By JEAN-PAUL BENOWITZ
It is July and a time to celebrate. We celebrate the birth of the United States, on July 2, 1776, when the Second Continental Congress voted for the Thirteen American Colonies to separate from Great Britain. We celebrate the ratification of the “Declaration of Independence” on July 4, 1776. According to the National Potato Council (located on L Street in Washington, D.C.) July 13th is National French Fry Day. This is on the eve of Bastille Day, July 14th, and so let us celebrate the French Revolution (1789-1799) as well as the American Revolution (1775-1783). Let us also celebrate another historic occasion, which happened on the Fourth of July weekend festivities, the raising of the historic Star Barn in Elizabethtown.
The Star Barn was built in 1877 by Colonel John Motter (1822-1901). John Motter was born in Annville to Philip and Elizabeth (Reed) Motter. The Motter family name is actually spelled Matter. The earliest record of this name appears in 1580 in church records in the village of Alteckendorf, the Alsace-Lorraine area of Germany, now France. The Matters and Motters of Pennsylvania are the descendants of Johannes Hans Matter (1732-1801). From 1751-1754 several members of the Matter family, members of the Reformed Church, arrived in Philadelphia from Alsace Lorraine. Colonel John Motter’s ancestors settled in Annville and were members of the Hill Lutheran Church (1733) and Jerusalem Evangelical Lutheran Church (1804).
Philip Motter, the Colonel’s father, was the proprietor of a hotel in Palmyra. The Motter family gained great wealth as their establishment was a central location for stagecoaches running from Reading to Harrisburg via Lebanon. The Motter family conducted business with cattle dealers, horse breeders, and cattle drovers. John Motter, while attending the public schools in Palmyra, learned the trade of saddle making.
In 1849, at the age of 27, John Motter moved to Harrisburg where he opened his own hotel the Motter House as well as stables where he began raising horses. During the Civil War (1861-1865) Harrisburg became a prominent point for the collection and distribution of commissary supplies to the troops at the front. John Motter became a significant shipper of stock, principally from the western states and territories. He supplied a large number of mules for baggage train service. A business associate of Simon Cameron (1799-1889), President Lincoln’s (1809-1865) Secretary of War, Colonel Motter secured the first horses bought by the government for the equipment of the cavalry regiments of the Union forces.
Colonel Motter was the president and then served on the board of trustees for the Farmers’ Bank which was founded by his brother-in-law. In 1848 his sister Ann Motter married Christian Hoffer the proprietor of the National Hotel in Hummelstown. Hoffer was postmaster at Palmyra in the presidential administration of James Buchanan (1791-1868). Hoffer was also one of the founders and the first president of the Farmers’ Bank of Hummelstown.
In 1863 Colonel Motter married Annie C. Reamshart (1839-1910) and together they had ten children. The Colonel Motter family were members of Harrisburg’s Zion Lutheran Church (1787). In 1890 one of his daughters, Elizabeth Motter Fletcher (1866-1949) married J. Rowe Fletcher (1864) who was Colonel Motter’s chief business associate. Fletcher’s parents were L. H. Fletcher (1839-1927) and Martha Ellen Rowe (1840-1896) members of prominent families in Greencastle, Pennsylvania.
Colonel Motter lived in Harrisburg and in 1897 built his summer residence Spring Garden near Highspire. This is where he died on August 25, 1901. Motter owned seven farms in Lebanon and Dauphin Counties. Most of his sisters married men from Middletown where they settled. This is where Colonel Motter entered into competition with Colonel James Young (1820-1895). Two years Motter’s senior, James Young, from Middletown, also grew up helping his father in the family tavern business before establishing wealth in horse and cattle sales. James Young was also a friend and business associate of Simon Cameron.
While John Motter secured his fortune supplying the military with horses, James Young made his wealth through furnishing all the ties and wood used in building the Pennsylvania Railroad between Harrisburg and Philadelphia. In 1859 he purchased a limestone quarry in Lancaster and supplied all the stone for the bridges and abutments of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Simon Cameron’s assistance was crucial in both John Motter and James Young’s fortunes amassed during the Civil War.
In the economic Panic of 1857 James Young recouped his losses by investing in real estate rather than the market and industries. In 1858 he purchased a 200-acre farm near Middletown. Each year he added acreage to his farm until he owned 14 farms consisting of 1,400 acres with 400 acres of pasture land. Colonel Young became internationally recognized for his expertise in raising cattle. In 1877 he was appointed to the State Board of Agriculture by Governor John F. Hartranft (1830-1889) who was its creator.
Colonel Motter was keenly in competition with Colonel Young. Colonel Motter purchased farms in Dauphin County redesigning the architectural style of the houses, barns, and out-buildings. He studied agriculture and employed modern business methods to increase crop and animal production.
In 1872 Colonel Motter purchased Walnut Hill Farm at auction for $19,310 from the Crouch-Jordan family. Colonel James Crouch (1728-1794) was born in Virginia in 1728 and came to Pennsylvania prior to 1757, when he married Hannah Brown (1727-1787) on September 22, 1757. They moved to the Middletown area where they bought 1,000 acres and built their house, Walnut Hill. Colonel Crouch served during the Revolutionary War as a Sergeant of the Paxtang Volunteers in the 1st Pennsylvania Regiment of the Continental Army. His company accompanied Benedict Arnold’s (1741-1801) expedition to Quebec and he was captured in the Battle of Quebec in 1775. After his release, he became an officer of the Associators Battalion and subsequently paymaster. James and Hannah Crouch had four children: Mary, Elizabeth, Hannah, and Edward.
Edward Crouch (1764-1827) and his wife Margaret (Potter) (1775-1797) inherited Walnut Hill. At the age 17 Edward Crouch enlisted in the Army and commanded a company in the Whisky Insurrection of 1794. He served in the House of Representatives from 1804 to 1806 and was a presidential elector in 1813. Governor Simon Snyder (1759-1819) appointed him associate judge of Dauphin County on April 16, 1813. He resigned his position when he was elected to the thirteenth U.S. Congress.
Mary Crouch (1791-1846) married Benjamin Franklin Jordan (1777-1861) in 1811 and also lived at Walnut Hill. In 1805, B.F. Jordan moved to Lancaster to work as a bookseller with William Dickson while also editing the Jeffersonian Lancaster Intelligencer newspaper. He was appointed weighmaster of the port of Philadelphia in 1808 and resigned in 1816 to move to Walnut Hill. He was first president of the National Bank of Middletown from its first organization in 1832 to 1841. He represented the Dauphin District in the state Senate from 1846 to 1850. When Mary died in 1846, Benjamin succeeded her as owner of Walnut Hill.
Colonel Motter transformed the Crouch-Jordan home by hiring the architect Daniel Reichert to design a Tuscan column porch to be built on the front of the rough cut lime stone farmhouse. Cast iron grillwork and two life size iron lions, to decorate the property, were cast by ironmonger W.W. Jennings who was the Sheriff of Dauphin County.
Colonel Motter had architect Daniel Reichert designed a barn which would crown Walnut Hill. John Z. Grove of Hummelstown was the contractor. Three threshing floors were incorporated rather than the typical two floor design. This made the barn much taller similar structures on neighboring farms. The additional height allowed for an extra floor where hay or grain sheaves could be stored above the threshing floors. The height of the ground floor or first floor is also about two feet higher than usual. The ceiling height, the cross paneling of the Dutch doors, the chamfering of the floor joists, and ventilator posts all indicate this was meant to be an exhibition or show area most likely for Motter’s prize horses.
All of the re-designed and new buildings at Walnut Hill had cross gables, pointed arch ventilators, trefoil brackets, and spire like cupolas. The barn’s cupolas were topped with the fleur di lis, the French symbol of three entwined lilies representing the trinity and paying homage to the county’s French heritage and name – Dauphin.
The five point stars, which gives the barn its distinctive appearance were chosen, typically in those days, with the belief this represented the five wounds of Jesus Christ when he was crucified.
Colonel Motter redesigned Walnut Hill in accordance with the Gothic Revival architectural movement of the time. Gothic Revival architecture is characterized by strong associational values of religion and nature. It is a revival style based on English and French precedents from the late 12th-15th centuries. Gothic Revival is found in both ecclesiastical and residential architecture.
The Star Barn which crowned Walnut Hill Farm was Colonel Motter’s way of competing with his long standing rival Colonel James Young. Its towering cupola, four dominant louvered star ventilators, 56-foot-long vaulted stone tunnel, and other rare architectural features made it superior to the standard Pennsylvania bank barns of the region. The associated structures; namely, a carriage house, corn crib, hog barn, and chicken coop were also created in the Gothic Revival architectural style with rare features and transcending appointments.
Walnut Hill Farm stayed in the Motter family after the Colonel died in 1901. His son-in-law and business partner J. Rowe Fletcher and his wife, Motter’s daughter, Elizabeth inherited the farm. In 1925 Walnut Hill was sold to the Nissley family who converted the Star Barn to accommodate a dairy. In 1940 Aaron J. Hoffer (perhaps related to the Hoffers who married the Motters?) purchased the farm which stayed in the family for generations: Landis M. and Ruth Walker Hoffer and then Aaron W. Hoffer. In 1986 farming ended at Walnut Hill.
Colonel Motter’s intention was to crown Walnut Hill Farm with his Star Barn but most people did not realize it was there until 1971-1972. In 1961 Interstate 283 was built parallel to Eisenhower Boulevard and by 1969 this interstate highway served as a connector between the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Interstate Route 83. In 1971 construction began on highway connecting Harrisburg to Lancaster. In 1972, this highway was signed as PA 283. This highway cut right through Walnut Hill Farm giving passengers an up close view of the Star Barn for forty-five years.
In 1994, the 164-acre property was reduced to 3.68 acres which included the agricultural structures and barnyard. In 1998 Preservation Pennsylvania purchased the Star Barn and related properties. In 2000 the Star Barn was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2000 The Millport Conservancy joined the effort to stabilize the structure, then ceded full ownership back to the preservation group in 2003, which sold it to Agrarian Country in 2007. Agrarian Country proposed relocating the Star Barn to Lebanon County and make it the centerpiece of a planned educational center devoted to agriculture. In 2014, DAS Companies and David and Tierney Abel acquired the Star Barn from Agrarian Country. In 1978 David Abel started DAS Cos. Inc., based in Palmyra (keeping with Colonel Motter’s home town), which supplies products to interstate highway travel centers.
Just like Colonel Motter, David Abel buys farms, restores the farm houses and farm buildings with attention to detail and in accordance with historic preservation practices and he improves the agricultural output of these farms. In 1986 David Abel purchased and restored Stone Gables, the estate built in 1924 by the Klein family of Elizabethtown’s Klein Chocolate factory. In 2006 he purchased and restored the Aaron and Nellie Hollinger farm now known as Ironstone Ranch. In 2000, on these properties, the Abel family established Brittany’s Hope, a charity named for a daughter who died in 1999 which, among other things, provides financial assistance to those adopting special needs children from abroad. David Abel is the founder of Stewardship: A Mission of Faith located in Elizabethtown. This foundation produces and distributes faith based materials and facilitates the formation of scripture reflection groups.
Now, in the Colonel Motter tradition, David and Tierney Abel are crowning the Stone Gables and Ironstone Ranch with the Star Barn. In 2015 DAS Companies, Inc. received official notice from the National Park Service confirming The Star Barn Complex would retain its registration on the National Register of Historic Places, even after it relocates to Elizabethtown. In 2016 a ground-breaking ceremony for The Star Barn Complex was held at Ironstone Ranch and a careful de-construction of The Star Barn began. In 2017 at the 275-acre Ironstone Ranch, the Star Barn will become part of a working organic farm showcasing agricultural heritage while also hosting a variety of educational and social events.
Colonel Motter designed and built the Star Barn to be seen by the public. Colonel Motter would be very pleased to know his Gothic Revival styled barn and related buildings are preserved and being shared with the whole community and it started on the days Elizabethtown celebrated the birth of the American nation.
This monthly column about historic structures in the Elizabethtown area is written by Jean-Paul Benowitz, a historian who is also the director of student transition programs at Elizabethtown College. It is illustrated by Shanise Marshall, a 2015 graduate of Elizabethtown College.