Pioneer Families of Penns & Brush Valleys

by Evonne “Vonnie” Esterline Henninger

Early families in this area were Scotch-Irish. It is believed that about 85,000 Scotch-Irish came into Pennsylvania between 1728 and 1776. They were incredibly tough men and women. They weren’t particularly good farmers and were always looking for a reason to sell to the “Dutch” and move on. They would say “when you can hear the howling of a neighbor’s hounds, it is time to move on. These people were verbal, vocal and argumentative. They made good storekeepers, tavern keepers and traders.

Not only did the pioneers need to keep watch for the Indians but they were deviled by the wolves and mountain lions. In 1705 the wolf pack continued to increase so that sheep became impossible to raise. Every wolf head was worth a day’s wages. It would be 1840 before the wolf population would be brought under control and bounties were paid until 1890. In 1802 the panther bounty was $8.00. Lion kittens were worth $5.00.

Early families strictly observed the Sabbath. Food was prepared in quantity on Friday and Saturday — no fire was lighted on the hearth on the Sabbath. One Scottish woman told her new daughter-in-law, “In this house we observe the Sabbath strictly. It is the Lord’s will — and what’s more, it’s the only rest you will ever get.” This religious up-bringing was embedded into families for many generations. Mary Abbott in her Brush Valley history, “Goat in the Belfry” relates to the time a minister and his wife make an unexpected Sunday afternoon visit to the Henry Meyer Home in Rebersburg. Mary and her older sister discretely start a fire in the cook stove to bake a cake. She speaks of their worry that someone, including her parents, would realize that they are breaking the rules by baking on Sunday.

James Potter owned Penns Valley to the west and Jacob Haines owned Penns Valley to the east. Haines Township saw its first road in 1772. Within one year 16 families and 5 slaves were living here. Three years later in 1778 the Jacob Stanford family was killed by the Indians in Potter Township. Panic resulted and the remaining families fled over the mountains to Kishocoquillas Valley. It was nine years later in 1786 that the families returned to Haines Township. It was this year that Aaron Levy laid out the village of Aaronsburg and Frederick Henney build the first permanent residence — known today as the Spackman home in the middle of Aaronsburg.

About this same time James Poe, a distant relative of Edgar Allen Poe, received two warrants for the Penns Cave farm. James was the first white man to own the Penns Cave.

Meanwhile, a wealthy man, Colonel Samuel Miles from Philadelphia, bought a large tract of land for $24.00 from John Penn, a son of William Penn. Colonel Miles came to look at the land he bought (which is now Miles Township) and found it to be fertile and there was lots of water. He divided the land into 300 acre plots to rent as most pioneers didn’t have the money to buy more than the barest necessities. The lessee could have the land for 8 years with the understanding that he would strive to acquire a deed at the end of that time. When the Pennsylvania Germans purchased the land and came to the valley, the “squatters” had to leave. Upon moving further west, the squatters would leave a shack behind that the new owners would probably stay in until they had a better house built. The new owners agreed that in a certain period of time they would plant a peach and apple orchard of at least 100 trees and a certain amount of land would be cleared for growing rye, wheat and a good English grass.

It was 1791 that Anthony Bierly brought his family over a new road into Brush Valley from the east. This is 5 years after the village of Aaronsburg was established. It took the Bierly family two weeks to come from Snyder County through the mountain into Brush Valley. On their wagon would be everything they owned including their meager clothes; pots, pans, and dishes; heavy covers; some of Grandma’s remedies to treat sickness; spices, salt (used to preserve food), some cooking staples like beans and flour and a few other items. There would be tools for clearing the land and building a new home. Also, a very important item would be their seeds for planting.

In 1791, the same year that Anthony Bierly came to Brush Valley, Andrew Gregg, Jr. became the first United State Representative in Congress from the district that included Centre County.

Families had great hardships as described by a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who visited the Tylersville area in 1890 and reported on the exceptional hardships of one family.

The story begins in Brush Valley in 1817 when a son is born to a prominent family. He grew up on a farm and by the age of 20 had his eye on a neighbor girl. She saw his strange behavior and turned her interest to another young man. William’s broken heart added stress and he became a dangerous lunatic, according to the article. He was placed in confinement after he had been hopelessly insane and prowling the mountains for 16 years. Meanwhile the family moved from Brush Valley to Sugar Valley. In a lower room of the house, William was confined. Strong bars were stretched across the windows. Four heavy posts were nailed to the floor and a crude bed of rough boards covered with straw was where he spent his time. No one attempted to approach him. His food was pushed through a window. His enormous appetite caused his strength to increase and it was necessary for him to be chained. It required several strong men to hold him while the pen was cleaned. By the time William was in his 50’s, his father died and the farm was left to a brother with the condition that he care for William as long as he lived. In 1875 a hut was built about 10 yards from the house. It was here that the reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer got to see William. He sits motionless wearing an old soiled shirt and partly covering his naked limbs was a blanket that was once white. A neighbor tells the reporter that he is 73 years old and has been in chains for 35 years. “He is so weak that he cannot move his lower limbs. The chain was removed August 1889. He never lies down but sits the way you see him. Now that he can’t move, we have a stove in the room to keep him warm in the winter. I keep his pen as clean as I can. He has never been abused here although we had to handle him pretty rough to manage him. We take him three meals a day as if he was eating at our table.” William would live three more years following the reporter’s visit.

Families would come as a group into the wilderness — each having their own expertise. Families would work together to build their new home near a water source. Furniture was crude and homemade. Your home was what you could make or grow. The village cobbler would make shoes from calfskin. Homes didn’t have calendars. Children could tell it was Sunday when coffee was served on the breakfast table. Families might have sugar at Christmas time.

It would take several years to just get ready to farm. First a warm home was needed for the family. Then land needed to be cleared for farming. Besides these necessities, people were occupied with other thoughts such as building roads, grist and sawmills, stores, schools, churches, towns, post offices, the care of orchards and maple-sugar groves and organizing to preserve law and order.

People found wealth in children. They needed a large family to help with the work and to feel safe in the wilderness. Children learned at an early age to hunt, fish, cook, work in the fields, carry wood into the woodshed for winter, carry water for cooking and bathing and many other chores. Many never traveled further than a few miles from where they lived.

Church and schools were very important in the new settlements. Haines Township saw its first school and church built at Wolf’s Chapel in 1789. In Rebersburg, Anthony Bierly built the first church in about 1804. Prior to these churches, homes were used for services.

The Spangler family was one of the families that moved into Brush Valley. George Christian Spangler, my (fifth great) grandfather, came to America in 1749. He was married 6 years later to Anna Mary Kreider. They settled in Moore Township, Northumberland County, where he owned 600 acres. In the next 20 years they would have 11 known children. Their 8 sons names and ages were; George Christian II (age 73), George Pepter, John Christopher (age 88), John Henry (age 84), John Michael (age 84), John George, John Jacob, and John (age 93). The sons used their middle names as 6 of them had the same first name John and 2 had the first name George.

(Some families would have daughters with the same names. It is an indication that the oldest had died before the second daughter carried the name. One family had three daughters with the same name which indicates that the two earlier daughters had died before the third daughter carried the same name.)

The oldest of the Spanger sons, Christian, had 10 children and settled in the area of Mifflinburg. John Henry had 9 children and settled in Sugar Valley. Christopher had 10 children and settled in Brush Valley east of Rebersburg where Sherman Haas lives now. A sister, Barbara Margaret, married Francis Gramley, had 10 children and also settled east of Rebersburg (across the valley from Christopher on what was the former Evan Homan farm.)

Christopher moved to Brush Valley in 1797. Squatters left behind a small log house that the family lived in before building the permanent buildings. Hearing the stories of Indians in Penns Valley and Penns Creek, Christopher built an Indian fort that fortunately was never needed to right the Indians. In earlier years an Indian camp had been on his land around Elk Creek — so he had reason to want protection for his family.

Christopher’s son, Jonathan Spangler, Sr., married and settled on the homestead with their 10 children. Many of these children settled in other parts of Centre County as well as in Illinois and Kansas.

Jonathan Spangler, Jr. married in 1863 and had 7 children. All except one of these children moved to Illinois, Kansas and Nebraska. It was in 1878 that 50 families from Centre county moved to Kansas. In this group were Stovers, Rossman, Snavely, Miller, Corman and 3 families from Rebersburg. The next year another group was moved to Kansas. Some family names were Kreamer, Haugh, Wolf, Hackenberg, Hennigh, and Reber. Four years later over 100 persons boarded the train in Tyrone and moved to Montana where they started a Pennsylvania colony. It was about 1910 when a group of families in the Rebersburg area moved to Houston, Texas. Most were Brungarts and Gilberts. They boarded the train in Coburn and 18 months later arrived back in Rebersburg penniless. During their stay in Texas, there was a lot of rain — much of their land was under water. One of the letters back to Brush Valley asked that a stone be sent to Texas so they could clean their plow.

Our pioneer families lived very much like the Amish with one exception — their neighbors didn’t have telephones, cars, trucks and electricity — conveniences that do help the Amish in their daily lives.

The biggest change in the life for this area came with the railroad from Lewisburg passing through Coburn, Spring Mills and Centre Hall. These railroad stations and the towns where they were located became the hub for the whole community. This happened in the 1870’s. It was now possible for the farmers and other businesses to find a better market for their goods. There was better access to bring goods into the area. Rail cars were able to bring herds of horses and cattle. Fuel came in barrels. People could travel easier. It was now possible for people to visit their relatives that they hadn’t seen in years.

And so it was that these families lived the early pioneer life.

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