Monday, March 3, 2014

Weathering Winter at Ephrata Cloister

As I sit here working on this post, another winter storm races through the Mid-Atlantic dumping a few more inches to the snowpack that has lingered here since mid-January. In an age where technology allows us to predict, prepare for, and deal with winter weather in relative comfort, I often think about how early settlers of Pennsylvania did the same, without the benefit of modern forecasting. German settlers found Pennsylvania much to their liking. It resembled their homeland in many respects, including overall climate with four distinct seasons, rich soils and abundant natural resources. They transported not only their families and few belongings to new lands, they also transported their knowledge of weather preparedness that had served their families well for generations in Germany.

Ephrata Cloister (1) in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, seems to be lifted straight from the winter-hardy valleys of central Germany and in the 1740s, when the buildings of this religious community were constructed, it's exactly what the builders intended to duplicate. High pitched roofs and covered gable windows are indicative of a place where heavy winter snow loads threaten the integrity of structures. Chimneys were covered in protective roofed shelters to prevent snow from entering and clogging important ventilation shafts that connected multiple woodburning stoves (iron) and cooking hearths throughout the community halls, residences, and Meeting House. 

Besides abundant forests full of chestnut and oak, small forges and later, large furnaces at Cornwall northwest of Ephrata, provided the metals needed for tools, hearth and building hardware, and cooking ware. German immigrant metal smiths were some of the most valued craftsmen in Pennsylvania settlements.

We can tell a lot about a climate and how people adapted to it by studying period architecture. The massive, low doors to the Meeting House are clues to forest composition at the time the community began building in Ephrata. The door frames made of densely grained chestnut, almost 18' thick, connect to the stacked log structure hidden beneath the plaster walls. Chestnut trees, all but gone now thanks to an imported fungal disease of the early 20th century, provided the 'bones' of these large buildings, that Friend Michael, a research colleague and museum educator at the Cloister, states are really just enormous log cabins. The wide plank oaken doors, which I ( at 5'7") had to duck through to enter, helped contain heat and lessen drafts. The meeting hall worship area, however was airy and open, acoustically perfect for singing and celebrating.  Hand forged on site, strap hinges and hardware holds the door in place. Iron ore and the ingredients for purifying it were available nearby. It seems, as far as building went, the Brothers and Sisters had all they needed to construct their community.

A winter activity, building garss-woven bee skep baskets, surely occupied many hands.

Walking through the Meeting House, Michael led me into a work area. Where the central stove was maintained to heat the worship space. A small door opened to a covered porch where firewood was stacked for easy access. The workroom, furnished with large but simply designed German hutches, tables, and chairs, was all about utility. One can easily see that this space was designed for meaningful work, all of it founded upon the plentiful natural resources of the valley. Bee skeps, wax rendering, candle-making, and honey extraction seemed to be the theme of one entire hutch. The European honeybee, imported in the holds of ships during the 1600s and 1700s, and the transplanted wisdom of northern European beekeepers, were - and still are- an important aspect of day-to-day living and local economies.

The covered water room connected the Meeting House to the bakery. A nearby spring was re-routed to this space where crystal clean waters that bubbled up from limestone substrata was ever at hand.

The Ephrata community was not affiliated with any officially recognized religion, but it did originate within groups of Anabaptist Protestants immigrating from Germany during the early 1700s. It's charismatic leader, Conrad Beisell, like many communities of Brethern (although he would not have identified his new congregation as such) encouraged his monastics to adhere to strict routines of group and private worship, labor in the fields and shops, and simple meals. Surrounding farms and craftsman helped support the celibate members of  the community, while they in turn supported the small and growing town that grew up around them. Winter, being a primary challenge to survival in the snowy Appalachia foothills, was weathered through community planning and preparation, building design and connectivity, and social interaction that included wonderful winter celebrations of praise and feasting. 

Evidence of abundant large oaks in the forests around Ephrata, this single plank twenty-five foot table held many a winter's feast for Brother, Sisters, and the supporting farm families that surrounded the Ephrata community.

Weather forecasting was not a complicated affair in the 1700s and rarely did the community get caught off-guard. Reading the skies for the quality and duration of cloud patterns gave plenty of notice for impending storms. The early Christian tradition of Candlemas Day (later replaced with Groundhog Day) saw that fresh candles were distributed to all families of settlement communities. The tradition was a favorite at Ephrata. Minding the last cold winter weeks with beautiful new candles while eagerly anticipating spring as the sun hung in the sky a few minutes more each day, made winter's last few storms bearable. The publishing center, where hymnals were printed by the thousands and calligraphy rooms where the German tradition of illustrated manuscripts was practiced, were illuminated by candelabras and strap chanedliers full of beeswax candles. It would seem the beekeepers of the Ephrata area were most valued for their ability to produce large amounts of wax to keep the community and growing town alight through long Pennsylvania winters!

Everything needed was made here. But creativity and praise were most valued.

Winter days were as busy as summer days at Ephrata. Everything that was needed to maintain a community of several hundred members was procured locally or made on site. Paper for manuscripts was made from flax grown in the surrounding fields. Beautiful inks for illustration and fractur was prepared from plant oils and minerals. Wood for building furniture was harvested and milled on site, while tools and implements for woodworking in the shops were forged here. Water from local springs was abundant and available even during the coldest stretches. Firewood for cooking and heating was gathered locally, and used wisely. Spinners and weavers worked steadily throughout the winter to make innumerable items needed such as clothing, bedding, cloaks, blankets. Come spring and summer, these same craftspeople served as shepherds, farmers, woodsmen, and grounds workers to maintain and prepare for the next long cold season. There were no eight hour days in any season - no weekends - save for the Saturday Sabbath. But according to Michael, it was a purposeful and creative environment in which to live and work, where nature was appreciated more than scorned. Thanks were given freely to even the snow, for as cold-hardy Germans knew, it served to blanket and insulate and make beautiful the interior life of the community.

Michael standing just outside the covered porch and workroom entrance to the Meeting House.

The sun is about to burst out as this late winter storm subsides outside, and I can't help but think about the modern propensity for wailing about winter weather. A twenty four hour weather channel blares the storm's name over and over again as if the End of the World were surely coming this time, as compared to the fourteen previous Titans (Leon, Deon, Pax, Falco, Maximus, Quintus, Orion...). Naming storms? When did that happen? Hmmm. The National Weather Service disagrees, as do I. It's really all about ratings and sensationalizing the weather and has nothing to do with preparedness and learning to adapt and thrive in cold weather events and seasons. 

Before there was twenty-four hour weather 'communications' there were these very hardy, wise, and creative folks in Ephrata who left an inspiring legacy of meeting each season as it came with confidence, readiness, and gratitude for the natural resources and community in which they lived. Thanks, Michael, for the great behind-the-scenes tour of your wonderful place - and I look forward to working on that EH article come snow, sleet, or hail!

Built in close proximity are the Bakery (note squirrel-tailed ovens!), Meeting House, and Sister's House, left to right. This is a small piece of what had once been a large monastic community of German religious culture and architecture, now in the center of what is the modern town of Ephrata, Lancaster Country, PA.

Digging a little deeper...

Ephrata Cloister, Ephrata PA:

Elizabethtown College maintains an excellent program in its Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietists Studies, Lancaster County, PA:

Not a fan of naming winter storms, but here's the link anyway:

And why I am not a fan of naming winter storms:

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