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A culture at the crossroads

Rob Reynolds in the bank barn that's part of the Pennsylvania Cultural Heritage Center in Kutztown.

Standing in a 17th-century Pennsylvania German barn on the first day of his new job, Rob Reynolds had the distinct feeling that he wasn't alone.

"It was during a real cold spell. My breath filled the room and I got chills," Reynolds recalls. "I knew that 100 years ago it would have been 75 degrees in there from all the animals, and I sensed I was in the company of all the people who had worked there, all the hands that had touched the equipment -- it was powerful."

The "haunted" barn is one of numerous crown jewels of Pennsylvania German culture frozen in time in Kutztown and ready to be thawed by Reynolds. The Lehigh Ph.D. is the Freyberger Professor of Pennsylvania German Culture at Kutztown University, a responsibility that also includes roles as curator of the Pennsylvania Cultural Heritage Center in Kutztown and resident curator of the 1783 David Hottenstein Mansion.

"Dreams do come true -- this is the best job I've ever had in my life," says Reynolds, as he walks through the hallways of the farmhouse at the Cultural Heritage Center, which also includes a one-room schoolhouse, the bank barn, library, and other outbuildings. "I spent a lot of years sitting in jobs I didn't like; now, I love getting up and going to work."

The job does seem like it was custom-made for Reynolds, who got his Ph.D. in history from Lehigh in 2003 and has extensive hands-on experience in restoration architecture (for example, he was lead carpenter on the Thomas Edison house in New Jersey).

Part of his time will be spent educating the public about Pennsylvania German culture, part will be spent teaching a class at Kutztown on the history and architecture of the Pennsylvania German landscape, and in his "free" time he will laboriously scrape paint from the windowsills of the Hottenstein Mansion as he restores the million-dollar house to its original glory.

Reynolds' responsibility as a preserver of Pennsylvania German Culture is essential because untouched historical sites -- such as the barn at the Heritage Center, which is still full of farm equipment, and the 19th-century country doctor's office at the mansion, which still houses the tools and medicines (like opium and ether) exactly as they were left by the physician who once used them -- are scarce these days.

He has to make sure the ghosts of Pennsylvania German settlers who came here in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the children and grandchildren who've carried on their traditions, don't fade away.

"The world where people leave things as they were is ending. At the mansion and the Heritage Center, there are outbuildings full of 200-year-old artifacts that have been sitting there for generations," Reynolds says. "No one has ever cleaned them out. So what I've signed up to do over the next 25 years is get out there in my pickup truck and find these unaffected places and talk to people who lived on the farms and drove the wagons and take that back to the Heritage Center. It's not just the old culture, it's the continuing culture. It's not over. That's the message."

To do this, Reynolds will literally bring artifacts back to life. He plans to recreate a working Pennsylvania German farm at the Heritage Center, complete with chickens running around and live people using the 100-year-old equipment to tend the land. "The idea is not to recreate a specific date -- we want to show the changes that a farm family went through over time," he says.

Pennsylvania German Alton Stein, now a tour guide at the Heritage Center, attended the schoolhouse on the grounds as a child.

Visitors to the Heritage Center now can get a firsthand lesson in what it means to be Pennsylvania German from Alton Stein, an 84-year-old former Kutztown resident whose ancestors came here in 1732, and his wife, Anna.

Stein not only has the knowledge of the Pennsylvania German culture, he also has the spirit and the appearance, complete with a long white beard. "When I don't have a beard I get a lot of questions from visitors, and when I grow the beard, no questions. They must think I'm a wise old bastard," he jokes. "It's not brains -- it's a beard!"

A native New Englander whose own heritage goes back to the 1630 Puritan migration to Massachusetts, Reynolds developed his fascination with Pennsylvania German culture while studying preservation as an undergraduate at Gettysburg College. He then got his master's degree at the University of Vermont and went on to study history at Lehigh, a decision that ultimately led to his "dream job."

Reynolds says his education at Lehigh taught him to teach himself, a vital skill for his current role. "From the beginning, my professors made me responsible for my own program. It fostered in me the ability to walk into a situation like this where there are a lot of things I know and also a lot of things I need to learn, and figure out how to get that knowledge -- how to be a scholar. At Lehigh, I learned that nothing is impossible. You can figure anything out if you work hard enough."

Hard work is precisely what it will take to restore the Hottenstein Mansion. But for Reynolds, it will be a labor of love. And his students at Kutztown will participate in and benefit from the restoration.

"As part of the class, students are assigned to the outbuildings at the mansion," he says. "They are going to sift through the artifacts, study the buildings, look at the conservation needs, and then restore the structures."

Reynolds spoke up and took on the restoration project when he got wind that the Trust for History Preservation of Berks County was thinking of selling the home. Reynolds and his wife stepped in and offered to restore the property in return for the life rights to it.

"This is a dream for my wife and me -- to have a mansion. The Hottenstein Mansion is a national historic landmark. In its day, it was a true mansion -- Dr. Hottenstein and his wife lived a genteel lifestyle here. I'm not proposing I'll be furnishing it with all 18th-century antiques and recreating exactly what it looked like originally. I'm not a millionaire, and that's what it takes to do that these days. It's more that I'm going to live in it, care for it, and then work carefully over time to bring it back."

Reynolds is collecting artifacts of Pennsylvania German culture.

In his quest to bring back artifacts, personal stories, and legends of Pennsylvania German culture, Reynolds recognizes that he's racing against the clock.

"The generation who is reaching the last stage of life may be the final large group that really has a tremendous amount of this material culture, who still have the farms and the wagons their grandfathers drove, who still remember what life was like in a pre-electrified home and how the antiques and collectibles were used," Reynolds says.

"So I look at my job as a very human job. Part of what I want to do is to connect with these people and intelligently present what I learn in a way that engages imaginations and leaves people with a sense of what it meant to be Pennsylvania German and what it still means to be Pennsylvania German. I need to tell the story."

--Elizabeth Shimer

Photography by Theo Anderson

Lehigh Alumni Bulletin
Spring 2005

Posted on Friday, June 24, 2005

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