Bruce Teeple | Aaronsburg passes test of ‘tolerence’

Sixty-five years ago this month, a remarkable event occurred in Penns Valley.

The Aaronsburg Story was not only one of the earliest attempts to promote social justice, it was one of the first events to thrust Penn State and Centre County onto the world stage.

Many towns west of the Susquehanna River derived their names and locations from their water-powered mills. Aaronsburg — the first town founded this far north and west between Sunbury and Pittsburgh — had no reason to exist.

There was no nearby stream to run a mill, flood the town or encourage termite populations. The village was a political creation by an 18th century land speculator named Aaron Levy.

Within nine years after Levy’s 1760 arrival from Amsterdam, he had become a leading merchant in the frontier town of Northumberland. Levy eventually became involved in the post-Revolutionary land boom, acting either for himself or as an agent for well-connected friends.

He believed one particular Penns Valley tract, known as Whitethorn Grove, could become a future county seat, so he sold lots through a statewide lottery. His site plan provided extra-wide streets for conducting public business.

Using another common marketing technique, Levy reserved lots for schools, churches and public buildings.

Levy’s unique legacy, though, was in giving the German Protestant settlers a communion set made by Philadelphia’s premier pewter smith, William Will. This simple ecumenical gesture countered 2,000 years of tragic misperceptions.

In the spring of 1949, as Arthur Lewis, Gov. James Duff’s press secretary, was traveling through Penns Valley, he learned about Levy’s extraordinary act.

The fact that a Jew, 150 years earlier, had presented a community of Protestants with their ritual centerpiece resonated with the temper of the time. There was post-war anguish over the horrors of the Holocaust, as well as a growing respect for racial and religious differences.

Throughout that summer, Lewis, the Rev. James Shannon and others across the county, state and country orchestrated what became known as the “Aaronsburg Story.”

On Oct. 23, 1949, leading representatives from every economic and political group — including Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and U.N. negotiator Ralph Bunche — joined more than 30,000 people in one of Middle America’s first mass demonstrations against racial and religious intolerance.

The New York Times proclaimed Aaronsburg “Tolerence Town” (one of the rare times a misspelled word appeared on its front page). Centre Daily Times editor Jerry Weinstein wrote a piece on the event for the first issue of American Heritage magazine.

Centre County soon entered the national spotlight again, with Milton Eisenhower becoming Penn State’s president and Ronald Reagan arriving to narrate the 1953 Aaronsburg Assembly.

In 1997, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission dedicated a roadside marker commemorating the “Aaronsburg Story” and its ideals.

To the Pennsylvania Dutch, “neighboring” is a given, the cornerstone of human decency. Any town can be, as Albert Einstein once called Aaronsburg, “a meeting place for all people of good intent,” but only if we remain vigilant against the forces of economic and ethnic exclusivity.

The lure of Penns Valley is in its resistance to mindless change.

Here we learn about returns: a return to the values of land, work and community; a return to living relatives and long-departed ancestors; a return to the tradition of neighborliness; and a return to a pace of life as it should be.

The forces that bind our communities together are as strong as the rock beneath our feet. Both, however, can be undermined when we take them for granted.