Powwow and Plant Lore Practitioners of the Mahantongo Valley
by Johannes and Christian Zinzendorf
Photos are after the story, and captions are at the end of the story.
This is the story of two neighbors, Mae Smith Erdman and Marie Heim, who lived on opposite sides of the Mahantongo Creek outside the village of Rough and Ready. Each, in her own way, drew on a common body of Pennsylvania Dutch religious folklore with roots back at least to medieval Germany.
Mae was the skilled and specialized practitioner of Braucherei, commonly called powwowing, a form of faith healing used to cure sickness in humans and animals. Marie was experienced in plant lore, more generalized and wide spread than powwowing, as she used the almanac and accumulated folk wisdom to plan and guide her annual crops and garden.
For both women, their knowledge and expertise came from the accumulated wisdom passed to them by preceding generations, and supplemented by various printed materials. In Mae's case, that was primarily her family Bible, with its characteristic red threads marking passages of potent power and ritualistic incantations. She may also have been familiar with the small chapbook Dr. Helfenstein's Secrets of Sympathy, copies of which were printed for and sold by the valley's most famous powwow practitioner of the prior generation, William “Bill” Beissel of Leck Kill.
Marie's knowledge of plant lore came from experience and family traditions that she applied to her ever-present and annually updated farmers' almanac. While apparently secular, almanacs, both in English and German, actually have their basis in the same medieval Germanic faith traditions as powwowing. Both practices come from a time, many centuries ago, when faith, astrology, astronomy and science were all considered aspects of the same body of divinely-inspired knowledge.
Practitioners of both Braucherei and plant lore were attempting to know the unknowable and to control the uncontrollable. Both kinds of practitioners used divination of various kinds to make sense of the world and to aid them in dealing with it, whether to heal the sick or to nurture crops and gardens.
Mae and Marie were among the last local practitioners of such folk beliefs and traditions as passed down through their families for generations. There is a difference between those raised in these practices as living traditions and those who learn it from books. These days, for the most part, powwow practices have gradually been replaced by modern, science-based medicine, while the accumulation of plant lore has been replaced by modern research-based knowledge as typified by agricultural extension services. Still, both practices remain a fascinating part of the valley's folk heritage and history, and it is hoped that both practices can continue in some form.
Powwowing and Mae Smith Erdman
Photos No. 1, 2 and 3. Mae, her parents, her family.
Mae learned the powwowing tradition from her father, Frank Smith. This was typical as the practice was typically passed down not only from generation to generation, but also from male to female, and then from female to male heirs. If so, then Frank would have learned the craft from his mother.
Frank lived with his wife Minnie Mae on what is now Smith Road, below Ridge Road outside Pitman. The house burned many years ago, and was located on a sharp turn halfway between Ridge Road and Creek Road.
Russell Zimmerman, who still lives near the site, recalls shoveling snow as a boy for the Smiths. He said when Frank came over to visit that he would stick his wad of chewing gum on a window sill, and put it back in his mouth when he left.
We don't know if Frank and Mae practiced outside their family. We do know that when Mae's husband, Raymond, contracted cancer later in his life, Mae went across the road and into the high field to curse the evil spirits she felt had infected her husband's body. This was recalled by neighbor James Wolfgang who heard her Dutch curses.
Unfortunately Raymond still died, and it was as a widow that we met her a few times before her own death in 1990. Mae's friendliness with strangers had already led to her being robbed several times by young men who kept her talking while others ransacked the house.
Mae spoke primarily Dutch, and we knew only English, but we also knew enough to keep silent as she spoke to us, only stopping ever so often to pound the wooden floorboards with her cane, which roared through the timber-frame house as she shouted “Listen! Now listen!” in English so, of course, we did. For emphasis she also hit the stove pipe with her cane as well, with the sound echoing through the large house like rifle shots.
She was amazing, and completely captured our attention. While those who knew her much better described her as a “poor soul” whose isolation may have contributed to a perceived mental unbalance, she, nonetheless, led the life she wanted to have. She and Raymond were childless, so there was no one to continue the powwow craft.
Mae's best friend was Marie, who lived across the creek. Marie and Henry Reiner, another neighbor, helped Mae as best they could. By that time she was getting Meals on Wheels, but refused to eat the cherry jello because she said it was the congealed blood of an acquaintance.
Knowing she liked bananas, we brought a bunch and left it at her doorstep one day, surprised that she wasn't home. A few days later, the bananas were still there, and we learned she'd been taken to the county nursing home outside Schuylkill Haven because she could no longer take care of herself. She must have thought she was in hell, confined in a strange place, knowing no one, with no one able to speak Dutch to her and explain what was happening. The staff tried to bathe her by giving her a bath in a tub, which she'd never had in her life. Like many local rural women of her time, she washed herself from a basin with a cloth, but never submerged herself in water and there was no tub in her house. We later heard she kicked and screamed, thinking she was being drowned. She didn't last a week.
Her powwow Bible, complete with red threads to mark passages, was sold at her sale, but we couldn't afford it.
Earlier Mahantongo Powwowing
Photos No. 4, 5, 6 and 7. Bill Beissel as a child; as an adult; the gravestone of Beissel and his wife Annette; his house.
Bill Beissel (1867 – 1957) was the valley's most famous powwow practitioner. He lived in this still-standing, though long-abandoned, house on Old State Road outside Leck Kill (GPS: 40.707377, -76.641015). Beissel practiced his craft on both humans and animals, primarily cattle and horses. Rough and Ready native Faye Kopp recalled in a 2012 interview that her father, Joseph Kopp, hired Beissel to cure ailments with the farm's horses. He used a combination of traditional veterinary methods, such as poultices and liniments, as well as various ritualistic sayings and incantations to rid the animals of sickness and to facilitate healing.
In addition to the Bible, we know that Beissel used Secrets of Sympathy and sold copies to those interested in learning more about the practice. He sold copies of a soft-cover edition printed in Shamokin in 1901 by Nicholas Bohr and printed by E. E. Scott. The pictured copy was found in a box of unrelated material at a sale a few years ago at the farm adjacent to Serfass School outside Klingerstown.
Beissel later had another edition privately printed and dated 1938. Copies of both may still be in some area homes.
Unfortunately the Mahantongo powwow tradition was not adequately researched during the 20th century when practitioners were still living. Now they are gone, as well as most of those who believed in it. Equally unfortunately, we didn't know enough to ask the right questions of Mae when we met her shortly after moving to the Hermitage outside Pitman in 1988.
Photo No. 8. Fire Lane Road
An even earlier powwow practitioner, of the nineteenth century, is reputed to have lived back along Fire Lane Road (GPS: 40.718204, -76.469505) at the upper end of the valley in the Kettle. Only stone foundations are now left and we haven't researched the property deeds to figure out who the powwow family might have been.
According to Wikipedia, the term “powwow” comes from a word in the Native American Algonquian language that “described a healer, derived from a verb implying trance, or dreaming for divination or healing purposes.” It was taken into the English language, then was later applied to the similar Pennsylvania Dutch practice as well. Powwowing also refers to the practice and practitioners of the related British cunning craft, with roots that may date to Celtic times.
“The Pow-Wow practitioner is more closely allied with theology than medicine and feels he is a mediator between the patient and God. Among the Pennsylvania Germans, the 'plain folk', such as the Amish, Dunkers, and the Mennonites, as well as among the Lutheran and German Reformed church members, Pow-Wow, and the Pow-Wow doctor, has a significant following.” This is quoted in Wikipedia from a 1988 article on powwowing in Berks County, as is the following information on Braucherei, which explains that the verb form, brauche, means “to make use of, to need,” “while Braucherei implies a collection of traditional ways . . . of customs, traditions, rituals, ceremonies.”
Plant Lore and Marie Heim
Photos No. 9 and 10. Marie Heim; Marie and her husband Henry.
Visiting Marie Heim's farm was like going onboard Noah's ark, and there were far more than two of everything, especially her beloved birds. A visitor experienced a cacophony of cackling chickens, squawking guineas, quacking ducks and many others of different breeds and varieties and they all roamed freely around the property. Her farm was life itself. She gave us our first birds and we also recall being given a lamb and a goat kid as well. As a widow whose daily life was financially precarious, she was extraordinarily generous with what she did have, such as her beloved creatures. She understood we would take care of them.
Marie worked very hard but she had a farmer's understanding of how to pace herself, and she always took time to visit when we would just drop by. Her ever-present smile was contagious. She preferred to live in the shanty across the yard from the main log house, where she did live in the colder months. There, we would sit at her kitchen table and she would tell us her plans for the spring and her garden.
She always had the current almanac handy, and she expanded its guidance with a lifetime's experience and accumulated family traditions and lore. She planned her garden according to signs and portents. She knew how the waxing and the waning of the moon influenced various plants; she was also familiar with the astrological and agricultural implications of the movements of the planets and constellations.
She would point to the drawing of the “Anatomy of Man” where the parts of the body are connected to the signs of the zodiac and she would explain how their astrological meanings would impact the crops of the coming year. Marie knew the most propitious times to plant what she wanted to grow, with each vegetable and fruit precisely determined. She also knew, through a kind of divination, when to cultivate, fertilize and harvest. Each season was planned based on intuition, experience and the almanac. She understood, on an elemental level, how things were connected. It was a kind of faith healing applied to farming, and she was an expert.
The Almanac and Its Uses
Photos No. 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16. 1830 Orwigsburg almanac; 1848 Rough and Ready almanac; the month of February from the Orwigsburg almanac; “The Anatomy of Man” in German; “The Anatomy of Man” in English; and page of folk sayings as prognosticators.
According to Wikipedia, almanacs date back at least to the second millennium B.C.E., and so they come from a variety of faith traditions, including Protestant, Catholic, Muslim and much older Middle Eastern religions. In the American colonies, they were printed from the 1600s. By the time the Mahantongo Valley was settled in the late 18th century, almanacs in German and English were available from Philadelphia, Reading, Allentown and Harrisburg. By the early 1800s, local almanacs in German and English were printed in Orwigsburg as well. In a competitive market, almanacs sought to capitalize on current news, such as the Mexican-American War used for an 1848 almanac to celebrate the victories of Gen. Zachary Scott, “Old Rough and Ready,” whose name was applied to the eponymous Mahantongo village about the same time.
The first and largest part of a typical almanac contains sections on each month of the coming year, with daily listings providing information on the sun, moon, planets and constellations.
The engraving of the “Anatomy of Man” is the most metaphysical section of the almanac, and dates, in various forms, at least to the 1300s. It correlates various zodiac signs and constellations to different parts of the body, but there are much broader implications as the body is not just human but actually reflects the cosmos as well. It signifies the connectedness of the body, the earth and, indeed, the universe as represented in the planets and the constellations. The relation to farming is how that connectedness affects and influences the health of crops, in addition to personal health.
Almanacs are also good sources for prognostication based on folk sayings, those traditions passed down within families and communities. There is a wealth of such sayings in both English and German that have been collected and published. See the bibliography for reprinted works by Fogel, Unger and Brendle.
Powwow Literature in the Mahantongo Valley
Books in German and English about powwow practice made their way into the valley from the early 19th century. The earliest one also became so famous that it is still available on Amazon in translation. Der Lange Verborgene Freund (The Long-Hidden Friend) was written by the German emigrant Johann (John) George Hohman and published in Reading in 1820. It was eventually translated into English by Hohman himself. It was with the second English translation in 1856 that the book acquired the title by which it is known today: The Long Lost Friend; a Collection of Mysterious and Invaluable Arts and Remedies for Man as well as Animals. “The name 'Pow-Wows' was only added to the book in late 19th century reprints in the wake of the sudden popularity of Spiritualism in the United States, in which 'Indian Spirit Guides' were frequently seen during seances,” according to Hohman's Wikipedia entry.
area collector Tom Umholtz had a rare first edition of Hohman's book
that he acquired locally. At one of his estate sales, it went for
over $400 with numerous bidders, showing how popular it remains.
Preceding that book, Hohman wrote Die Land und Haus-Apotheke [Land and House Recipes], which was printed in Reading in 1818. This was a collection of useful recipes that included everything from soap to medicines to the dyeing of cloth. Much of the medical information was included in Hohman's next book, though in the earlier book they lack the spiritual aspect of the later volume.
This book was also known in the valley as a local copy was sold at the estate sale of George and Arlene Deibert a few years ago.
Photo No. 17. Die Land und Haus.
Another famous powwow book locally used was Dr. Helfenstein's Secrets of Sympathy. Georg Friederic (George Frederic) Helfenstein was, according a brief memoir at the beginning, born in Rotterdam, Holland, in 1730. However, given the paucity of any other information about Helfenstein, it is suggested by powwow expert and practitioner Patrick Donmoyer that perhaps Helfenstein is a nom de plume. The truth may never be known, but “Helfenstein” itself has local connotations. In addition to the village by that name, it was also the family name of a distinguished and famous line of German Reform ministers.
Photos No. 18, 19, 20 and 21. Four pages from “Secrets of Sympathy”
Donmoyer has a rare, unbound edition of the book, perhaps printed in Sunbury, as a series of separate broadsides to facilitate removal for use during individual rituals. As Donmoyer describes the book's three sections, “The first containing religious blessings to be used in healing the sick; the second, rituals for assistance in times of need, protection from violence, stopping thieves; and the third contains blessings for animals and livestock.”
Powwowing Objects and Resources
1. The Bible. Powwowing is a specifically Christian form of faith healing, and powwow literature makes constant reference to primarily New Testament sources used for spells and rituals. A Minersville woman told us of her grandmother's Bible, herself a practitioner, with its ubiquitous red threads marking specifically important and powerful lines used for various incantations. Mae Erdman's Bible was similarly marked. Some rituals called for writing the numbers of particularly potent and pertinent passages on pieces of paper and eating them.
2. The wounds of Christ were sacred emblems and indicated portals to the divine, particularly for religious groups such as the 18th century Moravians, our own faith tradition. The power of sacred portals was incorporated into rituals such as passing a colicky baby between the legs of a table while chanting three times for the child to be cured.
3. Plants. Certain garden herbs and other plants were considered to be powerful in various rituals and were often used in poultices and sachets to cure various illnesses. Even common plants like mint were considered to have both medicinal and ritual uses. Specially-prepared sachets were also buried in gardens to help specific plants grow. St. John's Wort was also grown in herb gardens and used as a charm for healing. Leaves from such plants were sometimes sewn into clothing to continue working on an unconscious level.
Photo No. 22. Use of plants for plant lore..
4. Metals. Iron with its magnetic qualities, and copper with its conducting qualities, were favored in various rituals to draw out illnesses and to attract healing.
Photo No. 23. Metals connected to days of the week, the planets, parts of the body and the zodiac.
(All photographs from the Hermitage except as noted.)
Photo 1 - Mae Smith Erdman (1916 – 1990) [From Louise Rothermel].
Photo 2 - Frank (1884 - 1965) and Minnie Mae (Lesher) (1894 – 1964) Smith [From the late Larona Heim]
Photo 3 - Mae Smith Erdman, with her parents, three sisters, Mazie, Beulah and Lillian, and their husbands. Mae is behind her mother, with her husband Raymond Erdman behind her. [From Larona Heim]
Photo 4 - William Beissel as a child. See “For Further Reading” below for additional information on the sources for these three Beissel photographs.
5 - Beissel as an adult.
Photo 6 - Headstone for Beissel and his wife, Annette, in St. John's Lutheran Cemetery, Leck Kill.
Photo 7 - Beissel home on Old State Road.
Photo No. 8 - Fire Lane Road, which leads to the ruins of a farm in the Kettle reputed to have been owned by a powwow family.
Photos No. 9 and 10 - Marie Heim (1920 – 1999), Marie and her husband Henry (1915 – 1976). [From Carol Heim Snyder.]
Photos No. 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16 - 1830 Orwigsburg almanac. 1848 Rough and Ready almanac printed in Philadelphia about the time when the village of Rough and Ready was named. Month of February in German from the Orwigsburg almanac. “The Anatomy of Man” in German from an almanac whose title page is missing but, based on internal evidence, was likely printed in Philadelphia circa 1810. “The Anatomy of Man” in English, printed in the 1845 Washington Almanac, Philadelphia. Folk sayings as prognosticators, from The Powwow Grimoire.
Photo No. 17 - Die Land und Haus.
Photos No. 18, 19, 20 and 21 - Four pages from Secrets of Sympathy.
Photo No. 22 - Use of plants from The Powwow Grimoire.
Photo No. 23 - Metals connected to days of the week, the planets, parts of the body and the zodiac, from The Powwow Grimoire.
Many thanks to Tara Druckenmiller for her genealogical work for this article.
For further reading
There is a wealth of literature and research into powwowing and plant lore, befitting two of the most popular and intriguing aspects of Pennsylvania Dutch culture. One of the earliest, and still available in reprint form, is Beliefs & Superstitions of the Pennsylvania Germans, 1915, by Edwin Miller Fogel.
In 1935, the Pennsylvania German Society printed Folk Medicine of the Pennsylvania Germans, by Thomas Brendle of Lebanon County and Schuylkill County's own Claude Unger.
This is also still available in reprint form.
In 2007, Penn State Press published Powwowing Among the Pennsylvania Dutch: A Traditional Medical Practice in the Modern World, by David Kriebel, which includes information about modern powwowing in Schuylkill County.
Wikipedia's article on powwowing is also a good source of information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pow-wow_(folk_magic)
“Powwowing in Pennsylvania; Healing Rituals of the Dutch Country” by Patrick Donmoyer is an online article originally in the newsletter of the Glencairn Museum in Bryn Athyn that accompanied a 2017 exhibit of powwow artifacts from Donmoyer's extensive collection. https://glencairnmuseum.org/newsletter/2017/3/2/powwowing-in-pennsylvania
Noted Dutch researchers Alfred Shoemaker and our area's own Don Yoder also wrote extensively and with great sensitivity about powwowing in many issues of The Pennsylvania Dutchman and its successor, Pennsylvania Folklife. Unfortunately these have not been collected and published separately.
Perhaps the best and most complete survey of powwowing is Donmoyer's Powwowing in Pennsylvania: Braucherei & the Ritual of Everyday Life, published by the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center in Kutztown, of which he is the executive director.
practical, how-to book written by a living practitioner is “The
by Robert Phoenix. It provides clear explanations of both powwow and plant lore practices.
A memoir of Beissel was written and privately printed by his great-nephew, James D. Beissel Sr. There are apparently two editions: The Wedge, published in 1990 by Crystal Educational Counselors, 1990; then a later reprint in 1998: Powwow Power: A True Story of a Powwow Relative and Other Related Events. Unfortunately we were not able to directly access either edition for this article as limited print runs and subsequent demand have made them extremely rare. The three Beissel photos from the book were put on the “Find a Grave” web page for Beissel, #36424085, by Drew Techner of Philadelphia and are used with his permission.
“Reading the Man of Signs, or Farming in the Moon” by Emily Pawley is an excellent introduction to the mysteries and marvels of the almanac. It contains both historical information and clear explanations of esoteric sections.