A look back in history: Jonas Day Family of Irish-Pa Dutchmen in Berks County

Irish frontier immigrantSMeventually bleded in with PA Dutch culture
Irish frontier immigrantSMeventually bleded in with PA Dutch culture

Of all the ethnic peoples assimilated in Berks County’s PA Dutch Country, none have left their ethnic image on our architectural landscape, more obvious than a number of Irish frontier immigrants. While collecting folklore in the Oley Hills I have always admired quaint early circular stone smokehouses with conical shaped rustic old shingle roofs. Built on farms in the Oley Hills from the (1743) Roman Catholic Church of the Blessed Sacrament at Bally, PA up through Landis Store village and through the Fredericksville and Dryville area The only round smokehouse which seemed out of place was a sole ancient circular stone smokehouse along the Schuylkill River in Exeter Township, discovered by

Historian Raymond Keibach.

Attracting the attention of Dr. Alfred Shoemaker, then curator of the Berks County Historical Society (1948), these circular smokehouses were built by Irish ethnic immigrants. Traveling in Ireland in 1948, folklorist Shoemaker found these ancient structures common in County Kerry, Ireland where natives amusingly called these early circular stone smokehouses, “bee hives.” But in the Dutch Country of Pennsylvania they are only peculiar to the Oley Hills of Berks County, nowhere else. Old Abraham Carl of Smoketown had witnessed the building of a circular smokehouse near Fredericksville but could not recall the ethnicity of its builders, perhaps because they could not answer him back in his German Dialect tongue.

These Irish immigrants migrated to the Oley Hills in the post American Revolutionary War period and built their fieldstone homes in the early 19th Century. The most obvious Irish immigrant family who settled in the Fredericksville area and became assimilated into our Dutch culture was Jonas Day, Sr., immigrant father of the Day clan whose frontier stone homestead was built adjacent to a tract of farmland owned by my great, great grandfather, Jacob Bieber in Rockland Township. Living among these PA Dutch immigrants who also came to America for economic opportunity, this Irish family had no other choice but to learn our PA German Dialect to live in this isolated hinterland. As time went by the Days lost their native Irish folkways, but not their native ability to build fieldstone farming structures for neighbors, which became their expertise in Berks County’s early American farming economy.

Once assimilated in the Oley hills among PA Dutch neighbors and friends they eventually lost any interest in seeking other British Isles ethnic companions in larger Pennsylvania towns. But the self sufficiency of hunting, and continuing a frontier existence in the forested territory of the Oley Hills, became in itself the reward for living far away from politics and confrontation with other Old World cultures. Fredericksville and Dryville were rural farming villages that supported their lifestyle and the children of the Jonas Day family grew up content in the forested Oley Hills losing all Irish cultural traits.

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They eventually lost all recognition of being Irish having been born and grown up among the dynamic PA Dutch for generations, speaking our native PA German Dialect from childhood to adulthood. Jonas Day’s son, Allie Day’s family lived at Fredericksville, and down the road at “Five Points Intersection” lived Charlie Day and his family at the edge of the forest . His other son, Jonas Day, called “Uni” by his Dutch friends, still lived near the old homestead near to Ruppert ‘ s Corner alongside Fred Bieber ‘s forested homestead at Bieber’s Hollow. Uni taught Freddie how to weave split oak baskets in these backwoods.

The Jonas Day Irish immigrant story (well before the 1845 Irish Potato Famine) is a classic example of the assimilation of old world Western cultures into the dynamic early American PA Dutch Culture. This spirit of re¬birth on the Oley Valley frontier where an ethnic group not from the Rhine Valley of Europe was reborn as part of the larger “melting pot democracy” is what Americanization is all about. Without the “American frontier forging process,” where the Jonas Day children grew up speaking the innate German Dialect language with their PA Dutch neighbors, I doubt if these Irish and German ethic immigrants normally would have assimilated together.

The Day descendants I have always thought of as PA Dutch they are so dutchified in the Oley Hills. They were true Appalachian Americans and friends all these years. Both our PA Dutch mountain families hunted delicious morel mushrooms in the springtime and shared the PA Dutch culinary cooking arts of the Oley Hills.

When my grandmother, Mary (Bieber) Hilbert was a neighbor of Jonas Day senior at Ruppert ‘ s School house she remarked that Day’s wife was a wonderful herbalist who could cure many ail¬ments. Her knowledge of herbs was amazing, so much that people feared she had super natural powers. After she died her son Jonas Day continued to harvest herbs in the forest and they would be hanging in his house to dry for use in the winter months. Thus her primitive folk medicine legacy was passed down to her children (Pennsylvania Folklife Vol., 14, No. 3 Spring 1965 issue).

Larry Dey the automobile dealer at New Jerusalem is the grand¬son of Allie Day from Fredericksville, but his father chang¬ed the “a” to an “e” after too many mix-ups by the postman. Larry’s brother, Carl was the first one to teach me how to hunt wild morel mushrooms in the Oley Hills.