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. At one point he owned much of the land in what is now Hummelstown and Middletown.
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 (with 112 steps to get to the second floor), 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.
Besides the beautiful house, there was a barn (used mostly for equipment), and several out buildings. On the right side of the orphanage was a chicken house where they raised 250 Rhoad Island Reds and sold the eggs. They also raised capons and turkeys (from April to October).
They had a 1939 Allis Chalmer tractor that had a potato plow, a disk and hoe attachments.
The children were asked to help with chores and the boys worked in the fields planting potatoes and sweet corn, in the orchards tending to the fruit trees, and milked cows. The girls did housework, sewing, gardening, and canning. Their work produced some of the best apples and peaches. The corn and tomatoes were sold at the local shoe and coat factories.
Richard Rickabaugh was the caretaker from 1962 to 1964 and he built a pavilion and bar-be-q pit under the huge oak tree in the center of the yard for the children to use. It was a gift to them for all their hard work. There were ballgames and sledding, all kinds of outdoor activies for the children.
Robert R. Frank was the assistant caretaker and he and his wife and two sons helped out on the farm and mowed the grass, for which they were paid $100 a month.
Mr. Rickabaugh and the Franks lived there for four years until the fall of 1968 when Paul Clouser, who was an attorney, closed the building and doors to the orphanage forever.
He had the children go back to whatever distant relatives or friends that would taken them or they went into the state foster system. Attorney Clouser wanted to build Frey Village, which would be a more profitable venture.
* 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.
Robert C. Frank, phone interview 8-13-2020 and email 12-13-2021.