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Going home, after 72 years

  • Ira Smith (center) explains how the Smith family smoked meats in the second floor of the shed while Ed Hamm (left) stands near the site of Ira's mother's garden. Son Carson Smith looks on.
    Ira Smith (center) explains how the Smith family smoked meats in the second floor of the shed while Ed Hamm (left) stands near the site of Ira's mother's garden. Son Carson Smith looks on.
Published June 26. 2010 09:00AM

Ira Smith returned to the home he lost when he was just 19, the very homestead his father bought in the 1890s.

It was the Great Depression when he entered it last. His father Jonathan died in 1932, his mother Ida in 1937. By 1939, the farm was sold at public sale to the sheriff, Ernest Kistler, for $5,000.

He turned to the O.J. Fritz farm of New Smithville for work as a hired hand for $30 per month. Later he enlisted in the army and fought for his country, though he had no hearth or home.

During the war, Kistler sold the farm to Allen and Verna Hamm for $10,000 and it has remained in the Hamm family ever since. Their son, Ed and his wife Rose, have been living there since 1968.

Ira and his son Carson, dropped in on the Hamms unexpectedly. Ed and Rose dropped their painting and their mowing and gave Ira the welcome of a long lost relative.

Over the years, Ira had been back as a guest of his old neighbors for a few pheasant hunts. And in the 1990s, when his wife Geraldine died, Ira often drove back through Kistler's Valley for the comforting memories of his former life. But this was the first time inside his old home since he left in 1939.

Ira, in his discerned Dutch tongue, said to Ed, "You know I drove by here so many times but never stopped."

To which Ed graciously replied, "Well I'm so glad you did."

We loaded up into Ed's Ford pickup, drove to the top of the back acreage and viewed the stunning Kistler Valley. That sight caused Ira to beam. He gestured, pointing out all the sections he once farmed in potatoes, corn and rye and how he learned to rotate them each year from his father and brother Elam.

The red barn is now sided in white asphalt shingles and a new smoke house was built. The shed roof rusted and leaks over where the Smiths used to smoke their meats. The 100-acres of farming hay, rye, corn and beans are now done by a corporate dairy farm.

The stand of woods on Shochary Ridge, where Ira went to chop fire wood for cooking and heating, is still part of the deed. Ira stood in the spot in the kitchen where the cook stove once stood. Otherwise, not much else has changed since those days.

Outside, in an area where wild mint sprouted, Ira said, "My mother planted her garden here."

The script signature of "J. Smith" is still visible on the barn's cornerstone from 1901.

Ed and Ira exchanged stories of the old homestead that dates back to at least the mid-1800s. They talked of the old hand pump in the kitchen - how it drained out the side of the house - and where the one-man bar stood in its former days as an inn prior to the Smith family owning it.

The conversation then turned to a shooting that occurred around the time of the Civil War.

The "Knights of the Golden Circle," a southern sympathizer group that some say had spread into Pennsylvania. There were supposedly about 80 members in the valley. Plans about a secret meeting at a nearby farm reached the ears of the Unionists. One of them, Dr. Trexler, threatened to place "a keg of gunpowder and blow them all to atoms."

According to the History of Lehigh County, Vol. 1, 1914, the group then changed the place to the farm owned by "Michael Brobst, now owned by Jonathan Smith." On the night of the meeting, "shots were fired between the guard and one (Unionist) who secreted himself in the currant bushes."

This story was new to Ira and Carson.

As we turned away from the house, Ira recalled, as if for the first time in many years, how the Smith family relatives visited from Hamburg every other Sunday. He stared as though he could see them, sitting with him on that very same front porch.

Goodbyes were said at the shed built back when the state road came through. Ira raised his hand, touching the wooden slats as if stirring his memory. He recalled how, as a boy of 8 or 9, the carpenters building the shed would play with him, placing quarters on these planks for him to find.

Before leaving, Ed had one more thing to share. Up and into the rafters he climbed to show some original farm implements that pre-dated Ed's life on the farm: a straw cutter for making thatched roofs and a single-horse plow.

Ira remembered his father's single-horse plow. It was one of many pleasant memories evoked that afternoon.

As we were left the hospitality of the Hamm farm, I thought to ask Ira if he enjoyed his day.

I didn't need to.

His quiet smile said it all.

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