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Henry Lee Fisher

Henry Fisher described our past

I noticed Prospect Hill Cemetery has been posting historical information on their Facebook page about notable people from York County’s past who are buried there.  Today’s was on Henry Lee Fisher, attorney, historian and Pennsylvania German poet.  Fisher is one of my favorites from the past, and I realized I had done several blog posts on his work on Univeral York but never posted my 2006 York Sunday News column giving an overview of his busy life.  See below.

Olden Times

York County has certainly produced its share of authors.   Book signings by local writers are numerous.  History, biography, and poetry are always popular.  Henry Lee Fisher (1822-1909) combined all three in his narrative poems written in the Pennsylvania German dialect (Pennsylvania Dutch).

A well-respected attorney, Fisher was recognized by his peers as a Pennsylvania German scholar.  In the English introductions to his books he eloquently explains that Pennsylvania German is a transplanted dialect of High German with added English words.  (High German refers to the language and pronunciation used in the more hilly area of southern German, as opposed to Low German spoken in flatter northern Germany.)  The majority of early settlers of this area came from southwestern Germany. 

Henry Lee Fisher was admitted to the York County Bar in 1853.  The Fishers (Henry, wife Sarah, and seven children) lived for many years at 427 (now 451) West Market Street in York.  He claimed he could see the whole way to the Kreutz Creek Valley (Hellam area) from his attic retreat.   The family moved, around 1903, to 612 West King Street, where Henry spent the rest of his life.  Fisher was the great-grandson of Kreutz Creek Valley pioneer Yost Harbaugh, as were two other Pennsylvania German poets of note: German Reformed minister Henry Harbaugh and the handicapped poet from Stony Brook, Rachel Bahn.

Much of nineteenth-century poetry was flowery and sentimental.  Fisher could be maudlin too, but his best work probably was the history-oriented Olden Times (1878).  This collection of narrative verses described the customs and labors of his farm family and their neighbors fifty years before.  Fisher had lived through the Industrial Revolution and viewed it unfavorably.  His aim, therefore, was to capture the lives of the German and Scots-Irish settlers of his boyhood.  He writes of the cookstove “now fueled with filthy coal,” decrying the cheery fire of the hearth.  He praises the quite precision and camaraderie of wielders of sickles and protests against the “noisy monster’s iron wheels [and] “ruthless reaper knives” of the mechanical grain-harvester. 

Fisher’s book was so popular that he translated the rhyming Pennsylvania German verses into English rhymes ten years later.  The warm reception might have stemmed from the humor with which he wrote.  He tells of the popular practical joke of catching Elfetriche (elves) played on a young man by his friends, who left him alone in the woods.

With open, wide-mouthed, homespun bag in hand,

And, there to wait for elves that never came.

Fisher relates the practice of young men carrying their girlfriends on their back over a footbridge.  Some maintained

Three times carried o’er the brook

Was good as married o’er the book.

He describes Militia Day in detail.  On May 15 each year local militia companies turned out to drill and then to cap off the day with a very hearty community party.  Plenty of brooms, rakes, and pitchforks were called to duty in lieu of rifles, as Fisher describes:

            Nine out of ten men had no gun,

            To prime, to load, or aim.

            Yet strange to say, that ten to one,

            They did it all the same.

H. L. Fisher also wrote ‘S alt Marki-haus mittes in d’r Schtadt (The Old Markethouse in the Middle of the Town). It was published in one volume with the Pennsylvania German version of Olden Times.  Fisher says Americans started naming everything centennial, whether it was old or not, for America’s 100th birthday in 1876. Fisher’s contribution was the centennial poem, The Old Markethouse….  Each stanza of the collection of 100 loosely joined verses had to do with some aspect of the market sheds that then stood in the middle of York or another York scene or personality.  This epic poem seems to revere the old market until the verses about rats, tramps, and dirty butcher blocks are noted.  Yorkers were passionately divided on whether the sheds should stay or go.  One writer later thought that Fisher’s satirical verses helped lead to the markets being pulled down one night in 1887.

Fisher’s Kurzweil & Zeitfertreib (Amusement & Pastime) was published in 1892.  This volume of Pennsylvania German verse consisted of adaptations and translations of English and American poetry and German dialect writers as well as some original Fisher poems such as “Hesse Thal” (“Hessian Valley”).   The latter poem may have led to the misconception that local Camp Security held Hessian instead of British prisoners-of-war.  Hessian prisoners had been marched through York County previously, with some escaping and settling here.

            Fisher’s main legacy lies in the detailed description of life nearly 200 years ago.  Human nature being what it is, each generation has its own “olden times” to remember with nostalgia.  Few have recorded their own with more grace and style than Henry Lee Fisher.

More Henry Lee Fisher posts:

Lost ways of farming.

Lewis Miller’s copy of The Old Market House.

Election poem.