Oley Township Historic District
The Oley Township Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2008, The Gombach Group.
Oley Township is located in Berks County in southeastern Pennsylvania, approximately ten miles east of the city of Reading. It comprises most of the Oley Valley, a fertile and scenic pocket of farmland "almost entirely surrounded by hills, as it were, with the rest of the world shut out." The township covers an area of 15,065 acres of some of the best agricultural land in the county. Roughly 80% of the land is open farmland, 10% is in scattered woodlots, and 10% is developed. The topography is gently rolling ranging in elevation from 300 to 500 feet within the valley and rising to 800 feet in the northwest corner. The township boundaries correspond fairly closely with the edges of the limestone valley along Bieber Creek to the north, Manatawny Creek to the east, and Oley Line Road to the south; and the hills above Monocacy Creek to the west. The farms and villages of this well-defined area, set apart geologically, topographically, and in cultural heritage, make up a historic district of remarkable integrity.
Throughout the township and defining its character are the buildings and landscape features of the mid-18th to late-19th centuries. Overall there are some 160 farmstead groupings, each with one or more buildings dating within the period 1740 to 1880. Every farmstead consists of a house and barn, and from one to ten outbuildings. Most common are stone cabins, springhouses, summer kitchens, bake-ovens, and smoke-houses. Farm buildings such as small barns, sheds, and workshops exist in great variety. There are more than 500 such structures, all displaying insights into the building materials, construction techniques, architectural forms and types of lifestyle found in this locale in different periods. Surrounding many farmstead groupings are yards and barnyards, gardens, orchards, and groves of locust trees which in turn are surrounded by meadows, pastures, and fields. These traditional farmland settings recall a 19th century use of space. With the exception of two modern highways (Rts. 73 and 662), township roads follow their 19th century cartways, level with the terrain, making right angle turns around fields, connecting the farms with the mills, churches, schools, and villages, and on two occasions passing through covered bridges.
Near the center of the township is the Village of Oley, the residential and commercial hub of the area. Its one Main Street has witnessed a 100-year period of development and includes several farmhouses c. 1800, a succession of dwelling houses, shops, and public buildings, mostly of brick, built 1830 to 1930, and only a few later 20th century homes. The collection of buildings here, upward of 150 residences and commercial buildings, displays a rich variety of forms, styles, building materials, and architectural details. As with the farmsteads, space and landscape define the setting. In front, the road or street (formerly tree-lined) surrounding each house, its fence, yard, garden, arbors, trees and plantings; and in the back along the alley, the sheds, barns, and carriage houses, mostly of frame construction. Despite modern innovations of paving, curbing, and some exterior building renovation, the architectural integrity of this residential grouping clearly imparts a nineteenth century sense of time and place.
1712-1740 was the settlement period when tracts were surveyed, fields were cleared, and shelters were most often constructed of logs. Because many of these log buildings were replaced by more permanent structures (sometimes on the same foundations), there are not a great many that remain. Possibly ten to twenty cabins, springhouses, and small barns or outbuildings survive from this period, although dates are difficult to determine. Most of these are stone buildings. Other reminders of the settlement period are certain property boundaries, family cemeteries, and roads.
1740-1780 stands out as possibly the most significant period architecturally because the concentration, integrity, and diversity of Oleys' "Germanic Style" buildings of this era is thought to be unsurpassed in any other township in the country. This native Pennsylvania German colonial architecture exists in a variety of building types. Large steep-roofed stone houses, early stone barns with arched openings, and numerous small outbuildings are examples that can be found throughout the Oley Valley, on more than fifty farmstead locations.
1780-1820 is the other extremely significant period, representing the era of development of the fine Georgian manor, the great Pennsylvania stone barn, a thriving water-powered industry of mills, forges, and furnaces, and a network of roads with several inns and taverns. Another sixty farmsteads have buildings dating from this time.
1820-1860 was a significant period of growth with a population increase of 600. It marked the establishment of Oley Village which, in 1860, included 40 dwelling houses, two churches, two school houses, an academy, a tavern, two shops, and various small industries. In the rest of the township over 100 houses were built, primarily plain-featured homes of stone or brick representing the vernacular style architecture that is the most common form to be found here.
1860-1900 witnessed little overall population growth but was a major period of village expansion. Brick Victorian featured homes were popular both in village and rural sites. At least sixty Oley Village homes and eighty rural dwellings have been dated from this time.
Development did not cease after 1900, but a period of very little growth lasted until 1950. At this time some of the land that had always been farmed was sold for other purposes -- quarrying and housing. This has resulted in a fairly large number of "non-contributing" structures that have recently been added to the landscape. Fortunately they have been assimilated in such a way that the historic character overwhelmingly predominates.
Oley Township is one of many Pennsylvania Dutch farming communities located throughout the limestone valleys of southeastern and central Pennsylvania. However, because it is set apart topographically it has developed a unique identity. Ninety percent of its land area remains in its original use since settlement. Its concentration of 18th century stone farm buildings may be the greatest to be found in any one place. It has more designated historic sites including family homesteads and burial grounds, covered bridges, and gristmills than any other part of Berks County. It has six historic villages. Its historic properties are distributed throughout the township, connected, for the most part, by a series of roads and fencerows that go back 100 to 200 years. Overall, it is an outstanding example of a Pennsylvania German farm community where the existing architectural and cultural heritage illustrates 250 years of rural development.
In Berks County, Oley Township is recognized as an important settlement area and a farming community of the first order. Within Pennsylvania it is considered significant for its associations with the early iron industry and certain early religious movements, as well as for its rural architecture of the 18th and early 19th centuries. In the mid-Atlantic region, Oley has been chosen by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as a community worthy of an intensive effort in rural conservation. Through nomination to the National Register Oley Township seeks confirmation of its value as an entity, a historic district in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
The settlement of Oley Township between 1712 and 1740 was locally significant because it established the enduring character of the area. The mingling of people of different cultural backgrounds -- French, German, Swiss and English -- produced a community with a unique identity. Families were founded here that have remained for generation after generation. Patterns were established in fields and boundaries that persist to this day. The earliest of the remaining stone cabins, barns, springhouses, smoke houses and bake ovens were built marking the beginnings of a rich architectural heritage. Crafts were started, each farm having its specialty. By the time the township was officially chartered in 1740 it was a well-established working community of over forty farms.
One can speculate that Oley is what it is today because of the quality of heritage -- the value system handed down through the generations, starting with the first settlers. The work ethic, the conservation ethic, the desire for independence and self-sufficiency -- all are deep-rooted here. Through most of its existence, it has been a place of "Oley Families" holding to their heritage. For this reason there is unity and integrity to be found in its culture.
Because most of Oley's settlers were religious refuges -- Quakers from England, Huguenot from France, and members of various reformationist movements from Switzerland and Germany -- Oley became a center of several 18th century religious movements. This can be noted through some of today's historic sites.
The DeBenneville House has been recognized as the first formally established place of Universalist worship in America. Built by the Huguenot teacher, preacher and physician, Dr. George DeBenneville, in 1745, this large stone house originally contained a second floor meeting room which served as church and school. Now used as a two-family dwelling, this site is visited on Universalist pilgrimages.
The DeTurk House is associated with the Third Moravian Synod of 1742. Here Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf attempted to unite all Protestant sects in an early ecumenical movement, only to drive them more deeply into separate denominations. An event of note was the baptism of three Indians from Dutchess County, N.Y., in John DeTurk's barn, (one of whom is said to have been the "Last of the Mohicans," later made famous by James Fenimore Cooper).
The "Oley Churches" at Spangsville mark the site of Oley's first log meeting, house erected in 1735 on land donated by John Lasher. A "Union Church" serving two congregations existed here until 1821-22 when its Lutheran and Reformed congregations built separate buildings. One of Oley's largest and oldest cemeteries can be found at this site.
It was the limestone soil of the Oley Valley that attracted settlers from the Palatinate region of Germany, farmers who characteristically sought out the most fertile land throughout Eastern Pennsylvania. For this reason the development of agriculture in Oley is similar to that in other Pennsylvania German regions. It was based upon the Palatine farmers' conception of what a farm should be -- well-ordered and self-sustaining. To achieve this goal, farm families would work for generations.
As in other aspects of cultural heritage, Oley Township retains the physical reminders of its agricultural development. Limekilns built along roads and tucked away in fields give evidence that from an early date farmers in this area knew the value of sweetening the soil. The many farm buildings present a fascinating subject, worthy of further research. The study of evolution of barn forms in Oley, for instance, might be as comprehensive as any such studies done in the whole state. A partial total of 37 18th century and 116 19th century barns was listed in our inventory, each with its own design variations. Dating from the earliest barn on the Kaufman Homestead (c. 1730), there may be examples from each succeeding decade of the 18th and 19th centuries. Although stone barns are most common, frame, brick, and log barns can also be found. Other farm buildings present similar opportunities for research. The overall scope and scale of the townships 160 historic farm complexes testify to the productiveness of this land and the wealth of this resource.
The importance of various crops can be gauged from the facilities used to handle them. Barns were built with huge hay mows and large quarries showing that hay and grain were raised in great quantities as feed for cattle and horses that were stabled below. Corn cribs are common, as are root cellars, for the storage of fruits and vegetables. Wheat has been called the "money crop." Seven gristmills still stand in Oley, and five others just over the township line in Pike, Exeter, and Amity Townships. The amount of wheat required to keep these mills running must have been tremendous. Comparing the scale of farming as it must have been carried out with the tools and equipment that were available, one can see why, historically, farm families have been large families.
The well ordered self-sufficient family farm reached its culmination in the late 19th century as illustrated by artist Ferdinand Brader in his pencil sketches of 1882. A comparison of the Hoch Homestead as he drew it with the same view today shows the kinds of changes that have occurred during the past 100 years. Now, in its 11th generation of family ownership, it possesses fewer labor-intensive adjuncts such as gardens, orchards, and numerous fenced enclosures, and more mechanized components like silos and milking facilities. The old buildings are intact, however, indicative not only of adaptive use but of family pride.
Evidence of 18th and 19th century water-powered industry is part of Oley Township's historic fabric. The Manatawny and its tributaries, and even the small Monocacy Creek were tapped at every available spot, its seems, where the construction of a race or dam could provide enough head to turn water-wheels and turbines. Remnants of these races can be seen near the seven existing gristmills and at other mill sites, such as the sawmills, oil mills, fulling mills, paper mills, and red ochre mills depicted on 1820 and 1862 maps. Rare examples of continually-operating early 19th century mills are the beautiful Georgian-featured Knabb-Bieber gristmill, built 1809 and the rustic Yoder sawmill, c. 1800.
Two villages represent iron-works communities. Spangsville, along the Manatawny, was the workers' village for Oley Forge. The actual site of the Forge is marked by the John Lesher House built several years after he helped establish this business in 1744. His home, next to a cliff which overlooked the forge buildings and a 40 acre dam, contained a large vaulted wine cellar, and entrances at four levels. Between 1794 and 1870 the forge was operated by the Spang family. The Georgian style Spang Mansion was their home since 1809. Other buildings in the village were the store and post office, worker's homes, and nearby churches and gristmill.
The village of Oley Furnace along Furnace Creek in the northwest corner of the township dates from the 1760's and contains the Daniel Udree mansion and gristmill, a former tavern, store, office, superintendents' house, teamsters' homes; and workers' homes, all within a half-mile of the charcoal furnace site. Iron ore was mined in the near-by hills and Udree owned vast tracts of woodland to provide charcoal.
The wealth of Oley's architectural heritage is its most significant attribute, remarkable for its numbers, diversity, and quality. From the settlement period to the end of the 19th century, the range of architecture includes certain buildings "unique" to this area, others proclaimed the "best examples" of their type, many with a "distinctive Oley interpretation of style," and altogether an assemblage of vernacular architecture that presents a panorama of rural community development with very few gaps.
This architectural heritage as an expression of culture derives from Pennsylvania German values to build for permanence and to keep what can be used. Buildings were well-built. They were built to serve a function. When this function was no longer needed, they were made to serve some other function. Whether added-to, adapted, maintained or restored, they have lasted. Well over 700 buildings of the 18th and 19th centuries make up this historic resource.
Among Oley's most celebrated buildings, noteworthy for their integrity, adaptation to site, and expressive use of materials are the earliest steep-roofed stone cabins and farm buildings of medieval Germanic character, "buildings which illustrate the early chapters in America... the expression of a people who still cherished fresh memories of their homeland." Cited by Eleanor Raymond, Dr. G. Edwin Brumbaugh, and Robert C. Bucher for their outstanding Germanic character are the Abraham Bertolet Cabin; the Jacob Stauber Cabin, the DeTurk House, the Levan House, and the whole Kauffman Homestead, the "most intact complete farm group.''
One feature associated with some of these buildings, the clay tile roof, is more abundant in Oley than any other place. There are thirty-eight tile-roofed buildings in the township, six on the Conrad Reiff farm along. Known as Oley Valley tiles, they were fashioned of native clay, designed with grooves to channel water to the central overlapping section. Because of their weight, heavy roof timbering and bracing was required.
Many mid-18th century farmhouses have been labeled "transitional style," denoting the transition from the center-chimney, plain-featured Germanic to the balanced formal Georgian style. End chimneys and a balanced five-bay facade might be combined with a steep roof or pent eaves as in the Cleaver Homestead, Peter Griesemer House, or John Hunter House.
By the end of the 18th century the Georgian style achieved its finest expression in the works of Gottlieb Drexel, builder of the Henry Fisher House, his masterpiece, and a number of other intricately detailed structures. Outstanding features of his work are the cornice moldings and doorway detail.
Decorations as in the Nicholas Hunter House were often repeated in interior woodwork.
The bulk of early 19th century township homes can be classified as "Pennsylvania German vernacular farmhouses." Primarily 2 1/2-story, plain-featured rectangular stone buildings, they commonly have 2 to 5 bays with end chimneys, gable roofs, and 6-over-6 sashed windows with panelled shutters. Often they incorporate a rear wing which in many cases was an earlier house or summer kitchen. They may have porches along the front or at the ell. The same form was later adapted to brick and frame construction. As a group they exhibit the sturdy, orderly and functional character that befits the Pennsylvania Dutch farmland.
The development of a commercial center between 1830 to 1900, with the shops and homes of trades-people together with the homes of retired farmers, produced its own distinctive architecture expressing the thoughts and innovations of the times. Existing village architecture reflects a wide range of styles, materials, spatial relationships, and building types. This can be seen in representative streetscapes. The description given by Dr. Peter G. Bertolet in 1860 still rings true: "Some of the houses are fine buildings and the general appearance is clean and neat."
Most of the types of buildings that have been built in Oley Township during the past two hundred years have survived in their appropriate settings. Enough of the total environment remains that it is possible to see and feel what rural areas of the period were like when passing from one type of place to another. One can visualize the activities that took place in the villages, along the streams at mills and forges, and on the farms. This affords an opportunity to explore the past open to anyone who visits Oley.
At a deeper level an opportunity to learn about the past through more technical and substantive research exists for anyone with the interest, skill, and time to devote to the subject. Oley represents a "gold mine" for scholarly research on architectural, cultured, social, and agricultural history. More than buildings remain to tell their stories. Family records, photographs, art-works, antiques, hand-crafts, and memories exist here spanning the generations. And still more is buried beneath the surface in archeological records. Taken all together Oley Township is a historical resource of infinite dimensions.
Bertolet, Peter G., M.D., Fragments of the Past: Historical Sketches of Oley and Vicinity 1860, Oley: Woman's Club of Oley Valley, 1980.
Brumbaugh, G. Edwin, Colonial Architecture of the Pennsylvania Germans, Norristown, Pa.: Pennsylvania German Society, 1933.
Bucher, Robert C., "Steep Roofs and Red Tiles." Pennsylvania Folklife, Lancaster, Pa.: Pennsylvania Folklife Society, Summer 1961.
Croll, P. C., Annals of the Oley Valley in Berks County, Pennsylvania, Reading Eagle Press, 1926, Discusses religious sects and principal families. An index by George M. Meiser, IX in 1963 "Historical Review" facilitates its use. Illustrated.) P. L.
Davis, A. M., Illustrated Historical Atlas of Berks County, Pennsylvania - 1876, (Corrected edition reprinted by H. S. in 1977-78, based on corrections by George M. Meiser, IX.) P. L., H. S., B. C. C.
Dornbusch, Charles H. and Heyl, John K., Pennsylvania German Barns, Allentown: The Pennsylvania German Folklore Society, 1958.
Fagan, L. (Surveyor), -- Township Map of Berks County, Pennsylvania Philadelphia: Bridgens, 1862. (Excellent Survey. Tends to be more accurate than the 1876 survey.) H. S.
Geiss, Newton W., "The History of the Oley Schools," Oley Township Consolidated Schools Dedication Program, Oley, 1930.
Glassie, Henry, Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States, Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1963. (A classic book describing folk artifacts, particularly housing, as an indicator of cultural background.)
Graeff, Arthur D. and Meiser, George M., IX, Echoes of Scholla -- Illustrated: Choice Bits of Berks County History and Lore, The Berksiana Foundation, 1976. (Anecdotes selected from tri-weekly newspaper column in the Reading Times. Deals especially with canals and resort areas. Its 361 rare photos make it a valuable reference.) P. L.
Hopkins, Phoebe Bertolet, "The DeTurk House of Oley" Historical Review of Berks County, Reading: Historical Society of Berks County Spring 1966.
Kennedy, Dean, "Farmhouses of Oley Valley," Pencil Points, New York: The Pencil Points Press Inc. August 1932.
Klees, Frederic, The Pennsylvania Dutch, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1964.
Long, Amos, Jr. The Pennsylvania German Family Farm, Breinigsville, Pa.: The Pennsylvania German Society, 1972.
Meiser, George M., IX "Graveyards of Historic Oley" Historical Review of Berks County, Reading: Historical Society of Berks County, Summer, 1968.
Meiser, George M., IX, Historical Sites (Road Map) of Reading and Berks County, Reading: Berks County Historical Society, 1976 (900 sites pinpointed).
Montgomery, Morton L., Historical and Biographical Annals of Berks County, Pennsylvania, Chicago: J. H. Beers &Co., 1909.
Montgomery, Morton L., History of Berks County in Pennsylvania Philadelphia: Everts, Peck and Richards, 1886. (Considered to be the best account of the County's history. Very detailed. Illustrated. A recent reprint was published by the Berks Co. Historical Society.) P. L., H. S., B. C. C.
Raymond, Eleanor, Early Domestic Architecture of Pennsylvania, Original Edition 1930, Exton, Pa: Schiffer Ltd., 1977 Reprint.
Richman, Irwin, Pennsylvania's Architecture, University Park: The Pennsylvania Historical Association, 1969.
Salem United Church of Christ, Two Hundred Fortieth Anniversary Historical Booklet, Oley, 1976.
Shoemaker, Alfred L., The Pennsylvania Barn, Lancaster, Pa.: Pa. Dutch Folklore Center, Inc. 1978, H. S.
Stapleton, Rev. A., Memorials of the Huguenots in America, Carlisle: Huguenot Publishing Company, 1901.
Stevens, Sylvester K., Pennsylvania Birthplace of a Nation, New York: Random House, 1964.
Stoudt, John Joseph, Early Pennsylvania Arts and Crafts, New York: A. S. Barnes and Co., Inc. 1964.
Stoudt, John Joseph, The Decorated Barns of Eastern Pennsylvania, Plymouth Meeting, Pa.: Mrs. C. Naaman Keyser, 1945.
Womans Club of Oley, A Day in the Oley Valley, Commemorating the 200th Anniversary of the DeTurk House, Oley, 1967.
Womans Club of Oley, A Day in the Oley Valley, Featuring Oley Valley Architecture, Oley, 1968.
Womans Club of Oley, A Day in the Oley Valley, Forges and Furnaces Along the Manatawny, Oley, 1969.