You Can’t Buy a Coke or a Hotdog at the Goschenhoppen Folk Festival

Posted on August 14, 2010


More than twenty years ago I stumbled on the wonderful Pennsylvania German culture and history festival held once a year in Perkiomenville, Pennsylvania (northern Montgomery County). I wrote the piece below (with some very slight modifications) in August 1989. My late editor, Charles Schenk attached the headline you see above. I mentioned this headline both to the candy maker and the paper maker at the festival when I was there on Friday August 13, and they said independently of one another, “Oh, we say that all the time. That has become the unofficial motto of the festival.” The thought filled me with joy, that I had helped to promote something I find so wholesome and so essential to stability in a multicultural world – the celebration of particular ethnocultural identities within the larger society.

The best way to find the festival is to simply put the intersection of route 73 and Colonial Road into Google Maps or a GPS. That will take you to a huge banner over route 73 and the festival.

You Can’t Buy a Coke or a Hot Dog at the Goschenhoppen Folk Festival (piece originally ran August 1989 in the Globe-Times of Bethlehem)

A sweet-smelling curl of white oak, shaved from an eighteenth- century pump; a golden cluster of rye chaff broken from a thatched roof or plucked near the feet of the basket weavers; the 200-year-old recipe for corn pie—these are among the things that you might carry away with you from the Goschenhoppen Folk Festival on the second Friday and Saturday every August. Little is for sale at the celebration of local Pennsylvania German culture that has been held by the Goschenhoppen Historians for over forty years.

To sample, there is butter milk from freshly churned butter, apple fritters fried on the spot on wood fires, and peach ice cream made as it was in your great- grandmother’s day. You can buy a few carved wooden birds, trinkets and whole baked goods, but the primary purpose of the festival is to simply show people the old ways.

Two hundred years ago, German settlers needed to do more than chop wood and haul water to survive in rustic Pennsylvania. Self- sufficiency was made possible by a network of skills, such as gardening, animal husbandry, rope and tool making, and herbal healing. These are all authentically demonstrated at the festival, which takes place on the second Friday and Saturday of August each year.

The Goschenhoppen Historians incorporated in order preserve the 200-year-old culture, which the people in the region bounded by Herford and Salford, New Hanover and Spinnerstown felt was dying out. The organization studied the old skills and encouraged craftspeople to revive their practice. A few years ago, the group was able to buy the (1736) Henry Antes House, where George Washington based his headquarters for five days in 1777.

Unlike many of the summer celebrations held in Southeastern Pennsylvania, the Goschenhoppen Folk Festival is an all-volunteer, completely non-commercial event. You can’t buy a Coke, Pepsi, hamburger or hot dog at the festival and the only logos you will see are on the tee shirts of the attendees. At the new permanent location, there is a superb cafeteria-style line with red beet eggs, sausage sandwiches, and those indescribable bowls of local peaches and smooth ice cream.

Everyone working the demonstration stands, including teenagers, children, and even babes in arms are dressed in handmade, natural fiber clothing authentic to the late eighteenth century. Participants in the festival are asked to strictly adhere to a standard of no knit clothing, no pantyhose, and no anachronistic adornment. In fact, one of the members, Ellen Gehret has written a book on clothing of the period, entitled “18th Century Rural Pennsylvania Clothing.” This is for sale in the book section that includes local histories, cook books, and other accounts put out by historical societies.

The festival’s primary purpose, according to board of director member, Mrs. Ronnie Backenstoe (interviewed for the 1989 article) is cultural education. There are are hundreds of distinct skills and arts demonstrated and over 800 costumed craftspeople, including a butcher who fastidiously butchers an entire cow before your eyes and then calmly and lovingly gives a Chautauqua about the trade of butchering while seated on a stump. The majority of the artisans who offer demonstrations at the festival have served apprenticeships to learn their craft. Some of the most technically detailed skills included barrel making, gun making, clock making, roof thatching, and butchering of that era. No contemporary tools or electricity are used in the demonstrations of crafts.

To eat and drink at the festival, one can buy draughts of cold peppermint water and birch beer, sausage sandwiches, rings of baloney, corn pies, ham and bean dinners, home-recipe bread, funny cakes, shoofly, berry and ground cherry pies, pickled peaches, and plates of peaches and ice cream.

Among some of the most beautiful skills and crafts shown are traditional hand hooked rugs, German calligraphy and wood working. On display by the various wood workers are toys, intricate carved decorations, and a finished, hand-made cabinet of walnut, lined with cedar to preserve clothing.

Each year has a theme, such as itinerants (such as tinkers or butchers) or herb gardens. Kitchen and medicinal skills include herbal concoctions for healing, fruit and vegetable drying, and beehives, complete with bees.

Children can take horse-drawn cart rides, there are pigs, chickens and ducks visible, and one can watch a sheep being shorn. Other diversions at the festival include a lectures on revolutionary era culture, bee keeping demonstrations, and Victorian flower arrangements.

One can buy leaf-shaped ornamental hooks from the blacksmith or hand-done embroidery, and carved wooden spoons. In addition to seeing onion skin-dyed eggs being ornately scratched with patterns, children can pay one dollar to glue bits of patterned fabric to blown eggs to take home as souvenirs. But the best thing that anyone takes home from the festival is the memories, and renewed appreciation of an old way of life.

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