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Emmitsburg Customs and Traditions of Old

Marie Campbell


Times are changing, and I suppose that will always be so. But as we enter the final quarter of the twentieth century, we observe vast differences made on our lives over the past twenty-five, fifty, one hundred years. Our youngsters are a visual media generation: even the radio has lost the significance it had in the ‘30’s and ‘40’s when we tuned our ears to transmissions of Lowell Thomas, "The Squeaking Door," and country music. More and more we see and listen, less and less do we talk during our leisure hours. We would seem to be losing our roles as transmitters of oral traditions. 

Evidence of these changes is observed in the passing of many traditions which exist today only in the memories of our older citizens but not in practice. I have talked with a number of Emmitsburg area people about the customs and traditions which they, their grandparents and their great-grandparents lived by. These recollections come from the past fifty to one hundred years and constitute an oral history of a wax’ of life as a small town reminisces.

Daily Life in Emmitsburg

When we consider the "good old days" we of course tend to remember with fondness. Life seemed simpler then but perhaps we have forgotten roads knee-deep in mud for months at a time, a wagon or buggy occasionally frozen in for weeks, or repairing your own narrow section of road to make it more passable. And then there were the tolls collected every few miles for travel on the public roads. 

The toll house stands just outside Emmitsburg as a reminder of these oft-collected fees. Some people I spoke with told stories of illnesses, the cholera and flu epidemics, and had used home cures for more common ailments: spring tonics, poultices of mustard or mutton tallow and often the asafedia to ward off disease. Other more spectacular disasters have left their marks in oral tradition; fires and train wrecks which involved friends and relatives. 

But on the level of everyday life, these were also the days without the ease of modern conveniences: there was no central heating, no plumbing and no electricity. All these are also part of our by-gones.

Better and more enjoyable memories are part of those days: the Emmitsburg Railroad with its dinky which carried many people to nearby destinations, the blacksmith shop, the horse-drawn station wagon going to Gettysburg for an all day trip, the coming of the street cars. In the homes the kitchen was the cozy spot with wood stove blacked with home made lamp black, perhaps from the chimney behind the big iron stove. One hundred years ago in Emmitsburg the fireplace was rapidly giving place to a convenient iron wood stove. It is likely that somewhere in the kitchen, perhaps on the cabinet, hung the razor strap, symbol of the love and respect clue parents, as one of my informants recounted.

Soap Making

Some Emmitsburg area residents still make soap with Babbitt’s lye and hot water (according to one person I talked to, "an absolutely lethal combination, smoky and fumy"), to which tallow and kitchen greases or "fryin’s were added, never good lard. the generations before our grand­mothers didn’t buy lye, of course, but made it from rain water dripped through wood ashes. People I’ve talked with recommended homemade soap to relieve the itching of poison ivy and with someone who said, "Oh, if you ever had a bath with lye soap, well, then you haven’t lived right and despite the fact that it took one layer of skin off. Mom always said, ‘this lye soap is so lovely.’ But, my God, it would just peel off one layer of your skin."

These directions were given concerning homemade soap: "Now when you boiled the soap you had to boil at a certain time, in the full of the moon. When the moon was going the opposite way it would all go up and dry out." Soap making, shingling and planting crops, all were guided by the fullness of the moon or the "signs" if you wanted proper results.


With summer came holiday celebrations: Memorial Day with a parade to the cemetery to lay bunches of mountain laurel and arbutis on graves of loved ones and soldiers. One of the most important parades was the Fourth of July. Flag poles were cut, contests held, and some people even had hot air balloons to celebrate, in addition to rockets and fire crackers. Mr. Helman, in his Emmitsburg history, tells of the heated discussions as election day neared, of the poles erected by each party in front of the hotel of its choice. He seemed to be especially relieved when some of the heat was taken out of the arguments by banning the sale of liquor on that day.

In the fall the advent of cold weather signaled the time for all kinds of activities: apple butter boiling, cider making, schnitzing bees, hulling walnuts, butchering. The butchering was often held on a Thanksgiving weekend when all the family was home to help. It began at 4:30 a.m. and lasted the whole day long, involving everyone in tasks to preserve the meat. Even today if you drive in the area on this weekend you will likely Games and Activities

Cold weather also brought activities for the young people; a favorite was bunting apple twitches if the youngsters were of a mischievous nature. Hunting twitches was an initiation designed to scare and cause discomfort to the victim who had never been on a hunt. The procedure was much the same as the snipe hunt undertaken in an area where snipes don’t exist. 

After the group assembled in a dark apple orchard on a moonless night, the hunter was carefully instructed to hold the bag open while the others served as beaters to drive the twitches toward him; there he was left, literally holding the bag for a twitch which would never appear, while the organizers of this hunt were back in front of a warm fire wondering how long it would be before the poor fellow caught on or gave up because he "as frozen out.

Apples were a rather important commodity, both agriculturally and socially. Making apple butter was often a two day affair: first the neighborhood gathering to peel bushels and bushels of apples, then the hours it took to boil the apples, cider and sugar all down to the right consistency. Some families, when the peeling was done, took the apples to the mill to have the task completed and paid the miller in kind, that is, with part of the product.

Once cold weather was established for the winter, skating or sleighing parties were in order. After school the young people would build a bonfire, often on Tom’s Creek, bring out a raw potato and salt which they had brought along, and roast it for a hot snack on a cold skating day.

For Christmas most families went to the woods to cut their own tree, trimmed it with cranberries or mountain berries, paper rings, popcorn. A happy girl woke to find her very own Betsy Ann doll and an orange, when the fruit was expensive and hard to get.

Christmas Traditions

Between Christmas and New Year’s was one of the most memorable traditions in the neighborhood. Everyone looked forward to a visit from the New Years mummers, the belsnickers, or kriskringlers, who appeared on horseback in black hats and strange costumes and silently awaited a handout, preferably a warming drink, a stirrup cup. Having received the treat, the beisnicklers sang Christmas carols, more often in German than in English. In Holland and Germany the beisnickle visited on Christmas Eve or a few days before. He was the neighborhood wag dressed in a shaggy bearskin coat or a skunk skin hat, a St. Nicholas in furs. 

But there was little of good old St. Nick in this fearful creature. He carried a bundle of switches on a dag over his shoulder and hit the window pane with a switch, to ask admittance, In his gruff voice, he asked if Johnny and Katy had been good during the year. Suddenly the floor was covered with candies from his bag and the children grabbed for these warily eyeing the belsnickle’s switch at the same time. But in Emmitsburg the tradition was one of fooling people with false faces and old clothes, riding from house to house on horseback, and singing Christmas carols.

Social Events

Neighborhood gatherings were held on many occasions: there were fewer of the many distractions which today’s easy transportation and push-button technology have given us. People enjoyed closer family and community relations. They made their own entertainment, and as one man said, helped each other, visited, argued politics." Quilting bees have long been a part of American culture. The quilt is a uniquely American folk art, born of need and of the thrifty nature of our pioneer fore-fathers. 

A lady told me, "I remember Momma covered me up on a cold winter’s night and she’d say that here was Aunt Maggie’s winter coat and over here was Poppa’s old overalls and it was like a hodgepodge of all the materials that went into the quilts. They utilized everything they could." There were barn raisings and public sales (the auction is still a favorite way to spend Saturdays) and flittin’ dinners. When a neighbor was moving, his friends would come with wagons and move the family to their new home, Afterward a pot luck dinner was shared.

Serenading or banding (also called belling or the shivaree) is a waning tradition in Emmitsburg. What a welcome for newlyweds: pots and pans, kettles and noisemakers banged and pounded, horns and bells sounded by visitors in the dead of night who would not go away until they had been recognized and treated by the young couple.

These are the traditions which the older residents of the Emmitsburg area have recalled. They are the activities common to our ancestors which help us and our young people account for why we are what we are people living in a small town continue to value this lifestyle.

Read Michael Hillman's Christmas Traditions of Old