This photograph appeared with an article in the Upper Dauphin Sentinel (Millersburg, Pennsylvania), 25 March 1997, advertising the book, A Comprehensive History of the Town of Gratz [Gratz Book]. The caption on the photograph, as printed in the Sentinel, states the following:
These early Gratz residents, costumed for New Year’s Eve, met in the square in Gratz and made stops all over town saying in Pennsylvania Dutch, “We wish you a happy New Year.” Simeon’s Lutheran Church can be seen in the background.
What is not mentioned in the caption is something that is clearly obvious in the picture. Nearly all the Gratz residents pictured are in black-face. Whatever the tradition, nothing is explained in either the Sentinel article or in the Gratz Book about black-face and how that was related to either New Year or Gratz history. Ironically, the only other picture that appeared in the Sentinel at the same time as the New Year photo, was taken at the Hoffman Brothers Garage near the center square and featured Marlin Umholtz, whose Ku Klux Klan uniform is part of a shine presently maintained by the Gratz Historical Society.
At the time the above photograph was taken, there were no African Americans living in Gratz. However, the 1830 census showed that six African Americans were living in Gratztown. Among the earliest settlers of the town was Peter Crabb, a blacksmith, who raised his family in Gratz. Two of his sons fought in the Civil War. But just after 1870, for whatever reason, the town became all white. Like the black-face at New Year and the Ku Klux Klan, the presence of and the disappearance of African Americans in Gratz is not mentioned in the Gratz Book.
Some of the questions to be answered are: (1) What exactly was this “tradition”? (2) When did it start and how long did it last? (3) Who participated and why?
No one is identified in the picture nor is a date given. A number key is presented below for those wishing to provide comment.
Some of the above questions about the photograph may have been answered in a short piece written for the Gratz Sesquicentennial Book, by C. H. Willier, in 1955, page 125. The same picture was used in that book but with a slightly different caption:
New Year celebrators – Man in driver’s seat is Clarence Daniel. You name the rest.
The New Year Celebration from Gratz
Gratz was the starting point for this sort of Wild West, Indian style celebration. The men would come on horseback, some in saddles, others on blankets, others rode bare back. Occasionally two fellows would come on the buck board. All were dressed mummers parade style, some like Indians, cowboys, negroes, clowns and others.
They would visit the restaurants and the taverns in town. They would come upon the gallop as if to raid the town and made their round of performance in the street; and with the noise of their “35” shooters, and the shouting and cheering, you surely thought it was a real Indian raid. The younger ones would hide and peep out of the upstairs window. At the end of this rally, they would get off their horses and tie them in order to give them a rest for they were frisky at this time of the year. Then if the proprietor was willing to give them a treat they would give him his New Year wish. It was given in Pennsylvania German.
After the treat they would proceed to the next town up the valley and stop at each hamlet with their street maneuvers and the wish and treat. At Hegins, they would cross the Mahantongo Mountain and then turn west to Hepler, Rough and Ready, Klingerstown, through the gap to Erdman, and back to Gratz. You can imagine how tired they were, because most of them were not accustomed to riding such a long distance. Some had to be taken on the buck board and led their horses. They were sore from riding for days, but it was a great day and the soreness was soon forgotten.
The last of these trips was made in 1904. The organization and gathering point was at the hotel at Gratz. Israel Daniel was in the hotel. He returned three of the horses, Bill, Dock, and Maude to the boys in town. The horses were fresh and wild. They would also stop at restaurants, not only at the taverns. The dinner was always ready and prepared by Allen Kiefer, the baker at that time at Valley View. As this was a yearly affair, the dinner was always ready for the New Year paraders.
The members of this group were: Charles Brosius, Norman Daniel, Clarence Daniel, Harry Umholtz. Cleveland Kissinger, Billy Leitzel, Claud S. Buffington,Milton Schoffstall, Austin Coleman. Frank Kissinger was there to wish them a happy journey. James Kissinger was the one who gave the New Year’s wish.
Corrections and additional information should be added as comments to this post.