A Look Back in History: 19th Century cane carvers of the PA Dutch Country

Wilhelm Schimmel (Cumberland Valley, Pennsylvania, 1817-1890), carved and painted dog clutching a basket, 5î h., 7 1/2î It sold for over $140,000 IN 2008.
Wilhelm Schimmel (Cumberland Valley, Pennsylvania, 1817-1890), carved and painted dog clutching a basket, 5î h., 7 1/2î It sold for over $140,000 IN 2008. Photo Courtesy OF Pook & Pook, Inc. Auctioneers, Downingtown

Locally, the most popular cane carver, “Schtockschnitzler Simmons” (1885-1910) from the Kutztown, Moselem, Hamburg area was a late German born immigrant who bartered his carved bird handle canes from farm to farm or tavern to tavern. His canes had an identifiable carving motif. Kutztown’s beloved collector of PA Dutch carvings, Richard Machmer and his wife, Rosemarie, published a very desirable book about these local carvers in 1991. Titled “Just For Nice: Carving and Whittling Magic of Southeastern Pennsylvania,” this was a true insight into the PA Dutch people, their folk culture, and winter indoor skills, and published by the Berks County Historical Society. An admirer of Schimmel carved birds and animals, Dick Machmer, was so enticed with these folk artists that he even became one himself carving folk art bird trees and replicating their PA Dutchy folk art colors.

Not to be outdone by the sewing arts of our thrifty farmwomen, PA Dutchmen have always been artistic carvers of wooden crafts to while away their time during the inclement winter season. Even itinerant tramps became highly skilled craftsmen who bartered their carvings for needed food and lodging. Among these PA Dutch tramps whose legacy can still be found in the Kutztown area was Wilhelm Schimmel (1817-1890) whose deeply carved birds and animals are a national treasure. Originally from the Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania, Schimmel’s carved farm animals and early American bald eagles painted in a primitive fashion are extremely folky. The most rudimentary carvings in which PA Dutchmen whittled away their time were traditional butter-print carvings by which housewives stamped their trade mark upon when selling butter at town markets. But equally common were the walking canes on which the Dutch carved unusual handles to replicate birds or heads of animals.

Almost every PA Dutchman who farms for a living has an avocation of being a carpenter or wood-worker, as he seeks to keep his farm buildings in good shape. These age old occupations which came naturally to our agrarian Rhineland ancestors who sought to support their large farm families on the Lancaster Plain and Great Valley of Pennsylvania. So, as the typical winter months occur with deep snows and inclement weather, many PA Dutch families find that they can wisely put their skills to use ahead of the spring farming season. Foremost of these indoor PA Dutch skills are the number of farm women who design and quilt elaborate patchwork quilts. A salvage art that our Dutch women enjoy in the winter months this has become a national iconic art form, besides keeping their families warm in the cold winter months.

All national Americana Museums feature a good selection of PA Dutch wood carvings besides their primitive folky earthenware plates and animals. These are examples of how infectious the folk culture had become about its Rhineland heritage among its people during their indoor winter leisurely pursuits. There are still a select number of Dutch women who continue to ply their sewing heritage in quilting artistry and at every public auction another Dutch treasure is discovered if one can only afford to bid up to its dollar value. The successful ability for PA Dutch to be multi-tasking individuals undoubtedly stemmed from their PA Dutch heritage born out of 18th Century Europe, and the pioneer desire to succeed in America.

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Therefore, the winter months preceding spring plantings were not spent idle, but in each PA Dutch farm household, the family’s prosperity was based on the productivity of these indoor winter achievements; be it cooking, sewing, wooden home crafts. There were more than a few PA Dutch people who excelled at these folk art winter masterpieces. Our Americana National Museums are crowded with the best examples of PA Dutch crafts and artistry, such as the exquisite bald eagles of Wilhelm Schimmel or the skillfully carved dog clutching a basket that sold for $140,400, auctioned off in 2008 at Pook and Pook Gallery in Downingtown, PA from Richard Machmer’s folk art collection.