For over 200 years, the burning of limestone was conducted on almost every farm throughout Pennsylvania. The early Mennonites from the Holy Roman Empire were revered for their masterful farming and husbandry skills. When they arrived in Pennsylvania in the early 18th century, they quickly fanned out into lands in Chester and Bucks County. As time progressed, later generations traveled out into Lancaster, York and present day Adams County. Farm lands were carefully chosen for the presence of limestone. The land was made more fertile by techniques developed by this religious sect that the princes within the Empire (Germany) sought this religious group to settle on their lands.
The Swiss and Dutch settlers were specifically recruited by William Penn’s agents to settle in Pennsylvania. When the dominant Quaker society populated early Pennsylvania, the Mennonite faith shared many religious tenets with the Quakers. There were some parallels in religious beliefs when the Quakers entered the Quietist period in their movement’s history, but there were great differences in Europe. Mennonites and the Quaker population suffered significant persecution. The Quakers suffered persecution from their dissident and disorderly resistance to the prevailing order of religious and political life. The Mennonites, who lived in cultural and religious enclaves, simply believed in separation from society which was Biblically based and practiced adult baptism. Large numbers of German speakers were entering Pennsylvania, so society was becoming more homogeneous. Great farms, barns and a growing prosperity would become the hallmark of Pennsylvania’s reputation among the east coast colonies.
Much of my youth was spent in southern culture where there were no lime kilns or large farms like we have in Pennsylvania. Although my ancestry reached back to the founding of Strasburg and my Mennonite roots, I had no knowledge of farming. My early education and background were far from any exposure to farming practices. Now, I have developed a great interest in lost farming practices of which I am utterly ignorant. Recently, I took the opportunity to ride up in the cab of a huge combine that harvested ears of corn from the stalk. It was an ordinary chore for my conservative Mennonite friend, but for me it was perhaps an attempt to find some connection to my ancestors farming life. There is a certain grounding and reality to experience the broad vistas of farmscapes and the rows of crops stretching over the hills and fields on a sunny day. Have we forgotten or abandoned roots in farming? In my youth, I recall riding in the back seat of a 53 Chevy as my parents drove to my grandparents in Lebanon and seeing the lime kilns in the distance, which appeared like solitary cathedrals constructed in the crux of two hills in the farmers field. The stone kilns have disappeared, except a triple bay stone lime kiln located at the base of Wrightsville in York County on the Susquehanna River. This location was a commercial enterprise and the limestone burned here produced fertilizer and slaked lime for white washing walls, fences and barns. The early Pennsylvania Germans lived in religious and ethnic enclaves for years and formed a close knit community within Lutheran, German Reformed, and sectarian religious groups. Lime kilns are now missing and a sense of community has vanished from our culture.