John Nisley’s Mansion
Martin Nisley’s Elbow Farm
Samuel Nisley’s Home
Martin (Big Mart) Nisley’s Home
The Nisley family immigrated to America in July of 1717, along with other families who were persecuted for their Mennonite beliefs. They were brought over by Martin Kendig, an emissary from the Hans Herr Mennonite group.
Ulrich was the father and along with his wife brought their two sons, Johannes and Jakob. Ulrich died on the voyage and was buried at sea. Johannes and Jakob saw that the deeds were patent and started to clear land for a home in Conestoga Township. Jakob married a local girl named Mary Funk. Her father gave them 150 acres of land and he lived there his entire life.
It was Johannes that eventually moved to Hempfield and then Donegal Township near Elizabethtown. He met and married Mary Siegrist around 1719. Together they farmed, and Johannes bought more adjoining land until he owned about eight hundred acres. He and Mary had six sons. Together they built a mill and the family homestead on it, which is still standing today on the grounds of the Masonic Homes in Elizabethtown.
It was Johannes and Mary’s eldest son John who first purchased 202 acres in what now is Lower Swatara Township in 1782 from John McClure. John, along with his brother Michael, lived in a home between Hummelstown and Middletown on the land they named “Richland”. Martin, a younger brother, joined them in Lower Swatara Township almost twenty years later.
John Nisley's Mansion
John married Barbara Hertzler sometime after 1783, and together they had five children. They built a stone house which was made mostly from white limestone and had magnificent proportions for its day. It was a three-bay, Georgian-style, two and a half story mansion.
The front and west side was raised about five feet above ground level. The north and east sides are built into a bank. There was a porch and steps to the entrance. The front and back doors, hung on pintles, both had transoms. Windows and doors were large and had red sandstone, segmented, keystone arches above them. These, and red sandstone quoins contrast with the white limestone used in the rest of the house.
There were gable-end chimneys and the fireplaces were angled into the corners on both floors. The inside walls were plastered and had wide chair rails and wide molding with clothes hooks. The cellar had two rooms one of which was circular and had an arch cellar. It measured ten feet, five inches by twenty-eight feet, four inches and was probably the storage area. It was cool and dry. The vaulted ceiling had two small windows tapered toward the exterior west wall probably to provide ventilation. There were two cellar entrances with steps down to each part of the cellar.
Outside there was an attached structure to the arched side probably a smokehouse and dairy cellar.
John and his younger brother Martin attended services at the church and schoolhouse erected in Walnut Bottom from land that John and Elizabeth Mumma provided. John Nisley is believed to be the first deacon of this church and he later donated land to build a school. John Nisley was buried on his land in the family plot with a German headstone.
Martin Nisley's Elbow Farm
John’s brother, Martin Nisley bought a farm down close to John’s on April 1, 1804 for $3,500. The farm was already named “Elbow Farm”.
Martin also had prospered, and he bought additional acreage from Henry Beber and John Fisher. Martin married Elizabeth Lehman and reared four children at Elbow Farm. The white limestone farmhouse was probably built by Abraham Raiguell somewhere between 1775 and 1779, which makes it one of the earliest, if not the earliest, German-Georgian farmhouses built in Lower Swatara Township. The Elbow Farmhouse was two and a half stories with five bays and a partial cellar. The roof has a small bell tower and a clay chimney pot from the old Hummelstown pottery works. There is a one and a half story lean-to addition which has a large kitchen with a fireplace on the west wall of the first floor and in the cellar below, an unfinished room immediately under the roof which was probably used for storage or for tenants or servants.
The attic has undressed four to six-inch logs and uprights and crossbeams. The attic floorboards are twenty-two inches wide. On the first floor, wide-board partitions separate the front and back rooms. All the ceilings in the home are made from white oak instead of plaster. Some of the doors still have the tulip-shaped latches and lock mechanisms. A German sunburst design is carved in the transom over the center hall front door. In the formal parlor, the fireplace has a shield-shaped decoration carved under its mantel. Opposite the fireplace is an arched corner cupboard with twenty lights and a small built-in wall cupboard with a single shelf and door in two rooms, which may have been used as bedrooms at one time. In the room behind the parlor, the original kitchen, is a cooking fireplace that includes a bake oven.
The cellar is excavated only in the norther half of the house. It has large summer beams and a vaulted fireplace supports that take up a large amount of room.
Martin died in 1825. He was buried in the same family burial plot as his brother John overlooking Elbow Farm. His gravestone was inscribed in German.
Martin and Elizabeth’s youngest son, Samuel, inherited and became the new owner of Elbow Farm. He took care of his mother until her death. Elbow Farm stayed in the Nisley family for many years. In 1846, Samuel and his wife Nancy gave Elbow Farm to their daughter Anna and her husband, Isaac Ober. Samuel and Nancy built a new stone house on the top of the adjacent hill.
Later owners included Aaron Hoffer and his wife.
Today, Elbow Farm is owned by Chet and Marjie Hartz and can still be seen in its full grandeur at 2142 North Union Street.
Samuel Nisley's Home
Samuel Nisley married Nancy Wisler and purchased a fifty-four-acre tract fronting on Longview Drive and later he purchased an additional thirty-four acres from Jacob Fisher. So, in 1846, Samuel, Nancy, and their son, Martin Nisley (known as “Big Mart”) moved across the road from the Elbow Farm and built another German-Georgian home but with more modern features.
The Samuel Nisley Farmhouse was a two and one-half story, five bays built from local blue-gray limestone (which was later covered in stucco). It had a central door and two horizontal rows of windows on each floor of the gable-end walls. The first-floor windows had nine-over-six windows with muntins and the second floor were six-over-six. The gable-end windows were fan-shaped.
There were double front porches, one for each floor with fancy gingerbread and fretwork. A flight of steps led to the first-story porch and a door opened out from the house onto the second-story porch. The gable roof had twelve trusses with purlins for slate shingles. Mortised beams are pegged at each joint near the eaves. On each gable-end wall two chimney flues join in the attic to form a single flue through the roof. There are gable-end fireplaces in three of the first-floor rooms, with stovepipes vented into the flues for the bedrooms on the second floor. The cellar also had fireplaces on each gable-end wall and a place to butcher. The house had a central hall, two front parlors, and rear rooms, one of which was the kitchen with a large walk-in fireplace.
The left rear room was probably used as a bedroom. The walls and ceilings were lath covered with plaster with chair rail and pegs to hang clothing. The doors were cross-and-Bible style.
There were outhouses used as a smokehouse, a pumphouse, and a corncrib.
Samuel’s new home reflected his wealth and financial stability. In 1859, when he died, his inventory listed a settee, an armchair, a tall clock, two secretaries, bureaus, a chest, looking glasses, and stoves.
Samuel bequeathed his son Martin all his land and the home he built. His daughter, Anna, already lived at the Elbow Farm. Each farm had between 160-200 acres at that time.
Martin (Big Mart) Nisley's Home
Martin (1825-1892) married Mary Roop and together they had four children, with only two daughters surviving to adulthood.
In 1869, he built a large bank barn on the property. Then later around 1871, he built another large stone house almost replicating his present residence that his father, Samuel, had built.
This third limestone home, built by Martin Nisley was three-stories high in front and two and a half stories in the back. A large Victorian porch provides shade on the second floor.
The floor plan of the house is typical center-hall Georgian. The hall itself is wider than his father’s layout and had more elaborate staircase and woodwork. The first floor also had two parlors, a kitchen, and another room. The second floor held five bedrooms, some with built-in closets that replaced the peg hooks of his previous home.
The cellar had steps to ascend to the three rooms, one of which had a thirty-foot-deep pit in the northeast corner. Ladders were used to reach the pit, but it did not appear to be used for water, butchering, or food storage. Bins were used for food storage in the cellar, but the use of the pit remains a mystery.
The attic had mortise and joints with machine-made nails. Along with some smaller area for storage.
This house was probably heated by a wood or coal stove as the bedrooms also had stovepipe openings into the flue.
“Big Mart” died in 1892 at the age of 66. He was respected and trusted by his neighbors. He was spoken of as “the most reliable man this township has produced”. Still a member of the Mennonite Church and a prominent citizen of Lower Swatara Township. He was said to be a “gentleman…and a man esteemed by all who knew him”.
“Big Mart’s” daughters married men from neighboring farms. Anna, his daughter, and her new husband Adam Shope, inherited her grandfather Samuel’s 1846 house and land. “Big Mart’s” second daughter, Elizabeth, inherited the house he built in 1871.
The 1871 house is now owned by Kreider farms and is rented. It still is in good shape and maintains a wooden Victorian porch.
Photo by Nancy Avolese 2018
Assimilation and Acculturation in a Pennsylvania-German Landscape: The Nisley Family and its Architecture in the Lower Swatara Creek Basin by Margaret Clark Reynolds. PA Follklife, Vol. 42, No. 3, Spring 1993.
Photo credit to Margaret Clark Reynolds unless otherwise noted.