A new plaque explaining the significance of the Witness Tree at Donegal Springs Presbyterian Church will be rededicated Saturday. The Witness Tree itself is gone. The entire area might have been lost in 1941 if not for the determined intervention of concerned citizens.
“The Army Has a Heart: A War Incident in Lancaster County” by Franklin & Marshall College historian H.M.J. Klein explains why a church and a monument remain to be preserved.
In 1777, with the British overrunning colonial troops and heading this way, Presbyterian worshipers gathered around a large white oak near the church. They joined hands and vowed to support the patriot cause. The tree remained a symbol of revolutionary fervor until the early 1990s, when it died and was removed. An obelisk memorial at the spot has been restored.
All of this might have been lost shortly after Japan forced the United States into the war in December 1941. The War Department considered appropriating over 11,000 acres of fertile land in the East Donegal Township area to build a TNT plant. Surveyors were on the job two weeks after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
The owners of 186 farms that would have been destroyed, though supportive of the war effort, believed less fertile land might be found elsewhere. The value of the area’s soil for farming has never been questioned. A concentration of preserved farms in that area today emphasizes the point.
Masses of people, especially in the western end of the county, opposed the project with such force that the Army abandoned it.
H.M. Nissly, chairman of a local delegation that protested the plan in Washington, D.C., said the farmers of the Donegal section were descendants of America’s pioneers. He said they could not sleep at night because they feared loss of their land.
And then he said, pointedly, “You know Donegal Church is in this section. That is one of the most historic places in the country. There is the Witness Tree, known throughout the land, as a sacred spot in Revolutionary history. ... It must not be destroyed as Hitler destroyed Cathedrals in Europe. Do you not understand?”
The Army did understand. It obtained another site for its TNT plant (Klein did not say where). Thus were 11,000 acres of productive farmland and a historic church (as well as Masonic Homes and other prominent features) preserved for future generations.
When Penn Manor School District first considered replacing the old Hambright Elementary School near Route 741 and Columbia Avenue several years ago, Penn Manor Superintendent Michael Leichliter wondered who “Hambright” was.
Now, with the ability to search all of Lancaster’s newspapers digitally, Leichliter has discovered information that he believes clarifies the name. The area had been called “Hambright’s Corner,” and now we know why.
Emanuel Hambright owned a popular hotel (the Three Mile Tavern) on Columbia Avenue at the location that was most recently the site of Carlos & Charlie’s. Hambright died in 1912. The hotel burned in 1914. The school was built and named in 1936.
Hambright was a local VIP. He fought with Pennsylvania’s 79th Regiment in the Civil War. He owned a carriage business and then operated the hotel for 26 years. He was active in Democratic politics. He served as chief bookkeeper at the United States Mint in Philadelphia during the second Cleveland administration.
Unless someone comes up with a better candidate as the namesake for Hambright’s Corner and Hambright Elementary School (now relocated to Centerville Road), the superintendent and the Scribbler are going to go with Emanuel Hambright (final answer).
Jack Brubaker, retired from the LNP staff, writes “The Scribbler” column every Wednesday. He welcomes comments and contributions at email@example.com.