and served as both a primary and secondary school. It was built to accommodate the growing numbers of students that resulted from increased immigration to the Cabbage Hill area in the late nineteenth century.

The architect who designed the South Mulberry Street School (1892) was James H. Warner, who also designed several other prominent buildings in Lancaster at about the same time, including Central Market (1889) and Christ Lutheran Church (1892). It is not surprising that the exterior of the South Mulberry Street School bears a strong resemblance to the exteriors of these other two buildings, in that all three are built in similar Victorian style with red brick highlighted by decorative brownstone accents.

Also built about the same time and in similar style was the three-story Victorian-era brick building on the corner across West Strawberry that until recently housed the Strawberry Hill Restaurant, and was originally the Centennial Hotel. In addition, the grouping of three three-story brick houses diagonally across the intersection, and directly facing the intersection on the south corner, was built in the 1890s. The late Victorian makeover of the intersection was complete by the late 1890s.

Layer 4, 1850-1892–Finally, way down in the layers of school history at this site is the fourth and earliest layer. It begins in 1850 and ends in 1892, when the large school building now on the site was completed. To clear the ground for the large current building, the School District of Lancaster razed two older school buildings built in 1850 and a third school building built in the late 1860s. All three of the earlier buildings were one-story brick buildings, with the third building being slightly larger than the first two.

Map showing the three school houses in 1874. The third, slightly larger, school house had just recently been built. Note that West Strawberry was still a narrow lane, and the southern West Vine extension was just being laid out. From Roe and Colby, Map of the City of Lancaster, 1874.

The first two of these early school buildings were among the very first public-school buildings built in Lancaster following the implementation of the city’s common (public) school system in the early 1840s. The first two buildings—essentially double one-story brick houses—were built in 1850. They were built on Hamilton lot 386, one of the original building lots laid out by James Hamilton in 1730. Lot 386 had been purchased by the Board of Directors of the Common Schools from Margaret and Catharine Yeates, daughters of Judge Jasper Yeates, on June 26, 1849, for $300. The lot was 64 feet on West Vine, extending 242 feet to Mifflin.

Map showing the first two one-story brick school houses on the north side of West Vine in 1850. Mulberry had not yet been extended south past West Orange, and West Vine had not yet been extended across West Strawberry. St. Joseph Catholic Church had just been built. From Moody and Bridgens, Map of the City of Lancaster, 1850.

At the time the Board of Directors purchased lot 386 and built the first two school houses, South Mulberry did not yet exist; Mulberry’s southern extent ended at West Orange. As a result, the two school houses were referred to as the West Vine Street School until Mulberry was extended in the mid-1850s. Also, when the school houses were first built, West Vine did not exist south of West Strawberry. Therefore, today’s distinctive five-point intersection was only a three-point T-intersection with the north part of West Vine truncating at West Strawberry, which was still a narrow dirt lane. In addition, in 1850, the foundation of the first St. Joseph Catholic Church was just being dug, and today’s Christ Lutheran Church was still several decades in the future.

Lot 386 was near the top of Dinah’s Hill and it looked out on downtown Lancaster to the north and was bounded on the south, in 1850, by pasture land of the still undeveloped central part of Cabbage Hill. Across West Strawberry to the south was Christopher Zell’s one-story frame blacksmith shop that would soon be enlarged into the Centennial Hotel and Saloon. There were only a few other buildings within a block of the two school houses, including the small log cabin across West Vine where 113-year-old ex-slave and fortune-teller Dinah McIntire had lived several decades before, giving her name to the hill on which lot 386 was located.

Enlargement of an 1852 lithograph showing the first St. Joseph Catholic Church and the first two school houses on West Vine. The flattened perspective makes it seem that the school houses  are across the street from the church, but they were actually a half block past the church across West Strawberry. Drawing by Charles R. Parsons.

When the first two small school buildings opened in 1850, they served both primary- and secondary-age children, mostly of German heritage. It didn’t take long for the two school buildings to become crowded as Cabbage Hill began to grow. Anticipating and reacting to that growth, the Lancaster School District acquired two more pieces of land adjacent to lot 386—a 16-foot strip of land between lot 386 and the recently extended South Mulberry to the west in 1860, and a 24-foot strip of land on the east side of lot 386 in 1878. Both strips of land extended to Mifflin.

The third school building was added to the south of the first two in the late 1860s to serve as a primary school for both boys and girls. It was a little larger and sat a little closer to South Mulberry, taking advantage of the strip of land added in 1860. By the late 1880s, the three small school houses were again becoming crowded as well as outdated, prompting the School District to plan for their replacement by a larger, more modern building—the one that is on the site today.

It would, of course, be historically interesting to have a photograph of the three early public-school buildings before they were torn down in the early 1890s, but it seems there are none devoted to just the three buildings themselves. However, partial images of the first school houses on the site were inadvertently captured in the corners of two other photographs before the early school houses were forever lost to history.

Photograph of Rose Bros. & Hartman Parasol & Umbrella Factory on South Mulberry in the late 1880s. The factory is now the rear one-third of the Umbrella Works Apartments. From LancasterHistory photo archive, no. A-13-01-28.
Enlargement of the lower right corner of the photograph to the left, showing the two one-story brick school houses (built in 1850), prior to them being torn down.

First, in the late 1880s, a few years before the current building was built, a photographer from the Fowler Gallery took a picture of the Rose Bros. & Hartman Parasol & Umbrella Factory in the first block of South Mulberry. This factory would soon be expanded down to West King and become the Follmer, Clogg & Company umbrella factory, and today the Umbrella Works Apartments. On the right edge of the photograph one can see the fronts of the first two small, one-story, brick school houses built in 1850.

South Mulberry Street School, at the completion of construction in 1892. Note the old one-story brick school house, built in 1850, on the left edge of the photograph, and the old one-story brick school house, built in the late 1860s, on the right edge. Photo from Riddle, 1905.

Then, in 1892, when the current larger building had just been finished, a photograph was taken to commemorate its completion. On the left edge of the photograph can be seen the side of one of the first school houses built in 1850, and on the right can be seen the front edge of the third school house built in the late 1860s. It seems that only the middle school house had to be torn down to build the new larger school, and the other two were used for classes while the new larger school was being built. Then, when the new school opened, the remaining two old school houses were torn down.

One can learn a lot about the evolution of schools at this iconic five-point intersection just by using historical records and photographs to peel back the layers of history.

The Origin of the 400 Block of Poplar Street

Jim Gerhart, September 2020

The 400 block of Poplar Street, one of the most picturesque blocks on Cabbage Hill, dates back to October 5, 1872. On that date, at 2:00 p.m., a public sale of building lots was held as part of the estate settlement of Henry C. Locher, the developer of the lots, who had died the previous year. 

First, by way of a little background…..In 1872, the central part of Cabbage Hill was in the midst of a development boom, spreading from Manor Street eastward. In the west, the 400 and 500 blocks of Manor and High Streets in the Bethelstown neighborhood were almost completely built up, with the former Lafayette and Buttonwood (West Vine) Alleys beginning to be built on as well. Moving east, the 400 and 500 blocks of St. Joseph Street had acquired houses on about half of their lots. But on Poplar Street, although St. Joseph Catholic Church was on the northwest side, the southeast side of the 400 block was devoid of houses. With the October 1872 sale of Henry C. Locher’s lots, that was about to change.

Thirty-one lots on the southeast side of Poplar had been staked out by Locher and his family in early 1870. All but two of the lots were 20 feet wide by 100 feet deep; the exceptions were the two end lots that were a little wider at 30 and 27 feet. All the lots backed to an alley that would eventually become South Arch Street. The lots were numbered from 7 to 37. Bidders on the lots could bid on single lots or as many as three contiguous lots.

The sale took place across Poplar from the rear of St. Joseph Catholic Church and the adjoining cemetery, which had been established less than 25 years earlier. According to an announcement of the sale in the Lancaster Examiner and Herald: “These lots are pleasantly situated, on high ground, and in an improving and rapidly growing part of the city, and very desirable for building lots…”

The land had been purchased by Henry C. Locher and his wife Cecelia Margaretta from Daniel Harman just two years earlier in 1870. Locher laid out building lots shortly after buying the land, and first tried to sell the lots privately, without success. When Henry died in April 1871, Charles A. Locher was assigned to be the guardian of Henry’s and Cecelia’s youngest daughter, Laura, who was 10 years old and still a minor. The public sale of lots was arranged to generate enough funds to provide for Laura’s share of her father’s estate, to be managed by her guardian until she became of age.

Henry C. Locher was able to invest in real estate because of his successful tannery located at the corner of West Strawberry and South Water Streets, where the wading pool in Culliton Park was until recently located. He and his wife Cecelia and their four daughters lived in a house next to the tannery. The tannery was established by Henry C.’s father and from the late 1830s to the early 1870s, it produced a specialized leather known as Moroccan leather that was made from goatskin.

The public sale of Locher’s building lots on October 5, 1872 went well. A dozen lots on the southeast side of Poplar were sold that day, ranging in price from $48 apiece for lots 11 and 12, to $69.25 for lot 7 (the widest lot). The purchasers were required to pay half the price by April 1, 1873, and the other half, with interest, by April 1, 1874. The twelve lots that were sold that day in the 400 block of Poplar were:

The building of houses on the recently purchased lots began shortly after the public sale. Most of the new lot owners kept their lots at the original 20-foot widths, but a few lot owners subdivided their lots before houses were built. Lot 7, with an original 30-foot width, was divided into two 15-foot wide lots. Also, two pairs of 20-foot wide lots, each pair having a total of 40 feet of width, were each divided into three lots a little over 13 feet wide. Lots 8 and 9, and lots 10 and 11, were combined and then subdivided in this way, so that four 20-foot wide lots became six 13-foot wide lots. The result was that thirty-four houses could be built on the original thirty-one lots. 

The first two houses to be built were completed by 1874 (see 1874 map). They were built by Frantz Siebold (lot 12) and Henry Bertschi (lot 13). Today those houses are 424 and 426 Poplar, across the street from the SoWe office in the rear of the St. Joseph Church annex. The third house built was that of Martin Kempf, who bought lots 36 and 37 for $475 about six months after the public sale. Kempf built a larger house on lot 37 on the corner of Poplar and Filbert, where he opened a beer saloon on the first floor. Kempf’s house and saloon is now 476 Poplar. 

The purchase of lots from Locher’s heirs, and the building of houses on the lots, continued for another fifteen years. In 1880, eight years after the public sale, eight houses had been built (416-424, 476). Just six years later, in 1886, another twenty houses had been built (412-414, 426-430, 434-436, 442-448, 456-472). Finally, by 1888, sixteen years after the public sale, all thirty-one lots had been sold and all thirty-four houses had been built (see 1897 map). Every house was a 2-1/2-story brick Victorian house.

In a little more than fifteen years (1872-1888), the southeast side of the 400 block of Poplar Street had gone from boundary stakes in the ground to fully built out, testifying to the intense development of the Hill that was occurring at that time. Today, the same thirty-four houses that were built more than one hundred and thirty years ago are still present, making the 400 block of Poplar perhaps the only block on Cabbage Hill where all the original houses pre-date 1890 and are still in use.

Today’s residents of the 400 block of Poplar are living with a lot of history just waiting to be discovered. If you live in one of those houses, the history of your property dates back to the lots laid out by Henry C. Locher in 1870. That would be a good starting point from which to develop the rest of your house’s history to the present. If you are interested in researching your house’s history, you can contact me at SoWeCommunicate@sowelancaster.org, and I will try to point you in the right direction.

The Heyday of Hotels on Cabbage Hill

Jim Gerhart, July 2020

In the mid-19th to early 20th centuries, Cabbage Hill boasted numerous hotels. Most didn’t look like the typical hotels of today, but instead looked like larger houses, with saloons on the first floor and rooms for rent in a rear wing. The proprietor and his family usually lived on the second floor above the saloon. Often hotels had a main front door for the saloon and hotel, and a second door off to one side for the proprietor’s upstairs living quarters. Most old hotels were on corners at intersections.

By far the earliest (1745) hotel near Cabbage Hill was the Golden Plough (later the Plow Tavern) at West King and Charlotte, just north of the Hill proper (razed in 1928). Probably the earliest hotel actually on the Hill was the Lafayette Hotel operated by George Hinkle in the 400 block of Manor Street in the mid-1840s (no longer there). After the Lafayette went out of business in the early 1850s, there were no more hotels on the Hill until after the Civil War, although there were always a couple saloons.

Between the Civil War and the beginning of the 20th century, eight iconic hotels were established in the historic core of the Hill, bounded by Manor, West Strawberry, Fremont, and Fairview. Each of these eight hotels flourished at least until the back-to-back challenges of Prohibition and the Great Depression, which put several of them out of the hotel business. The saloon part of their business, however, persisted through Prohibition, with many of them becoming speak-easies and occasionally running afoul of the Volstead Act. After World War II, many of the saloons in the old hotels were transformed into cafes, taverns, and bars through the late 1900s. Although none of the eight iconic hotels is a hotel anymore, all eight hotel buildings survive, and some still house successful businesses.

In their heyday, the eight hotels were the hubs of many Hill activities. Political meetings, speeches, and rallies often took place in the hotels, sometimes drawing hundreds of people. Many of the hotels served as polling places as well. Special events and celebrations often took place at the hotels, and music and dancing were common on weekends. Athletic, shooting, and other competitions between different hotel were frequently arranged. And, of course, Hill residents spent many a night gathered around the long bars drinking locally brewed beers. Occasionally, fights would break out and the police would be called.

The eight iconic Hill hotels are briefly described next, starting with the oldest:

Centennial Hotel, 128 West Strawberry—Established by Samuel Erisman in 1865, and named in 1876 during the Nation’s 100th birthday, the Centennial started out as a saloon in a one-story frame building. In 1892, the old building was replaced with a 3-story brick one (the current building) with 15 rooms, one bath, and a large bar room. Edward Kirchner ran the hotel and saloon during the challenging Prohibition years. Obie Miller’s Steak House operated in the building from the mid-1940s to the mid-1980s, and then Strawberry Hill Restaurant from the mid-1980s to 2012. The scars of two large saloon windows remain near the angled front door.

Victoria Hotel, 450-452 High—In 1865, Christian Diehl built a 2-story frame building and opened a saloon in it. When he died in 1877, his wife Victoria took over running the saloon, added a hotel component, and named it Victoria Hotel. She replaced the frame building with the current brick one about 1890. Joseph Fritsch ran the hotel and saloon until Prohibition in 1920. The hotel business closed in 1937, and Ziegler’s Café operated here in the 1940s. The outline of the old hotel entrance is still visible in the brick pattern on the façade.

La Pierre House, 476 Poplar—Martin Kempf built the current building and opened it as a saloon in 1873. After Kempf’s death, John Snyder took over in the 1880s and 1890s and added the hotel business, calling it La Pierre House. Lancaster brewer Charles Wacker bought the hotel and saloon in 1900 and Charles A. Kirchner ran it for him until 1930. At that time, the hotel business closed, and Albert Karch ran Fibber’s Café in the old saloon until 1953. Since then, it has been Danz Café, Brau House, Farrell’s Café, and My Linda’s Tavern, which closed in 1992.

White Horse Hotel, 653-657 Manor—Albert Kohlhaas opened a saloon at this location in 1874, and built the current building as the White Horse Hotel about 1880. He sold the hotel to Frank Rieker of Rieker’s Brewery in 1899. John Kirchner ran the hotel for Rieker for about 20 years, followed by Thomas Goodhart for 15 more. Since the 1940s, the hotel has been closed, but numerous drinking and eating establishments have used the building—Noden’s Café, Bishop’s Café, Bartnichak’s Café, and most recently, O’Henry’s, which closed in the 1980s. Kunzler’s now uses the old hotel as its corporate offices. Multi-colored formstone now covers the original brick exterior.

Stumpf’s Hotel, 464-466 Manor—Started as Charles Vogt’s saloon in 1874, the original building became William Schneider’s Manor Street Hotel in the 1880s and 1890s. John Stumpf built a new hotel (the current building) on the site in 1902, with 16 rooms, hot and cold running water, and a huge cherry bar. Stumpf ran his hotel until 1937. After Stumpf’s Hotel closed, a series of owners operated cafes, taverns, and bars there, including Pat & Denze Café, Manor Bar, Gold Brick Tavern, Manor Tavern, and Cosmos Bar & Grill, which closed in 2011.

Eighth Ward Hotel, 552-554 St. Joseph—Alexander Gerz built the current building about 1874 as the new Green Cottage Hotel. Gerz’ heirs sold the hotel to Lucas Fritz, who ran it as the Eighth Ward Hotel until the late 1880s, when it was taken over by Fritz’ son Charles until about 1900. William Hoenninger, Jr., ran the hotel and saloon until about 1915. During Prohibition, Albert Hall sold soft drinks (at least) out of the dormant saloon. The hotel part of the business closed during the Great Depression. John Lermer and his wife Fannie ran Lermer’s Café from about 1940 to 1970, and from the late 1970s to 2012, it was the Starting Gate Inn. Formstone now disguises any covered-up doors and windows from the old building.

Fair View Hotel, 764-766 High—In 1894, Frank Schwarz bought a relatively new store and house on the corner of High and Fairview and a few years later he opened the Hotel Schwarz. Next, Casper Kirchner ran the hotel until 1910, naming it the Fair View Hotel. Matthew Miller, Carl Koenig, and Albert Bishop were the main proprietors of the Fair View for the next 30 years. From 1947 to 1990, William Steinbaecher took over, naming it Steinbaecher’s Hotel and expanding it farther along High. From the early 1990s to today, it has been O’Halloran’s Irish Pub. Formstone covers up any remnants of doors and windows from the old hotel and saloon.

Glen Hotel, 558 High—The current building was built in the early 1890s as a grocery store for John Kaetz. By 1903, it was the Glen Hotel licensed to George Kirchner, and one owner later, William Kirchner was the proprietor until 1909. Several different men operated the Glen from 1909 into the 1930s, when the hotel closed and a series of cafes and taverns and other businesses took over, including Hammel’s Café, Koenig’s Café, Armand’s Tavern, the Glen Tavern, Tan Hoa Grocery, Peniel Church, and currently Sunshine Nursery Daycare Center.

The golden age of Cabbage Hill hotels is long past, but the buildings remain to remind us of how important they were to the social lives of Hill residents. Now the rooms in the old hotel buildings are apartments, as are many of the proprietor’s quarters on the second floor. But many of the old first-floor saloons have been converted for businesses, which is key to maintaining some of the neighborhood atmosphere of the old days on today’s Hill.

One last thing: Did anybody notice while you were reading this how many of the hotel proprietors were Kirchners? Edward, Charles, John, Casper, George, William—the Kirchners must have had the hospitality business in their genes!

Smallpox and Typhoid Fever on Old Cabbage Hill

Jim Gerhart, June 1, 2020

Life on old Cabbage Hill had many qualities worth waxing nostalgic about—neighborhood solidarity, a wide range of owner-operated neighborhood businesses, and vibrant social, cultural, and religious institutions, among others. But life in the good old days on the Hill also had its serious drawbacks, some of the worst of which were frightening outbreaks of infectious diseases, including smallpox, typhoid fever, cholera, diphtheria, and consumption (tuberculosis), in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Scientific understanding of the causes of contagious diseases, and therefore their proper prevention and treatment, was just in its infancy in the late 1800s. Ignorance and misinformation were rampant, as were fraudulent prevention and treatment recommendations. Doctors did the best they could, some heroically, but in many cases all they could do was try to alleviate the victims’ suffering.

Today, these once feared diseases have been eradicated in the U.S. through the implementation of public-health measures, including sanitation and vaccines. Because we are no longer threatened with these diseases, it is hard for us to imagine how frightening and panic-inducing they used to be. But the impacts on communities could be truly devastating.

Cabbage Hill was often hard hit when these diseases visited Lancaster. In some outbreaks, many dozens of Hill residents came down with the disease, and numerous residents died. The city Board of Health did its best to monitor and control the diseases, and there are records of the statistics and public-health responses related to each outbreak. It is important to remember, though, that behind the faceless statistics were real families that were changed forever.

In the late spring and summer of 1883, Lancaster endured a smallpox outbreak that severely impacted a family on the slope of Dinah’s Hill, on the northern edge of Cabbage Hill. On May 8, Charles Carr, a 20-year-old bill poster, was committed to the county prison for 45 days on a charge of drunkenness and disorderly conduct for breaking a transom window at the Seventh Ward Hotel. Charles lived with his parents, David and Kate Carr, and seven siblings in a 1-1/2-story frame house at 330 West King Street.

Charles’s family immediately began the process of trying to get him released through a writ of habeas corpus. In the meantime, six inmates of the prison, including Charles, had come down with what appeared to be the early stages of smallpox, a highly communicable disease caused by the variola virus. The early symptoms of smallpox are fever, back pain, and red spots on the face, arms, and legs. The prison-keeper was reluctant to acknowledge this threat to his prison, and despite the warning symptoms, Charles was released on bail to his family on May 22, just two weeks after he had been committed. Two of Charles’s older sisters, Annie and Katie, took on the job of nursing him back to health at their crowded home on West King.

But unlucky Charles was soon beyond help, and he died on June 4. By then, Annie and Kate had contracted the disease. Katie, age 25, died June 10, and Annie, age 26, died June 18. By that time, several of their siblings also had contracted smallpox, and the disease took brother John, age 18, on June 21; sister Ida, age 17, the next day; and brother Elmer, age 22, on July 2. In less than a month, six of the Carr’s adult children had died from smallpox. Of the eight children who had still been living at home, only George, age 23, and Emma, age 15, survived, and Emma would die the next year from a “lingering illness”, possibly related to the same outbreak of smallpox that had devastated her family.

Many neighbors chipped in to provide support for the Carr family during their crisis, although David Carr refused to accept any donations. Unfortunately, however, one person saw an opportunity to take advantage of the family. On the night of July 9, just a week after the sixth Carr child had died, someone broke into the Carr’s fenced backyard and stole nearly 100 chickens, prompting the local newspaper to editorialize that “the thief deserves to be shot”.

The Carr family was the hardest-hit family, but throughout Lancaster, 85 people contracted the disease, and 15 people died. The prison-keeper, the prison doctor, and the lawyer and judge who had overseen Charles Carr’s release, were all criticized in the local newspapers, as was the Board of Health for not acting sooner and more forcefully. A new position of Health Commissioner was added to the city government, and three special police officers were assigned to guard the houses that were under quarantine during the outbreak. The new Health Commissioner led a sanitary cleanup and free vaccination effort in the hardest-hit areas of the city. Slowly, the city went back to its normal routines, but for the Carr family, life would never again be normal.

Eight years later, in the spring of 1891, a different scenario involving an infectious-disease outbreak unfolded right in the center of Cabbage Hill. The disease was typhoid fever, and the location was the neighborhood around the intersection of New Dorwart and High Streets. This time, the disease was transmitted by way of water from a polluted backyard well.

In September 1890, John Dinges, a carpenter living at 434 High Street, bought a house (602 High) on a large lot on the south corner of the intersection of High and New Dorwart Streets. Behind the house was a shallow well that had been dug when the house had first been built, at least 20 years earlier. The well was in the floodplain of a small stream called the Run, which in the 1870s and early part of the 1880s ran where New Dorwart Street is today.

The well also was only about 12 feet away from the house’s cesspool, making it likely that human waste from the previous residents of the house had made its way to the well. Typhoid fever is caused by a Salmonella bacterium that is found in human excrement. The bacteria that cause typhoid fever are easily transmitted in water. The symptoms of typhoid include fever, headache, abdominal pain, vomiting, and eventual delirium.

When Dinges acquired the lot and house, the well had been abandoned for some time, but he installed a pump on it and put the well back in use. He did not move his family into his new house, continuing to live at 434 High, but his family started using the well behind the new house. Dinges also allowed a few other families to use the well, including neighbors around the corner on New Dorwart—Andrew Braungart and his wife and seven children. Braungart’s wife was the sister of Joseph Hildmann, who lived at 414 Poplar with his family, and Hildmann’s family was permitted to use the well also. At least two other families who were neighbors of Dinges also began using the well.

Soon after Dinges and his neighbors began using the well, many of them came down with typhoid fever. Dinges was the first to contract the disease, and he died on May 24. At the time of his death, a local newspaper reported that 20 other people had become sick with typhoid. This number included Dinges’s three children, all nine people in the Braungart family, and Joseph Hildmann and his wife and children.

When Dinges died, the city Health Commissioner directed the well to be shut down. Dinges’s widow refused to do so, so the Commissioner had the pump handle removed and announced that anybody using the well would be prosecuted. Although some 20 people had already contracted typhoid fever, no new cases would appear after the well was shut down.

One more person died in the typhoid outbreak. David Hardy, a 30-year-old tobacco packer and shortstop on the “Ironsides”, a city baseball team, was admitted to St. Joseph’s Hospital on May 28 and died on June 2. Hardy had been boarding on Fremont Street with his wife and one small child.

All the others recovered eventually, but not without a disturbing incident involving the Braungart family. Andrew Braungart and three of his children were sick enough to be admitted to the hospital in late May. On June 5, Braungart was given permission to leave the hospital for a few hours to visit the rest of his family at home, including a young daughter who had been too sick to be taken to the hospital. On his way home, Andrew stopped for whiskey and arrived home drunk, where he “abused his family”. The authorities were called, and the sick daughter was removed to the hospital for her own safety.

In this 1891 typhoid fever outbreak, the city was better prepared than it had been in the smallpox outbreak in 1883. The Health Commissioner position that was established in 1883 was right on top of the typhoid outbreak as soon as the first death was reported, and his quick actions put a halt to any further spread of the disease. Also, while the crisis was still evolving, the city Water Committee decided to install a 6-inch water pipe under New Dorwart to replace the lost water supply of the polluted well. The testing of water in all the wells in the city also was begun. However, as efficient and effective as the city’s response had been, it was still too late for the Dinges and Hardy families that were forever impacted by the typhoid outbreak.

Today, sadly, we continue to be plagued by outbreaks of new infectious diseases caused by viruses and bacteria. Each new outbreak has some distinctly unique features, but our reactions and behaviors often seem to follow the same sequence of steps and missteps as we try to deal with them. Revisiting past outbreaks like the ones in 1883 and 1891 can perhaps help us make better decisions about what to do and what not to do during new outbreaks. Reviewing past outbreaks like these two also reminds us that the good old days on Cabbage Hill and the rest of Lancaster included some pretty bad moments.

Lancaster’s Edison: Anthony Iske of Cabbage Hill

Jim Gerhart, May 2020

What do an extension table, a dumping coal wagon, a hospital bed, a meat slicer, a reclining chair, a burglar alarm, and a fire ladder have in common? They were all patented right here in Lancaster, on Cabbage Hill!

Their inventor was Anthony Iske, who is said to have held some 200 patents for a wide variety of devices from about 1860 to 1910. Iske, who was known as the Edison of Lancaster, was a skilled and industrious immigrant who led a remarkable life, greatly contributing to the vitality and culture of the Hill and the rest of Lancaster.

Antoine (Anthony) Iske was born in Alsace, France, in April of 1831. When he turned 14, he became an apprentice in his grandfather’s cabinetmaking business. He quickly learned the trade, and by the time he was 18, he was in charge of his grandfather’s shop, which had an excellent reputation for fine furniture, with a specialty in church altars.

In the spring of 1853, Anthony received an invitation to cross the Atlantic to build an altar for a new church in Lancaster, New York. Upon his arrival in New York City, he was directed to the wrong train and arrived here in our Lancaster instead. Luckily, our Lancaster also had a new church that needed an altar, and Iske was hired to build the high altar, two side altars, and a pulpit for the new St. Joseph Catholic Church, a task he completed in 1854 at the age of 23.

Less than a month after arriving in Lancaster in 1853, Anthony married Felicite Ruhlman, another immigrant from Alsace who had traveled on the same ship. Soon, Felicite gave birth to a daughter who unfortunately died four days later. Over the next ten years, they would have five more children, three of whom—Albert, Emma, and Laura—would survive to adulthood.

By 1858, the Iskes were tenants in a house in the middle of the 400 block of High Street, and Anthony had set up his furniture business there. He not only made furniture of all types, but by the beginning of the Civil War he also made coffins and ran an undertaking business in his workshop on High (see 1864 ad). In addition, he continued to be sought after for church furnishings. One example was a 25-foot-tall pulpit he built in 1864 for St. Augustine Catholic Church in Pittsburgh.

He also began to invent, and seek patents for, a wide variety of wood and metal devices, some of which were the first of their kind and others that were improved versions of existing devices. Some of his inventions from these early years included an extension table, a dumping coal wagon, a washstand, a fire escape, and a hospital bed.

In 1860, Anthony built a frame house on a lot at 452 High, and lived and worked there for six years. When he moved out, the house he built was replaced by the new owner with a larger brick house that is now 450 High. In 1866, he bought a house on a lot at 412 High, where he and his family lived for 15 years (see 1874 map). He built a workshop at the end of his backyard, where he worked on his furniture and inventions. The house at 412 High still stands, although the workshop has been replaced by a house facing West Vine.

Anthony’s time at 412 High was very productive. He was granted several dozen patents for a cigar press, a reclining chair, a meat slicer, and numerous other devices. In the late 1870s, his son Albert, who showed a similar aptitude, began working alongside his father, and Albert’s name began appearing on patents in addition to his father’s.

By the 1870s, Anthony held dozens of patents, and had numerous other ones in progress. Keeping track of the status of each, and managing the required financial obligations among investors, lawyers, agents, salesmen, and manufacturers was challenging. Anthony frequently was called to civil court to defend himself against charges that he had not properly paid one party or another. In 1879, amid several simultaneous lawsuits involving patent and payment disputes, he was forced to sell his lot, house, and workshop at 412 High to help pay off his debts.

The Iske family soon bounced back. In March 1881, Anthony purchased a property along the first block of West Strawberry, extending from Manor to Lafayette. The property contained an old 1-1/2-story brick house on its northwest end facing West King, across from the Plow Tavern. The deed of sale was actually in the name of his son Albert, probably because of Anthony’s recent financial troubles.

Within a year, Anthony and Albert had built two additional buildings on the West Strawberry lot—a 2-1/2-story brick workshop (12 West Strawberry) in the middle of the lot, and a 2-1/2-story brick house (20 West Strawberry) on the southeast end of the lot (see 1886 map). Albert and his young family moved into the old brick house (356 West King) on the northwest end of the lot. Anthony and Felicite moved into the new house on the other end of the lot. The workshop was between the two houses, and through the 1880s, Anthony and Albert collaborated there on many patents, including ones for a heat motor, a fire ladder, and a combination hay rake and tedder.

In August of 1889, the Iskes sold the northwest part of the lot, where Albert’s house at 356 West King was located, to Christ Lutheran Church for its new church building. Albert and his family had to move into the upper floors of the workshop at 12 West Strawberry. Inventions continued rolling out of the Iske workshop at a steady pace, including a doorbell, a trolley fender, a trolley repair wagon, and an elevator.

Albert’s family continued growing, with several more children arriving by 1896, and soon the workshop and the rooms above it at 12 West Strawberry were no longer big enough. The Iskes enlarged the workshop into a double 3-story building, the larger side (10) of which was for Albert’s family and the smaller side (12) of which was for the workshop.

Unfortunately, the Iskes soon ran into financial difficulties again. In September 1897, they had to sell their remaining property along West Strawberry. Fortunately, the new owner of the property rented the houses and workshop back to the Iskes to use, and Anthony and Albert continued to work on inventions there, but the flow of inventions was slowing down. Only a handful proceeded to the patent phase, two of which were a reversible window sash and an intermittent motor.

Anthony’s wife, Felicite, died in August 1898. Anthony’s daughter Emma married George Heim in 1900, and the newly married couple purchased back the former Iske house at 20 West Strawberry, allowing Anthony to board there with them. In September 1906, the double 3-story house and workshop at 10 West Strawberry was sold to Christ Lutheran Church. Albert and his family rented back the house and workshop from the church until 1910 and then moved as tenants to 644 Fourth Street.

With the workshop now closed, Anthony retired from active inventing. While in his 70s and 80s, he continued tinkering at 20 West Strawberry, mostly trying to develop his heat motors into perpetual-motion machines. Anthony fell down the basement stairs at 20 West Strawberry in early January 1920, and died from internal injuries 10 days later, virtually penniless.

If Anthony Iske had been only an inventor, his life would still be noteworthy. But he did not just seclude himself in his workshop. He was a member of St. Joseph Church for more than 65 years, and sang in the choir there for 50 years. He served as the first President of Lancaster’s German Democratic Club, and President of the Schiller Death Beneficial Society for more than 30 years. He helped found the Fulton Death Beneficial Association and served as its President for seven years. He represented the Eighth Ward on the Town Council of Lancaster, and also on the Select Council. In addition, he served as a School Director, and was a member of the Lancaster Liederkranz and the Germania Turn-Verein.  

Iske was described in an 1894 biographical portrait as a man who “bears a high reputation among his fellow-townsmen for honesty of purpose and straightforward conduct in everything he undertakes”. Arriving in Lancaster by mistake, he certainly made the most of his accidental home. Although he never became rich, Anthony Iske’s remarkable life is a testament to the importance of immigrants to the vitality and success of the Hill and the rest of Lancaster.

Notes: This piece was researched and written with the input of Gail Dowle, who lives in Wales in the United Kingdom. Gail is the great-great-granddaughter of Anthony Iske. The full story of Anthony Iske’s life and inventions will be published later this year in The Journal of Lancaster County’s Historical Society.

The Catharine Yeates Cottage on Cabbage Hill

Jim Gerhart, April 2020

There’s a good chance you have walked or driven by the three-unit apartment house at 613 Fremont Street without thinking twice about it. It’s really not much more remarkable than other nearby houses, except that the lot is larger than most and there is a privacy fence around it. But the house has a long remarkable history. In fact, it was the first house built in the central part of Cabbage Hill.

The two-story, frame house with a gambrel roof, now clad with modern siding, was built in 1838 as the summer cottage of Miss Catharine “Kitty” Yeates. The house has had many owners and tenants over the last 180 years. I will briefly trace its history here, with closer looks at two of its most interesting owners—Miss Yeates, a wealthy philanthropist, and Alexander J. Gerz, a Civil War veteran and entrepreneur.

The house’s first owner, Catharine Yeates (1783-1866), was the daughter of Jasper Yeates, a famous Lancaster lawyer and State Supreme Court Justice. Starting in 1820, after she had inherited part of her father’s considerable estate, Catharine bought several tracts of land in what is today the heart of Cabbage Hill. Her property totaled almost ten acres and, in terms of today’s streets, was centered on the 500 blocks, and part of the 600 blocks, of St. Joseph, Poplar, and Fremont.

In 1838, Catharine built her summer cottage (now 613 Fremont) on the southernmost corner of her property. At that time, there were no other houses in the area, and there were no streets, only tree-lined dirt paths separating fenced pastures. A stream starting near Manor Street and ending at South Water Street, ran in front of her house. The setting was perfect for what she wanted—a cool place where she could escape from her family’s mansion on South Queen Street near the square when the summer heat and city life got too oppressive.

Catharine, who never married, lived in her cottage during the summers for the next fifteen years. She sometimes rented out rooms on the second floor to various tenants. The property required maintenance, and she had a caretaker to tend to the lawn and flower beds, the fruit trees and grapevines, and the fenced pastures where her horses and cattle were kept. The stream in front of her house, which flowed where New Dorwart is today, supplied her house, livestock, and chickens with water.

In 1855, Catharine deeded the cottage and all of its surrounding acreage to her nephew Jasper Yeates Conyngham. Catharine died in 1866, and in her obituary in a Lancaster newspaper, she was praised as “…one of the most estimable ladies that ever resided in the city…” Perhaps her most consequential act of philanthropy was the founding and endowment of the Yeates Institute, a private school in Lancaster intended to prepare students for the Episcopal ministry.

Catharine’s nephew Conyngham did not live in the cottage, renting it out instead. In 1869, he sold the house and its property to David Hartman, who was a city tax collector and wealthy real-estate investor. Hartman later was elected county sheriff. He bought the Yeates property as an investment for $5,500, and sold it the following year to Alexander J. Gerz for $7,000.

Gerz (1826-1876) was an immigrant from Lorraine, near the border of France and Germany, who was part of a successful family pottery business in Lancaster. He enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War, serving in the 79th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers. Shortly after returning from the war to Lancaster, he moved with his wife to Mexico, where he enjoyed success in the pottery business there. He was forced to leave Mexico during a revolution, and enroute back to Lancaster, his wife died of yellow fever in New Orleans. Back in Lancaster, he resumed his pottery business, ran the Eagle Hotel on North Queen, remarried, and had four children.

In 1870, Gerz bought the former Yeates property, where he opened a hotel and saloon in the summer cottage, calling it the Green Cottage Hotel. He held events on the property, including dance parties and reunions for his fellow Civil War veterans. The one-acre lawn around the hotel and saloon consisted of well-kept grass, flower gardens, and fruit and shade trees. Next to the hotel on the northwest side was a large pond stocked with a wide variety of fish. (The site of the pond was an abandoned, short-lived quarry that Gerz had dug when he discovered marble under his property in 1870.) Also on the grounds were a small deer park and a large wooden platform (thirty-two feet square) for dancing. The grounds could be accessed by a bridge over the stream that ran in front of the hotel.

Gerz died at the age of fifty in 1876. His widow, Margaret, sold his remaining property, including the cottage, at auction in November 1878. Henry Haverstick bought the cottage property for $2,100. For the sale, the lot on which the cottage was located was reduced in size to 200 feet square, bordering on New Dorwart and Fremont.

In 1884, Haverstick sold the property to John Snyder, who was a hotel proprietor and tobacco merchant. The Snyder family would own the property and live there for the next forty-five years, with son Michael Snyder taking over ownership when his father died in 1930. John Snyder built a tobacco warehouse on the opposite corner of the lot from the cottage, at the intersection of Poplar and New Dorwart.

A year after John Snyder’s death, his son Michael sold the property to Harry M. Stumpf. Stumpf was a building contractor and Michael Snyder’s cousin. He built garages on the property between the cottage and Poplar, and ran his contracting business from there. He converted the cottage into two apartments and rented them out. The Stumpf family was prominent on the Hill and in Lancaster for many years. Harry’s father, John, owned a hotel in the 400 block of Manor Street, and Harry’s brother, Edward, owned a service station and garage in the 500 block of Fremont, and also was the owner of Stumpf Field along the Fruitville Pike.

In 1952, Harry Stumpf sold the lot with the cottage to Samuel Lombardo for $15,000. Lombardo and his wife Elsie got divorced in 1956. Elsie got the cottage, remarried to Maurice Brady, and lived in the cottage until her death in 1991. Elsie and Maurice added a third apartment to the house, living in the main apartment themselves and renting out the other two. The house remains divided into three apartments to this day.

To be sure, Miss Yeates’ 1838 summer cottage has changed a lot over the years. It no longer sits all by itself in the middle of pasture land. It doesn’t have a stream in its front yard. It has been added to and modified numerous times. But the basic structure of the cottage is still intact. The next time you pass the house at 613 Fremont, try to visualize it as it was 150 years ago, when it was a hotel and saloon surrounded by well-kept grounds that were home to a fish pond and a deer park. It’s just one more example of all the history hiding just below the surface on Cabbage Hill.

The Rise and Fall of Cabbage Hill’s Movie Theater

Jim Gerhart, March 2020

Movies, or moving pictures as they were first known, were invented in the 1890s. Within ten years, theaters devoted to showing movies began to proliferate. The first four large movie theaters in Lancaster were built between 1911 and 1914. They were the Colonial, Hippodrome, and Grand on North Queen Street, and the Kuhn on Manor Street. The three downtown theaters were more opulent and charged higher prices than the Kuhn, which was established to serve the working-class southwest Lancaster neighborhood.

The Kuhn Theatre, also sometimes known as Kuhn’s Theatre, opened in March 1911. Adam Kuhn was a German immigrant who attended St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, and who for many years, ran a successful bakery on East Chestnut Street. After much of his bakery was destroyed in a fire, he decided to retire from the baking business and venture into the new movie-theater business. He sold the damaged bakery in September 1910 and a month later he used the proceeds to buy a large lot in the 600 block of Manor Street for $1,950 (the lot was actually purchased in the name of Mary, his wife). On that lot, Kuhn built the Kuhn Theatre, which would eventually become the Strand Theatre and continue showing movies until 1962.

The Kuhn was located at 605-609 Manor on a large lot that extended to Reiker Avenue, and it stood nearly alone on that part of the block when it was first built. The brick theater had 40 feet of frontage on Manor, widening to 70 feet where the screen and stage were at the rear of the building. The building was 205 feet long, with a two-and-a-half-story brick house attached to the rear of the theater, in which the Kuhn family lived. The original theater, which could seat 400 people, was heated by steam and had both gas and electric lights. (The former site of the now demolished theater is a parking lot next to B&M Sunshine Laundry.)

Adam Kuhn’s new career in the movie-theater business did not last very long. He died in the fall of 1912. Edward J. Kuhn, Adam’s son, took over ownership of the theater. Like most movie theaters in the early days, it not only offered movies, but also offered other types of entertainment such as vaudeville acts and band music. Kuhn also rented out the theater for use by others; one example was the Salvation Army for evangelistic services in 1914.

The movies shown at the Kuhn were quite primitive, black-and-white, silent movies that featured exaggerated acting and were usually about 15-45 minutes long. Each movie consisted of one to three reels of film; if there was more than one reel, the projectionist had to rewind and change the reels while the audience waited. The movies were accompanied by live piano music. Kuhn charged a nickel for most movies, and a dime for special events.

Edward Kuhn operated the theater through 1913, but in early 1914, he put the theater up for sale at auction. The advertisement for the public sale, held in the theater in February 1914, noted that the theater had been “a good money maker”. The highest bid was $15,000, but that was less than Kuhn thought it was worth, so the theater was withdrawn from sale. Kuhn tried again two weeks later, but again the theater was withdrawn from sale. Six months later, in August 1914, the theater was seized and sold to cover Kuhn’s debts. The Northern Trust Company bought the theater for $7,300. A couple months later, in October 1914, the Northern Trust Company sold it to two theater operators from Philadelphia for $8,300.

The two new owners, Peter Oletzky and Michael Lessy, changed the name of the theater to the Lancaster Theatre, and continued to offer movies and other forms of entertainment while remodeling the theater and increasing the seating capacity to about 900. By January 1916, a new theater manager had been brought on from Philadelphia. While movies were still the theater’s mainstay, other large events were held to augment the theater’s income. One such event was an April 1916 show put on by the Eighth Ward Minstrels accompanied by the St. Joseph’s Church orchestra and choir that attracted more than 1,000 people.

A big change in the program of the Lancaster Theatre was the addition of boxing matches. A boxing ring was set up on the stage for these events, and well-known local and regional boxers would stage matches that attracted packed houses. One example was a bout between Cabbage Hill’s own Leo Houck and Dummy Ketchell of Baltimore.

The Lancaster Theatre got another new manager in October 1916, and he announced a new policy of “musical comedy playlets of the higher class and unexcelled photoplays”. The opening act under this new policy was Rowe and Kusel’s Big Girlie Musical Review, an act that may have indeed been a change for the family-oriented audiences of the Hill. Prices were 5, 10, or 15 cents, depending on the seats. On the downside, because of competition from other attractions in the summer months, the Lancaster Theatre closed down for the entire summer in 1917.

By the spring of 1919, the theater had changed hands again, and was doing business under the name of the Manor Theatre. Movies and boxing matches continued to be the two main draws. Movies had become much more sophisticated in the eight years since the theater had opened. They were still silent, but they had become longer, with more natural performances, and instead of anonymous actors, they now had recognizable stars who drew people to their movies. They also were now being made in Hollywood, California, instead of New York and New Jersey.

Other attractions drew crowds as well, such as a 7-foot eel caught by George Schaller, a neighborhood cigarmaker, in January 1920. Schaller put the eel in his backyard to freeze it solid, and then put it on display in the Manor Theatre. However, a monster eel was apparently not enough to meet the Manor’s profit expectations, and the theater was sold again in the spring of 1920, this time to George Bennethum of Philadelphia for $15,000. He remodeled the theater, updated its projection equipment, and changed the name of the theater to the Strand, a name it would keep until it closed 40 years later. Movies were still the staple, but boxing and other events also were staged. For instance, in the winter of 1921-22, the Duquesne Boxing Club leased the theater for its winter season of matches.

In 1928, the Strand Theatre was sold to Harry Chertkoff, a Latvian immigrant who would own it until he died in 1960. Chertkoff went on to own numerous other theaters in Lancaster County, including the King Theater and the Sky-Vue and Comet drive-ins. His first infrastructure improvement at the Strand was to outfit it for sound to accommodate the industry’s switch to movies with soundtracks. Chertkoff also made major renovations to the Strand in 1933 with the addition of improved acoustics and speakers, and again in 1939 with air conditioning and new seats. He also continued the practice of keeping prices as low as possible. In 1948, when Lancaster City instituted a 10% amusement tax, Chertkoff upped his prices to a still modest 37 cents for adults and 15 cents for children.

After Chertkoff’s death in 1960, his son-in-law Morton Brodsky took over his business interests. The Strand had been losing money for several years, probably related at least partly to the rising popularity of television. In 1962, the theater stopped showing movies, and Brodsky decided to sell the property. While searching for someone to buy the lot and building, Brodsky proceeded to sell the seats, projection equipment, and screen. When the theater building didn’t sell, he decided to just tear it down, and in November 1964, the Strand was demolished. Brodsky stated that he was exploring several options for the site, but in the short term it would be graded and used for parking, which turned out to be the long-term plan as well, as the site is still a parking lot today.

The Kuhn/Lancaster/Manor/Strand Theatre was Lancaster’s only neighborhood theater; all the others were downtown. It was the entertainment center of the Hill, providing movies and other amusements at reasonable prices to Hill residents for more than 50 years. Many a child had his or her early movie experience in the theater, including yours truly in the early 1960s. The 1964 demolition of the last incarnation of the theater, the Strand, not only left a physical gap in the 600 block of Manor, but also a gap in the social and cultural environment on the Hill.

Schoenberger’s Park and the Meadow Gang

Jim Gerhart, February 2020

Before Farnum (now Culliton), Rodney, Brandon, and Crystal Parks in southwest Lancaster City, and before larger regional parks such as Rocky Springs, People’s, and Maple Grove, there was a large park known as Schoenberger’s Park on the eastern edge of Cabbage Hill. It was a popular place for various family and social gatherings in the 1870s and 1880s. Unfortunately, it also was home to a gang that plagued the park and all of southern Lancaster for many years.

William August Schoenberger was three years old in 1851 when he immigrated to Lancaster from Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany, with his parents, August and Catharine Schoenberger. His father was a wealthy brewer, and William learned the brewing trade working in his father’s saloon on the east side of North Queen Street above Orange.

In 1869, when William was 21, he purchased a little more than nine acres of rugged land on the eastern slope of Cabbage Hill just west of Hoffman’s Run. Hoffman’s Run was a stream that ran north-south along Water Street until its last surviving reach was buried in a sewer in the late 1800s. The nine acres that Schoenberger bought was a mixture of meadows and woods, and was bounded on the west by what is now the southern leg of New Dorwart Street, on the north by the old gas works, on the east by Hoffman’s Run, and on the south by Hazel Street.

By the early 1870s, Schoenberger had built a two-story brick hotel with six rooms and a saloon, which became known as Schoenberger’s Hotel. The hotel was on a level spot on a slight rise on the west bank of Hoffman’s Run, behind what is now the Spring House Brewing Company. A boarded-up, cinder-block warehouse stands near the site now. Schoenberger built a large beer vault that was used to store his beer, as well as the beer of other Lancaster breweries, most notably Wacker Brewery. The beer vault was 68 feet long, 20 feet wide, and 14 feet high, with an arched ceiling. Schoenberger left the rest of the land in meadows and woods, creating a park-like setting that would attract the residents of Lancaster.

The entrance to Schoenberger’s Park was a bridge over Hoffman’s Run about 200 feet south of Conestoga Street, due south of what is now Conlin Field in Culliton Park. An avenue shaded by planted trees wound its way through a meadow along the west bank of Hoffman’s Run and then up a slight rise to the hotel. The hotel, which had gardens of flowers planted around it, was on the edge of the more rugged, steep, forested part of the park to the west. A wooden dance floor encircled a large tree near the hotel. An old-timer, Charles A. Kirchner, recalled in 1938 that “people went for walks and picnics in the park”, and that it was “a beautiful place with grass and trees—some fruit trees…”

In addition to a place for people to take walks and enjoy picnics, the park quickly became a popular spot for larger gatherings. In the 1870s, various clubs and other organizations held events there. Many of the events were “sociables” that involved music and dancing, organized by groups such as the Eighth Ward Club, the Sun Steam Fire Engine and Hose Company No. 1 (William Schoenberger was a member), and the Keystone Drum Corps. Daniel Clemmens’ City Band, the Fiddlers Three, and Godfried Ripple’s String Band were some of the providers of dance music. Other events included political rallies (the Meadow Reform Club of the Fourth Ward), pigeon shoots with turkeys as prizes, and Temperance Mass Meetings. One well-attended event was an ox roast in honor of the visiting Allentown Cornet Band.

William Schoenberger was deep in debt by 1876, and his park, along with his hotel, had to be sold at auction to repay his debts. Benjamin Greider bought the property at a sheriff’s sale. Schoenberger moved back in with his widowed mother at his late father’s saloon on North Queen and helped run the saloon there for a few years. Eventually, he had a long career as a bank messenger for the Lancaster Trust Company, dying at the age of 73 in 1922. The park continued to be known as Schoenberger’s Park for another 15 years after Schoenberger last owned it, but the hotel became known as Snyder’s Saloon when Greider brought on Michael Snyder, and then Michael’s son Adam, to run it, which they did into the late 1880s.

The park and its hotel had a good run in the 1870s and 1880s, but the combination of wayward young men, a secluded wooded setting, and beer, often led to violence and criminal activities. As early as 1875, drunken fights broke out and people were injured, thieves broke into the beer vault and stole kegs, and passersby were harassed and assaulted. The saloonkeepers didn’t always help their cause, as both Schoenberger and the Snyders were charged with selling beer on Sundays, which was against the law.

Things got even worse with the rise of the Meadow Gang in the late 1870s. A group of several dozen young troublemakers took advantage of the relative remoteness of the park to make it their hangout. By the mid-1880s, incidents were happening with increasing frequency. The city police could spare little manpower to the “suburbs” of southern Lancaster, but they tried to respond when they could. Often when the police were summoned, by the time they got to Schoenberger’s Park, the Meadow Gang was long gone.

Some of the nefarious activities of the Meadow Gang included:  Saloonkeeper Michael Snyder was injured when hit by a chair in a fight with the Meadow Gang. A large amount of lead was stolen by the Meadow Gang from a plumbing shop on South Queen. A young man was seriously injured in a fight between the Meadow Gang and some young men from the Schiffler Fire Company. The Meadow Gang threatened to kill a man who had leased part of the park for grazing his cattle. Five members of the Meadow Gang were arrested for breaking into a railroad car near Hazel. The Meadow Gang ran a plow through a nearby field of tobacco and potatoes, damaging the crops.

One particularly nasty incident caused an uproar among the people of the city, and probably had something to do with the decline of the park. In the summer of 1885, a young girl 16 or 17 years of age claimed to have escaped from the Meadow Gang after having been held by them for two months in the area of the park. She claimed that she had been poorly fed and assaulted numerous times. Subsequent investigation into her claims revealed some inconsistencies in her story, to the point that it was not clear exactly what had actually happened. However, the damage had been done, the public was outraged, and the reputation of Schoenberger’s Park suffered.

The Meadow Gang was active in the park and the rest of southern Lancaster well into the early 1900s, with some of the same men staying active in the gang for more than 20 years. Even as late as the early 1920s, the Meadow Gang was still causing sporadic trouble. By the late 1920s, however, the gang disappeared from the scene. Strangely, as time passed, memories of the Meadow Gang seemed to soften, with their less severe antics remembered somewhat fondly and their more serious crimes downplayed.

In 1931, one Lancaster newspaper even did a feature story on the old Meadow Gang, with a headline, “Meadow Gang 1880s Flaming Youth”, comparing them to the harmlessly rowdy youth of the Roaring Twenties. In the article, an original member of the Meadow Gang was interviewed and claimed that the more serious crimes attributed to the gang had not actually been committed by its members. According to him, they were just young men acting out, with no serious offenses to their name. True or not, the Meadow Gang was instrumental in changing the park from a nice place to visit to a dangerous adventure.

The park was purchased by Stephen Owens in 1889, and a small limestone quarry was opened on its western edge, on the lower slope near the hotel/saloon. Owens then sold part of the park to the Lancaster Gas Light and Fuel Company in 1895 to expand the gas plant. By the mid-1890s, the hotel was gone, and much of the land was subdivided for building lots. Streets were laid out and houses began to be built on the slope above where the hotel had been. The 25-year run of Schoenberger’s Park was over. By then, new city parks had been established, and memories of Schoenberger’s Park began to fade.

Today, the site where bands once played and people once danced, and where the Meadow Gang once roamed, has become the home of Spring House Brewing Company and the first blocks of New Dorwart and Hillside off Hazel. It’s hard to visualize now, but there used to be a “beautiful place with grass and trees” called Schoenberger’s Park in southwest Lancaster more than 125 years ago.

Extreme Sledding on Dinah’s Hill

Jim Gerhart, January 2020

“The narrow, icy path in the middle of the long and very steep grade was as smooth as glass and the sleds dashed down the icy incline at a speed which nearly took one’s breath.” (January 1892) 

Coasting, or sledding as many of us know it today, was once a major form of entertainment during winters in Lancaster, drawing both hundreds of participants as well as thousands of spectators. It was mostly done in the evening, using a variety of sled types, on all the hilliest streets in the city. The steepest and most dangerous coasting spot, and therefore the most popular among Lancaster’s more adventurous young people, was Dinah’s Hill on West Vine Street, on the northeast edge of Cabbage Hill. 

Dinah’s Hill, named for Dinah McIntire, an old African-American fortune teller who lived there, is the northernmost of Cabbage Hill’s two hills, with its highest point along West Strawberry Street between Lafayette and West Vine Streets. West Vine drops steeply from West Strawberry to South Water, at a grade of about 12%, which makes it an ideal street for fast coasting, especially when the snow gets packed down and becomes like ice. It’s no wonder that Dinah’s Hill was the hill of choice for Lancaster’s young coasters, and for the many spectators who came to watch them risk their lives and limbs. 

Coasting down West Vine was a dangerous sport. Lancaster’s newspapers carried numerous stories of injured coasters every winter from the early 1870s to the late 1920s. The injuries ranged from bruises to deep cuts to concussions to broken bones. More than once, particularly violent accidents left young coasters unconscious and word would spread that they had been killed. One young coaster actually did die from his injuries in 1875. Doctors in the vicinity of Dinah’s Hill were kept busy on the evenings following snowfalls and ice storms. 

The dangers of coasting on Dinah’s Hill were several. The most serious risk came at the intersections of streets that crossed West Vine, such as Arch, Water, and Prince. Wagons and carriages, and later cars and trucks, crossing West Vine often were the cause of coasting accidents. Pedestrians crossing West Vine also were hit by coasters. But the most serious crossing risk was at Water Street, where trains of the Quarryville Railroad would rumble across West Vine. Other obstacles were lampposts, telegraph poles, trees, and other coasters. Following a spill, the riders strewn across the street were at risk of being run over by the next sled coming down. 

A wide variety of sleds were used. Many coasters used small one- or two-person bent-wood sleds with iron rails, but they were sometimes outnumbered by larger sleds such as toboggans and bobsleds. These longer sleds often carried six, and as many as 12-15, riders. One particularly large toboggan-like sled reportedly used in the southeast part of the city was 22 feet long and carried 30 riders. A popular form of the longer sleds used in Lancaster was the “modoc”, which could carry as many as a dozen riders. 

On evenings with favorable coasting weather, more than 500 spectators would line West Vine between Strawberry and Prince. On at least one occasion, a crowd of 2,000 onlookers was reported. On evenings like these, coasting was especially dangerous due to the number of people who might be standing and walking along and on the street. Pedestrian involvement in accidents was not uncommon. 

Young people being young people, there was usually some competition to see who could go the fastest, and races would be staged, adding to the risk on a narrow street. The slight rise in Water Street where the railroad tracks were located provided a chance for a sudden bump and jump for the most daring coasters. At times, coasters would turn around after reaching Queen and start coasting back down to Water, against the flow of sled traffic, but the danger of head-on collisions was too high and the police would usually prohibit this practice. 

There was a constant struggle between coasters and city authorities to maintain some sort of balance between entertainment and safety. Several times, after particularly close calls or serious injuries, the mayor would impose a curfew, have ashes spread on the icy roads, or temporarily close down coasting altogether. But each year the coasters would be back and the struggle would be renewed. It was difficult to police hundreds of young people on numerous hills throughout the city over several hours each evening. Residents who were affected by the coasting, as well as businesses and the railroad, complained each year until the mayor had to get involved once again. 

The newspapers seem to have covered the coasting scene with a bit of a sensationalistic approach. The accidents were usually the reason for the articles, and the headlines were almost always about the injuries. One can picture eager reporters near the bottom of the hill rushing out into the street to accident scenes to record the names of the injured and their injuries. And the language used in the newspaper articles was typically breathless, if not sometimes downright lurid. 

Here are a few snippets from newspapers that provide a flavor of the coasting phenomenon on Dinah’s Hill in its heyday from the 1870s to the 1920s, starting with the earliest newspaper story I could find: 

“From time immemorial, ‘Dinah’s Hill’, located in the Southern part of this city, has been quite a resort, in sledding seasons, for juveniles. Its length and gradual declivity gives it preponderance, and hence the rush. Last evening the hill was crowded with smiling urchins, male and female.” (January 1871) 

on some nights the number of persons who came to ‘Dinah’s Hill’ merely to look on, ran into the thousands! It was one of the “sights of the town” and afforded more thrills per minute to onlookers or participants in the fun than any boxing match(April 1929) 

“A collision was then inevitable, and the sled struck the team (of horses) with terrific force. Both boys were hurled to the ground, and by many believed to be killed. Both were unconscious and lay bleeding in the street.” (December 1902) 

”A very painful accident occurred last night to a young man of about twenty years of age, named Martin Metzroth, while coasting down Dinah’s Hill. By some means the sled ran against a tree, striking the young man’s knee with great force against the latter, and knocking the knee-cap off.” (January 1873) 

four boys on a sled shooting down ‘Dinah’s Hill’ almost ran into a Quarryville engine. They escaped by throwing themselves off. The driving wheel hit their sled and broke it.” (January 1903) 

“John Kane, aged 12 years, and son of Patrick Kane, residing on West Vine Street, met with a serious accident on Tuesday evening. While coasting on Dinah’s Hill, he was run into by a sleigh and his heel was struck and badly bruised. Dr. A.J. Herr dressed the wound, but the boy may be permanently crippled.” (December 1880) 

“We have heard of many strange accidents. We know of cases of boys, who, in coasting on Dinah’s Hill, have gone under railroad trains without injury. Others have hit automobiles, or, in avoiding them, they have struck trees and pedestrians.” (January 1925) 

Mrs. R. Frank.stepped directly into the path of a bob-sled speeding down Dinah’s Hill with over a dozen boys and girls aboard. The woman was knocked down and sustained lacerations of the forehead and chin.” (January 1925) 

one of the coasters, Francis Suter, who, in coming down Dinah’s Hill at a fearful rate of speed, ran his sled and his head against a lamp-post with so much force, that it is feared he will lose one of his eyes.” (February 1872) 

a badly-frightened motorist reported to police that he had narrowly escaped colliding with a big bob-sled that had streaked across South Prince Street right in front of his car. After the close shave, he said, he stopped the car and was immediately surrounded by a group of angry sledders, who claimed he hadn’t sounded his horn.” (February 1924) 

several yards before the crossing, the locomotive hove into view. The youths desperately rolled off the sled, tumbling over and over and picking up a variety of ice burns as their vehicle slammed into the wheels of the train and was ground to bits.” (January 1903) 

“While Oscar Erb, aged ten years, was coasting on Dinah’s Hill on Thursday evening, he fell off his sled and the sleigh following him, struck the lad. His head was cut open, and he was otherwise bruised about the body.” (February 1914) 

“Yesterday afternoon about 5 o’clock as three boys were descending Dinah’s Hill on a sled, they came in collision with a six-horse team that was coming up Prince Street. The sled struck the lead horse and frightened him, rendering him for a moment unmanageable. The boys fell headlong under the horse’s feet, and were in imminent danger of being trampled to death by their hoofs, or crushed beneath the wheels of the heavy wagon. Luckily they escaped unhurt, but the sled was smashed all to pieces.” (February 1873) 

“John Kress, the young man who had his leg shattered several weeks ago while coasting on Dinah’s Hill, and who has suffered terribly ever since the accident, died of lock-jaw about 5 o’clock on Saturday afternoon.” (February 1875) 

After the 1920s, the increasing number of cars driving on the streets and parked along the curbs, as well as more and more safety precautions on the part of city officials, put a gradual end to the glory days of street coasting in Lancaster. Today, coasting doesn’t seem to be as popular, and most of those who do go coasting do so at parks and other open areas, rather than on city streets. For many years, though, the youth of Lancaster had their fun, and risked their lives, coasting down the best hill in the city—West Vine Street on Dinah’s Hill.