Amity Heritage Society
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Earlville, PA 19519
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PARADISE LOST
The Hoch-High Farm at Poplar Neck

By Susan Miller-Speros

Venerable "Poplar Neck Farm", also known as the High Farm lies in an isolated pocket of green and calm in the middle of a busy industrial comer of Cumru Township. Surrounded by tall, gnarled ancient trees and trailing vines, the two remaining historic buildings are all that are left of a once magnificent 400 acre farm that dates from the 1740s. It is easy to forget the surrounding encroachments of 20th century industry at this place, -namely the Titus Power Plant and Western Berks Refuse Authority Landfill -because when one stands under a sheltering tree by an ancient building, time stands still.

Perched on its hill, "High's Hill", with its commanding view of Neversink Mountain, the Schuylkill River and beyond, the Hoch-High farm is a meaningful example of the history of Berks County. The panorama of our history is here, from the Lenni Lenape who first inhabited High's Hill, to settlement in the 1740s by Swiss-German Samuel Hoch (High), and finally to its present day ownership by Western Berks.

The two remaining structures of the High farm, one an outstanding example of early German vernacular architecture, and the other, a beautiful example of early Federal architecture, were a reflection of the Hoch-High family's sense of place and love of their land. Now the present and future of these two historic treasures is extremely precarious.

In the year 1717 two brothers, Rudolph and Melchior Hoch, emigrated from Basel Switzerland. As many who came to William Penn's "Holy Experiment", the two brothers were Mennonites fleeing religious persecution. Melchior Hoch settled in Bucks County, and Rudolph settled at "Swedeland above the French Creek" near Pottsgrove.

In 1720 Rudolph's son, Johannes or John, married Susannah Herbein, whose family was of Huguenot origin and one of the earliest families to settle in the Oley Valley. John and his family came to the Oley Valley in about 1725 and established a farm there. John's son Samuel was born at Swedeland in 1723 and died at Poplar Neck in 1795. In 1744 twenty one year old Samuel acquired the tract at Poplar Neck, and in 1746 secured the land patent for this nearly 400 acre plantation. This fertile tract of land by the Schuylkill had some of the very best farmland in Berks, and was the High Farm for two hundred years.

When young Samuel acquired this land he might have felt great pride of ownership because the view from his land, "High's Hill", is extraordinary and compelling. Neversink Mountain and the beautiful Schuylkill bend at Poplar and Lewis Necks towards the East, and further up the hill, where the capped part of the Landfill now stands, the view of the city of Reading is breathtaking. Further to the West and South is a rarely seen view of the "Flying Hill", and what was known in Colonial times as "The Forest", hill after green hill as far as the eye can see. Near the summit of High's Hill and literally sitting on top of Western Berks Landfill, is the family cemetery, which dates from the 1700s.

In 1748 Samuel married his cousin Esther Herbein and built the small tile roofed stone cabin or ancillary house, which remains, in ruined condition, at Poplar Neck. NOTE: an ancillary house is a German~Swiss tradition, and is defined as a small building which could have a variety of functions, first dwelling, spring house, summer kitchen, or "grandfather's house" for aging parents.

Our very earliest settlers probably built their first houses and barns of log, but it did not take them long to build in stone the vernacular structures strongly reminiscent of the building traditions of their European homelands. The early Hochs of Oley built banked spring houses, summer kitchens, and small stone cabins, All with the characteristic Germanic hand made red tile roofs. When Samuel and his bride settled at Poplar Neck in the 1740s, he brought these building traditions with him. The small stone cabin he built is a "transplant" from the Oley Valley. (NOTE: Poplar Neck was once part of Alsace Township, in 1850 it became part of Cumru Township.)

The charming, one and a half story stone house at Poplar Neck is very well designed and thought out. With its tulip motif wrought iron and roof tiles, beautifully constructed hearth, bake oven and smoke chamber complex, this house could only have been built by a young man for his cherished young wife.

Over the years, as his family grew, and Samuel and Esther's only surviving son Isaac took over the farm, a larger house was built. The stone cabin served as a "grandfather house" for aging Samuel and Esther. In later years the little house was probably a summer kitchen, and its most recent mid 20th manifestation was as a garage!

This historic small building, measures approximately 20 feet by 30 feet, and is made of local stone, most likely a type of limestone or mixed type of stone. There was a quarry on the property. The roof was 18th century hand molded red tile. This tile could have been made by the Weidners, well known potters of 18th century Oley, as the Weidner farm is next to the Hoch farm.

These roof tiles had a beautiful tulip motif. As part of their water channels, a lower tile had the customary narrow stalk like indentations, while the next tile up branched out like a tulip flower. The whole effect was very pleasing. Unfortunately, as the story told to me
goes, a large tree next to the house "fell over in a storm and collapsed the roof', and worse, most of the beautiful old roof tiles were stolen within the past few years.

The windows are randomly placed, double hung six over six with shutters, however, these windows may have been placed later as even earlier style shutters were found under the collapsed roof. There are plank doors with strap hinges, the main door is a double "Dutch door" with a beautiful mid 18th century tulip design wrought iron latch. The bracing structure for the roof is hand pegged, and rose head nails are used throughout.

Inside is a large fireplace with its heavy timber mantel intact. The fIreplace, bake oven, and second floor smoke chamber is brick, and of a very clever and compact design. The floor of the fIreplace is brick as well, and part of it may have been raised, a Germanic characteristic. It is difficult to judge how many rooms the house might have had originally, as alterations were made to the interior of the structure over the years. The wills of Samuel High, who died in 1795, and his wife Esther who died in 1796, indicate more than one room. Outside, much of the enclosing stone fence wall remains.

The Hoch family grew and prospered on their 400 acres of rich soil near the Schuylkill River. Directly across the river was the family of James Lewis, well to do Welsh Quakers who carved out of the wilderness what was to become "Ridgewood Farm", later home of the Jacob Dick family. Just downstream was Conrad Beidler and his family who built and operated successful early grist and saw mills. This saw mill, "Lebanon", was in operation by about 1735, James Lewis was part owner, and it is very likely that it supplied the lumber to build Samuel Hoch's small stone house at Poplar Neck. Eventually, all of these families formed a tightly knit web of friendship, intermarriage, agriculture, and early industry.

As the Hoch family grew they built other structures near the small ancillary house. By the second generation of son Isaac, or maybe even prior to it, a second stone dwelling was built. This was later expanded in about 1810-1815 by Brigadier General William High, grandson of settler Samuel, into the large farmhouse we now see at the site. It was believed until only recently that the family name was anglicized to High by Brigadier General William High in the early 1800s to reflect the family's economic, social, and political ascendancy. A review of old wills and official documents show that Samuel already used the name High when acting in official capacity. Samuel was county commissioner in 1761 and subsequent years. In an inquiry into the division of deceased neighbor James Lewis' estate in 1762, Samuel signed himself as Samuel High. Because of Quaker and English governance of the area, perhaps Samuel thought it was in his best interests to anglicize his name from Hoch to High.

To the casual observer the large High farmhouse presents a neglected, rather plain exterior. One never expects to find inside the lovely and well preserved Federal Period woodwork, or the astonishing evidence of great antiquity in the earlier part of the house.

The house is built in two sections. The original core, c. 1760, is of local stone, the walls
are very thick with deep window sills. It was 1.5 to 2 stories, and two rooms deep. In the cellar, under this section is a rare, barrel vaulted root cellar. Leading into this root cellar is evidence of a water or spring channel, which entered from an arched opening that is now filled in. The floor of the vault is concrete, put in much later; and the area under it is hollow. A later built well is adjacent to the water channel outside wall. To this day, this stone well is intact and contains water that is several feet deep, even during periods of drought. This spring or water channel to the root cellar is very similar to the root cellars and spring channels found on early Oley Valley farms. Also pointing to this building's great antiquity are the grooves in the original floor joists, indicating a type of mud-straw insulation used by Swiss and German settlers in the mid -1700s and earlier. There is also some evidence of an early fireplace in this old cellar.

This stone wing was enlarged when the brick wing was built onto it after 1800. The front and rear walls present a continuous facade with a stucco covering over the whole building, and the roof line of shake shingles under tin is continuous. The bracing structure for the roof is hand pegged, with purlins at the rafter peaks, and collar beams for rafter support. All are typical of 18th into early 19th century methods of building.

The elegant interior of General William M. High's house is high style Federal with a wide central hallway, graceful stairway that is continuous to the third floor, very beautiful carved woodwork with a delicately carved rosette found in many rooms, and fine kitchen with large walk in fireplace. The fireplace is faced in brick, and its large wrought iron crane was found under the debris of the collapsed roof of the small stone ancillary house. As one becomes aware of the place's inner relationships, one perceives that the dominant theme in the small stone house is a tulip, and in the "big house,” a rosette.

The High family of Poplar Neck was very prominent in the area, even from their earliest days. Samuel High's daughter Susannah married John Beidler, son of prosperous local miller and land owner Conrad Beidler. The culmination of family prominence came with Samuel's grandson, Brigadier General William M. High. Born in 1786, he rose to great acclaim early in life, and became one of the foremost leaders of the County. It was William who built the beautiful addition to the earlier house and expanded it, and his house reflected his family's wealth and high social status as local land owners. During the period of 1780-1840 "Berks experienced unprecedented agricultural prosperity". The High family at Poplar Neck enlarged their farm and built a very fashionable addition to their earlier house.

A recent series of articles published in the respected Quarterly of the Governor Mifflin Historical Society brought awareness of these two historical treasures to the local historical and preservationist community. In addition, the Amity Heritage Society, with their "get out in the field and dig in the dirt" enthusiasm, performed some remarkable archaeological excavation at the small stone cabin. The combination of Governor Mifflin Historical's publications, and Amity Heritagel's active hands-on approach was a good match. We now know much more about these buildings, and their great historic significance, than we knew previously.

Archaeological work done last Fall by Amity Heritage uncovered much new information about the very early ancillary house and the farmhouse. A blocked stone door lintel seen on the lower area of the back of the massive fireplace complex of the stone cabin, led to the conclusion that there may have been a cellar under the building. Beautifully cut stone steps leading down to a cellar were uncovered, unfortunately, the cellar was back- hoed and filled in years ago when the building was converted into a garage. Interestingly, the 1851 inventory of grandson William confirmed that his grandparents, Samuel and Esther, lived in this small stone cabin during at least their last years, and there was a cellar indicated in the will.


This puts a rather different light on the early barrel vaulted root cellar under the larger farmhouse. However, as many early houses in the area were built over springs, it is plausible that this may have been the case here, before William High enlarged the house and altered it to such a considerable extent. The evidence of a water channel leading to the barrel vaulted area makes even more sense, as it has been confirmed by long time local residents, that there indeed once was a spring nearby that had piped or channeled water to the farmhouse. Mystery still surrounds the earliest sections of the farmhouse. The 1795-96 wills and inventories of Samuel, Isaac, and Esther High indicate two small dwellings.

When the excavation work was first begun, the small stone house was covered with vines, and small saplings grew through the floor of the building. They were cleared to uncover the basic form of the house, inside and out. As mentioned previously, the beautifully wrought iron crane from the farmhouse walk in fireplace was found under the debris, more roof tiles were uncovered, including one which may have been a signature tile of the potter (Weidner?). It is totally different from the others, and early tile makers very often placed a tile that was unlike the others as their "signature". Other indicators of the great antiquity of the buildings are rose head nails, 18th century wrought iron hardware, and 18th century style shutters. Among pieces of beaded wood found was one, perhaps a window molding, with hand carved initials Wm. on it. The script is decidedly old fashioned. Could this be the mischievous work of our young William?

Unfortunately, this past winter was extremely harsh, and the wonderful and intricate hearth, bake oven complex of the stone cabin did not weather well. The stone and wood lintel of the "Dutch door", and the remaining section of the tile roof were in imminent danger of total collapse. Subsequently, late this spring, the roof and tiles were taken down, and the "Dutch door" removed to Amity Historical for restoration and protection.

This piece of land, with its fertile fields, hills, woods, and magnificent views, was home to the High family for over 200 years. Before they came, it was an important Lenni Lenape village. On this hill, where a "sacred standing stone" still sits in the front yard of the ancient farmhouse and stone cabin, was the council place of the local Indians and their Chief Manangy. It is no mere coincidence that William's son Ezra High was a well known collector of local Native American artifacts. His collection was not the largest in the county, but it was perhaps the best. This fabulous collection was donated to the Historical Society of Berks County.

In its setting under ancient trees and rambling vines, these two historic buildings are an important link to our past. The physical remains of the occupation and use of this land, from the Lenni Lenape, to Samuel and Esther High and their descendants, are a living testament. These remains tell us where we came from, and who we are. Here are some of the earliest buildings in Berks County, unexpected architectural treasures. The charming stone settler's cabin is in near ruins, the farmhouse, with its imposing Federal interior, shows deterioration and neglect. They require protection and preservation.

These buildings are owned by Western Berks Refuse Authority Landfill, a municipal entity consisting of eight participating municipalities. They have lately taken an interest in the property. Minor repair work has been done on the farmhouse, the grass is cut and the foliage trimmed. The house is structurally sound, the roof intact. There were tentative plans to move the Authority offices into the High farmhouse and continue upkeep on the house. Western Berks Authority has been very gracious and helpful in allowing local historians access to the site and buildings, indicative of a responsible attitude toward the historical and architectural treasure they own.

However, presently, to our great misfortune, further operation of Western Berks is in great jeopardy, and it may close within the near future. This will place the High farmhouse and settler's cabin in grave jeopardy and on the road to oblivion. These two historically significant buildings can be securely placed on the top of the list of "Berks' most endangered historic buildings". Hopefully, a way can be found for the Authority, the township, and public and private industry and citizens to save these prime examples of our Berks County architectural heritage.


SOURCES

The Story of Berks County Pennsylvania
Balthaser, F.W.
Fragments of the Past: Historical Sketches of Oley and Vicinity
Bertolet, Peter G.
The Indians of Berks County Pennsylvania
Brunner, D.H.
Annals of the Oley Valley
Croll, Rev. P.C.
Architecture of the Pennsylvania Dutch Country 1700-1900
Kauffman, Henry J.
Pennsylvania Dutch American Folk Art
Kauffman, Henry J.
A Field Guide To American Houses
Mc Alester, Virginia and Lee
Historical and Biographical Annals of Berks County
History of Berks County Pennsylvania
Montgomery, Morton
Epitaphs
Nein, Jacqueline B, Texter, Joan, Jiminez, Cynthia
Oley Valley Heritage: The Colonial Years 1700-1775
Pendleton, Philip
Early Domestic Architecture of Pennsylvania
Raymond, Eleanor
Pennsylvania Architecture
Rickman, Irwin
Early Pennsylvania Arts and Crafts
Stoudt, John Joseph
Home Building and Woodworking in Colonial America
Wilbur, C. Keith

Historical Review of Berks County, Spring 2002
"Geology: The Underlying Story of Berks County" Landenslager, Richard E.

Pennsylvania State Archives: Land Records
Pennsylvania Census Records: County of Berks 1752-1860
County of Berks: Assessments 1752-1754
County of Berks: Taxables 1754-1767

Berks County Wills and Inventories
High, Samuel 1795
High, Isaac 1795
High, Esther 1796
High, William, M. 1851
Lewis, James 1762

The Hoch-High Family in the U.S. and Canada
Hoch, Dr. J. Hampton

www.FamilySearch.org Ancestral File
Hoch, High Family
Pedigree Chart
Family Group Record

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE Susan Miller-Speros is Program Coordinator at the Berks County Heritage Center. She is also a living historian at Old Morlatton Village, Daniel Boone Homestead, Ridgewood Farm, Pottsgrove, and Hopewell NHS, where she does open hearth cooking and wool and textile interpretation. In addition, she is on the Board of Directors of the Historic Preservation Trust of Berks County, and a former Board member of the Berks County Genealogical Society. She has degrees in Anthropology and Travel and Tourism