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The “Farmer”

August 14, 2008

[This article is written for the 54th Carnival of Genealogy, which is to be posted at What's Past is Prologue.]

The topic for this edition of Carnival of Genealogy is: “The Family Language…Does your family use words and phrases that no one else knows or understands? Where did they come from? Did you ever try to explain your ‘family language’ to outsiders? Tell a story about your family-coined words, phrases, or nicknames.”

Well, at first this didn’t seem to have much relevance to my own historical research, but that thing about the nicknames caught my attention. Family-coined words and phrases may not apply, but unusual nicknames–that certainly does apply!

Monroe Kulp (1858-1911), the prominent Shamokin, Northumberland County, Pennsylvania native foremost in my research, was frequently known by the nickname of “Farmer.” You’ll notice it just about anywhere in reference to him–recent local history books, even newspaper articles from his own time. However, he had no direct connection to farming, and thus the source of the nickname has always been a bit of a mystery.

The only detailed information I’ve ever found on the subject was written in a history article in the News-Item, 22 October 1986, by the late Paul T. MacElwee. Entitled “Monroe H. Kulp: Shamokin’s Most Outstanding Citizen,” the article has since become pretty much the definitive source for information on this well-known turn-of-the-century businessman, next to the county biographies. The article is especially intriguing to me, as it mentions two very unusual anecdotes–the kind of thing which was never written down, but retold by parents to their children over generations. Since MacElwee grew up in the late 1910′s and 1920′s, I suspect he likely heard it from his elders who actually remembered those earlier days, and had picked up these stories when they were first being told.

One of these anecdotes described a conversation Kulp was believed to have had with a Rev. J. J. Koch, rector of St. Edward’s Catholic Church (now Mother Cabrini), and another told of the manner in which the famed nickname “Farmer” had supposedly come about. Found nowhere else, although used in an historical reenactment at the local 2008 Anthracite Heritage Festival, the story was told by the author as follows:

…Kulp was seven years of age when the family moved to Shamokin and settled on a tract of land on the outskirts of the community.

Young Kulp had a long way to walk when he attended school in Shamokin proper. One day as he approached school, one of his schoolmates called out “here comes the farmer,” this designation because he lived out of town. The name “Farmer” stayed with him all his life and in later years was used with the greatest respect when people referred to him by that nickname.

Since I first read this article, I have been trying to locate additional information on this early stage of his life, to prove, disprove, or at least provide a bit of clarification to this story. At first, I disagreed with the premise that he lived out of town. The family settled in Shamokin around 1867 (when he was actually about nine years old, rather than seven), and the old homestead which they occupied was located on Dewart Street in the 1st Ward of Shamokin–definitely not the outskirts, not even in those days from what I know. A few blocks north of there, perhaps, would have been the Cameron Addition and that is considered the outskirts of town, but Dewart Street I think would not have been. By 1870, the family’s residence was listed as the 1st Ward in the census of that year, so at least within a short time after their relocation in Shamokin, they were already settled at the Dewart Street homestead. I also have no other specific indication of a previous home.

Further, if he did live at the Dewart Street homestead at this early time, the possibility of there having been a long walk to the school is completely out. According to the 1964 book, “Greater Shamokin Centennial,” the local elementary school at that time was the Central School, located at what would become the site, in 1890, of the Washington School. This was on Sunbury Street–just two blocks from the location of the old homestead. So, if our premise here is true, we can wager the kids didn’t consider him an “out-of-towner” just for that, nor was he doing any of that oft-lamented walking miles to school.

1889 Shamokin Land Ownership Atlas Map, showing portion of 1st Ward. A: D.R. Kulp homestead - B: Central School. As a scale, the block in which the homestead was located would have been approx. 100 ft each side. 1st Ward map in possession of author; notations added by author.

Some time ago, trying to shed new light on this issue, I checked an index to land records at my local library, trying to establish just when Kulp’s father, Darlington R., first settled in the area and exactly where.

It turned out, however, that this was even more confusing. So far as I can tell (the index is not scrupulously alphabetical), the first recorded land purchase by Darlington R. Kulp in Northumberland County was from Charles P. Helfenstein, a relatively important Shamokinite, and, I think, owner of a lot of area land in those days. The date was September 1867 (about a month before he settled in Shamokin, according to Floyd’s Genealogical and Biographical Annals of Northumberland County), and the location was Zerbe and Coal Townships. This seems to support MacElwee’s claim that the family lived on the outskirts of town, since Coal Township actually surrounds Shamokin (it’s considered a sister city), and both Coal and Zerbe Townships can be considered rather out of the way, even now.

But what bothered me, is that I couldn’t find anything in the index that seemed to refer to a land purchase in the 1st Ward, where the Dewart Street homestead was. Nothing fitting into a reasonable time period, anyway. There were some Shamokin purchases in the 1880′s (the index doesn’t list the specific address), but that’s it. The next purchase by D.R. Kulp after 1867 was from a Dan Schultz in 1876, the property being located in Jackson Township. I hardly even know where that is, or was. A year later, he purchased land in Shamokin Township from one Matthias Emes, who later became his associate in the lumber business. Shamokin Township, however, is most definitely not the same as Shamokin Borough, and it’s not especially close by. And already, we are getting into dates far beyond 1870, when the census listed the Kulp family as residing in the 1st Ward. So, exactly what the story is here, I’m not certain.

But returning to the subject of the elusive nickname, I believe that this anecdote–being an oral history such as it is–may not be entirely true. In fact, it may even have been something concocted by one of Kulp’s associates, or by Kulp himself, around the time of his run for U.S. Representative in 1894. Appealing to the agriculturalist, from what I’ve read in area papers of that time period, was part of the message of his campaign. However, by the time of the election that year, the nickname was already being used profusely in local newspapers, suggesting perhaps that it wasn’t an entirely new thing, and later on, a newspaper from another city indicated they didn’t know how the name arose, so it can’t have been repeated very much in his campaign. As mentioned, I have never seen the story repeated anywhere other than MacElwee’s article, so this seems to discredit the politicking theory.

Also, although farming was certainly not in his career, there are occasional references to agriculture in his family history. Most of his ancestors, Montgomery County residents since the 1740′s, were probably farmers, and although his father was in the lumber business, Darlington was also known for converting timber tracts, once cleared, into farms. Ultimately, he owned about ten farms in the Northumberland County area, although they weren’t his primary enterprise.

So, the question remains: Is the story told by MacElwee actually true? Was the origin of this nickname the reaction of schoolchildren to a newcomer, or merely a mild case of political pandering? I don’t know yet, but, as with all research questions, I intend to find out.

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