Since I am the first person in both sides of my Mennonite family to go to college, and since my family praised “common sense” over too much “book learning,” I was surprised to discover recently that some of my earliest ancestors in America were actually public school pioneers.

I should not have been totally surprised to learn this because I knew that my great grandfather Henry Eshbach Herr had been a Lancaster Township school board director for 21 years (1893-1914) and that my grandfather John Garber Hess served on the Manheim Township School Board (1944-69) through all of my childhood.

As a child ardently in love with books and with many of my teachers, I was proud of my great grandfather and grandfathers’ service as I progressed through 12 years of public education in the Manheim Central and Warwick School Districts. I had family support for schooling up to that point and no pressure to attend the Mennonite schools. Education was a somewhat murky area of church discipline in those days. Church admonition to avoid undue affiliation with “the world” was very clear, and certain public school activities, such as dances, were to be shunned, but no rules dictated which schools to attend nor how long to attend them. I chose to interpret the rules liberally and got involved in many high school activities, including becoming president of the Future Teachers of America. My parents cautiously allowed, if not encouraged, such dreams in their eldest child.

Their reluctance led me to surmise that suspicion of education would have been even more widely practiced in the past. I casually supposed that the further back I journeyed on the family tree, the less learning, and support for learning, I would find. But au contraire! For the first hundred years of their life in America the descendants of Christian Hershey created schools at their own expense for the benefit of their own children and neighbors. The first of these schools was in Abbeyville, near what is now Wheatland and not far from the studios of WGAL.

The first common school in Western Lancaster County

The 1717 original 1,000 acres Hersheys (The A Family Homestead) shared with Brubakers, Swarrs, and Kreiders. The Hersheys lived in the “A” family homestead. Abbeyville is locate on the bottom right of the map.

My immigrant ancestor Bishop Christian Hershey, along with his friends Hans Brubaker and Michael Cryder (Kreider) purchased 1000 acres west of Lancaster from the Penn family at auction in 1717. According to local historian Craig Hershey Stark,

For the first century of its existence, the village of Abbeyville grew up around the first homestead of Christian Hershey and his friends. First came his farm, then came the quarry to build the homes and mills. What followed next was not a medieval Protestant ‘church abbey’ (like what was later built in Cornwall). Instead, these Swiss Anabaptists built the ‘Abbeyville Mennonite Meetinghouse.’

The first permenant ‘Abbeyville School’ was situated at 100 School House Road, where Abbeyville Road starts. Built by 1750, this building became the first public schoolhouse in Abbeyville. It went into use as a school, inside the ‘Abbeyville Mennonite Meetinghouse,’ after it was no longer needed by the congregation that had moved services to the new, much larger, meetinghouse built in 1792 at Rohrerstown and still in use today.

So . . .one of the first things Christian and his children did was to establish both a church and a school at Abbeyville.  The appearance of these two institutions on the Hershey portion of the one thousand acres demonstrates an interest in learning and a willingness to share the blessings of education with other settlers, establishing what then was called a “Common School.” No good evidence of the curriculum exists, but, based on the literacy of the Hershey family, especially Bishop Benjamin Hershey, this school must have taught not only the 3 Rs in the settlers’ Swiss-German dialect, but also perhaps rudimentary “high German” and some English.

I wonder if Christian Hershey was aware of the enlightened educational philosophy of John Amos Comenius (1592-1670), the Moravian philosopher who is called the “father of modern education”?

Because of his Mennonite connection Hershey quite likely knew about schoolmaster Francis Daniel Pastorius (1651-1720), the founder of Germantown in Philadelphia, signer of the first petition against slavery, and leader among the group of Mennonites, Quakers, and Pietists who arrived in 1683 and settled in the Philadelphia area. He even more likely knew of Christopher Dock (1698-1771), Mennonite schoolmaster who wrote the first education manual published in America, Schulordnung in the German language.

These German-speaking educators, now recognized as pioneering educational philosophers, were all pacifists. Their innovations involved kindness to children and education as a spiritual calling.

In 1775, Benjamin Hershey, son of Christian, and like him, a bishop, was called upon to use his education to try to persuade the Pennsylvania Assembly not to force Mennonites and other pacifists to take up arms in wartime.

Benjamin Hershey’s “Short and Sincere Declaration” explaining Mennonite nonresistance to the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1775 is a fascinating piece of sophisticated rhetoric disguised by humility (worthy of Benjamin Franklin, in my opinion) that has been preserved in the Library of Congress. I was able to examine a copy of this document in person a few months ago:

In the Rare Book Reading Room in the Library of Congress. Examining the first declaration of objection to military service, 1775, written by Bishop Benjamin Hershey, my immigrant ancestor. Peace activist F. Scott Hershey

Another “common school” established by Hersheys.

Bishop Benjamin’s son Christian R. Hershey, (yes the repetition of first names in four generations is very confusing!) born in America, replicated the establishment of common schools when he purchased his own farm in Penn Township between what is now Lititz and Manheim in 1739. His uncle Andrew Hershey had done the same thing when he earlier established a cider house and school in East Petersburg.

Before there were free public schools, settlers had to figure out how to educate their children without the aid of the state. Christian R. Hershey and Andrew Hershey were following a family tradition. These Hersheys not only built schools at their own expense but some of them were teachers also. They invited neighbor children to join them. The Hersheys were farmers with rudimentary educations, but they were also preachers, students of the Bible and readers of newspapers. Christian R. Hershey also owned a copy of the 1757 edition of The Martyr’s Mirror, first published in German in 1748-1749 at the Ephrata Cloister.

This photo shows the second of five Doe Run schools built at this location on the homestead of Christian R. Hershey. Teacher Roy Hershey stands in the doorway. Photo credit: Manheim Historical Society.

Doe Run Elementary School, the fifth school, today is a large modern building close to the original location. It’s now part of the Manheim Central School District. The Penn Township School District became the owner of the property in 1850. The current school is across the Doe Run Road from the original school on the Christian R. Hershey homestead.

From the 1740s until 1850, when the School Act establishing universal schooling passed in Pennsylvania, Doe Run School was a common school created by and led by Hersheys. In 1850 it became a tuition-free official public school after the deed to the land and property was conveyed to Penn Township School District. Indenture was signed by property owners, John Hershey, Samuel Hershey and his wife Ann Hershey, who was apparently serving as the teacher of Doe Run School at the time of conveyance. For a century, then,  Hersheys gave land and leadership so that the children of their area could be educated — the first kind of public education.

Christian R. Hershey and his second wife Anna were the same people who hid the last of the Conestoga Indians, Mary and Michael, in their arch cellar during the time of the Paxton Boys 1763-64 raids resulting in genocide. I have told a fragment of that story here.

Relative Craig Hershey Stark explores the arch cellar of the Christian Hershey homestead in 2020. Photo Credit: Charles Fox, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Finding these facts would have been impossible without the aid of Craig Stark and numerous other books and scholars I am indebted to. The work itself can be tedious. My dining room table is strewn with papers and photos. I feel a little like this character:

A copy of the image from the 1748 edition of Martyr’s Mirror. “Arbeite und hoffe” means “work and hope.”

An adapted version of the little digger used in Roma Ruth’s fraktur commemorating 500 years since Menno Simons’ birth. I see this fraktur and this image every day.

Poet Julia Kasdorf did an extensive study of the little digging man as a printer’s device used across the centuries in multiple European and American settings. To her the image used on the 1748-1749 version of the Martyr’s Mirror (above) signifies an Anabaptist Adam unable to rest in assurance of salvation but also a universal quest — an image capacious enough to inspire  a modern daughter of Mennonites who cleaved to the work of making poems in New York City.

Craig Stark believes that Christian R. Hershey’s copy of the Martyrs’ Mirror, which, ironically enough, now is preserved at the Ephrata Cloister Museum, might hold the key to some of the iconography used by Milton S. Hershey, also a descendent of Christian R. Hershey.

As I continue to dig (work) for stories from the past that help explain the present and point to possible brighter futures (hope), I have a new resource to help keep the complicated history of the Hershey and Showalter families in some semblance of order. The ancestral fan, below, will reside on our family room wall very soon and was purchased last Christmas at this website.

What makes a chart like this possible? Family historians have been digging in archives and newspapers and family Bibles and other heirlooms. If you have Swiss Anabaptist roots, you may be able to fill out the simple form, pay the fee on the website, and produce a brilliant fan like this one.

What are you digging for these days? Do you have an ancestral fan chart or family tree? Does your family exalt common sense more than book learning?

Shirley Showalter


  1. Maren C. Tirabassi on July 6, 2024 at 4:56 pm

    I have done some digging (not on my maternal side who arrived from the 1860’s to ’90’s from Norway, for my grandmother did that. I’ve tried to follow my only long term ancestor Daniel Schneider / Snider who was shanghaid in Hesse and brought to fight from the British. He settled in western Pennsylvania and, of course, they were not welcome … but, yes, 4 generations of “Daniel Snider.” Thanks for all this insight.

    • Shirley Showalter on July 6, 2024 at 5:03 pm

      Interesting, Maren. So did being “shanghaid in Hesse” make him a Hessian? If so, not all of those Hessian soldiers in the Revolution were “soldiers of fortune” as my too-swift pass of the subject too long ago suggested? I’ll have to do more digging!

  2. Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler on July 6, 2024 at 5:28 pm

    I am inspired by all this digging. As I read I can live into how some of my ancestors, many who lived 6 generations in “Penn’s Woods’ before moving west, benefited from the declarations of pacifism and from the valuing of education. As farmers, however, common sense was still always highly valued. The ‘onslaught’ of consolidated education (no more one room schoolhouses) seemed to make higher education necessary in my generation.

    I’m curious how and why the Benedictine motto “Ora et Labora” (work and pray) became hope and pray.

    My fan chart is almost full, going back to Switzerland, thanks to all the ways my ancestors value the knowledge of ancestral lines. When I went to Switzerland I enjoyed lying in the pastures of the ancestral homestead of one of my female forebears. That ancestor was named Jacobina SchwartzenTRUBer. Unfortunately no Swartzentrubers were left in Trub because of persecution, but the name of their homestead remains.

    • Shirley Showalter on July 7, 2024 at 8:49 am

      Dolores, what a fascinating story about Trub and the Swartzentrubers! I didn’t know it was a place name.

      And yes, the motto of the little digging man does remind me of the Benedictine motto. Except it is about working, not praying. Interesting, don’t you think? It fits with the Lutheran critique of Anabaptism that it is too much about “works righteousness.” Of course, Michael Sattler was a former Benedictine.

      You might find it useful to submit an ancestor fan request to Mennonite Life using the link to their website. Stuart had done most of the digging for our chart himself, but the completed fan filled in missing links.

      If you ever decide to do more family genealogy here in Lancaster, do let us know!

  3. Shirley Showalter on July 6, 2024 at 5:39 pm

    from Elfrieda Neufeld Schroeder: I am digging through my late husband’s boxes and finding all kinds of interesting documents. His family kept everything. Sometimes I’m just tempted to dump it all but I know better!
    I‘ve sorted everything into piles now and eventually hope to have it all organized.

    • Shirley Showalter on July 6, 2024 at 5:40 pm

      Some of those documents in those boxes might be of interest to the Mennonite Heritage Museum. I don’t know what kind of archives they have or capacity for storage, but I was very impressed by the excellence and breadth of their storytelling in the exhibit area. I was able to interest the local Mennonite Life archives in some of my mother’s papers.

      Of course, family members are the first choice of recipients if they want momentos. All the articles I read, however, say “your kids don’t want your stuff.”

      May your sorting and organizing go well : work and hope!

  4. Laurie Buchanan on July 7, 2024 at 11:57 am

    Shirley, your family history is captivating! The ancestral fan caught my attention—I’m intrigued. I’ve just shared this post with my sister, Julie, who curates our family tree. She’ll appreciate it too!

    • Shirley Showalter on July 7, 2024 at 8:58 pm

      Thanks, Laurie. Always good to see your smiling face here. All best to Julie’s endeavers. Dig on!

  5. Marian Beaman on July 7, 2024 at 2:17 pm

    How inspiring to discover that education and love of learning is embedded in your DNA. You have written a treatise here on your family’s devotion to education with surprising finds. I especially enjoyed your dive into the illustration of the hopeful digger.
    Our son has been fascinated with family history and has constructed a special family tree. Of course, you’ve seen a less elaborate “tree” published with my first memoir.

    Thanks for sharing more of your family’s roots here. I sense you enjoyed creating this post. 😀

    • Shirley Showalter on July 8, 2024 at 12:59 pm

      You’re right, Marian. I did enjoy writing this post, but it took me a long time to get here. My last blog post was in March!

      We’ve been experimenting with different ways to tell our stories and connect the generations to each other. Sounds like you have passed along your interest to the next generation.

      Thanks for being such a thoughtful reader, and writer!, all these years.

  6. Jerry Waxler on July 8, 2024 at 6:51 am

    Shirley – I am fortunate that the long memory of the internet keeps me informed of your writing – My own interest in “story” does not extend back this far along lines of genealogy – and my ancestors who escaped religious persecution at the turn of the twentieth century left no markers for me to pursue earlier in my family’s history – perhaps because of this shallowness of my ancestral memory, and because I grew up in the Philadelphia public schools which accentuated the role our city played in the birth of religious freedom I often let my imagination wonder into the early roots of Pennyslvania’s tradition of religious tolerance. Since I couldn’t know my own roots, at least I could learn about the founders of the city that took us in. As I grew older I never went back to dig deeper into the history of religious tolerance at the heart of the new nation – but it seems as though you are awash in them – I love the photo of you “hard at work” pondering the origins not only of your family but of the state – and from the state came the nation – Go Shirley – perhaps you can help unleash or refresh some of that open minded open spirited mission that drove your ancestors here and used their own cries for freedom and tolerance to echo through the new nation.

    • Shirley Showalter on July 8, 2024 at 12:58 pm

      Jerry! So good to hear from you. Thanks for taking time to read this and to connect imaginatively from your own family’s history of finding opportunity in Philadelphia. I am sure we share an interest in William Penn and Benjamin Franklin and the colonial/early national period of American history. I wrote a post on separation of church and state that may interest you also.

      Now I am off to check out what you have been up to lately. It’s been too long!

  7. Elfrieda Neufeld Schroeder on July 8, 2024 at 5:46 pm

    Although both my parents had a natural aptitude for reading and writing, they were taught that “common sense” was more important. My grandmother also loved books and I got one from her every Christmas, ordered directly from Germany. They were usually of Christian content with morals attached, but I enjoyed them. One especially memorable book was about a lttle girl who got to know Martin Luther and he taught her to play the violin. It was called “Luther’s Little Singer” (trsl.) As a result I begged for a piano and my parents got an old used one. Later, my proficiency in German helped me to earn a PhD in German literature, which I’m sure was not my grandmother’s goal when she gave me those books!

    • Shirley Showalter on July 8, 2024 at 7:55 pm

      We have so much in common, Elfrieda, It’s fascinating to me how Mennonites, whether Swiss or Russian, seemed to carry paradoxical views about education. So many of us love books and music and culture and yet getting advanced degrees and moving away from home to go to school seemed risky to parents and sometimes to students also. I’m hopeful we who did manage to go off to the university also retained some common sense too!

  8. Steven Rutt on July 8, 2024 at 9:22 pm

    Thanks for the informative, engaging post on a find related to education. I had not heard of John Amos Comenius before. And interesting to hear about reading the archives in person. On your three questions: I have been digging into selected historical topics and places close to home here in lower Bucks County including the Delaware Canal, Washington’s Crossing, and a local nature preserve with hiking trails (Five Mike Woods). Just started a book on the latter, a story of preserving land from development. When Dad (Clarence Rutt) died several years ago, I took ownership of one of those fan charts for the ancestors of the Rutt family. Dad pursued education (EMU) and medical school but also exalted “common sense” and was suspicious of “eggheads” (a term of endearment from the 50’s for Adlai Stevenson, used to contrast cerebral Stevenson with say Nixon and Eisenhower)! In his pre-retirement years, he would rather fix his car than read a book on a Saturday afternoon, although he did both. And books he read were not fiction. He liked to know what was going on in the world (news reader). Again, thanks!

    • Shirley Showalter on July 9, 2024 at 10:35 am

      Steven, thanks for this reply. You have an even longer history to explore in Bucks County. I am sure you know John L. Ruth and his work. I wish I knew more about the 1683 group that came to Philadelphia. Some of the Hershey family historians believe that Christian arrived in 1709 and “scouted” the area before bringing his family in 1717. Another thing I am curious about is the connection between Benjamin Hershey and the Quakers who were still leading Pennsylvania politics in 1775. John Ruth’s latest book describes the fund that Mennonites and Quakers contributed to help the Conestogas and other natives. They must have had quite a bit of contact. Did Hershey know English? Certainly the Quakers would not have spoken PA Dutch. So many questions.

      Also, I remember that term “egghead.” The Eisenhower election in 1956 was my first awareness of national politics. All over school people wore buttons that said “I Like Ike.”

      I am interested in the work of farm preservation. Hope you keep writing about your discoveries too.

  9. Sarah Bulller Fenton on July 9, 2024 at 8:23 am

    What a legacy! My husband has been investigating his ancestors and discovered a petty criminal in his past, to the great amusement of everyone but his father! We laughed until we cried. He has discovered he is related to my maternal first cousins, though not to me. We also discovered that our youngest son is related to his wife, much to her disconcertmant. Life is very interesting.

    • Shirley Showalter on July 9, 2024 at 10:38 am

      Ha, Sarah. Yes, we never know what we will find when we start digging! And if two descendents of Swiss Anabaptists marry each other, they are very likely going to discover a common ancestor somewhere.

      There are some children born earlier than nine months after their parents weddings, some gruesome suicide descriptions in obits, but no known petty criminals in our research. Maybe they just weren’t caught. 🙂

      • Tina Barbour on July 9, 2024 at 9:05 pm

        This is really inspiring, Shirley! I have dabbled in family research, but not beyond the surface. There is still much I don’t know about my ancestors. And family losses make that so clear to me. In May my last uncle on my father’s side passed away. He was my father’s youngest brother and the last sibling of 9 to die. What has cut my heart in two is the loss of my brother unexpectedly two weeks ago. Along with all the terrible things about the loss of a loved one comes the realization that there’s no longer anyone there who can speak for our family’s past. When his daughter asked me a question about a family heirloom, my first thought was , let’s ask your father. He was 11 years older than me and had memories of relatives I never knew. So many stories of our past are carried through family members’ sharing, but not written down. I do have letters my father wrote his sister when he served in WWII and notebooks of memories he wrote down at my request.

        • Shirley Showalter on July 10, 2024 at 11:17 am

          Oh Tina, how hard! I am so sorry to hear of these losses and to think of you with questions to ask but no one to answer. That is indeed an empty feeling. I hope that the letters and memories you do have will bring you some comfort. Big, big hug.

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