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Thursday, June 1, 2023

Köhlers of Northumberland County

In the midst of green farm fields and patches of woods an old red and white covered bridge crosses Schwaben Creek. The soft currents tumble over weathered rocks worn down by the elements over many years. Song birds and bumble bees flit between sweet smelling cedars in the rural quiet. 500 yards through the fields, an old church cemetery stands guard flanked by Line Mountain to the north and the main road that bisects southern Northumberland County to the south. The graves at Himmel’s Church mark the center of Mahantongo Valley that runs from the Susquehanna River more than fifteen miles east into the coal region of Schuylkill County.
Covered Bridge over Schwaben Creek

It was in this valley of rich farmland that German settlers labored for their dream of prosperity.  The insulated settlements retained their language and customs into the twentieth century.  Independent and adventurous Heinrich Köhler brought his wife Elizabeth and five small children into this wild land in 1775.  They traveled from Berks County across the Blue Mountains 40 miles North West to the last mountain before Indian Territory trudging along an old Indian Trail called Tulpehocken Path.  He started at Bethel, Berks County and carted his family in a wagon through Pine Grove and Klingerstown to a gap in the mountains then north to a 200 acre plot of land at Line Mountain.  Today there are historical markers along the route showing sites of the Pilger Ruh or Pilgrim’s Rest where the settlers could get fresh spring water and signs at the locations of old forts that guarded the trail. 

Alongside German families whose descendants would intermarry with the Kehler family, Heinrich felled trees and built a cabin, cleared land and planted crops, cared for horses and cows, chickens and pigs. The physical labor to carve out farms in the remote Pennsylvania woods took a toll on many of the settlers. Toddlers died early and men grew old before their time, while widows raised young children. The farmers in Mahantongo and over the years their descendants in nearby Schuylkill County survived with community support and fellowship. Heinrich and Abraham Schneider and Johannes Knärr worked the land in Northumberland County at the time the Revolutionary War raged to the south and east. They bought their land as original land grants from the Penn family. Indian attacks occurred as late as August 1780 near Sunbury ten miles west of Kehler land. It must have taken enormous courage to continue on. Twenty five years later Caspar Hepler cleared his land six miles east along the same mountain.

Kehler Farm

Each generation pushed ahead. Heinrich’s sons spread throughout Pennsylvania and continued to farm but added occupational skills such as tanning hides into leather, tin smithing, woodwork, and other goods to meet the needs of the community and give supplemental income. Generations of Kehler women were expert seamstresses and quilters. Those creative skills can be seen generations later in the crafts and artistry of Kehlers. Heinrich’s grandsons began to acquire land and made money buying and selling real estate. Kehlers have a connection to land and often use it to acquire wealth. Several more generations exhibited entrepreneurship qualities running businesses like meat processing and grocery stores. By the twentieth century several generations of Kehlers were expert machinists and then a microelectronics engineer who designed parts for space rockets foreshadowing software engineers in the family today.

Our story starts with Russell Dwight Kehler, born in 1926 in the coal region of Pennsylvania and traces back through the generations to his German ancestors from Baden-Wuerttemberg and one line of miners from Wales. It is a story of courage and independent spirit and hard work through trials and setbacks. As shown by the perseverance of these generations, the family motto seems to be Bleib die Kurs or Stay the Course, setting goals and overcoming obstacles by grit and determination.
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