This article was shared with LebTown by the Lebanon County Historical Society.
Writing history could be broadly described as man using old records to remember what he has forgotten. Local facts once widely known — who lived where, what they did, and why certain things came about — often didn’t bear setting to paper, and other folks coming along later must do a bit of digging to sort things out. Sometimes, especially interesting, are the interrelationship of stories that take the passage of time to reveal their significance.
At the west end of Ono, East Hanover Township, within Salem Evangelical Cemetery, lie buried, unmarked, eight members of the Jones family who were African American. The oldest among them was Daniel Jones (circa 1790-1880).
About two years ago, Lenwood Gibble, the cemetery’s caretaker, called to inform the Historical Society about an inscription concerning Daniel Jones, written many years ago in the cemetery ledger. It states that Daniel had been “originally a slave of Va. and once belonged to Pres. Jefferson estate.”
A very hard thing to prove, of course, but after his call, I contacted Monticello and asked whether their archives contained any slave lists showing the name “Daniel.” They had lists, but no Daniel. Their research historian did, however, put me in touch with President Thomas Jefferson’s other estate in Virginia, Poplar Forest, whose slave lists do contain just one Daniel, born in September 1790.
Recently, Karen E. McIlvoy, archaeology lab supervisor at Poplar Forest, provided me more information. Jefferson, in his own hand, mentioned this “Daniel” a total of eight times, most often on lists of slaves working at Poplar Forest, but once, in 1815, in a letter to an overseer as “one of the single men,” with implication he was assigned to field labor.
Putting that story aside for a moment as “Our Daniel and Their Daniel,” and taking up another trail, I had also begun about two years ago, to collect for our records the history of the founding of St. John A.M.E. Church.
In 1913 the Evening Report, a Lebanon newspaper, indicated that a group in the city had already organized as “St. John’s African Methodist Episcopal Church,” worshipping at 1207-09 Chestnut St., under the Rev. George H. Washington.
I contacted the present congregation of St. John, and parishioner Myra Kitchen supplied copies of early property transactions for the church and its grounds, showing that in 1915 Mary Ann Hicks and James G. Over acquired an existing worship structure at 13th and Walnut streets. Built on ground poles in approximately 1910, it had belonged to St. Francis Parish, and the acquisition included existing altar, pews, and pulpit.
Within several months of their purchase, Hicks and Over began leasing the structure to the Rev. Charles J. Morton for services, and in 1917, seven men, as the legal trustees of newly formed St. John’s African Methodist Episcopal Church of Lebanon, acquired the building from Hicks and Over, who became parishioners.
According to research and personal interviews, Mary Ann Hicks (1874-1957) was a fair-complected African American widow whose husband had been Cyrus Hicks (1858-1902), described as a Pennsylvania German. They had married in 1893, but Hicks died when only 43. At some point later, Mary Ann operated a small grocery, located at 12th and Walnut streets, and was called a “retail merchant” in the 1920 U.S. Census. A gas station presently occupies this corner.
Mary’s maiden name was Jones, her father was Owen Jones (1820s-1904), and Owen’s father was “Our Daniel” from the outset of this story.
Owen Jones left many traces of himself in various types of records. He was born in Berks County and moved to Lebanon County at an unknown date, becoming a blacksmith along the way. The 1860 census records him living as a servant in the household of Levi and Lydia Corl in East Hanover Township.
In February 1864, during the Civil War, he enlisted with the Union Army and served as a private in Company H, 5th Regiment, Massachusetts Calvary. Owen’s service record shows that he worked at different times as regimental cook and blacksmith. Later, in 1892, the Lebanon Daily News reported him as “a colored veteran residing at Jonestown, … granted an original pension of $12 per month.”
In October 1865, Owen had been discharged, and, after returning to Lebanon County, in about 1867 he married Catherine Kreiser (1847-1924), and they lived an extended time in East Hanover Township. Ultimately, they had five children, among whom Mary Ann was the child in the middle. Where they lived later provokes another fascinating investigation.
In 1895 Owen was badly hurt in a wagon accident, reported by the Lebanon Daily News, which named his home as McGillstown. On a trip into Lebanon, at 10th and Maple streets, with son-in-law Cyrus Hicks driving the wagon and 70-plus-year-old Owen the passenger, a piece of the running gear securing the wagon tongue broke, causing the loose tongue to strike and panic the “two mustang ponies” pulling the vehicle. Losing control, Hicks bailed safely out of the wagon, but the unfortunate Owen rode helplessly to Ninth Street, where the animals turned, the wagon struck a coal pile, and the wagon box dislodged, coming down on and breaking one of Owen’s lower legs.
Workers at the Miller Organ Co. quickly summoned a horse-drawn ambulance that “arrived, having on board Drs. Gloninger and Schmehl,” who hurried him off to the Good Samaritan Hospital. As was not unusual at the time, the paper quoted Owen’s cries of excruciating pain.
Nine years later, when Owen passed away, his obituary in the Daily News called him “a well known colored resident” that, though “born and raised in Berks County,” had lived in Lebanon County most of his life, many of those years “along the Swatara Creek at a point near Jonestown, known as the aqueduct,” which was near Harper’s Tavern. There, a board and timber sluice, supported on stone piers, had once carried the Union Canal over the Swatara. The obituary noted his blacksmith profession, his Civil War service, and his last home, where he died — “the Old Distillery, near Tenth and Maple Streets.”
What was the “old distillery” at this location? Most Lebanon Countians would know this place as “Light’s Fort,” and several sources corroborate this location as Owen’s dwelling from at least as early as 1895 until his death in 1904.
Built about 1742 by Johann Peter Licht, this limestone building is thought by some architectural historians to have been, in its original 3-and-a-half-story form, a combination house-barn — a structure with stables at ground level and dwelling stories above. Part of it was built over a strong spring, necessary then for both drinking water and cold food preservation. It has been famous since the 1750s, when settlers fleeing south from the mountains are documented to have been given shelter from marauding Indians.
Light descendants owned the property for many years afterward, turning it into a distillery at some point, proved through several maps at the Historical Society, drawn in the late 1800s and early 1900s, labeling the Light structure “old distillery.” This fact was once well known, and the meticulous Rev. J.G. Francis also states this in his lengthy Light genealogy book.
Careful examination of historic photographs of Light’s Fort show, most obviously, a hoist-way with projecting roof that was once added to the south side of the building, and more subtle changes in the stonework — altering the original gambrel roofline, and large upper floor openings in the west side — all suggesting that in the 1800s the building might have been extended southward and modified for distillery use. Undoubtedly, the distilling generations of Lights took advantage of the cellar spring, used the root cellar, and possibly dug additional subterranean storage.
But by the late 1800s, distillery use over, owners were, however, not yet done with the ancient structure, as the southern part of the building was made or permitted to become living quarters. Rev. P.C. Croll, in his 1895 work Ancient and Historic Landmarks in the Lebanon Valley, wrote then of Light’s Fort largely “deserted by all except a flock of English sparrows, a saucy-looking goat, and a family of colored folks,” and in a contemporary photograph, wash is seen strung on a line at the southwest corner of the building. By the 1920s Rev. Francis described the building as “occupied as a dwelling and for other — white and black people, horses dogs, ducks and — well, almost everything.”
Can the family of Owen and Catherine Jones be shown to be that family who lived at Light’s Fort at the turn of the 20th century? Quite easily, as it turns out. City directories for 1901, 1903, and 1905 do just that, as seen in the illustration here. When Owen passed away in October of 1905, his newspaper obituary stated that he had “died at his home, at the old distillery, near Tenth and Maple Streets.” A decade later, when the Lebanon Playground Athletic Association held a May Day celebration just south of Light’s Fort, among black people standing in the background might likely be members and friends of the Jones family.
There is yet another piece to this story, another layer of historical significance attached to both the Jones family and to Light’s. In spring of 1904, Owen’s last year, amongst the Daily News listing of various city church services to attend ran this: “Methodist. A.M.E. MISSION, – Services at Owen W. Jones’ North Eleventh Street.” This small advertisement documents that the family and the fort were the intersection for the first official service of this denomination in the city.
Owen and Catherine Jones are among the eight members of the Jones family buried at Ono with Owen’s father Daniel. Also interred there are several of Owen and Catherine’s children. Daughter Mary Ann Jones Hicks passed away in 1957, at age 83, at her home, 111 S. Twelfth Street. She was one of the oldest members of St. John Church and is interred at Covenant Greenwood Cemetery, Ebeneezer.
Returning finally to the question of whether “Our Daniel” might be “Their Daniel” from Jefferson’s Poplar Forest — it’s hard to think it’s not a strong likelihood. How and why else would he and his family have come up with this claim in the 1800s, and among the scores of slaves listed by Jefferson in the early 1800s — many given biblical names — there is only one “Daniel,” born, according to Jefferson’s own handwriting, in September 1790.
Whatever route our Daniel’s sojourn into Berks and then Lebanon County, the 1860 census records him as 70 years old, mulatto, or mixed race, and Maryland born. He was living or boarding at that date in East Hanover Township with John Davidson, 19, black, who worked as a “boatman” — likely for the Union Canal — and also with Sarah Davidson, 54, black, the property owner.
The 1870 census shows Daniel still living in East Hanover Township, but with son Owen and family, listing Daniel as black, but aged 84 years with birth year having been 1786. Still, this age remains close to that of the Poplar Forest Daniel and might only be at odds from faulty reporting.
Putting this all together, the salient facts, as we can best lay them out are, that one can assuredly say the Jones family was central to planting the African Methodist Episcopal denomination in Lebanon. One can also say that the honorable Light’s Fort can add to its historical significance a role in the city’s African American history.
The author especially thanks the following people for helping us remember the interrelated facts that make this story history: Lenwood Gibble, Ken Long, Karen McIlvoy, Myra Kitchen, and the late David Bachman.
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