The historical roots of Oley and the surrounding valley run much deeper than those of the crops that now grow there. Dating back to 1710, the township was the first section of Berks County to be settled, and the names of many of the first settlers have been handed down to the present day. Thanks to local farmland preservation efforts, many of the original farms dating back to the settlement of the area also remain. As a result, Oley was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district, and was the first municipality in America to be listed in its entirety.
The village has been home to the ancestors of some of history’s greatest figures, including Abraham Lincoln and Daniel Boone. But many of the original settlers of Oley still have family residing in the area today.
Isaac DeTurk arrived in 1712 and was one of the first to settle in the area. His homestead passed down through the generations for more than 200 years, remaining in the DeTurk name until only a few years ago. The homestead remains as a landmark and a reminder of Oley’s rich past.
Local resident Steve Fisher can trace the purchase of his home to 1790. Revolutionary Army Colonel John Lesher originally built a colonial roadside rest on the property, and sold it to the Fisher family upon his return from the war. 225 years later the family still owns and operates the farm. “Me, my son and my grandson still farm here, like the Fishers always have,” Mr. Fisher said.
Iron and Wheat
The Oley Valley has always been a flourishing agricultural center. Its 30 square miles are completely surrounded by hills. The geography inspired the Native Americans to name the area Oleka, or “kettle.” Early German settlers construed this as Olich, or “oil”, considering it an appropriate appellation from the superior fertility of the soil. The town was built around wheat farming, but early settlers also found the soil to be rich in limestone. Many farmers dug their own quarries, and at one time there were more than 18 in the area. Passersby can still see an ancient limekiln standing next to one of the few remaining open quarries only a mile from the Fisher homestead.
The Native Indians coexisted peacefully with Oley’s original settlers for many years. The history books only describe one violent incident between Indian occupants and pioneer prospectors in the middle of the 17th century in the area where Oley’s churches now stand.
The DeTurk family opened their home to settlers and natives alike for education and evangelizing. In 1742 three Mohawk Indians from the Shekomeko village in New York traveled to the DeTurk farm to become the first Indians in the county to be baptized into Christianity. It is said that one of these men later served as the inspiration for the hero in Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans.
Photos courtesy of the Oley Valley Heritage Association. Article originally published in the Around Town section of the June 2015 issue of Berks County Living.