The Real Story of
As noted last week, there is very little reliable information about the legendary figure, Mountain Mary of Pike Township, Berks County.
There is, however, one published first person narrative by a visitor. Benjamin M. Hollinshead of Philadelphia and four associates and a translator sought out Mountain Mary in the summer of 1819 shortly before she died. The account published later in The Pennsylvania German magazine in1902 is an eyewitness experience.
The several page article about the visit includes the sentence: “Never had I witnessed so unshaken a faith as was manifested in this extraordinary woman.” They walked around the small farm noting a square enclosure of rails containing three graves, one of the mother, the others of the sisters of Mary, and a head and foot stone for another grave. “On returning to take our leave, we were surprised to find a table spread with delicious bread, butter, cream, milk and preserved fruits: and we were invited to partake in a manner so sincere and courteous that we did not distrust our kind hostess when she assured us that we were welcome.”
But what did Mountain Mary do, actually, to establish such fame? Apparently no one single thing; her celebrity, it seems, happened just by the force of her character and manner of being. Several years after her death, Hollinshead asked a friend, James Dewey, who was going to the Oley Valley to find out such information as he could about her and send it in a letter. This letter provides perhaps the most reliable details as it was written quite soon after her death from information gathered directly from her neighbors. It says in part: “ She was said to be a very intelligent and religious woman, and was visited by her neighbors to have her advice on their difficulties, which was often so judicious and far-seeing that she was thought by some to have a way of acquiring knowledge unknown to many.
“The most interesting feature in her character, perhaps, was her great industry. She kept three or four cows, food for which she raised on a meadow near her cottage. The grass [hay] she used to cut herself, and after drying, carry home. Her cattle were cared for in a superior manner and consequently she was able to make a great deal of butter, this she carried on her head to a person who took it to market for her, and who lived about three miles off. She also had bees and collected a large quantity of honey, she likewise practiced vivisection[? veterinarian], these appear to have been her occupations, which not only enabled her to live but amass considerable money.
“…Her dwelling I need not tell you [Hollinshead having been there], was beautiful. With a fountain [spring] near the door, and surrounded by an orchard in which she took great delight.
“Her character was one of benevolence; she was frugal and honest, living well, and when any of her friends made her a visit, she would never suffer [allow] them to depart without partaking of some refreshment. She visited all the poor in the neighborhood, in their necessities, taking them medicines and provisions.
“…The consideration of animals, even of a noxious kind, seems to be a strong trait of a refined and benevolent heart; she had a garden beside her cottage enclosed by a stone wall, that she dressed with great care and took much delight in. Some marmots [groundhogs] fancied the garden likewise. They took up their abode there, and began to increase and multiply, much to the annoyance of the proprietor of the gardens, digging trenches when she wanted it smooth and eating roots…and annoying her in various ways…. She placed traps and captured them, many of them in the very act. Instead of putting them to death, which she might have done as sole lady of the garden, she took them to the neighboring hills, telling them to go and trespass no more….
“The following conversation is said to have taken place between her and a person who made a visit:
‘Mary, are you not afraid to live here alone?’
‘Afraid of what?’ asked she in response to the question.
“Why, for instance, when the skies are covered with dark clouds and fiery lightening striking in all directions, with the loud voice of thunder resounding from hill to hill.’
‘I, no! When such is the case, and the storm rages around, I always open my window and look at the Almighty power of my Maker.’ ” This is probably her most reliable description.
Also, just the name “Mary” may have helped to contribute to the saintly aura that surrounded her. “Mary” was not a common Pennsylvania Dutch name. However, protestant reformer Martin Luther retained the many Mary-centered Roman Catholic festivals and feast days in the Lutheran church calendar; additionally, the much consulted 19th century farmers’ almanacs retained Mary centered calendar events such as the Annunciation, the Assumption of Mary into Heaven and others which venerated Mary, the mother of Christ.
Finally, perhaps just the fact of Mary Young’s living contentedly and successfully on her own small farm without a man—it was after all a man’s world—was curiosity enough in the late18th century to give her some degree of notoriety.
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