Pennsylvania town travels back in time on its Colonial Day

East Berlin predates the American Revolution


September 08, 2005|By Joanne E. Morvay | Joanne E. Morvay,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Every year on the second Saturday in September, East Berlin, Pa., takes a giant step back in time.

The sleepy town's main street is transformed into a Colonial village square. By 8 a.m., the space brims with potters and weavers, carpenters, quilters, candlemakers and even a blacksmith.

Women wearing ankle-length skirts and aprons and men attired in old-fashioned breeches and straw hats command each booth, practicing their arts and selling their wares.

Colonial Day is East Berlin's annual return to its roots. The town was founded by Pennsylvania Germans in 1764, predating the American Revolution.

On Saturday, the East Berlin Historical Preservation Society will welcome 115 juried artisans to its 31st festival. The free event runs from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., rain or shine. "But it's only rained two times in 30 years," says Bill Powell, president of the historical society.

Society members hosted the first Colonial Day in 1975 as a fundraiser to help preserve some of East Berlin's historic buildings. The festival also showcased the traditions of the area, providing local artisans a place to sell their handmade brooms, rugs and other pieces.

Gretchen and Jim Davis were drawn to one of those early events and fell in love on the spot - with East Berlin.

"It just seemed like time had really stood still in this town," Gretchen Davis says.

In 1985, the couple bought a house on King Street, the town's main drag, and became permanent residents.

"My mother cried because the house was in such disrepair," Gretchen Davis recalls, laughing.

Three-and-a-half years later, the Davises opened Lion and the Lamb, a bed-and-breakfast and antiques business that Gretchen operated from their restored home. (The formerly dilapidated house is on the National Register of Historic Places, as is King Street itself.)

In November, Gretchen closed her B-and-B and downsized her shop, but only so she and her husband could move to another historic house a few doors down.

The couple's new home was built in 1817 by Andrew Brunner, a Baltimore businessman who brought his family to East Berlin every summer to escape the city heat.

In April, Gretchen reopened her shop (but not the B-and-B) in the historic stone carriage house at the rear of the property. Lion and the Lamb offers Pennsylvania Dutch furniture such as chests and tables, as well as textiles, pottery, lighting and other traditional decor.

The Davises have each served as historical society president. And they have logged many hours volunteering at Colonial Day. They are partly responsible for bringing society President Powell to town.

Powell and his partner, Beverly Jadus, stayed at Lion and the Lamb more than six years ago. The couple was looking for a stone house to restore and bought one on King Street soon after.

"It was very impulsive, but it's a really neat little town," Powell says.

Being involved in Colonial Day has proved to be even more fun, the couple says. Jadus is the historical society's publicity chairwoman, and the couple will be among the volunteers working Saturday.

Leslie Deardorff, the society's part-time curator, says funds raised through vendor fees and food sales at Colonial Day are used to help the nonprofit organization maintain five key East Berlin buildings.

Swigart's Mill is the historic grist mill that was the impetus for founding the preservation society 30 years ago. The group also owns a one-room log cabin and Liberty Engine House, the town's former fire company. Red Men's Hall is a three-story building that was the meeting place of a late-19th-century men's association similar to the Elks or the Moose, Deardorff says. All of the properties are used in educational programs for schoolchildren, though these four will not be open Colonial Day because society volunteers will be busy at the festival.

Docents will be on hand, however, to lead tours of the town's historic one-room schoolhouse. The building also served as the meeting place for the East Berlin Improvement Society. Members gathered nearly every Saturday night from 1836 to 1910 to take turns reading aloud, Deardorff says. The group amassed a library of more than 600 books, which the historical society now owns.

Colonial Day will also feature period entertainment, Deardorff says. The Muskets of the Crown, a group of French and Indian War re-enactors, will set up an encampment at the log cabin and march through town accompanied by their fife and drum corps.

Getting there

Take Interstate 83 North toward York, Pa. Get off at Pa. Route 30 West. Veer right onto Big Mount Road. Follow to a left on Route 234/East Berlin Road. This brings you to downtown East Berlin. Watch for parking signs.

More information

Call the East Berlin Historical Preservation Society at 717-259-0822.

For more regional trips, see Page 32.

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