The year was 1981.

Ronald Reagan was president. Gas was selling for $1.31.9 per gallon. Raiders of the Lost Ark was dominating the box office. The United States was negotiating the release of 52 hostages held by Iran.

And somewhere in a dark, backroom in eastern Lebanon County, a baker’s dozen of local gentlemen gathered, put their heads together, and combined their talents to form the ‘Union Kanaal Grundsau Lodsch #17’ or Union Canal Groundhog Lodge #17.

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Now, Joe Biden is president. Gas costs $3.05.9 per gallon. One of the worst pandemics known to man is beginning to wane. And movie-lovers don’t have to frequent theaters to watch first-run films.

Forty years later, the Union Canal Groundhog Lodge #17 is still preserving and promoting the Pennsylvania Dutch—or Pennsylvania German—culture and dialect. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Edwin Engle, the president of the Union Canal Groundhog Lodge #17, poses with a photograph. (Jeff Falk)
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“It really has changed that much,” said Union Kanaal Grundsau Lodsch #17 hauptmann, or president, Edwin Engle. “The only thing that’s changed is the members not having as much knowledge of Pennsylvania Dutch anymore. Maybe it’s not important to the younger generation. It’s always been middle-aged and up men. We’ve never had women members.”

The Union Kanaal Grundsau Lodsch #17 will be celebrating its 40th anniversary with a fersammling, or Pennsylvania Dutch social event, on July 9 at 5:17 p.m. at the Rescue Fire Company carnival grounds in Mount Aetna. The anniversary picnic will feature a Pennsylvania Dutch-inspired menu and entertainment by Doug Madenford and Chris LaRose.

The cost of tickets is $22 per person, and the public is welcome. Pennsylvania Dutch will be spoken at the event, but fluency in the dialect is not required to attend.

“Just because it’s been 40 years, we thought we should do something special to commemorate the event,” said Engle. “It was actually something that came about 60 years ago, or before. In our area, it started at Haag’s Hotel in Shartlesville, number 12 on the Tulpehocken path, to keep the Pennsylvania Dutch culture alive, and it was strictly fun.

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“Pennsylvania Dutch was still pretty common at that time,” continued Engle. “It was probably five or six years after World War II, and I couldn’t get in (to Lodge #12). There was a whole group of us from the Myerstown/Richland area who couldn’t get in. We asked if we could start a lodge in Myerstown, and we did. We needed 13 men to start it, and they became the governing body.”

Edwin Engle poses with another photograph. (Jeff Falk)
These 13 men were members of the Union Canal Groundhog Lodge #17 at one point in time. (Provided photo)

The local Union Canal Groundhog Lodge #17 consists of about 100 current members, and they meet four times a year at the Rescue Fire Company in Mount Aetna. The original 260 members first met at American Legion Post in Myerstown, before outgrowing those digs and moving to the Prescott Fire Company in Lebanon.

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Later, Union Canal Groundhog Lodge #17 moved its gatherings to Mount Zion in Bethel Twp.

“It’s men trying to preserve the German dialect,” said Engle, an 83-year-old resident of Denver, PA. “That’s what brings everybody together. We used to have many prominent people as members, judges, senators, and doctors. It was just a way to continue a tradition.

“The Pennsylvania Dutch dialect is a very beautiful language,” added Engle. “It’s very humorous. That’s what the lodge is, just a fun time. It’s what it was designed to be, and it’s always been that.”

The Union Canal Groundhog Lodge #17 conducts a handful of events each year, the most popular of which is the annual Ground Hog’s Day celebration on Feb. 2nd on the Tulpehocken Creek in Myerstown. Lodge #17’s stuffed mascot ‘Uni’ is paraded from his local hibernation spot in town to a boat on the local creek to seek his shadow and to predict the coming of spring.

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‘Uni’ has never been wrong.

‘Uni’ predicting whether there will be six more weeks of winter or six more weeks until spring. (Provided photo)
The Union Canal Groundhog Lodge #17 members waiting to hear the verdict. (Provided photo)
The snow-covered ground and the jacket-clad men illustrate the fact that Ground Hog’s Day is on Feb. 2nd. (Provided photo)

Read More: ‘Uni’ isn’t short for unique, but it could be

It’s all in good fun, but the Union Canal Groundhog Lodge #17 is very serious about preserving the language of the Pennsylvania Dutch, in an area where German and Austrian immigrants settled decades ago and where Amish and Mennonite sects still flourish.

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“I think the PA Dutch dialect is dying out because you don’t hear it so much anymore,” said Engle. “My grandparents used it every day. When people got together, everybody spoke it. It was just common. You heard it every day. My grandparents’ generation spoke it, but after that, it really started to die out. I’m fairly fluent, about 80 percent.

“It came from Germany somewhere,” Engle continued. “They say there’s an area over there where people speak it almost like we do here. It’s fun German. It’s a German dialect. It’s not exactly the same, but very close. When we first started, there were a lot of good speakers at our meetings and they would tell stories. When they told them in Pennsylvania Dutch, it was more funny.”

There are 17 chapters of the Union Canal Groundhog Lodge scattered across northeastern, eastern, and central Pennsylvania. The eastern Lebanon County lodge is the westernmost of all the chapters.

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“I was a salesman all my life and I traveled all around,” said Engle. “I also worked locally, and when I was in Lancaster County, I [got] to watch the Amish men plow their fields. I would stand there and watch them, and when the Amish saw me, they were leery of me. But I’d speak to them in Pennsylvania Dutch and I’d ask them if it was okay for me to take a picture of their horses. It would always break the ice. And I always got a kick out of that.

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“My kids don’t speak [Pennsylvania Dutch],” concluded Engle. “They were never around it. I’d say that the generation after me doesn’t speak it, and that’s where the problem arises. At some of the lodges, attendance is coming down, and as attendance has gone down, some of the lodges have merged. We haven’t reached that point.”

Preserving our heritage is a great way to stay connected to the past.

To purchase tickets for the Union Canal Groundhog Lodge #17’s picnic, please call John at 717-949-3055.

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