Friday, September 23, 2011

Who says you can't go home?

In October of 1738 a young man George Adam Egolf left his home in Unterschefflenz, Germany, to emigrate across the Atlantic to the colony settled by William Penn.
The farmer – a boy really, just 18 years old – traveled alone, an adventurer leaving his home behind for life in a new land.
By 1745, he had married and established a farm in New Hanover Township of 100 acres, two horses and two cows. He and his wife Maria Elizabeth Schadler, also from Germany, had nine children – six boys and three girls.
Their third son John Michael Egolf served in the Revolutionary War with the New Hanover militia, then left home to establish his own farm at the bend of the Manatawny near Thomas Rutter’s Poole Forge in what is now Douglass (Berks) Township. He had seven children, passing the farm on to his son Mahlon. Mahlon in turn passed the farm on to his son Jacob, who married and raised 12 children there in the first half of the 20th century.
My father James Atwood Egolf was in the middle of those 12 children, who are my aunts and uncles and the parents of my too-many-to-count cousins.
Last week, 11 of those cousins with our spouses went back to Unterschefflenz, retracing the path young George Adam embarked on some 275 years ago. There are Egolfs still residing in the small town – five separate families, we were told -- and farming remains the mainstay of the region.
But best of all, in the town of Unterschefflenz where my great-great-great-grandfather lived nearly three centuries ago, there’s a brewery with my name on it.
Brauereihof Egolf is listed by Guinness as the smallest commercial beermaking operation in Germany, a country where quality beermaking is synonymous with national pride. A visit to the brewery was part of a travel tour, “Tracing Our Roots,” sponsored by the Reading Liederkranz, arranged by Boscov’s Travel and planned by Cherylene Shollenberger, a retired Reading teacher and one of my second cousins.
The trip centered around a sister-city arrangement between Reutlingen, Germany, and Reading, one of several exchange visits the two regions have hosted in recent years. Most of the 45 people on the tour, besides the Egolf clan, were members of the Reading-based German social club, the Liederkranz, retracing roots to the region of Germany where many Berks families originated.
Cherylene had worked with a counterpart in Reutlingen to arrange a lunch and tour at the Egolf brewery, but despite the preparations, no one was quite sure what to expect. Distant relatives or acquaintances who had sought out the brewery in the past had reported owner Guenter Egolf as a bit abrupt. He does not speak English, and the brewery is not a public establishment, serving only private parties and events.
Cherylene’s friend was able to book us for lunch, but she too described Guenter as less than enthusiastic in his phone demeanor. Our group was a little nervous as the visit drew near.
The trek to Unterschefflenz was on day eight of our 10-day tour. The trip had already taken us viewing castles while cruising on the Rhine, dancing on the Drosselgasse in Rudesheim, soaring on a chairlift above endless rows of vineyard grapes, touring the churches of Strasbourg across the border in France and lolling on a gondola on the Nekkar River in Tubingen.
We were wined and dined and entertained by German singers in a reception hosted by the mayor of Reutlingen; we ate bratwurst from sandwich wagons and drank in biergartens; browsed shops and oogled the cheeses and vegetables in market squares, and shopped for cuckoo clocks in Christmas shops.
We walked in squares near where Gutenberg invented the printing press, stood below the windows where Goethe wrote love poems, sat in churches where Mozart played, and walked sideways through an alleyway labeled narrowest street in the world.
We shopped, we ate, we gazed through centuries of history.
Now, we were eager to taste Egolf beer.
As our tour bus maneuvered its way toward Unterschefflenz, our anxious anticipation blended with a sense of familiarity. The region called to mind an undeveloped Berks County – plots of land laid out in orderly squares like the Amish farms, wood stacked neatly along the fence rows, gladiolas planted at the edge of the crop fields.
The road became narrower as we neared, and it soon became clear that this was not a region frequented by tour buses or trucks. We were not only retracing our history, we were pushing back the clock on our lifestyle to a simpler, slower time.
As the bus rolled into town, two or three women weeding the flower gardens around the flagpole stood and waved, smiling recognition. A man walking his dog hesitated, then raised his hand, his smile registering the memory that this was the day the Egolfs were coming.
By the time we got to the brewery and met Guenter, our nervousness had vanished. We were the celebrities in town, and our host was thrilled to have us there. Through a translater, he told our group that he too was raised on a farm, the land where we were standing, and that his mother still lives there and works with him in the brewery.
He had been an engineer, then an insurance salesman, before he was encouraged by friends and co-workers to start a brewery in the 1980s. He invented his own brewing technique, his own equipment, for which he needed a seal of approval, and his own blend, which he described as similar to a pilsner, but unique.
He told us of his trials and errors before he was able to open for business in 1987. He has found success and now caters festivals and hosts parties and special events in his 50-seat banquet hall.
We introduced ourselves individually as Egolfs to Guenter, and there were lots of hugs, handshakes and photo ops. Even the region’s weekly newspaper sent a photographer to report our visit.
We bought so many mugs as souvenirs that we had to drink faster so they could wash the ones we were using for sale.
There was no argument to drink more or drink faster. In a land known for high-quality beer, Guenter’s blend was the best we tasted throughout our travels. And the lunch he served of creamy vegetable soup, German “lasagna” and salad got rave reviews from all of us.
George Adam Egolf died on Feb. 15, 1795 and is buried at Falkner Swamp Reformed Church Cemetery in New Hanover. The epitaph on his tombstone says he was born in Germany in Schefften and “loved the land where he was blessed.”
“Teach us to number our days aright, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom,” it quotes from the 90th Psalm.
Many of those on the trip characterized the ancestral homeland visit as one to cross off their “bucket lists.” I like to think of it in George Adam’s legacy as “teaching us to number our days and to apply our hearts” on a path to wisdom.
Or, put simply: Who says you can’t go home?

Nancy (Egolf) March is the editor of The Mercury. She can be reached at Follow on Twitter @merceditor.