• Kristin Wenger

Why I Rejoice on Tax Day (#52Ancestors week 15: Taxes)

First, a disclaimer:

This week I'm breaking all of my own rules.

1. I'm focusing my story on a living person.

2. I'm writing about not just one ancestor, but sixteen!

3. I am not citing all of my sources.

(Trust me, I have them, but the list of sources for the research that went into sixteen individuals in the comparison table would be longer than the article itself!)


My husband and taxes are inextricably linked. When I discovered that the title of this week’s prompt was “Taxes,” it seemed impossible to address the topic without mentioning him.

Eric is a CPA. Not only that, but he earned his master’s degree in taxation.

Prior to serving in his current role as the managing partner of RKL’s Lancaster office, he was head of the tax department. This second week in April is our “light at the end of the tunnel” of busy season. Assuming we make it to the deadline, we will have successfully navigated the nineteenth tax season of our marriage.


When we got engaged, I was blissfully naïve about the commitment I was about to make. I remember sharing the exciting news with a fellow third grade teacher, about twenty-five years my senior, who also happened to be married to a CPA. She gave me a knowing look and quipped, “So you’re going to be a tax widow.” My blank, quizzical expression must have revealed my innocence. “Oh, sweetie,” she chuckled, shaking her head in dismay.


While writing this post, I went in search of Eric’s graduation photo from the master’s program at Villanova.

Eric, May 2004, holding Joshua, age 2 ½ and Alexa, 8 months.

(I’d challenge him to try to recreate that pose today!)


During his first semester in the fall of 2001, he drove straight from work to Villanova (about an hour away) for two back-to-back classes from 6-10 p.m. As I approached my due date with Josh, he would call me in between classes at 8:00 from a PAYPHONE in the hallway to make sure I wasn’t in labor. That tidbit could lead you to believe that we must be really old, but I’d prefer to focus on how quickly technology has evolved!


In honor of my husband, I decided to take a look at historical taxation in the United States.

The origin of the income tax on individuals is generally cited as the passage of the 16th Amendment, passed by Congress on July 2, 1909, and ratified February 3, 1913; however, its history actually goes back even further. During the Civil War Congress passed the Revenue Act of 1861 which included a tax on personal incomes to help pay war expenses.[1]

I thought it would be interesting to create a comparison study of Eric’s sixteen great-great-great grandfathers by examining their tax documents from just over 150 years ago during the Civil War era.

You can read more about this record set here.


The table below summarizes what I found. For reference, $1.00 in 1865 is equivalent to approximately $14.65 today.[2]

Tax records are a sorely underutilized source in understanding the lives of our ancestors. They shed light on their specific locations of residence, occupations, possessions, income, and relative standard of living.


LOCATIONS:

All sixteen 3x great-grandfathers resided in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. That’s quite a feat in and of itself! The specific post offices and townships can be combined with period county maps to pinpoint land ownership.

This 1864 map of Manheim Township, Lancaster County, names land owners and indicates the location of no-longer-used names such as Binkley’s Bridge.[3]


OCCUPATIONS:

Of Eric’s sixteen 3x great-grandfathers, two were minors and one was already deceased, but the other thirteen were all men in the prime working years of their lives during the Civil War. All but one (Henry Hersh, a blacksmith) engaged in farming as an occupation. Monthly tax lists provide insight into each farmer’s specific agricultural pursuits. For example, John Haverstick paid tax of $0.42 for his 7 hogs ($.06 each), $.10 for 2 calves ($.05 each), and $8.07 on lime valued at $269.00 in April 1865.


Three of these farmers specified additional operations, along with which came additional taxes. Abraham Denlinger and Christian Rohrer each paid a $10.00 occupational tax for keeping stallions and operating a mill, respectively. Israel Becker was taxed heavily for his whiskey distilling operation. The whiskey retailed for 25 to 30 cents per gallon, with 18 cents per gallon going to the federal government for taxes.[4]

This interesting article provides more information on the Becker Distillery.


POSSESSIONS:

Various items were subject to tax. The most frequently appearing items on the lists I reviewed were carriages, gold watches, and pianos. Most of Eric’s ancestors were taxed $1.00 a year for owning a carriage. Henry B. Rohrer was taxed $1.00 for his gold watch, which was assessed at $60.00.


INCOME:

I found a variety of income levels represented. Some of these farmers were making extremely little money. Michael Wenger, resident of the Wenger homestead farm and his neighbor Israel Wenger reported the lowest incomes for tax purposes.

However, the 1870 census revealed that both held quite significant assets in land value and personal estate. In other words, their money was tied up in their farms.


TAX RECORDS LEAD TO OTHER SOURCES:

Christian Rohrer’s relatively high income made me want to investigate his mill a bit more. Check out these links for more information:

Christian Rohrer (1818-1897) built the mill in 1852.

Eric’s 3x great-grandfather



Christian’s son Henry S. Rohrer (1848-1917) succeeded his father in the mill operations.

Eric’s great-great grandfather


I was fortunate to find biographies of both men.[5]


It is absolutely fascinating to read biographies of my husband’s 2x and 3x great-grandfathers and observe some of those same qualities in him today! To name a few that jumped out at me:

  • earnestness

  • industry

  • integrity

  • intelligence

  • business sagacity

  • keen insight and business judgment

Christian’s Missouri trip and Henry’s development of the mill demonstrated

  • risk-taking

  • visionary thinking

  • standards of excellence

Most importantly, both men contributed to their communities by serving on boards and in leadership positions for the benefit of others. They were deeply convicted and devoted to their local church and moral principles. Their actions demonstrated that they understood that life was fleeting and worldly success and riches paled in comparison to the riches of eternal life in Christ.


The funeral text for Henry S. Rohrer was II Timothy 4:7-8.[6]

7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day.

That's what this guy is all about. And that's why I rejoice each and every "Tax Day."

While I now fully understand the "tax widow" comment of nearly two decades ago, the blessing and privilege of being Eric's life partner far outweighs the sacrifices we make during certain months of the year. If I may rephrase Psalm 30:5b, "Weeping may last from January to April, but joy comes on April 16th!" (Actually, this year it's April 18th, but who's counting?)


Select sources:

[1] Ellen Terrell, compiler, “History of the US Income Tax,” Library of Congress (http://www.loc.gov/rr/business/hottopic/irs_history.html : accessed 10 April 2018).


[2] “U.S. Inflation Rate, 1865-2018,” Inflation Calculator (http://www.in2013dollars.com/1865-dollars-in-2018?amount=1 : accessed 10 April 2018).


[3] “U.S., Indexed County Land Ownership Maps, 1860-1918,” database with images, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : accessed 10 April 2018), path > Pennsylvania > Lancaster, 1864.


[4] Cory VanBrookhoven, “Pine Hill Spirits: History of the Becker Distillery,” The Lititz Record (Lititz, Pennsylvania), 25 March 2015.


[5] “Christian Rohrer” and “Henry S. Rohrer,” Biographical Annals of Lancaster County (J.H. Beers & Co., 1903), 495; digital images, Google Books (https://books.google.com/ : accessed 10 April 2018).


[6] “Rohrer, Henry S,” The Gospel Herald, Volume X, Number 44 (January 31, 1918), 808; online transcription, Mennonite Church USA Archives (http://mcusa-archives.org/MennObits/18/jan1918.html#anchor90285 : accessed 10 April 2018).

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