District Township History
The rugged highlands area including District Township was historically known as the "Oley Hills." District Township’s earliest settlers followed Manatawny creek tributaries upstream from the Oley Valley during the second quarter of the 18th century. In order to facilitate assessment of property over this extended region, the county commissioners classified the territory as "East and West Districts." The territory had been referred to as “The District” by settlers in the Oley Valley during the first half of the 18th century. When the section between Oley and Colebrookdale was delineated as a separate township, in 1759, it was called "District" Township. District Township was always considered remote from surrounding settled areas and its settlers lived an “independent” lifestyle.
As in much of the Oley region, District Township’s pioneers were of German heritage. The earliest permanent settler in District Township was (John) Peter Weller from the German Palatinate near the Rhine River in south western Germany. Peter immigrated to America in 1742. Peter was born in 1720 and died on the first Weller farm in District Township in 1795. The monument of Peter Weller and his wife are located on the southern corner of the Weller homestead farm on Merkle Road between Landis Store Road and Weil Road. A small branch of the Weller family also lived near Rosenberg, a small town near Munich in Bavaria, southern Germany.
Several German emigrations into Pennsylvania took place over the 18th and 19th centuries. The Germans were attracted to this area because of the abundance of springs with pure water, and the Oley Hills reminded them of the gentle hills of their Bavarian homeland. The pioneers constructed log buildings, cleared land for subsistence farming and hunted and fished in their backyards. Barns were often constructed first with settlers living in log cabins until time and money permitted construction of stone houses. Agriculture evolved as the primary occupation of most township residents during the following century despite the limitations of rocky soils and hilly terrain. In many areas of District Township stone walls and foundations from 19th century farms can be found on forested hillsides. The farms reverted to forest since it was extremely difficult to make a living farming on small rocky plots of land, plowing around boulders. During the 18th and 19th century, farmers would load iron-rich rocks onto ox and mule drawn hay wagons on Sunday to haul to local iron furnaces, earning “mortgage money”. Today, farms and orchards are still located in moderately sloping, fertile upland areas. Fertility of the soil is very rich, as evidenced by the observation that weeds grow much taller in District Township compared to Lancaster County.
The iron industry, prominent in much of Eastern Berks County in the 18th century, was established in District Township in 1776 and lasted until 1865. In about 1776, District Furnace was built on Pine Creek by John Lesher. The Lesher family operated this site in conjunction with Oley Forge on the Manatawny Creek at Spangsville in Oley Township. Oley Forge had been constructed in 1745. An advantage of the District Township site was the abundance of woodland used for the production of charcoal, the primary fuel for iron making during this period. The District or “German” furnace was located on Pine Creek near today’s District–Pike Township border. Recent readjustment of the District-Pike Township line places the furnace and associated iron works, which historically had been in District Township, into Pike Township. The Iron works was a self-sufficient community consisting of an iron furnace, charcoal storage houses, casting house, stamping mill, iron forge for converting pig iron into bar iron, grist mill, saw mill, store, blacksmith shop and potter’s shop located on 1582 acres of land.
The small villages of Fredericksville and Landis Store date to the early 1800s, when public houses and stores were opened to serve their neighborhoods. Local post offices were added at both locations in 1853. Fredericksville is named after David Frederick, the tavern owner and postmaster. John Weller was the first proprietor at Landis Store, but a subsequent owner, Samuel Landis, gave his name to the establishment.
In the 1860s four school districts were established, each with a one-room school. Sterner’s district school on Long Lane Road, Rohrback’s district school on Huffs Church Road, Landis district school on Conrad Road adjacent to Landis Store, and Fry’s district school on Deer Run Road. Landis district school was closed in 1954 when consolidated into the Brandywine Heights School District.
Four Weller Stone houses built in the 19th century located within one mile of the intersection of Weil and Landis Store roads still serve as private residences. The Weller house on Sycamore Drive off Weil Road has carved wood scrolls and decorations on roof eves - indicative of Italian architecture influence in Rosenheim, Germany – directly across the Alps from Italy. The scrolls and decorations probably were created by a Weller craftsman from Rosenheim, Germany. Identical scrolls and decorations were observed in 2002 by District Township travelers to Rosenheim.
The population of District Township in the 19th century was higher than it is today. The population declined after the industrial revolution as farmers struggling to make a living in the rocky soil moved into Reading and other communities to work in factories.
Today, with a population of about 1,300, District Township displays a remarkable continuity in its patterns of land use, and integrity in the natural quality of its landscape. Its swift-flowing pristine streams, abundant woodlands, scattered farms, and distinctive historic buildings depict a strong sense of place bolstered by an unspoiled natural setting. Residents are battling to preserve the unique, historic natural setting against pressures of development.