Steigerwalt, Ohl, Helfrich, Zimmerman… the surnames of many of our neighbors here in Pennsylvania Dutch country are utterly familiar to my German ears. Some locals, such as my friend Todd, can trace their ancestors back to the mid-1700s when Germans first settled in our township.
This has been primarily farm country but in recent decades, the landscape has changed. During the 18 years I have lived here, I have seen several farms with their requisite red barns disappear, and the land being subdivided for residential or commercial development. Our home sits on such a parcel. Once plowed with real horsepower, it was deemed unproductive and too steep for internal combustion power equipment. We became the fortunate beneficiaries.With the consolidation of the farming industry, the farms in the United States are getting fewer and bigger, similar to the consolidation of the flour industry described in my earlier story about the historic Castle Valley Mill for The Year of German-American Friendship. Family farms are not being handed down from generation to generation any longer because young people seek careers elsewhere. And frankly, how can you blame them? Farming is very hard work.
That’s why I am grateful for every farm that remains. I make a conscious effort to buy whatever I can from local producers (see the list on my other blog, Green Card Gardener).
One shining example for a family farm business where the younger generation is carrying on is Miller Charm Farm and Butcher Shop, owned by Randy and Cathie Miller. The setting could not be more idyllic on the slope in Mantzville right below St. Peter’s Church that dates back to the year 1845.The Miller Farm, built in 1881 and rebuilt after it was hit by lightning and burned down, is now operated by fourth and fifth generation Millers. The farm started off growing potatoes. The first harvest was bountiful, making it possible to pay off the mortgage in one year. No wonder Claude B. Wehr, Randy Miller’s great-grandfather, was known as the “potato king”.
Butchering began with Randy Miller’s grandfather Warren Miller. But the butchering gene might have been in the family much earlier. Randy traces his family back to Daniel Miller, who was a soldier in a German army – the emphasis is on “a” as before 1871 when Germany became one nation, it consisted of many princedoms and states each with separate armies. Daniel deserted and headed to America. Family lore says Daniel declared himself upon arrival as being a butcher, something he might have made up out of thin air.
Cathie, whose maiden name is Fritz, is also of German descent, from nearby Fritz Valley, named after a string of farms owned by members of the Fritz family.
Randy’s grandfather Warren sold the butcher retail business, because Randy’s father had no interest in being a butcher, He worked as a truck driver. After high school, Randy started up a dairy on the farm, which operated for almost four decades until, like many other family-owned dairy farms, it fell victim to the consolidation that also took place in America’s dairy industry.
At about the same time the bottom fell out of the dairy business, the couple’s twins Kevin and Mark, after graduating from high school in 2013, showed interest in reviving the butcher shop. The family decided to start it up again, specializing in farm-raised cattle.
The Millers initially offered only custom butchering, where a customer delivers a whole animal for processing. In 2016 they opened a stand at the Hometown Farmers Market and later in the same year a retail shop at the farm. Ed Steigerwalt, a local butcher in his eighties, was instrumental in teaching Mark how to butcher. Ed did much more than teach – he also gave the Millers a booklet with the recipes that Warren Miller, Randy’s grandfather, had sold to him decades earlier, along with the business.
Among the Pennsylvania Dutch specialties that the Millers produce all year long is liver pudding and scrapple, both from grandfather Warren’s recipes, as well as ring bologna. Scrapple makes use of what today is called whole animal butchery, or the trendy term “nose to tail eating”. It consists of scraps of pork, often offal, mixed with cornmeal, flours and spices and shaped into a loaf, then sliced and fried, making for a hearty breakfast.“We make scrapple the old-fashioned way, it’s cooked in cast iron, not in stainless steel, and that makes a big difference in the taste,” Cathie says. Now for full disclosure, we eat very little meat and even fewer deli meats but bologna still made a very favorable impression on our palates. You can definitely taste that the Millers are making an effort to cut down on salt, as many of their patrons are older and conscious about salt intake.
Other specialties include maple sausage patties and apple sausage, a breakfast sausage made with locally produced apple butter, and it gets two thumbs up from my husband who ordinarily shows no interest in sausage. There is also “bag sausage”, a sausage cased in muslin from an old country sausage recipe. Occasionally, Cathie prepares stuffed pig stomach for her family, a dish that acquired world fame as the favorite dish of German ex-chancellor Helmut Kohl.The Millers have a herd of 60 to 70 animals, which supplies about 70% of the beef for their retail butchery. The rest comes from other local farms, as does the pork and chicken. Their cows are a cross between the Scottish Highland, renowned for their hardiness, and Simmental, a breed of cattle that goes back to the Middle Ages and valued for its calm nature. The cattle graze on the pastures around the farm. The dairy silos have been repurposed to store the fodder: haylage (fermented hay) and grain Cathie says grain is needed for a good marbling of the meat.
Son Mark is the main butcher, and his twin brother Kevin does the crop farming and takes care of the herd and also helps out at the retail store and farmers’ market stand.
In his free time, Kevin is taking Pennsylvania Dutch language classes once a week at a nearby fire company (in our area fire houses double as venues for social gatherings). Both of his grandparents spoke Pennsylvania Dutch, a language brought to Pennsylvania between 1750 and 1815 from southwestern Germany and Switzerland. “Dutch” is an Americanization of “Deutsch”, or German. However, from the time of World War II, many parents of baby boomers were not keen on teaching Dutch to their children. That is changing – today Pennsylvania Dutch is coming back. Most of the people in the class, Kevin says, are seniors who want to see the language passed on to the next generation.Kevin tried a few sentences on me. As in similar occasions when someone talks to me in Pennsylvania Dutch, I get the gist but can only respond in contemporary German.
Cathie told me that it is customary to give your cows a common surname, and that’s how the “charm” in the Miller Charm Farm business name came about. From the steady stream of customers who entered the butcher shop on Saturday afternoon right before closing time, it’s clear the charm works well – and with Mark and Kevin on board, it is set on a course to operate for many years – and generations – to come.