The pictures are in reverse order. Numbers in the article below refer to the photo labels.
JW 6 -The house that food built. The annex to Salem Church was paid for by proceeds from the church-sponsored dinners.
JW 5 - The dinners were held on the ground floor Sunday School room, while those waiting to eat went upstairs to the sanctuary for entertainment.
JW 4 - All in the family. The late Marie Heim of Rough and Ready, with her daughters, Carol Snyder and the late Larona Heim, were among the many volunteers who worked for years to make the church dinners a success. Courtesy of Carol Heim Snyder.
JW 3 - Doreen and John Wehry, with Jack Bensinger in the back. Canadian vacation, 2001. Courtesy of David Wehry.
JW 2 - Signs were set out on Ridge Road before Salem Church in the weeks before each dinner. Photograph by Jerry Orabona, from Pennsylvania Dutch Country Cooking by William Woys Weaver, Abbeville Press, 1993.
JW 1 - John and Doreen Maurer Wehry on their wedding day.
Courtesy of David Wehry.
John Wehry and the Salem Church Dinners
– An Appreciation –
by Johannes Zinzendorf
Johnny Wehry catered the way he liked to eat: lots of variety, plenty to eat, and served with a large dollop of enthusiasm.
But Bro. Christian and I first met Johnny before we even knew he catered meals. We moved into the Mahantongo Valley in 1988, when the Salem Church dinners he helped institute and organize were going strong. For some reason we never attended any of them; probably because we had no money in the early years here and, by the time we did, they had stopped. We also tend to avoid crowds.
It was Johnny who introduced himself to us. Though many knew him as John, he was always Johnny to us, and once he found out my name was Johannes, he said when he was growing up his Dutch grandparents called him Johann, keeping the old German spelling and pronunciation of John.
He knew we were moving abandoned buildings to the Hermitage and reusing them. He had just purchased a farm outside Greenbrier with an early log house on it, and a later timber-frame dwelling, and he came up and offered both to us. The catch was that they had to be moved in a month, for some reason.
At the time we were already in the midst of other salvage projects, and so we knew we couldn't do it ourselves, but it was possible if we could hire an Amish team to do it. Now, as I said, we didn't have any money, so I called the one person we knew who did but he, to our surprise, claimed penury and so I had to tell Johnny we couldn't move the building in his time frame.
He then found someone from outside the area, I believe, to remove and, as I recall, even rebuild the log house someplace else, while the frame house was demolished. Still, Johnny obligingly let us get salvage from both buildings, and so we were able to get the magnificent front door of the log house, a heavy double door, with planks on the outside and panels in the inside, common with older houses in the area. It also had the original hand-forged strap hinges, like those on early blanket chests. We later added the door to the collection of local doors hung up in the Mahantongo Heritage Center.
Now this house sat on the edge of a swale, up by the barn, while the later house was down in the hollow by itself. We removed its original wood-shingled roof so we could get to the rafters and save them for other projects. One can always use rafters.
Later, a few years after the Hepler Family Reunion had to leave its traditional home at Hepler's Grove for the fire hall in Pitman, Johnny was hired to do the catering and, for the first time, I saw what Dutch cooking was really all about. The layout was incredible. As I recall, there was turkey, sausage, and ham, maybe some kind of beef, plus more ways of making potatoes than I knew existed. There was filling, of course, and gravy, lots of gravy. Johnny used gravy the way Paula Dean uses mayonnaise. Then there were the hot sides, like corn, maybe he had carrots, lima beans, peas; I'm not really sure now. Perhaps all of the above.
Then there were the salads. In typical Dutch fashion, there were no fresh greens like lettuce, but if a salad needed vinegar, mayonnaise, or cream, it was there: pickled cabbage, coleslaw, you name it. And last, but not least, the desserts. Johnny loved his desserts, and so did we.
No one ever walked away hungry when Johnny catered. He was a legend. So much so that when I was asked to do a spinning and weaving demonstration for the annual meeting of a agricultural group down the line, I hesitated because the stipend was low, but quickly changed my mind on being told, “Johnny Wehry's catering and you eat for free.” That was all it took.
After John's death in November, 2021, and that of his beloved wife Doreen a few days later, I wanted to find out more about the Salem Church dinners he'd been associated with for so long.
I could not find out the precise year they began, but it seems to have been either in the late 1970s or early 1980s. It was Johnny who urged the church council to sponsor the dinners as a fund-raiser, using volunteers.
Having dinners as a church fundraiser was not a new idea. Susan Masser Schadel of Erdman recalls that Christ Church outside Leck Kill, and St. Michael's Church in Klingerstown, were already noted for their turkey dinners.
But Johnny's innovation was to have bi-annual dinners on a scale unknown to the valley.
“Johnny was instrumental in starting them,” recalled Carol Snyder of Rough and Ready, herself a long-time volunteer despite her day job at the Friendly Nursing Home.
“He ramrodded everything. You couldn't say no to him.” That was said by everyone I interviewed: Johnny was one convincing man.
Snyder said Johnny helped with all the preparations and found the volunteers. For two weeks prior to each dinner, he stopped farming, she recalled, to get everything ready.
“It consumed all his time.”
Yet he thought about the dinners practically year-round. He planted sweet corn each spring for both events.
Louise Rothermel said, “He got volunteers to pick sweet corn at 4 or 5 a.m. He made breakfast for them.”
The corn was trucked in large bags to the church where other volunteers would husk the cobs, cut off the kernels, then package and freeze them at Boyer's meat market in Klingerstown until the time of the dinners.
The dinners were seasonal and based around what foods were currently available. The spring dinner featured ham and dandelion greens, with hot bacon dressing. The fall dinner was filled pig stomach. A sign was put up along Ridge Road below the church advertising the event, though all the locals knew when it was time.
Johnny would surely be the first to admit that the dinners were a group, a community, effort. Still, one of the people he depended on most to help him organize and plan the dinners was Nancy Rothermel, who lives not far from Rough and Ready.
Johnny was the public face of the dinners, working with the church council, but after that, he and Rothermel worked almost as co-chairs to organize the dinners, obtain the food and supplies necessary to feed thousands of attendees, and then to see the work was done.
“John, Doreen and I were the runarounds,” she recalled.
It was Rothermel who sent out letters to a large mailing list that included Pennsylvania residents and many from surrounding states as well. Between the mailing list, publicity, and word of mouth, the event quickly snowballed, with Pennsylvania groups coming by the bus load, and many came from New Jersey, New York, and Ohio as well.
It became a phenomenon.
“There was nothing bigger than that in the valley,” said Snyder.
Rothermel explained, ”We had 4,000 for the [spring] ham and dandelion dinners, and 2,900 to 3,000 for the pig stomach suppers [in the fall].”
The dinners became so popular and well known that they were written up in newspapers and magazines. The idea of going into Pennsylvania Dutch country and the legendary Mahantongo Valley for a fabulous meal at a decent price attracted repeat customers for years. It was something that people marked on their calendars: “Salem Church dinner. Rough and Ready. Be there!”
The dinners were served in the first floor Sunday School room. Salem Church, like many Union churches that originally combined Lutheran and Reformed congregations, has the Sunday School room on the ground floor with a kitchen at the back, and the sanctuary upstairs.
People paid at the front and were given tickets. Sometimes poorer people arrived who didn't have enough money to pay the full amount, but they were admitted anyway, said Rothermel.
With table space limited to 200 diners at a time (and Rothermel said there was often a waiting line to pay), the overflow went upstairs to wait in the sanctuary until another table was available and then they would be directed downstairs to eat. Entertainment was provided for those waiting, such as singing groups who may have sung some Dutch folk songs, as well as hymns and other songs in English.
The handling of the guests was done with typical Dutch efficiency, and it was Grace Rebuck who oversaw the front end of things and supervised the waitresses.
“She was our boss,” explained Rothermel. “She made sure the tables were correctly set and everything was neat and clean.”
But it was the extensive behind-the-scenes activity both before the day of the dinner, and during the day itself, when Johnny's supervision of the team he assembled showed itself most effectively.
He was the right person for the job. Carol Snyder recalls “He loved to eat and loved to organize. He made sure there was always enough food. He was the go-to person who organized everything. Johnny and his crew did the cooking,” which required more space than the church kitchen alone could provide. “Tents were set up back there, near the cemetery,” she said, “for making coleslaw, and a house trailer was also parked in the lower parking lot where food preparation was done.”
There were many moving parts. I recall seeing stacks of wooden crates of dandelion greens at Masser's Produce. The greens were grown on New Jersey farms with sandy soil, and Snyder remembers rinsing the greens several times to remove as much of the sand as possible. “We had to wash and wash,” she said, and others helped, including her mother, Marie Heim. “Mom did a lot of work there. I'm sure people got a little grit at times.”
Nancy Rothermel said the meat came from local butcher shops like Boyer's and Troutman Brothers.
Hot bacon dressing was made for the greens. It took a lot of bacon, which was deep fried on stoves set up on the back porch. In good Dutch tradition, it was a remarkably sweet dressing, and the primary ingredient,after the bacon, probably was sugar.
The potatoes were peeled, boiled, and then, also in good Dutch fashion, fried in hot shortening to make them crispy.
Rothermel said she, John, and often his wife Doreen would drive to Sam's Club and other places in Harrisburg where they bought items like five-gallon buckets of sour cherry filling and pumpkin pie filling, and large cans of fruit salad.
While Rothermel had a morning job, she said there were times when the three left early for a day-long buying trip. Some supplies, she explained, like styrofoam plates and napkins, were shipped in. The church supplied Corel coffee cups and serving dishes, as well as metal silverware.
“We've got a lot of silverware,” admitted Snyder.
A large dough mixer in the basement was used to mix and knead the bread dough, which was then put in metal loaf pans for the hundreds of loaves required. Rothermel said the bread was baked in three ovens in the kitchen “and a big oven out back.”
The mixer was also used to make the pot pie dough, which was made in advance.
“We'd roll it and cut it up and freeze it down at Boyer's,” said Rothermel. Before the dinners, it would be thawed out and then added to the boiling pot pie mixture, which was basically a ham soup.
Boyer's also had the large kettles where the pot pie was cooked. Each kettle had its own stand, and Snyder said they were sold at the 2021 sale of Russell Blyler Sr.
“Plus there were lots of [pig] stomachs to stuff, with potatoes, sausage, carrots, onion,” recalled Snyder. The recipe below fills up to 550 stomachs. The fruit salad was put in large containers so it could be easily served.
“You needed huge amounts of stuff,” she said.
Cooking was done in large twenty and thirty gallon pots.
For those wanting takeout, the meals were cooked inside and then brought to outside trucks where Snyder and others prepared platters.
“For the first dinners, there were two panel, market-type trucks, parked at the church for those who wanted takeout meals,” Snyder said, which was where she was stationed.
“We served the platters out of the window,” she said.
After a stove fire in one of the trucks, serving the takeout platters was moved inside.
The baked goods were a separate operation overseen by Rothermel. Having a part-time baking business herself, Rothermel coordinated the efforts of the many women needed to make hundreds of pies, a major crowd-pleaser, while the separate selling of baked goods provided additional revenue.
Rothermel said popular flavors like sour cherry, blueberry, and apple were made in nine-inch aluminum plates, while pies for which there were special requests, like apricot and fish pies, were baked in seven-inch plates because they weren't top sellers. Most of the pie fillings, she explained, were homemade.
The week of the dinners, Rothermel recalled that she and her husband, the late Richard “Dick” Rothermel, would get up at 2 a.m. to start making pie dough. She had a professional-sized oven in her house, large enough to bake twenty-four nine-inch pies at a time.
There were also mince pies, custard pies, lemon meringue pies, banana cream pies, cherry cheese pies; “You name it; we made pies,” said Rothermel.l There were 1,000 pies and more, often with 250 sour cherry pies, 200 apple pies, and 100 blueberry pies. There were also donations of cookies and fudge to sell, a true cornucopia of local bounty brought together to support the church. People stopped at the baked goods on the way out.
The meals were served family-style, in bowls or platters and the tables were set up in long rows, with eight people to a table. Unused food left in the bowls and platters was served again, though in clean bowls.
“You can't do that these days,” said Snyder.
With so many hundreds of people to feed, it was important to keep things moving without making the guests feel pressured.
That wasn't always easy, recalled Rothermel, because sometimes there were people who stayed and lingered to talk at their tables after eating.
“We couldn't wait for them to leave,” she said, so the next group could come down for their meal. It took hours to serve everyone, and sometimes the sanctuary was so full that people even waited in their cars. And if they couldn't wait, sometimes they just left.
“It was late till we served the last ones,” said Rothermel.
Tables were cleaned off after each seating; disposable items like plates and napkins were thrown away, while everything else was washed at cleanup stations in the back as they were used.
After the dinners were over, Rothermel recalled it was the older volunteers who stayed to clean up. Snyder recalls Lester Rothermel and others coming year after year for clean-up duty.
The huge amount of work required to make the dinners happen required a communal effort.
“We were all there to help,” said Rothermel. “The older ones were available, especially during the preparations, while younger people did help the day of the dinners.”
Yet things were changing. Rothermel said, “The last year we bought bread at a bakery, two-hundred loaves.”
Still, the admittedly huge amount of time and work the dinners required did pay off, literally.
“The dinners made a lot of money for the church,” said Snyder. A new addition to built to the north side of the church to provide more space. “The dinners helped us pay it off.”
All of the proceeds went into the church building fund, and finally it became clear to most, if not to Johnny, that the dinners had served their purpose.
As then-Pastor Mark Rothermel explained, “The dinners were successful and fulfilled their purpose of raising money to pay for the new addition to the church, among other things.”
And with that success, it seemed most people were ready to move on.
“Interest to keep the dinners going among the church leadership was waning,” said Pastor Rothermel. “Older volunteers were dying off, with few younger ones to replace them.”
Randy Wehry, who was on the church council, agreed.
“It was too much labor for the older ones, though they had the time as they worked at their farms and didn't have outside jobs, like so many younger women did. It petered out. They just came to the end of it. Johnny was hard to say no to, but the church leadership finally did it anyway.”
It was at this time in 2001 when three children of church members Barb and Tyrone Wehry were tragically killed in a fire. Nancy Rothermel said the congregation was “so shaken that they canceled the upcoming dinner. And they were never continued.”
According to Randy Wehry, even then Johnny was unwilling to let the dinners die out.
“He insisted on doing a pork-and-sauerkraut dinner as the only one of the year to make it easier for the volunteers, but it didn't work out.”
Nancy Rothermel said only about two-hundred people showed up.
By that time, according to Randy Wehry, Johnny had also purchased the former Boyer's meat market in Klingerstown.
“He got the butcher shop and started being a chef. He started cooking down there and it took off.”
So Johnny moved into the catering business and offering hot meals as takeout from his butcher shop. And that is how he started catering for several years for the Hepler Reunion in Pitman. Yet health issues gradually took over and Johnny eventually stopped the catering business, though he continued to work at the butcher shop.
He was seventy-six when he died at his home of cancer on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021. His beloved wife, Doreen, died that Friday, Nov. 12.
Johnny Wehry made a lot of people happy through his cooking, and through his ebullient personality.
Looking back at the church dinners he kept going for many years, Carol Snyder said, “We enjoyed it,” but also admitted, “I wouldn't do it again.”
She recalls Johnny, later in life, asking a really good question of the “Why is youth wasted on the young?” variety. Noting that many young people didn't like to work the way most older Pennsylvania Dutch people do, he asked, “Why can't they have the aches and pains we have so we who like to work can do it?”
Good question, Johnny, good question indeed. But, be that as it may, thank you, Johnny, for the memories and the meals.
[The author wishes to thank all the people who graciously gave their time to be interviewed for this article.]
The following recipes from John Wehry were used at the Salem Church dinners and were published in the 1990 “Mahantongo Valley Cookbook.” They were supplied by Carol Snyder for this article.
Stomach Filling for Salem Church Suppers
200 lb. pared potatoes
600 lb. homemade country smoked sausage
200 lb. ham
200 lb. fresh pork shoulder
100 lb. pared carrots
100 lb. celery
6 pecks fresh parsley
The potatoes are diced 3/4 by 3/4 inch. Cut the sausage into 1 inch lengths. Cut the ham 1/2 by 1/2 inch. Cut the pork 1/2 by 1/2 inch; add pepper and salt, then fry until golden brown. Chill. Cut the carrots 1/8 inch thick. Cut the celery in 1/4 inch lengths. Wash the parsley and chop fine. When all filling ingredients are ready, prorate in smaller amounts; add black ground pepper and salt to taste. Mix well and stuff in pig stomach skins. This quantity will fill 500 to 550 pig stomachs.
Ham Pot Pie for Salem Church Suppers
350 lb. all-purpose flour
56 c. shortening [probably Crisco was used, or something similar]
3 1/2 c. salt
70 doz. large eggs
37 1/3 qt. water [The extra 1/3 quart makes sense because each batch of dough is boiled in 2 2/3 quarts of water]
400 lb. skinless, shankless ham eggs
300 lb. pared potatoes
75 lb. pared carrots
75 lb. diced onions
3 pecks fresh parsley
1 1/2 lb. ground black pepper
Dough should be mixed as follows (14 batches)
25 lb. flour
4 c. shortening
1/4 c. salt
5 doz. large eggs
2 2/3 qt. water
Knead the dough; roll to desired thickness and cut in approximately 2-inch squares [This was done in advance and frozen for the church dinners].
Cook the ham. Cool and debone. Save the ham broth to cook pot pie. Slice potatoes 1/4 inch thick. Slice the carrots 1/8 inch thick. Wash and chop fine the parsley. Bring ham broth to a boil; add carrots, onions, parsley, and pepper and salt to taste. When it begins to boil again, add the dough, then cook until dough is thoroughly cooked. Add the ham and serve.
Coleslaw for Salem Church Supper
1 large (5 gal.) dishpan of grated cabbage (6 to 8 heads cabbage)
1 c. sugar
1 Tbsp. Salt
4 c. mayo or salad dressing
1 c. vinegar
3 c. canned milk
Mix sugar and salt; sprinkle over cabbage, then thin mix thoroughly with hands. Mix mayo, vinegar and canned milk in bowl, then pour over cabbage mixture. Mix thoroughly with hands.
1. JW 1 - John and Doreen Maurer Wehry on their wedding day.
Courtesy of David Wehry.
2. JW 2 - Signs were set out on Ridge Road before Salem Church in the weeks before each dinner. Photograph by Jerry Orabona, from Pennsylvania Dutch Country Cooking by William Woys Weaver, Abbeville Press, 1993.
3. JW 3 - Doreen and John Wehry, with Jack Bensinger in the back. Canadian vacation, 2001. Courtesy of David Wehry.
4. JW 4 - All in the family. The late Marie Heim of Rough and Ready, with her daughters, Carol Snyder and the late Larona Heim, were among the many volunteers who worked for years to make the church dinners a success. Courtesy of Carol Heim Snyder.
5. JW 5 - The dinners were held on the ground floor Sunday School room, while those waiting to eat went upstairs to the sanctuary for entertainment.
6. JW 6 -The house that food built. The annex to Salem Church was paid for by proceeds from the church-sponsored dinners.