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When natives of the Bieber-Hilbert Reunion attended their August family get-together in ancient Oley Hills, they were surprised to find that the Fredericksville Hotel was vacated, a one time village store and tavern where hill folk relied on beverage, food and news of the outside world. My grandmother Bieber’s uncle Jeremiah Bieber once operated the village store in 1878.
This PA Dutch village Tavern had a rebirth of frontier life when Russell Stahl had returned home from World War II and instead of joining his father making redware pottery in Lehigh County, he purchased this early American tavern in the historic Oley Hills, and renewed its importance to hill folk by becoming an active frontier tavern with the modern products of the 1950’s and 1960’s, all the time retaining its PA Dutch charm with antique kerosene lights and early furniture. A native Dutchman he was well liked by the PA Dietsch dialect speaking natives who counted on his proprietorship.
The history of the Oley Hills goes back to the 18th Century frontier times when Rhineland immigrants arrived in Philadelphia and sought frontier homesteads up country where on early American maps the hills above the Oley Valley were called the Oley Hills, a prime destiny for early settlement. The French Huguenot Biebers were from Alsace and many of their fellow immigrants had coined the term for the Oley Hills, as the “Alsatian Hills”.
Many Rhineland Huguenots settled in this territory where almost every person spoke PA Dietsch and the older natives around the Dryville, Fredericksville, Huffs Church territory still speak their Rhineland-Palatine German Dialect which made Russell Stahl feel at home as well as Alma Stahl, his sister in-law. Since the Bieber-Hilbert family had picnics at their country grove a mile South of Fredericksville, they frequented Stahl’s tavern and met most of the neighbors, like Charlie Dey, Allie Day, and George Hilbert and individuals who roomed at the hotel, who enjoyed drinking beer and also picnicked with the Biebers on their thirty-three acres in the summer time, including Russell Stahl who became a personal friend of the author, who collected his pottery.
Stahl, an active person in the community, built a baseball diamond at Fredericksville Hotel so that the youth could enjoy recreation but also to attract more people to his tavern to sell beer. But Alma Stahl was equally a good cook to sell food to patrons. There were always a few villagers at the tavern’s card table playing Haas and Peffer, but Russ never permitted gambling. However, since the Stahls were red ware potters, many patrons came to see his PA Dutch pottery he exhibited on his back bar together with high class bottles of whiskey.
But since Fredericksville was not on a major highway, downturns in the national economy hurt his business in the winter months. Not so much in the summer months when the Biebers and others would come out to socialize. Therefore, after Stahl gave up the hotel, other proprietors had a difficult time making a success of the tavern business, who were not able to speak PA Dietsch to the native hill folk. But the hotel did have seventy acres of farmable land with it to be rented out to a farmer. Over the last few years the well kept Stahl tavern has been vacant; cars pass through the village as if there was no reason to stop. The donkey Stahl once kept for a pet tied outside the wagon shed had become an omen of the awkwardness of our nation’s economy today.
However, there have always been talented Dietsch proprietors and good cooks and farmers in the Oley Hills over the last two Centuries, proof that our PA Dietsch people continue their ingenious civilization for which their forefathers came to America. Just visit any major national museum, who have included their native folk art and crafts.
Richard Shaner is the director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.