Dear reader, we are still writing the letter below to our grandchildren. They haven’t seen it yet. We invite you to pretend you are almost 12, or 10 (we chose to write to the developmental level of the older two. The younger one, age 5, will want to be right in there with them but will understand more later).
Dear Owen, Julia, and Lydia,
Your granddad and I have been sitting in our office for many months, talking about our family, learning new stories about the people who lived many years ago, most of them before you were born. You have known only one of the 28 people Granddad has researched. That person is Great Grandma Barbara Ann Hess Hershey Becker.
It has been fun, frustrating, tedious, and exciting work to find these stories, the pictures, and now to think about what all of this means.
You carry within you the hopes and dreams of all who went before you. The 28 people in these booklets are only a few of hundreds and thousands of others. For example, you are the twelfth generation of Hersheys in America and the tenth generation of Showalters. I hope that we can go back further into Switzerland to find more ancestors, but no matter how many generations we can find, we won’t have many stories to tell about them. They lived and died without leaving much of a record
I was born a Hershey. A lot of people have asked me if I am related to Milton S. Hershey, the famous entrepreneur and founder of both Hershey Chocolate Company and the city and philanthropies that bear his name.
Until now, all I knew was that he died before I was born and that I was not a close relative. Now I know that long ago we had some very important ancestors in common (the first three generations in America) and that Milton Hershey was very interested in their stories too.
These Hershey stories that Milton Hershey also honored are an important inheritance. I invite you to explore what we can together discover about them and to remember these stories, especially if you face difficulties, challenges, or discouragement, as all of us do, in life.
We are finishing this biographical genealogy project during the holiday season. This year at Thanksgiving I am thankful for each of these ancestors, and I am grateful to have the few stories they have bequeathed us. I am also thankful for each of you three. I have seen in you the values I admire most in our ancestors: peace, courage, love, justice, kindness, and loyalty. We’ll talk about these when we are together again.
Before there were any Hersheys in America, there were Hirschis who lived in Switzerland. They were Anabaptists who held some radical ideas. One of their important ideas was that the church and the state should be separate. After reading the Bible and and failing to find any infant baptisms, they re-baptized people who were baptized as babies. This made them heretics to the church and traitors to the state. Infant baptism and the baptismal records kept by the church were critical to the state as a database used for taxation and conscription into the military. Anabaptists also did not believe in serving in war because they believed Jesus when he said, “Love your enemies.”
Thousands of Anabaptists died after magistrates, soldiers, and other officers of the state rounded them up, put them in prison, and drowned them or burned them. Thousands of others worshiped in caves and fled from country to country, looking for a place where they could worship in peace and not be forced to serve in wars.
When William Penn, a Quaker who also believed Christians should not fight in wars, invited the Anabaptists (by the seventeenth century they were called Mennonites) to come to “Penn’s Woods” in America, they accepted the invitation. They were farmers living in western Germany to escape Swiss persecution.
The Hirschi story of escaping Switzerland to go to Germany is told in a novel called Furgge by Katharina Zimmermann. The Christen Hirschi of that novel is likely one of our early ancestors or related to them if he is not.
Christian Hershey was an old man when he brought his family to America from Friedelsheim, southwestern Germany (known as the Palatinate, a term that goes back to the Roman Empire when Count Palatine ruled the region). Christian’s parents came from the Emmental region of Switzerland.
His son Benjamin was a bishop and an influential leader among the Mennonites. He was chosen in 1775 to write to the Pennsylvania General Assembly which was calling up troops to fight the British. Here is how he described his people:
We have dedicated ourselves to serve all men in every thing that can be helpful to the preservation of men’s lives, but we find no freedom in giving, or doing or assisting in any thing by which men’s lives are destroyed or hurt.
Benjamin was the presiding bishop of Lancaster Conference Mennonites during the Revolutionary War. He was known as a peacemaker and widely respected.
Benjamin’s son Christian purchased land close to what is now Manheim. He had grown up along the Conestoga River in what is now western Lancaster. He probably played with Conestoga Indian children there. The Indians migrated seasonally, and it is likely that Christian connected with his friends Michael and Mary throughout his adulthood. He invited Michael and Mary to establish a home on his property in 1749. In 1763 the vigilante group the Paxton Boys raided any place in Lancaster County where Conestoga Indians were known to be, culminating in the raid at the Lancaster jail where they murdered men, women, and children who had been taken there for their protection. This horrific event was known as the Conestoga Massacre.
During the raid, Christian and Anna hid Mary and Michael in their arch cellar. After the raid the Governor John Penn issued an order of protection for Michael and Mary. In 1907 during a Hershey reunion, Milton Hershey visited the graves. Today you can still visit the graves, courtesy of Kreider Farms who owns the land, the only marked graves of Native Americans in Lancaster County. For many years the children of the Doe Run School (established by the Hershey family) made an outing of walking the path along the Doe Run where Michael and Mary would have walked and where their graves are now. Note the flag. The story the children were told, starting in 1897 (seven years after the official closing of the frontier), was that Michael and Mary were not hiding from the Paxton Boys but from “savage Indians.”
This Christmas when we share the book Granddad has written, we will tell you these stories and ask what kind of values you see in the lives of your ancestors. How can we honor them?
Here are some of my own answers to that question:
I want to be ready to stand for PEACE, even if it is an unpopular idea, and to look for ways to LOVE everyone, even my enemies, as Jesus taught us.
I want to have the COURAGE to use words that speak to powerful people (like Benjamin) when the time is right and the cause is JUST.
I want to be KIND and LOYAL like Christian and Anna were to Michael and Mary. I want to love people of different cultures and races.
So, dear Owen, Julia, and Lydia, we give you these gifts of stories and values that we hope can help guide your lives too. They are more important than any gifts of money or things you may also get from us.
We love you always,
Grandma Shirley and Granddad Stuart
P.S. Craig Stark told me that the picture of MSH above was a “dandy” image and that Hershey later rejected it for being too flashy. Stark recommended this photo as being more prototypical. The picture was taken at the park inside Hershey Park and probably was chosen as a way to illustrate MSH’s “green” values. He built around the tree to make the roof. He did not tear it down. But when I compare the two pictures to each other, I see someone who cared a lot about his personal appearance in both cases. He continued to like those Panama hats (possibly because he had a huge sugar operation in Cuba??). And his wool suits are tailored to fit him perfectly.
Readers: Thanks for reading! I’d love any suggestions for improvement or corrections for inaccuracies. Not all of the ancestors are as illustrious as those early Hersheys! Our collective Showalter-Hershey roots include a Confederate soldier, a “shotgun wedding,” and a business man who left investors hanging. What fruit, good or bad, have you shaken from your family tree(s)?