A Look Back in History: A birthday tribute to the father of the American folklife movement

Alfred Shoemaker, founders of the Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore Center and Kutztown Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Festival, pictured with Milt Hill, famed hex sign painter.
Alfred Shoemaker, founders of the Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore Center and Kutztown Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Festival, pictured with Milt Hill, famed hex sign painter. Submitted photo
The early success of the folk festival had a lot to do with Alfred Shoemaker’s amicable personality.  He wanted to share with America not the fact that the Pennsylvania Dutch are different, but in our diversity, we remain a unique part of American versatility.
The early success of the folk festival had a lot to do with Alfred Shoemaker’s amicable personality. He wanted to share with America not the fact that the Pennsylvania Dutch are different, but in our diversity, we remain a unique part of American versatility. Submitted photo

With several PA Dutchmen and women approaching their 100th birthday, together with fellow aging countrymen from Europe, America’s Civilization has unmistakably become one nation under God with Liberty and Justice for all. There is no question that the humility of our 16th and 17th Century pioneer forefathers had faced all types of adversity, as well as death defying wars, descendants continue their belief in an all merciful God in which our humble United States people proclaim, “God Bless America,” as a National motto. Of all the scholars I have studied, few exemplify our nation’s humility than folklorist, Alfred Shoemaker (1913-198?), whose deep belief and love in a divine being made himself a superb judge of Americans and their folkways.

This month and year (April) marks the 105th birth year of celebrated Dr. Alfred L. Shoemaker, born in 1913, who with Dr. Don Yoder and Dr. J. William Fry founded the PA Dutch Folklore Center at Franklin and Marshall College at Lancaster County in 1948. Two years later, the trio established the PA Dutch Folk Festival in Kutztown in 1950 to celebrate the regional folklore of the PA Dutch people, an Americana folklife festival to present at the time our three-hundred-year old PA Dutch folk culture to the American public at large on the Kutztown Fairgrounds in the Heart of our PA Dutch Country. Now in its 69th year, the American public has continued to support our rural agrarian people who still excel at PA Dutch cooking, American folk art, wood crafts, together with homemade household artistry.

The large attendance of recent Kutztown Folk Festivals may very be an overwhelming tribute to the memory of Dr. Shoemaker, an outstanding scholar of our Pennsylvania Dutch people who hopefully will never be forgotten among our Dutchmen. Here, several Pennsylvania Dutch people have continued their masterful crafts, cooking, and folk art traditions in a rural agrarian lifestyle and setting. And annually, they have presented their trades to a modern American public who have been amazed that this early Americana culture still survives in the 21st Century, much like the many Plain Dutch religious groups who also continue to follow our horse and buggy folk culture in modern times.

In fact, shortly after Dr. Shoemaker and Don Yoder established our first PA Dutch Folk Festival in 1950, the Wenger horse and buggy Dutch sect began a Plain Dutch meeting-house sect, south of Kutztown to take advantage of cheaper farmlands in Berks County, as opposed to the expensive farms on the Lancaster Plain, which were no longer available in the 20th Century. Assisting Dr. Shoemaker exhibiting his folklore books at the Kutztown Folk Festival, Richard Shaner and Alliene DeChant, another local folk historian, marveled at how wonderful it was to have humble Plain Dutch Mennonites as part of the Kutztown community in an age where industrial expansion was threatening our rural culture from both suburban Allentown and Reading, as our good farmland was disappearing more and more year by year.

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And as soon as the Wenger Mennonite built their successful Produce auction in 1990, our farmers in the East Penn Valley realized the Plain Dutch were not competitors for our agrarian way of life; but in their age old farming ability, they encouraged successful farming procedures which without them, we could not survive. Since the Plain Dutch and Worldly Dutch loved speaking their traditional PA Deitsch Dialect, together they became an agrarian economy, which rivaled all others in southeastern Pennsylvania. Dick Shaner, a colleague of Dr. Alfred Shoemaker, who was a friend of Wenger Mennonite leader, Ezra Burkholder Sr. who began the Kutztown Mennonite community, believed that this new colony of Mennonite farmers in the Kutztown area was encouraged by Dr. Shoemaker, who felt it was the best chance for both farming groups to survive in face of the growing megalopolis in this part of the East Penn Valley.

Shoemaker, a very astute folklorist, was dedicated to making the Kutztown Folk Festival, one of the best in the nation, but realized there were no Plain Dutch farmers in Kutztown at the time, so he initially decided to build a Pennsylvania Folklife Museum in the heart of the Lancaster Amish territory, along U.S. Route 30. Shaner also assisted him in those years and became familiar with that Amish community, but unfortunately, when “Doc” scheduled the opening of his Amish folklife farm museum, it rained all that weekend and his Pennsylvania Folklife Society became bankrupt. Having ultimately received shares in his Lancaster adventure instead of a paycheck, Dick too, was affected and disappointed when the museum failed, but knew Doc was an honorable man and stuck by him, as well as Alan Keyser and other folklorists.

However, it was not enough to make him feel better, and he later suffered from manic depression from losing his prized museum and leadership of the Pennsylvania Folklife Society and Kutztown Folk Festival, which was turned over to Attorney Mark R. Eaby by a Federal Bankruptcy Judge until the creditors of the bankruptcy were paid off in full. Attorney Eaby was an efficient officer of the Court and paid off all creditors including Shaner who forewent his wages and accepted shares in Shoemaker’s Lancaster museum. Even though a religious and honorable person, Shoemaker was never the same after the bankruptcy episode and wandered aimlessly to find himself, visiting friends in New York City. Viola Miller, his secretary from a farm north of Kutztown, and Shaner who had bought the Lobachsville Gristmill were about the only close friends he would stop in to visit, and sometime in the 1960s, he mysteriously disappeared for good; but the Kutztown Folk Festival continued to operate under Eaby.

But the true folklife exhibits were not the same without the wisdom of this PA Deitsch icon, the Kutztown Folk festival became more and more a commercial craft fair without the human insight, which had made it the most important Folk Festival in the United States. The fact Shoemaker had such deep insight, affection, and rapport with our folk people; he could not be replaced at the Franklin and Marshall College either. Since the Folk Festival had been taken over by the Kutztown University Foundation, it no longer followed the wisdom of Shoemaker and Dr. Don Yoder in matters of true folklore and folklife, but had become a secular institution unlike the former religious philosophy which guided by Franklin and Marshall College.

Postscript: Unfortunately, Dr. Shoemaker disappeared in the 1960s, and although the Pennsylvania Folklife paid off its bankruptcy debts honorably, the loss of Alfred Shoemaker’s leadership of the Kutztown Folk Festival during bankruptcy receivership in 1963 brought about his mental depression. Not quite able to come to grips with himself, Alfred wondered aimlessly to New York city looking for a folklife benefactor, where it is presumed he died there or fortunately made his way to Germany.