A Pennsylvania Dutch farm crew works the hospital farm
In researching the Allentown State Hospital farm in Weaversville, I convinced Mr. John McDevitt, former assistant farm manager and well-known East Allen Township Fire Company member, to write his recollections of the farm. A fine gentleman, he consented, with this writer attempting to twist his arm.
Mr. McDevitt kindly wrote “My recollections of the Allentown State Hospital Farm,” by John McDevitt, with collaboration from Charles W. Miller:
Having graduated from Penn State with a degree in agriculture, I joined the workforce of Allentown State Hospital (ASH) in August of 1968.
Prior to that, I had worked four summers at the Philadelphia State Hospital (PSH) farm. Philadelphia State Hospital, better known as Byberry to locals, was a huge psychiatric facility with as many as 6,600 patients at one time. This facility also had a large farm and dairy herd located in northeast Philly and the Bensalem Township area of lower Bucks County.
While I loved the work, it was clear that farming and Philly were not going to be compatible for long. (As it turned out, the PSH farm was completely closed a few years later, circa 1970.)
Anyway, I had applied for work at Allentown State Hospital and was hired as a farm manager trainee in 1968 by Charlie Miller, farm manager.
A farm manager trainee was required to have a four-year ag degree. The trainee program provided a minimal one-year training period, after which one would be qualified for a promotion to farm manager 1 and function as assistant farm manager or apply for a position on another state-owned farm.
There were farms at many state hospitals, operated by the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, and there were farms at correctional facilities, operated by the Department of Corrections.
I have a number of short stories to recount from my 13 years on the farm. Some other stories contained in this article were from others.
One of my earliest recollections was baling hay on what is now East Allen Township’s Bicentennial Park East. The operation consisted of a tractor, PTO-driven baler with a bale-thrower and a high-sided wagon to catch the bales. The trick was to keep the bales being fired out of the bale thrower in the wagon — not launching them into the field where they had to be picked up by hand.
Within a year or so, the township purchased that portion of land that became Bicentennial Park. The area was about 17 acres, of which about 12 were cropland. It wasn’t the best farmland, and the odd shape of the piece did not lend itself to row-crop farming.
On another occasion, several members of the farm crew were scheduled to donate blood down at the main hospital.
We got the usual spiel from those running the program not to drink alcohol afterward, but since we were all off duty following the blood donation, we headed to a bar for a few beers. We had to replenish our fluid level, after all!
We all learned quickly why they caution blood donors about consuming alcohol. It certainly was a bit irresponsible, and today no one would do such a thing, but this was 35 years ago.
Up until 1974, there were quite a few hospital patients who took part in farm work. They would perform manual farm work, such as handling of fruits and vegetables, helping to grind and mix livestock feed, bed livestock, remove manure from dairy barns and outbuildings, and handle baled hay and straw. They did not operate tractors or trucks.
There was a daily routine for many years of hauling about a dozen large garbage cans full of garbage from the hospital to the farm, and then the cans were dumped into a garbage cooker. The following day, the cooked garbage was fed to the pigs.
During my tenure, this trip from Weaversville to Allentown and back was always done with a truck, but at one time, I understand, that this daily 15-mile round trip was made with a team of horses and a wagon.
Another early memory is that the entire farm crew, the guys who did the field work, were all Pennsylvania Dutch (Pa. Germans) and used the Pennsylvania German dialect almost exclusively.
Upon arriving for work in the mornings, one was greeted with “Wie bischt demariye?” (How are you this morning?) And at the end of the day, “Geh mir heem, buva.” (Let’s go home, boys.)
I was not a native speaker of the dialect, so hearing this was a little strange to my ears, but for some reason I enjoyed it. The more I heard it, the more familiar it became.
One employee, Wally Grube, spoke it to me a lot, and, of course, I learned first how to say all the things you would not say to your mother. Wally, at the time, was the swine herdsman. He later was promoted to farm foreman upon the retirement of longtime farm foreman Herb Billheimer.
Herb began his employment at AHS in December of 1932 and retired in November of 1971.
I can only imagine the changes he saw take place in agriculture during those 39 years. Herb lived in a small, white frame house just north of the Northampton and Bath Railroad crossing (now the Nor-Bath Trail) on Weaversville Road. The house is no longer there, having been torn down about 1972.
Next time, read about Amish men in Weaversville.