Baking bread with the father of the American Folklife movement: An interview with Richard ‘Dick’ Shaner, my mentor
Sociologically speaking, the newer folklife studies movement in the 1950’s was a broader and more sophisticated approach to researching human behavior, striving to understand and record the depth of a nation’s cultural complexity. Thereby, this became the objective of earnest folklife researchers like Dr. Alfred L. Shoemaker, as opposed to the classical folklorists of the past. Shoemaker started the first Department of American Folklore at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster County when his time with World War II was over as a Prisoner of War, and is considered the Founder of the American Folklife Movement.
The American Folklife Institute located in Kutztown, PA became the idea of Richard H. Shaner, only after talking with his friend and mentor, Dr. Alfred L. Shoemaker; who along with Dr. Don Yoder and J. William Frey created this Folklore Center in the 1950s and Pennsylvania Folklife, the successor of The Dutchman magazine printed at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster County, PA. While participating with Dr. Shoemaker’s Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Festival at Kutztown in 1960, and eventually writing folklife articles for his Pennsylvania Folklife periodical, Shaner spent a substantial amount of time learning his principles and working under Dr. Shoemaker’s direction.
During these 1960s when “Dick” Shaner was also teaching U.S. History in the Allentown School District, while living on his parent’s farm near Macungie, he purchased his uncle Freddie Bieber’s Farm near Lobachsville, Berks County, PA who was an outstanding early American oak basketmaker, and featured in a major article for Shoemaker’s Folklife magazine. Concerned with the historic Americana buildings in the beautiful Oley Valley, Dick would eventually sell his uncle Bieber’s mountainous farm a few years later, and purchase Clarence Yoder’s historic Lobachsville gristmill-farm for a summer place. While restoring these Oley Valley buildings and still teaching in Allentown, Dr. Shoemaker, meanwhile, was convalescing from a mental depression in the early 1960s after his failed attempt at an open air museum in Lancaster County. However, Shoemaker would hitch a ride down to Lobachsville to discuss Shaner’s plans for the historic 1745 Yoder mill-farm, where on weekends they would bake bread together in the 18th Century brick bakeoven.
In several instances, when Shoemaker talked with Dick on PA Dutch folklore, he often referred to the idea of holding a “Colonial American Cherry Fair.” The basis of which, to develop a theme around cherries that would be synonymous with the term- Americana, and would revolve around New World inventions and American¬isms such as: the PA Dutch Conestoga wagon, Pennsylvania long rifle, cherry pie, native molded waffles, and other PA Dutch culinary new foods. Dick eventually realized the wisdom of Doc Shoemaker’s idea to hold a “Colonial American Cherry Fair” right here in Lobachsville around the mill, but did not act until he applied and was accepted for a teaching position at Oley Valley High School in 1967. Now, he was secure enough to follow this idea in earnest and take the gamble.
Sitting at the Lobachsville gristmill house porch with “Doc” Shoemaker amid the towering gristmill, ice house, bakeoven and decorated Swiss bank barn must have been an ideal setting for these two gentlemen, and most picturesque, then as now, was the 1745 grassy commons that separated the gristmill from the western portion of the village where the general store and village tavern were located. Lobachsville, founded by Peter Lobach, a French Huguenot Pennsylvania Dutchman, the village mill was originally built by Wilhelm Pott whose 1755 home was just down the road, across the Pine Creek. For articles on the start and success of the Lobachsville Cherry Fair, see my “Look Back in History” columns from 11/02/16 & 04/06/17.
Still remaining to this day are the Palladian barn windows crowned with exquisite keystones, an influence of English Architecture in the Oley Valley, however, gone are the hex signs. Lobachsville Mill Barn, 1960s. Grassy commons similar to those seen in the background providing the perfect rural scene for hundreds of enthusiasts to converge for an Americana Cherry Fair over the Memorial Day weekend!