Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The Glessner Family Arrives in America - Part II

In last week’s article, we retraced the steps of John Glessner’s immigrant ancestor, Henry Glessner, from Bingen am Rhein, Germany, to the wilderness of western Pennsylvania in 1763 and followed the events of his life over the next half century until his death in early 1814. In this installment, we will look back at visits to Pennsylvania made by various descendants through the years, anxious to learn more about their German roots in the United States.

1888 – John Glessner and Jacob Glessner

Jacob Glessner

In May 1888, John Glessner accompanied his father Jacob on a trip to Somerset, Pennsylvania where the elder Glessner had been born in 1809 but had not visited since his marriage and removal to Ohio in 1837. Immediately after his return to Chicago, John Glessner penned an eight-page report of their visit, excerpts of which follow:

“To increase my knowledge of family antecedents and confirm the statements heretofore made to me by others, I went to Somerset, Pa. with my father on May 14th, reaching there about noon May 15th, 1888.

“The country in the vicinity is broken but the farms are beautiful, well cleared up and cultivated and stocked with fine cattle and horses and sheep. Five large barns are the rule, but the dwellings are neither large nor fine, and are without architectural pretense. The village occupies the highest ground of any county seat in Pennsylvania, but is a sleepy old place, and the people are conservative in every sense of the word.

“In the two days we spent at the Somerset House, my father found and called upon and received calls from several schoolmates and friends of his boyhood . . . (Cousin) Anna Maria Baer, widow of Solomon Baer and now in her 90th year is quite an erect though small body with good hearing and sight, a good memory, and altogether a bright and cheerful old lady. She was delighted to see us, and from her I gained much information about the family, or more correctly, confirmation of what I had already heard.

“On Wednesday, Father and I drove over to Berlin, a village 9 miles away, passing a gypsy camp by the roadside. My grandfather Glessner was born here and married here, and my great-grandfather and great-grandmother died here, and were buried in the old cemetery. Here we found another schoolmate of my father’s, Samuel Philsen, the banker and principal merchant of the eastern part of the county, and in company with him we visited the old cemetery and deciphered the inscriptions – some in German – upon the old headstones. The cemetery is not a beautiful spot – no trees and almost no shrubbery, but the turf was green and fine. He pointed out the house still standing where my great uncle Ludwick Baker had lived, and the spot where my grandmother had lived as the adopted daughter of her uncle, Rev. George Giesy, and where she was married; also the spot where my grandfather’s uncle Jacob Glessner was murdered by Rev. Spangenberg etc. etc.

“Returning to Somerset, my father showed me the lot where he was born and lived, but the old house has disappeared and another stands in its place. The old stable is still there, small and low, and three of the old apple trees. On the next lot, Chauncey Forward had lived, my grandfather’s warm friend, and there his daughter was married to Judge Jere. S. Black* the great lawyer, afterwards of President Buchanan’s cabinet, a playmate of my father’s, and here Black lived years after my father left Somerset. I also saw the old Academy site where grandfather’s boys went to school – the old brick building is gone but replaced by one of similar style – the place where my father learned to be a printer and where he afterwards published the Somerset Whig, a democratic paper, my grandfather’s furniture shop, the old “coffee spring” the place of 4th of July celebrations and picnics of 50 years ago, etc.

“I am happy in knowing Father enjoyed his old friends, these old scenes, and the reminiscences and events they recalled, but even he was ready to leave, and on Thursday morning we said goodbye to the old place and the old friends, and started homewards.”

*Jeremiah S. Black served as Attorney General from 1857 to 1860 and as Secretary of State from 1860 until President James Buchanan left office in March 1861.

1955 – John J. Glessner II

John J. Glessner II with his wife Martha and
children John J. III and Ellen, 1934

In 1955, John and Frances Glessners’ grandson, John J. Glessner II, made a visit to Somerset and Berlin, Pennsylvania with his wife Martha to research the Glessner family. He relayed their findings to his sister, Frances Glessner Mathey, in a lengthy letter, which included the following excerpts:

“We arrived on Friday, April 15, and put up at the Roof Garden Motel (Somerset, by the way, is known locally as the roof garden of Pennsylvania).

“In registering, I printed GLESSNER in large letters and then asked the proprietor if he had ever seen that name before. For answer, he flipped open the phone book under the letter G and at the same time allowed as how, if we were looking for Glessners, we had come to the right place. I then went into my routine which consisted in telling the story of how my grandfather, when a boy, had visited Somerset with his father and had seen some old gravestones in a field, inscribed in a language that he could not read but that was said to be German, this visit having occurred shortly after the Civil War. Could he tell me where I might find these stones, etc.?

“His advice was of a general kind; to go out to certain outlying towns: Brotherton, Shanksville, and Berlin (Glessners in all of these towns) and to enquire further there. Later, I talked to the proprietor of Schweinberg’s Somerset Pine Grill, where we had dinner and was advised to call on Mr. Roger Glessner at the County Bank; that Roger would be able to give the information I was after.

“Roger proved to be the black sheep of the family and certainly not worthy to bear the name, He knew little, and cared less . . . After this brush-off, he proceeded to give us the run-around by referring us to his brother, Mr. Alvin T. Glessner, who, he said, was both keenly interested in the family history and also very knowledgeable about such matters.

“So, we went at once to Alvin’s house only to find the house locked up and Alvin clearly out of town. My strong suspicion is that Roger knew this all along, and that is what I mean by the run-around.”

John and Martha were then referred to an Earl Austin, maker of tombstones, whose wife referred them to Walter Johnson, a mortician and furniture dealer in Berlin. Johnson’s brother referred them to a J. Jacob Glessner who knew nothing of family history but directed them to Willard E. Glessner in Roxbury. The letter continues:

“Here we talked to Willard and to Willard’s wife, both of them, interested and intelligent. He gave us the location of the original Glessner homestead and also told us that there were old family gravestones and, in particular, the gravestone of Jacob, the (presumed) progenitor of our branch of the family, in the Reformed cemetery in Berlin.”

There then follows an inaccurate accounting of the Glessner brothers, Jacob and Henry, as having been Hessian soldiers who fought for the British during the Revolution, afterwards settling in Pennsylvania. Jacob and Martha Glessner ended up at the old cemetery in Berlin, but, guided by misinformation, identified the headstones of Jacob and Catherine Glessner as being those of his great-great-great grandparents.  In closing the letter, he notes:

“Mr. Johnson of the Berlin furniture store stated that a Miss Thelma Saylor, 702 Main Street, Berlin, had a lot of papers pertaining to the Glessner family which had been left her by her father who was something of an antiquary.”

It is interesting to note that in the archives of Glessner House are several letters regarding Glessner family history between John Glessner and Dr. E. C. Saylor of Berlin from the 1920s; this is no doubt the above-mentioned father of Thelma Saylor.

Whatever plans John J. Glessner II may have had for continuing his genealogical research are unknown, as he died the following year at the age of 54.

1971 – John Glessner Lee and Percy (Maxim) Lee

John Glessner Lee in the Reformed cemetery at Berlin, PA, 1971

John Glessner Lee was the oldest son of Frances Glessner Lee. In preparation for the 1971 publication of Family Reunion, a history of many of the branches of the Glessner, Lee, Maxim, and Hamilton families, John and his wife Percy visited Berlin in early 1971, noting the following in their book:

“In April of 1971 (we) visited the area and found the Reformed cemetery, which is two short blocks behind the Berlin post office. We found the same stones mentioned above, although the inscriptions on them are now becoming hard to read. This is almost certainly the cemetery visited by (my) grandfather and his father nearly 100 years ago. However, it is my guess that these stones mark the graves of relatives, not in the direct line, as they do not fit with John J. Glessner’s account, given earlier.”

2019 – William Tyre

Reformed cemetery gates, Berlin, PA, 2019

During my biennial trip to The Rocks in October 2019, I decided to stop in Berlin to see for myself the cemetery that so many Glessners had visited previously. The cemetery was easily located in the small town, and the headstones identified, photos of which were included in last week’s article. I was also interested in visiting the Reformed church, which I had previously determined survived as the Trinity United Church of Christ, located just a couple of blocks from the cemetery. The historian of the church was very helpful in locating a Bible that I had found reference to, which had been donated to the church by Henry Glessner sometime around 1800.

It was a large pulpit Bible with a tooled leather cover reinforced with metal fittings at the corners, the pages printed on a durable rag paper. The German language Bible was published in Nuremberg in 1788. Of greatest interest was the inscription, written on the first page:

“This Bible was presented to The Reformed Church at Berlin, Pa. by Henry Glessner during the pastorate of the Rev. H. Giesey.”

A penciled notation underneath noted Henry Glessner’s death in Somerset in 1814. Farther down on the page, one of Henry’s grandsons, Lewis Knepper, an elder in the church, attested the record in 1886.

Reverend Henry Giese (the spelling varies in early accounts) came to the church in 1795, after the previous minister, Cyriacus Spangenberg, was arrested and executed for the murder of Henry Glessner’s brother Jacob. Giese remained with the congregation until 1832 and, through marriage, is found in the Glessner family tree. John Glessner’s grandmother, Margaret Young, lost her father when she was ten; her mother, also named Margaret, later married Rev. Giese, after his first wife had died. Giese presided at the marriage of Margaret Young (the daughter) to Jacob Glessner I in 1802.

Old Testament illustrations from the Glessner Bible
Clockwise from top left: Adam and Eve,
Noah, Moses and Aaron, and Abraham

The Bible was an exciting find, as the library of Glessner House contains large Bibles presented to John Glessner, his father Jacob, and his grandfather Jacob, upon their marriages in 1870, 1837 and 1802, respectively. The discovery of the Henry Glessner Bible continued the line of preserved Glessner family Bibles back to the original immigrant ancestor.

A final note

The Glessner name can still be seen in the vicinity of Berlin today.  Less than ten miles to the northeast is the town of Shanksville, the location of a beautiful covered bridge constructed across the Stonycreek River in 1881 by Tobias Glessner. Tobias was a great-grandson of Henry Glessner’s brother Jacob, and therefore a third cousin of John Glessner. Utilizing king post truss construction, it is one of ten covered bridges in Somerset County listed on the National Register of Historic Places in December 1980. 

Glessner bridge (Wikimedia, Allen C., posted 2012)

On a sad note, the bridge is located immediately west of the Flight 93 National Memorial, which commemorates the site where that plane crashed during the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

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