About Northern Star Farm
On March 24, 1681 by the Royal signatures of Charles II, a grant of land was given to William Penn and by royal charter he became the proprietor of the colony, which became Pennsylvania. The tract was described as being of extreme fertility with mineral wealth and richness of all kinds. On June 3, 1684, all rights of chief Maughausen to land along the Perkiomen Creek was duly sold and conveyed with an acknowledgment of goods in satisfaction and a promise never to molest any Christians that may settle there on. After which large sections of the colony were sold or granted by Penn.
Among these was a 500 acre tract of land, in present day Trappe, straddling Main Street and between Route 113 and Seventh Ave and Betcher Road and Borough Line Road to the west. Within this tract, the history of the farm begins.
The Northern Star farm’s history is one of significance to Trappe not only because of the Wismer Family’s History in the area and dedication to dairy farming and keeping the land open, but the farms 230 acres lie exclusively within the borough boundaries. Much of the acreage owned by the Wismer family once belonged to one of Trappe’s early families, The Dewees family. In 1802 David Dewees purchased 152 acres of land in Trappe.
Dewees ran a tavern and inn in the stone house that sits at the intersection of Rt. 113 and Main Street, now the home of the Trappe Historical Society. It was very popular place to stop in the early 1800s. Catherine Dewees, wife of David, was well known for the delicious meals she served. The Inn served as a stagecoach stop for travelers between Philadelphia and Reading for many years. The First barn to serve this tract of land was a stone structure near the old tavern in what is now the St. Luke’s United Church of Christ cemetery. It was said to be large enough to provide a ‘comfortable’ home to 30 horses of travelers. Many of the stones used to build the existing wall around the cemetery are believed to be from that ancient stone stable.
Earlier, a 1750 deed shows Andrew Miller operated a bellows manufacturing business at the site of the tavern supplying the large iron making furnaces in the area, such as Hopewell Furnace with these behemoths.
Other well known names exist on deeds to the property recorded at various times. Trappes’ most illustrious son, the Great Revolutionary War General Peter Muhlenberg, son of Henry Muhlenberg, founder of Augustus Lutheran Church in Trappe once owned the “Toll House” across the street from the main dairy barn and 20 acres of land located near South Elementary School. Later, he sold it to his sister and brother-in-law. In 1878, the great grandson of David Dewees, Lewis Royer was first elected to the PA Senate and represented Montgomery County. His main residence was on Main Street in Trappe in the Frederick Muhlenberg home. In 1895, he purchased this farm property and erected a “summerhouse” and farmstead. This is the present farmhouse with its popular and beloved wraparound porch, a distinctive architectural feature known and admired by travelers on Rt. 113. The farmhouse he designed would be built of frame construction, with its joists and rafters of hemlock wood and floors of now extinct long leaf yellow pine, grown on Huntingdon County, PA and shipped by train to Collegeville. Hemlock wood is said to be termite resistant. The house was made even more distinctive by the addition of a glass sided cupola. Not only was this the 19th century’s answer to air-conditioning, as it provided superior ventilation throughout the house, but from an architectural and visual standpoint, it added a “vertical thrust” to the project. (This would be removed during the depression years as it was difficult to access and difficult to maintain making rainwater an issue.)
In 1927, after the absentee ownerships of Jacob Hade and I. Powell Thomas, the Wismer era began. The history of the Wismer family in America begins nearly 300 years ago around 1709 when Jacob Wismer , who was born in Germany in 1684 came to America and settled in North Carolina initially, but because of the Indian uprisings in that area, making it unsafe, would later migrate to Bucks County PA. His original farmstead still exists and is owned and operated by a descendant of the family, Glenn Wismer. From Bucks County, Wismer descendants would migrate to Skippack then to Graterford where Charles E. Wismer, Sr. would be born on his parents farm. Charles was an ambitious and friendly youth, as he grew in age, he not only showed a love for farming, but a fondness for music and was blessed with a beautiful tenor voice. One fateful day, he received notice that the State had claimed his family’s Graterford Farm by eminent domain. A prison was to be built on the lands where many old German families had farmed for generations. Wismer and his neighbors would have to sell their homes and farms and move on. In those days there were many farms in the area and numerous ones for sale, including this one. It was a dream come true, even though it looked much different in those days, it was a show place ready to move into. It had long been admired by my Grandmother Anna, as she had grown up in the area and watched its construction as she walked by here each day, on her way to the old Trappe School on Main Street . The decision was made to move to Trappe and start a new life. The first order of business was to get the cows here. This would be accomplished by herding them over the dusty gravel roads with the help of family, friends and neighbors. So Charles Sr., along with his wife Anna and 3 daughters, Alice, Dorothy, and Mary Emma and his elderly parents, Christian and Mary Fry Wismer, a family of ambition and energy, would be the first owners to live in the house year round and develop the farm into a viable agricultural operation.
(Left Photo) This photo is at the family dairy farm at the corner of Graterford Road and Perkiomen Creek Road in Graterford in the 1920s. This photo was taken before the move to Trappe in 1927. Pictured are brothers Charles and Eli Wismer (who grew up in that house) and their wives Anna and Elizabeth. Charles and Anna were now operating this as a dairy farm while Eli and Elizabeth were living in Pottstown where Eli was practicing law. Both brothers attended Ursinus college, Charles on a music scholarship. Eli was an accomplished organist at St Luke’s UCC church in Trappe. Later, Anna would also serve as organist and as adult Sunday school teacher at the same church.
Charles Sr., was one of the first farmers in the area to have registered purebred cattle and many a 4-H cattle clubs would meet here for cattle judging. This was recalled to me in conversation last year with 93 year old John Meyers, who was a 4-H member in his youth, the last dairy farmer in Perkiomen Township. In December of 1931, with the Great Depression under way, the Wismer’s peaceful existence would be shaken by disaster. The beautiful barn, which had been built by Senator Royer, many years before would burn to the ground, as a result of a threshing accident on the barn floor, just one week before Christmas. In Pennsylvania German culture, the barn was everything. In many cases, it was more important then the house. So this was particularly devastating. Once again, Charles and Anna would have to find a new home for their cows and quickly. A desperate plea was put out for help throughout the community, find a vacant barn large enough to house the herd for at least six months, a tall order even in those days. The word came back, one had been found in Collegeville, across the Perkiomen bridge. So without hesitation, Charles and family, along with friends and neighbors, began the herding down Main Street and across the Perkiomen bridge to their new home. During this time, plans were drawn for a magnificent new barn, a design that was becoming popular in the mid-western states. Construction would begin in early 1932, it would measure 38’ feet wide by 196’ feet long, a sight to behold as its great Gothic arches rose 45’ above the earth. Such a barn had never been seen in this area before, with stanchions for 100 cows, complete with automatic waterers, thoughtful ventilation and storage for 400 tons of hay in the upper level, it was truly an agricultural superstructure of its time.
Back at the old barn in Collegeville, unbeknown to anyone, the herd was silently and steadily being infected by a contagious disease, tuberculosis, for which there was no cure, being spread to the cows from the pigs that also shared living space. Just as the herd was preparing to return to the new facility in Trappe, it was the learned that many would have to be destroyed because of the contagion. This was as devastating as the barn fire itself and with no financial recourse. With the depression causing financial hardship all around, the barn fire and the loss of his herd, many would have given up. But Charles and Anna, being people of faith and as a result possessing incredible optimism for the future, would forge on with the help and support of his cousin, Ralph F. Wismer. A local attorney and real estate investor, who he and Anna shared a close relationship with. Ralph was a graduate of Ursinus College and would later serve as its treasurer. Ralph’s love and support of the College throughout his life, would be recognized upon his death in 1962 with a building named in his honor, Wismer Hall, later renamed the Wismer Center.
On November 4th 1933, Charles and Anna, now 47 and 45 years old respectively, would have their prayers answered, a son was born to them, in a bedroom. The baby’s name would be Charles E. Wismer, Jr. From a young boy, he helped his father by feeding animals, cleaning stalls and as he grew older, milking the cows. The farm was successful and modern even then. The cows were milked mechanically and the milk hauled to market early each morning. In those days, there were plenty of hired hands to herd the cows to and from the woods and pastures along Betcher Road each day, clean the barn, fork the silage out of the silos by hand and perform the many and varied duties necessary on a large farm.
In the 1930’s and 40s’, Charles’ mother would feed the people who lived and worked here. Some lived on the 3rd floor of the farm house and one family always lived across the road at the “Toll House”. World War II would change the labor situation not only on this farm, but on farms across the country as men left to serve their country. Creating great labor shortages, the aging Charles Sr, would depend more and more on the help of his young son.
The young Charles E. Wismer, Jr. with his first Holstein heifer posing in the drive of the new farm on 113 in Trappe
In 1964 Charles E Wismer Jr. at the young age of 30, along with his wife Mary Jane Troutman-Wismer, purchased the farm from his parents, and set about raising their family of four children; Matthew, Betsy, Mindy and Julie. Over the years he added to the farms original acreage by purchasing three neighboring farms to increase the family land holdings to 230 acres all located in and representing 18% of the total land mass of the Borough of Trappe. In addition, Charles Jr. established many conservation practices on the farm such as strip cropping, waterways, underground tiling to divert water from natural springs into the stream that runs through the farm, thereby providing for better utilization of farm fields.
In the 1980’s, his only son Matthew Guy Wismer became his partner in the dairy business. This allowed his father to continue pursuing other interests both in local government such as tax collector, mayor, planning commission, 275th anniversary of Trappe Chairman and Republican Committeeman. On the state level, he was elected President of the PA State Grange. Throughout his 8 1/2 years in office he was acknowledged for his spirited leadership in directing the affairs of the State Grange and was recognized for his numerous legislative achievements on behalf of the 42,000 Grange members. His efforts provided political influence and a strong clear voice for the commonwealth of PA. His work in securing successful passage of the milk security act, coyote indemnification, water bound issue and Farmland Preservation. In addition, he created a credit union and provided oil and gas leasing services to Pennsylvania’s’ farmers and land owners, and many other services that contributed greatly to the quality of life in rural Pennsylvania. Many of his contemporaries considered him to be 10 years ahead of his time. In addition, he served as an agricultural trustee at Penn State and on the Board of Overseers at the University of PA.
Charles was particularly instrumental in the promotion of farmland preservation in its early years and was considered its pioneer in Montgomery County. Believing strongly that if farmland in Montgomery County was to survive, it had to be preserved by the current generation of farm owners. In 1992, he along with the support of his family preserved the main portion of his beloved farmland from development forever. Ten years later another section was preserved and in July of 2007, his widow and son completed his dream of seeing the entire farm protected from the developer’s bulldozer. The benefits of farmland preservation to the farm family as well as to the community at large are enumerable and will be discussed in future publications. But it must be remembered, that even though a farmer preserves his land, no tax benefits to him or her are achieved. We have and continue to pay all real estate taxes on this property.
On June 10th, 1997 disaster would strike the Wismer family again, when a spark from a hay mowing operation would decimate the second barn on the site, which had become a well known land mark in the area for 65 years. During the three months of reconstruction, the herd was relocated twenty miles away to the McDonnell farm of East Greenville. During the design and construction of a new barn, Charles Jr., and his son made the twenty mile trek, one way between Trappe and East Greenville four times a day to care for the herd. We will always be especially grateful to the farm’s owner, Frank McDonnell, for his daily care and assistance of the herd during those trying days as crops had to be cared for and harvested on the farm in Trappe while the cows were twenty miles away. Three months and three days later the new barn of modern design and equipment, including a double six parallel milking parlor with self-detaching milkers, measuring 58’ x 260’ was completed by Brecknock Builders of Denver, PA.
In 2005, Charles Jr., retired and his son took over the “reins” of the family business. On September 1, 2006, Charles passed away at the “Toll House” with his family around him, happy and content in his life’s work. He lies buried in the St. Luke’s cemetery in Trappe where many other family members rest. His tombstone reads “Steward of the Land” the title he was most proud of. Today, Matthew G. Wismer resides in the farm house with his two daughters Ashley and Erin- representing the fifth generation of the family to reside there. Matthew enjoys a close relationship with his youngest sister Julie, along with her husband Brian Bechtel and children, Morgan, Wade and Lila. Julie has been an integral part of this operation from the time she was a young child, gaining experience and knowledge to be used in the future care and maintenance of their own farmstead on the other side of South Elementary, where they reside today.
Matthew, in addition to his love and dedication to the farm, is a talented pianist, and president of the Keystone Grange in Trappe. Matthew and his daughters work hand in hand to maintain and beautify the property since 2005. Matthew has instituted many changes on the farm. Including as a new color scheme, signage, the construction of a four car garage, the renovation of the last farm building of the 1895 era, which is now “Studio 96”, a store on the first floor and entertainment center on the upper level, the paving of one acre driveway and the creation of a memorial island complete with a classical water fountain. The water fountain was designed in grateful appreciation for all the Wismer women past and present of Northern Star Farm who contributed their industry and ingenuity in the beautification and support of this unique property and to all of our fore bearers who bequeathed to us this wonderful heritage we now enjoy.