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Folklife Tour de Force


Don Yoder is the leading expert on Pennsylvania Dutch folklore.At Christmastime—anytime, really—Devon’s Don Yoder champions the famous line, “Peace on earth, goodwill to men.” Perhaps it best captures the Pennsylvania Dutch folklife he so loves. Or maybe it appeals to his Quaker roots. Then again, it may also be the perfect encapsulation of his two chief research passions.

Yoder is the foremost living scholar of the Pennsylvania Dutch. His knowledge of Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas and all the culture’s customs cuts through myth and conjecture, long making his work the field’s most comprehensive. He’s researched immigration, customs, language, genealogy, folkways, symbolism, music and lyrics, broadsides, German printing, skills, trades, and lore covering a multitude of beliefs. Yoder’s decades of research are based on the experiences of living individuals, along with the countless written documents he’s accumulated.

A retired 40-year professor from the University of Pennsylvania, Yoder assembled one of the finest collections of period Pennsylvania Dutch broadsides, books and manuscripts at the Library Company of Philadelphia in 2005. He then sponsored an international conference there. Next year, that conference’s volume, Ephemera Across the Atlantic, is due to be published. It will be Yoder’s 16th book in the field.

Yoder prefers the term Pennsylvania Dutch over Pennsylvania German, though it’s true that, after about 1830, German-Americans here were more closely tied to Germany. Those immigrants, Yoder says, wanted to make their own “Little Germany” in America.

But Philadelphia had a Pennsylvania Dutch population prior to 1830, well before there were Pennsylvania Germans. Yoder’s interest was never in studying or substantiating a “Little Germany,” but in promoting what he calls “an American hybrid culture.”

“The Pennsylvania Dutch created an American culture in Southeastern Pennsylvania that spread through migration,” he says. “They were fertile and needed land.”

That culture spread south to the Carolinas and up to Canada after the American Revolution. Then it pushed west into Ohio and the Mississippi Valley. “The word I like is diaspora—Greek for dispersion,” says Yoder.

After earning his doctorate in American church history in 1947 from the University of Chicago, Yoder taught at the Union Theological Seminary for a year, then for another 12 months at Muhlenberg College. He was at Muhlenberg when he first unearthed his Swiss ancestors from the canton of Bern, tracing them to 1710 in the Oley Valley.

Just prior to his 40 years at Penn, Yoder spent five at Franklin & Marshall College. While in Lancaster, he co-founded the Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore Center in 1949. That same year, he helped to start a weekly tabloid, the Pennsylvania Dutchman which, by 1958, had evolved into Pennsylvania Folklife magazine. The folklore center eventually became the Pennsylvania Folklife Society.

In 1950, Yoder was involved in the founding of the Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Festival, now the Kutztown Folk Festival. Each July, it features nine days of Pennsylvania Dutch history and culture. Nearly 25,000 people attended that first four-day festival. These days, more than 130,000 descend on Kutztown, where music and dancing fill the air, and farming and folklife demonstrations abound. “At the time, it was the first folk festival in the country,” says Yoder.

Don Yoder grew up in the Pennsylvania Railroad town of Altoona. His father was a country boy who graduated from Penn State University in 1910 before founding apprentice schools for the railroad.

A native of Centre County, Yoder’s Quaker mother was part Pennsylvania Dutch and part English, Welsh and Irish. Don didn’t grow up speaking Pennsylvania Dutch, though his father always spoke it. “I had to learn it the hard way,” he says. “But I learned who I was because of the differences between my father and mother.”

And from regular summer visits to his paternal grandmother’s farm in Schuylkill County. “I heard all Dutch, and I began to become interested,” he says.

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His Aunt Emma on his father’s side sang Pennsylvania Dutch songs in a choral group—and in the 1940s, Yoder began recording her. “It was a tradition that was practically dead,” he says now. “They were Pennsylvania spirituals, but it was a white tradition. The black spiritual is actually predated by those in New England.”

In 1961, Yoder’s second book, Pennsylvania Spirituals—all 500 pages of it—focused on Aunt Emma’s songs. His first book, 1951’s Songs Along the Mahantango, was also about folk songs, with a second edition published in 1964.

When Christmas in Pennsylvania—written by Alfred L. Shoemaker, a fellow co-founder of the Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore Center—reached a 50th-anniversary edition in 2009, Yoder wrote the introduction and afterword. “There’s more yet to add for the 10oth edition,” he quips.

Though Yoder won’t publicly reveal his age, his activity belies his years. Still, modestly, he knows it’s come time to further refine his legacy for future generations. He’s sold his religious art collection to Cabrini College, which has hosted two exhibits thus far. And he’d still like to write a book on religious art.

Yoder also is gifting items to Cabrini and the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University, where at least one devotee, Patrick J. Donmoyer, works as the center’s historic building conservator.

As a Kutztown art and Pennsylvania German studies student, Donmoyer began informally photographing Pennsylvania Dutch barn stars in 2007. Donmoyer was captivated by the traditional folk art for two reasons—first, because it’s rapidly vanishing from the landscape, and second, because the painting of geometric designs on barns is often seen as purely decorative. “Tourist literature gives all sorts of misinformation, like it’s the Amish who created them to ward off witches,” says Domoyer. “This is simply not true.”

Donmoyer frowns upon the “hex sign” term. In the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect, there are two words used for the designs: blumme (flowers) and schtanne (stars).

It’s hardly a surprise that Yoder was the one who first articulated the idea that barn stars are emblems of ethnicity. It was the focus of research he conducted with Thomas E. Graves, which resulted in Hex Signs: Pennsylvania Dutch Barn Symbols & Their Meaning, its second edition published in 2000.

“Dr. Yoder’s perspective has greatly influenced my own research, especially to the degree that I attempt to answer how these emblems of Pennsylvania Dutch culture relate to folk beliefs,” says Donmoyer. “While we may differ in the way we choose to explore the topic, he has been very encouraging and pushed me to publish my photographs.”

In 2008, Donmoyer received research funding from the Peter Wentz Farmstead Society in Montgomery County to begin documenting Berks County’s barn stars. That summer, he systematically drove every agricultural road in the area to photograph all publicly visible, decorated barns. In Berks alone, there were more than 400. He also took photographs of barn interiors—especially the examples of 19th-century graffiti, which often took on the same geometric forms as the stars on the barn exteriors.

Donmoyer is preparing to publish his collection, along with a foundational project on Berks County stars and their cultural implications. He’ll also do two follow-up volumes, one of Lehigh County stars and another focusing on counties where the tradition is not as evident. He’s also been taking photos of early tombstones, churches and other architecture that incorporate traditional Pennsylvania German motifs.

Donmoyer’s work is a prime example of following in Yoder’s footsteps. “Dr. Yoder is a true educator, one who shares information and experience freely and openly, enabling others to follow in the trails that he’s blazed,” says Donmoyer.

Joseph Garrera, the executive director of the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum, calls Yoder the “dean” in the field.

“I’ve worked with many great scholars, but none have been as ambitious or had the intellectual dexterity of Yoder,” says Garrera. “He’s the tour de force of Pennsylvania Dutch scholars.”

A Seasonal Classic

With an introduction and afterword by Don Yoder, Alfred L. Shoemaker’s Christmas in Pennsylvania examines the folk origins of Christmas in the state. Through interviews and contemporary newspaper reports, it records holiday practices from the 18th to early 20th centuries—everything from the Mummers, Kris Kringle, the Christmas tree and its trimmings, to putz, frightening tales of belsnickles, and (on a lighter note) cookie cutters. The book also explores the day after Christmas, plus the tradition of the so-called “Second Christmas” and its influence on the early-American celebration.


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