Emaus Orphans Home
By: Nancy Avolese
George Frey (Johannes Eberhardt) was born on March 1, 1732, in Germany. He sailed by ship to Philadelphia, PA in 1749 at the age of 17. He came to Middletown, PA in April of 1752, where he found employment as a farmer with George Fisher, the founder of Middletown.
George Frey was a Lutheran and one of the most active laymen in the early years of St. Peter's Church. He worked hard and spent little. He was a savvy businessman selling merchandise to the Indians and frontier settlers. He started his own store and also worked at importing and exporting. He went into partnership with John Hollingsworth at a grist mill (where what is now the east end of Mill Street). He rebuilt the property along with a mill stream. He bought up more parcels of land whenever he could.
Many years before his death in 1806, George Frey wanted to build and fund a home for orphans. He and his wife, Catherine were childless. He actually started the frame of a log building and it had a roof but it was never finished and was later sold.
In his will, he left his property (over 1,415 acres) for an orphanage to be built and for its maintenance, once his wife had passed on. He wanted the orphanage to be called “Emmaus”* (perhaps from the reference in the Bible that we follow Jesus with little steps) and be under the care of the Lutheran Church.
There were some legal disputes among his siblings and their heirs that lasted years and drained a large portion of the money, but the brick building was finally erected in 1837 between Union and Spring Streets (at St. Peter’s Parish House). George Frey’s dream had come true.
In 1840, a school for their education was started. Instruction was given in both German and English. The building was enlarged in 1841 and thirty-three children enrolled in the school.
In 1874, the orphans were moved to a new three-story-brick building that was erected at 1020 North Union Street (where Frey Village now stands). Both George Rodfong and Christian Fisher contributed over $14,000 each to help pay for the new building and land. This home was huge compared to the original and it consisted of 28 rooms with wide halls and high ceilings. There was a beautiful open staircase, a reception room and parlor, a kitchen, a library and school among others. In the dormitories, each child was assigned a few drawers to keep their personal belongings. On Sundays, they attended Sunday School and Church at St. Peter's and each was given a penny to put in the offering plate.
The children were asked to help with chores and the boys worked in the fields and milked cows. The girls did housework, gardening, and canning.
In the fall of 1964, a fire damaged the building and there were no longer funds or citizens able or willing to fund repairs and the Board of Trustees voted to close the orphanage. There were twelve children in the home at that time.
* The early spelling of “Emmaus” and later “Emaus” refer to the same and are used interchangeably.
Swartz, Paul, “Demise of Emaus Orphan House. The End of an Era”, The Press and Journal, May 31, 1973, p. 12.
“90 Years of History Comes to an End”, The Press and Journal, June 4, 1980, p.5.
“The Emaus Orphan House” by Margaret Laszczak, June 8 and 9, 1991, 16th Annual Middletown Colonial Arts and Crafts Fair at Hoffer Park.
“The Book of Memories, St. Peter’s Lutheran Church”, Middletown, Penna. 1917
Middletown Pennsylvania 250 Years 1755 - 2005 Photo
"Ich Bin Frei" by Grace DeHart, 1996.