A Glimpse of Heaven (#52Ancestors week 13: The Old Homestead)
I adore old stone farmhouses. In my research, I have been pleasantly surprised to find that quite a few of Lancaster County’s eighteenth century family homesteads were built by either Eric’s or my ancestors, or in some cases, both. Yes, that’s right. Unbeknownst to us until recently, we are eighth and ninth cousins (often once removed) with each other in more than one way. Don't laugh until you've checked your own genealogy! That's actually a fairly distant relation.
My first inclination was to write more about the Christian Wenger homestead which was the home of Eric’s direct paternal line for nine generations. However, as we have found connections to so many of the old homesteads in Lancaster County, I decided to write about the granddaddy of them all:
The Hans Herr House (Willow Street, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania)
Photo by Kristin Wenger, 3 August 2013
This house claims two distinctions:
Built in 1719, it is the oldest surviving homestead in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
More significantly, it is the oldest original Mennonite meeting house still standing in the Western Hemisphere.
Eric is the 9x great-grandson of Hans Herr a few different ways through both of his parents. Here is just one example:
Below is a very brief summary of the home’s history:
The “Hans Herr House” is the oldest existing dwelling on ten thousand acres granted in October of 1710 to nine Mennonite men.
In the Spring of 1711, seven of those men came with their families to establish homes in what was then the westernmost edge of Pennsylvania. Their route to the area followed an ancient Native path called the “Great Conestoga Road,” which passed within yards of the site on which, eight years later, the 1719 House would be built.
The 1719 House, or “Hans Herr House” as it is known locally, is reputed to have been the home of Hans Herr and his wife Elizabeth. It was certainly the home of Christian Herr and his wife Anna, and several of Christian and Anna’s children. Both Hans Herr and Christian Herr were bishops of the Mennonite faith.
For those who are interested in learning in greater depth, I recommend this book:
I currently have it checked out of the Lancaster County library system, but you can read it next! 😊 Or take a look at the Colonial Time Machine Curriculum and the rest of the Hans Herr House website for online information.
In August 2013, we took our children to visit the home of their 10x great-grandfather.
(I need to have a "mom moment" here - Nathan when he was missing his front teeth!)
Descendants of Hans Herr in front of the awesome chevron door.
Christian Herr, son of Hans and builder of the house, memorialized his name (CH=Christian, HR=Herr) and the year 1719 in the stone above the doorway.
Window and shutter detail.
The hearth where meals were cooked.
Worship services were held in this room of the home with bench seating.
Each of these steep steps was hewn from a single log.
The kids learn how food was preserved in the cellar.
"The Old Homestead"
Photo by Eric Wenger, 3 August 2013
This home represents a legacy of faith passed down through generations. Almost all of Eric’s ancestors and some of my paternal ancestors were Anabaptists with roots in Switzerland.
For readers who are unfamiliar with Anabaptists, here is an extremely brief explanation. Mennonites, Amish, Brethren in Christ, Church of the Brethren, and Hutterites are all considered “Anabaptists”. This name originated because of their break with the state church of Switzerland in 1525 over the issue of baptizing believing adults rather than infants and was part of the much larger Protestant Reformation. After suffering intense persecution and then seeking refuge in the Palatinate region of Germany for about 40 years, Mennonites began forming new settlements in Pennsylvania as part of William Penn’s “Holy Experiment” offering freedom of religion. Sailing to Philadelphia, they then made their way to Lancaster County, which was the western frontier of the colonies in the early 1700s.
For more information on Mennonite and Anabaptist history, visit the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society.
The Hans Herr house was more than a house to shelter the Herr family. It was built to serve as a meetinghouse for the community’s place of worship. This use was significant because:
“As a persecuted people [in Switzerland], the Anabaptists met to worship wherever it was safe- in barns, under bridges and even in caves.”
View from inside the Täuferhöhle (Anabaptist Cave) in Bäretswil, Switzerland.
The waterfall helped to muffle the sound of singing to keep the Anabaptists from being detected when they met to worship here. Photo by Eric Wenger, 1 June 2013.
Anabaptists suffered imprisonment, torture, and martyrdom for their beliefs.
Eric in Trachselwald Castle where Anabaptists were held in Switzerland.
Photo by Alma Wenger, 3 June 2013.
“In the Palatinate the Mennonites were allowed to worship as they chose but were still not allowed to erect church buildings. So they met in different homes throughout the community. Thus, the Herrs and their neighbors moved to Pennsylvania in 1710 without a church building tradition. In the early years of the settlement, they met in different homes in the community as had been their practice in Europe. But it was soon clear that they could build a meetinghouse without reprisals.”
What a privilege to be able to worship together in freedom! What a joy to sing to the Lord without fear of being heard and persecuted! It must have seemed to them like a small glimpse of heaven.
I dwelled on that thought this past Sunday when I sang the words below with my church. I cannot wait for the day when we can worship together with all of the faithful generations who have gone before us, singing forevermore to the glory of the Lord.
When You return, we'll hear the trumpet sound You'll lead us home riding on the clouds Where we will stand and sing forevermore The honor and the praise, the glory is the Lord's
Holy, holy is the Lord God almighty Worthy, worthy is Your name All of Heaven joins the universe ever crying Worthy, worthy is Your name
-“Worthy, Worthy” (Vertical Church Band)
If you'd like to listen to this song, click here. The lyrics above start at about 3:25.
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Are you interested in learning more about your Lancaster County roots? I would love to help you make those connections. Please visit my website for more information.
 Kristin Wenger, relationship chart from Hans Herr (1639-1725) to Eric Ryan Wenger (b. 1976), Joshua Alexa Nathan Wenger Family Tree; supplied by Wenger, Lititz, Pennsylvania, 2018. This chart is provided for visual reference with no specific documentation attached.
 Steve Friesen, “Reformation and Roots” and “Journey to Conestogo,” A Modest Mennonite Home (Intercourse, Pennsylvania: Good Books, 1990), ch. 1-2.
 Ibid, p. 85.