1843 - 1926 (83 years)
||Frederick G. Hoffman |
||, , Pennsylvania, USA
|House of Industry and Refuge
|15 days |
|Eby ID Number
||18 May 1926
||Kitchener, Waterloo Region, Ontario, Canada
|Cause: Carcinoma of the stomach 6 months, & old age |
||16 Jul 2019 |
- FRED. G. HOFFMAN (1845 - 1926): WATERLOO COUNTY ITINERANT WOODCARVER
by Terubo .Kobayashi
Mrs. Kobayashi is head of the Art Department at Eastwood Collegiate, Kitchener. An article she wrote about David B. Horst, a Pennsylvania- German woodcarver, was published in The Waterloo Historical Society s 1977 annual volume.
The Waterloo County area has proven to be fertile ground for the practice of the woodcarver s art. Within a 20-mile radius of Waterloo there have flourished such artists as Daniel Kuepfer in the Amish area between Wellesley and Millbank, John Hummel in the Roman Catholic community of Maryhill, and the outstanding Pennsylvania - German carver David B. Horst (1873-1965) in the Mennonite area of St. Jacobs.
An unusual folk artist whose name is still remembered and cherished by many older Mennonite and Amish residents of Waterloo, Perth and Oxford counties is Fred G. Hoffman (1845-1926). Known both as "Fred" and the German "Fritz", this talented personality was a household guest of perhaps 20 or 30 families, having stayed with Mennonite hosts in the St. Jacobs area of Waterloo County, as well as in Amish households in the Tavistock and Punkeydoodles areas where the three counties of Waterloo, Perth and Oxford come together. From the many stories narrated by older residents of these areas who remember him well, and from drawings and carvings done by him in the early part of the 20th century, it is evident that Fred Hoffman was a meticulous artist and a colourful personality.
Some persons recall that he was most reluctant to talk about his background, but occasional accidental references to places in Pennsylvania would creep into his remarks. In addition, a few drawings and woodcarvings are signed "Fred G. Hoffman, Philadelphia."
Details of Fred's life prior to his arrival in Canada somewhere around the turn of the century are shrouded in mystery. There is even some doubt that this was actually his true name, although it was used by him consistently over many years and in various households. One story narrated by several informants is that Fred had inherited or otherwise acquired a large sum of money in Pennsylvania, but had lost everything, either by wreckless spending or heavy gambling. Others recalled stories that he had been a professional ball player who had sustained a serious injury and had decided to move to Canada. A large number of persons in the Mennonite and Amish districts where he stayed believe that he had been a schoolteacher or member of some similar profession befitting a well-read man. A tantalizing story from the St. Jacobs - Hawkesville area is that he had escaped from a penitentiary in the United States, successfully eluded his pursuers, including dogs, and made it to safety in Waterloo County, Canada.
According to most informants, Fred Hoffman arrived in the area prior to 1910. The earliest date suggested was the mid-1890s, indicated by Simeon E. Martin (born 1892) of St. Jacobs, who recalls having learned woodcarving from Fred Hoffman at the age of 8 or 9 years, when this guest from a remote place had already been around the house for several years.1 Most informants agree that Fred Hoffman was at least a middle-aged man, having had grey hair when they were still youngsters.
In the final decades of the 19th century there were many tramps in Waterloo County who sought room and board in exchange for menial chores. It would appear that transients had come to know of the remarkable generosity of Mennonite and Amish householders who took in many such homeless persons well into the 20th century. Nearly every informant interviewed went to special pains to point out that Fred Hoffman was no ordinary tramp. "Fred Hoffman was a gentleman among tramps", claimed David Lichti of New Hamburg and others.2 He is consistently remembered as an unusually clean, well-spoken and highly-educated man who was reluctant to dirty himself with any kind of work in the barn, considering such work beneath him, although he helped in other capacities around the house. Given this description, we have a portrait of an urbane gentleman who successfully employed wit and wisdom in order to sustain himself in the socially acceptable manner to which he was accustomed. Within the social structure of transients, Fred Hoffman was an aristocrat.
During the approximately thirty years of his life in Canada, Fred Hoffman lived principally in two areas situated some fifteen miles apart at the north and south ends of Waterloo County. In general he spent the summer months with various Mennonite families in the St. Jacobs area and the winter months at Amish households near Punkeydoodles Corners, just southwest of New Hamburg. It was surprising to discover in interviews with various persons that neither group seemed to know just where Fred stayed during the other half of the year. People in the St. Jacobs area were vaguely aware that Fred spent the winter ''somewhere further south", but did not know that he stayed with Amish hosts just fifteen miles away. Likewise, persons in the Amish community knew that in the spring Fred would "head up north somewhere", but did not quite know where he spent his time. These comments, in conjunction with those made concerning lack of concrete information about his earlier life, suggest that Fred Hoffman was not one for talking casually about his private life. Fortunately, one of the few exceptions to non-awareness of his travels afield was the recollection of Simeon E. Martin of St. Jacobs, who could vaguely remember hearing of a family (David S. Bender) whom Fred had visited in the Punkeydoodles Corners area.2 With this solitary fragile connection, it was then possible to find descendants of the Bender family and from there be directed to other homes in the vicinity where Fred had been a winter guest.
From the many stories told by both Mennonite and Amish informants, it is clear that Fred Hoffman's life had a recognizable pattern. During the summers, while he was staying in the St. Jacobs vicinity, he devoted much time to fishing. He also fished in late spring and early fall in the Amish region, bringing home to his hosts great quantities of pike and bass from the Nith or Thames Rivers. In the Mennonite district he fished in the Conestogo River between St. Jacobs and Hawkesville. The late Lovina Bauman, daughter of Menno Hoffman, with whose family Fred had stayed repeatedly, recalled at age 92 a special wooden bucket in which the family made a point of saving worms from the garden for Fred's fishing expeditions. Fred frequently boasted that he possessed a special charm and made the claim that he could catch anything. Various individuals recall that Fred liked to be bragged up . William Bender of Punkeydoodles Corners remembers pike over three feet long which Fred used to bring to their home. Various people speak of Fred's favourite fishing spots -on the Conestogo River near the Menno Hoffman home, by the bridge at Bender's Hill west of New Hamburg, and at a large pond near Tavistock. Lovina Bauman claimed, "I probably cleaned more fish for Fred Hoffman than most people would clean in a lifetime. 4 Some fishermen undoubtedly take more pleasure in the sport itself than in the consumption of the fruit of their labours. This was not the case for Fred. He was, to say the least, an enthusiastic eater of everything, but especially fish. Lovina Bauman pointed out that one of Fred's favourite families was that of Mr. and Mrs. Amos Martin near St. Jacobs. He repeatedly talked of "going over to Betsy's," because she cooked fish so well - in lots of butter.
He stayed with certain families for two to three weeks, and with others for only a night or a weekend. One informant from the Tavistock area remembered that re used to arrive regularly on a Friday night and leave on Monday. Occasionally he remained for longer periods, as at Michael Ropp's, where he stayed several weeks. Even in his later years Fred "kept on the move", even though families indicated that they wished he could lengthen his visits. Mrs. Henry Yantzi remembered Fred's stays at her father's house (Joel Schwartzentruber) and reflected that it would have been nice if Fred could have come more often and stayed a little longer.5 It is possible that Fred was afraid to outstay his welcome. He continued from house to house, and in the spring and again in the fall, walked the distance between Tavistock and St. Jacobs. All that he carried was a simple club bag; whenever his wardrobe required replenishing, his sponsors supplied him.6
In the winters, according to many persons who were children when Fred Hoffman stayed in their homes, he would perform certain chores, especially that of making wood", the local expression for chopping firewood. Even in the St. Jacobs area people recall hearing that Fred made wood" for persons he stayed with at the other end of county. His meticulous manner applied even to his chore. It is widely known that he had a fine way of finishing stumps very smoothly. One informant described this detail with a sense of amazement: "I don't know how he was able to finish off those stumps so smooth. It was just in his nature to do things like that."7
It has been said that Fred was extremely superstitious. Some say that he actually believed he could charm fish. claimed that onions could ward off disease. After the first World War, a severe flu epidemic swept across Waterloo County and southwestern Ontario. People remember vividly the sight of Fred Hoffman walking along with a bunch of onions from which he took healthy bites whenever he passed a stricken household. Needless to say, Fred remained immune.
Whether from superstition or for other reasons, Fred refused to eat certain foods commonly consumed in the households where he stayed. One food which he avoided was bacon. The Joel Schwartzentruber family near Tavistock enjoyed the traditional bacon n egg breakfast before a day of heavy work. They remember that Fred loved to eat most things, but that he refused bacon, Sol Roth of New Hamburg recalls an interesting variation on "breakfast stories" in which Fred was asked by Mrs. Joel Schwartzentruber what he wanted for breakfast eggs he replied. When asked how many eggs he would like, he responded, presumably in jest, Oh, I'll have thirteen. Mrs. Schwartzenbruber promptly fried him thirteen eggs. Never one to back down on a promise, Fred ate them all.
"Fritz", the well-educated, enigmatic figure, never really learned to speak the Pennsylvania-German dialectprevalent among his hosts. It appears that on one occasion he would make a point of combining his native Englis is with a few isolated words from the dialect, producing humourous results. One amusing story is told by Matthias Martin of Hawkesville, as well as Simeon E. Martin. Chuckling over Fred's attempts to "Germanize occasional English words, they describe one very foggy day when Fred looked out the window and declared how "mishty" was outside. To the initiated, this description is more aptly applied to the stable floor than to the sky.
No photographs of Fred are known. He is described as an average-sized man of medium proportions with grey hair and moustache. One informant seemed to remember a tattoo mark on his arm, usually concealed by the long- sleeved shirts which he wore on most occasions.
In spite of what were often brief visits to particular households, Fred was accepted as a family member. One of his unofficial functions seems to have been babysitting, amusing the children with his endless stories and games. He rarely talked to strangers, nor did he journey into town if others could run errands for him. He frequently asked Menno Hoffman to buy a paper on the latter's weekly shopping excursion to Elmira. Lovina Bauman recalls how carefully Fred always read the newspapers, especially the sports pages.
His Amish and Mennonite hosts tell numerous stories concerning the religious side of their unusual guest. Although he was not a churchgoer, Fred did observe the Sabbath by not fishing or working on that day. Mrs. Henry Jantzi and Mahlon Bender remember that Fred often liked to "argue the Scriptures," although not necessarily in a sympathetic way.
During the winter months near Punkeydoodles Corners, Fred spent much time indoors with his whittling or drawing, frequently smoking a fantastic pipe whose stem was three feet long, with a bowl between six and eight inches high. Lighting such a pipe was a two-man operation which, no doubt, amused and impressed many. One informant recalls hearing Fred tell a story from his youth in which he once lit a cigar with a $5 bill.9 Whether empty boasting or an accurate description of earlier prosperity, it is a story much loved and shared by older residents. Other displays of showmanship included juggling anything from apples and oranges to Easter eggs. He prided himself on doing small tricks, such as being able to drum his fingers on a table faster than anyone else, or being champion at games of all kinds. One of his favourite games was crokinole. He didn't like "getting beat," and played games with unbelievable aggressiveness. Michael Ropp and Fred Hoffman reputedly played one game of crockinole which took three nights to complete.10
Sometimes Fred's boastfulness was put to the test outdoors, as well. A "coup" for Fred involved an enormous tree at Punkeydoodles Corners for which, reportedly, there was neither a crosscut saw nor broad axe big enough to fell it. This was exactly the kind of challenge that Fred enjoyed; starting to work early in the morning, he not only managed to finish it by suppertime but also smoothed the stump so beautifully that all the local residents talked of it for a long time.11
Fred's ultimate boast was that he would live until he was 100. Unfortunately, while staying at Amos Martin's near St. Jacobs, he fell seriously ill in the early spring of 1926. The nature of his illness is unclear, but he had not been well during the previous winter near Punkeydoodles Corners. Alma Roth of New Hamburg said, "My dad always said that if we had lived on a farm, we would have kept Fred when he was sick. We wouldn't have let him go away. Ours was the last place he stayed and then he never returned."12
A proud man, Fred Hoffman dreaded the prospect of ever having to go to an institution of any kind. The last place he wanted to go was the House of Refuge, the institution for indigents located on Frederick Street in Kitchener. His fear was sadly expressed in a comment to Amos Martin: "If you take me there, I won't last any longer."13 What a tragic dilemma for the Martin family who felt that they could no longer adequately look after him in his grave illness. One Monday morning Mrs. Ivan Cressman, daughter of Amos Martin, watched from her summer kitchen as Fred boarded the wagon to be taken to Kitchener by Amos Martin and Menno Hoffman. As they were departing, Fred turned in the buggy and shouted, Good-bye; bless you all."14 Mrs. Cressman recalls her profound sadness as she watched Fred Hoffman disappear down the lane, possibly never to be seen again. It was not long after this heart - rending departure that a letter arrived at the Martin home from the House of Refuge, bringing word of Fred's death. It is recalled with much sorrow that for some reason no one from either St. Jacobs or Punkeydoodles Corners had managed to get into town to visit Fred before his death. Recently, Sandy Kehl of the Sunnyside Home in Kitchener found a handwritten medical logbook from the 1920s which reads "Frederick Hoffman passed away May 18, 1926. He was 81. He went to the Toronto College. Lippert- Hunter."15 The college in guestion is undoubtedly the medical school in Toronto which received bodies of deceased persons with no known relatives. Lippert-Hunter was a funeral home in Kitchener. Such was the anonymous departure of a man whose background was similarly anonymous.
While fishing and "making wood" represented his chief means of livelihood, Fred Hoffman devoted much leisure time to making pencil drawings for children. Undoubtedly, most are copies, competently rendered in a dense graphite pencil, from magazine illustrations, school texts, story books, seed catalogues or other sources. Many are identified by a title neatly inscribed in his inimitable florid script.
In the late 19th century, a popular school exercise book, known as the "Eclipse Drawing Book", was published in Canada by the Copp-Clark Company. One interesting example preserved by Rachel Martin of Heidelberg consists of many of Fred Hoffman's pencil drawings of flowers, copies of Rennie's seed advertisements, and other topical subjects. Some are coloured in by a less secure hand, possibly that of the young Rachel. One intriguing illustration is called "The Poppy", which is in reality a portrait of a young girl, adorned with red poppies. Fred's copy imitates the printmaker's device of hatching in parallel lines to indicate the wavy lines of the hair, but he makes no attempt to suggest light-dark values on the face or limbs. "Little Red Riding Hood", a slightly more complicated drawing with the girl in the foreground and an incongruous Dutch windmill in the background, bears the over-punctuated title (every line ended with a period) which occurs frequently in his work. Possibly Fred attempted some originality in the embellishment of titles, a manner of inscription which appears on some of his carvings as well. "A Beautiful American" hardly falls in the tradition of the limner, but it is a charming drawing of what may have been the popular feminine ideal of the time.
During his stays with the Menno Hoffman family near St. Jacobs, Fred decorated Lovina's "Eclipse Drawing Book. Again, all the drawings are done in pencil, with some parallel hatching, but no shading in the conventional sense, and some coloured in crayon by another person. More topical subjects copied from popular magazines are somewhat amusing in nature. Lovina's "Our Fair Dominion School Exercise Book" has drawings by Fred in the last three pages. This book is a wonderful record of a youngster's school work, betraying such informative messages as, "My sister got scarlet fever. That's nothing. In our house we've got measles, mumps, whopping cough an smallpox" (sic).
There are many other examples of Fred Hoffman's drawing skill on loose sheets, all done in similar pencil technique. One, entitled "The Eveing'' (sic), in which he has copied an illustrated poem, is identified, "Drawn by Fred Hoffman. Philadelphia, Penn.'' Among others is an interesting drawing of a Victorian-style farmhouse, possibly an attempt to portray the residence of the Hoffmans near St. Jacobs. Despite perspective problems, it is a meticulous attempt to record every detail, including shingles and bricks.
It is the difficulty with perspective which usually betrays the untrained artist. This very problem is also the charm of many such efforts. In an art drawing book there is a page containing instructions on the correct drawing of a cylinder in perspective. Fred ignored most of the instructions and usually made some other illustrations according to his fancy; however, on this particular page, he drew a pot of flowers with a straight, rather than elliptical flower pot bottom.
Although Fred Hoffman was a thoroughly competent calligrapher, as evidenced in his signature and titles, he does not appear to have produced any examples of Fraktur, or Gothic-style lettering, popular in areas of Germanic settlement. There is, however, at least one known marriage certificate for Christian Baechler and Annie Bender which he lettered in 1917. Most of Fred's drawing and calligraphy was done in pencil, which could be easily corrected. Perhaps he did not feel confident with pen and ink, the Fraktur scrivener's normal medium, which is more demanding and allows little room for error.
In an indirect manner, Fred's artistic influence was to extend to textiles. Barbara Wagler of near New Hamburg hooked a rug with the design of three fish in a circle, adapted from a pencil drawing done by Fred. In 1922 the Bender sisters Alice and Melinda hooked a rug with tulips and a central horseshoe, inspired by this motif which Fred used often in his woodcarvings.16 As Fred borrowed and modified techniques and subjects seen earlier, his contemporaries and a later generation of persons in the Waterloo County area were eventually to produce artifacts with elements derived from the work of this itinerant artist.
Perhaps the most interesting of articles fashioned by Fred Hoffman are the numerous sewing boxes, wall shelves or brackets, chains, decorative plaques, horseshoes and other examples of woodcarving done in the decade prior to his death in 1926. It is possible that Fred, like many wood- carvers in the Germanic tradition, began this craft in his later years as a hobby. No doubt this interest in "fancy work" can be associated with his aesthetic sensitivity in drawings and lettering and his meticulous approach to everything from tricks and games to the finishing of tree stumps.
Among the earliest and simplest carved objects known to be the work of Fred Hoffman are several ball-in-cage carvings in which the ball is carved from a solid block. By cutting away the wood around the centre and leaving an outer frame, the result is a cage with ball moving freely inside. This type of carving became popular in many areas and is restricted to no specific cultural tradition. Some of the examples made in the Waterloo County area take on a Germanic decorative quality with carved pinwheels and stars as ornamentation. Related to these ball-in-cage carvings are wooden chains cut from a single long piece of pine or basswood. At least one such chain, made for Michael Ropp of Tavistock, measures more than eight feet in length! Several of the wooden chains have a ball - in- cage carving at each end.
Another early and simple form was that of wooden pliers which Hoffman carved and gave to children. In some cases he would fashion a set of interlocking pliers as gifts. Simeon E. Martin of St. Jacobs is one contemporary woodcarver, active in his late 80s, who learned his technique directly from Fred, having been taught to carve pliers when he was only eight years old. He continues to carve these delightful wooden utensils in sets of three, using the same method employed by Fred Hoffman before the turn of the century. Many persons who today treasure sets of wooden pliers obtained from Martin possess an indirect material reminder of the artistic legacy of Hoffman.
Yet another decorative motif which caught Freds imagination was the horseshoe, cut from wood and embellished with chip carving along its edges. Further details include some incised decoration along the surfaces and application of spots of colour in red and green along its chip-carved edges. Sometimes these horseshoes were carved singly, sometimes in groups of as many as five.
The most distinctive and elaborate work is, however the numerous chip-carved wall boxes made by Hoffman between the approximate dates of 1915 and 1925 There were certainly many prototypes for such boxes, including examples illustrated in manual training or shop book. The boxes made by Fred are of unique design, however, with his distinctive use of carved details, horseshoes arrange in rows, incised geometric designs and a duck motif adapted possibly from calendars, book illustrations or even late 19th century needlework. The wall boxes made made by Fred Hoffman feature, along with the horseshoe moth popular everywhere at the turn of the century, strongly Germanic design elements, such as the pinwheel, 8-pointed star, compass points, geometric patterns, floral decoration an a general arrangement of motifs in rigid axial symmetry. Most of these boxes are signed in pencil on the bottom an some include also the names of recipients and the date of completion. Most are given modest painted decoration, inthe form of red and green accents on chip-carved edges and on the stars and other elements carved into the front surface. In some boxes, the background is painted a cream colour; in others the background is left unpainted. Toward the mid-1920s the carving and painting of boxes was becoming progressively more elaborate. A box carved Katie Bender is decorated with painted strawberries; another features painted ducks and the words "Sail Home". It is interesting that this identical design and text in needlework on a pillow sham by Katherine Boshart ca. 1900, just prior to the time that Fred Hoffman was carving his wall boxes. One of the finest of these carved wall boxes is signed "Fred G. Hoffman February 16, 1925 Wellesly (sic), Ont.".
Also from the hand of Fred Hoffman are several circular plaques with geometric designs, carved from basswood. Possibly the last major object made by this carver is a large fernstand with carved horseshoes and a fretwork surface which reads: "March Fernstand 1926." Its ends are carved with circular designs nearly identical to the wooden plaques. This elaborate stand was made only two months before his death.
Fred Hoffman's influence was probably very strong among whittlers and carvers in the Amish and Mennonite areas of Waterloo and Oxford counties. Among those who copied or adapted his work are the late Michael Ropp of Tavistock, Christian Burkhardt of near Hawkesville, and the four Shantz brothers (Levi, Elam, Erwin and Orvie). Orvie Shantz, who made several wall boxes with horseshoes during the 1930s and 1940s, recalls an even less direct but possible influence. His uncle, Edmund Shantz, eventually opened the Horseshoe Restaurant in Waterloo, the name possibly influenced by a neighbouring blacksmith shop and recollections of stories of "Fred Hoffman's horseshoes".17 This establishment continues in business in 1982. At least one informant, Mrs. Aaron E. Martin, believes that even the famous woodcarver David B. Horst (1873 - 1965) learned the art of carving from Fred G. Hoffman.18
More refined and considerably more Germanic than the crude attempts at chip-carving known generally as "tramp art , the woodcarving of Hoffman is evidence of a vigorous and colourful tradition which flourished in Amish and Mennonite areas of southern Ontario in the early decades °f the present century. Made normally as tokens of appreciation to the many hosts who looked after him, these beautiful works, like the drawings of Anna Weber and carved animals of David B. Horst, are striking reminders of the private nature of art which only in later years would come to attract the interest of a broad public.
1.Interview with Simeon E. Martin, December 30, 1978.
2.Related in conversation with Mr. and Mrs. David Lichti and Mr. and Mrs. William Bender, January 10, 1979.
3.Simeon Martin mentioned having heard references to Fred Hoffman when Simeon was involved in the building of the Amish Mennonite church on the 16th line near Tavistock.
4.Interview of January 19, 1979. Mrs. Lovina Bauman is a daughter of Menno Hoffman, with whom Fred stayed for one and two-week periods over thirty years or more.
5.Interview of January 12, 1979. The Jantzis had lived on the Punkeydoodles - Tavistock Road, between the 16th and 17th lines.
6.Related by David Lichti of New Hamburg, January 10, 1979.
7.Interview with Lovina Bauman, January 6, 1979.
8.This story was told on January 15, 1979, by Mrs. Solomon Roth of New Hamburg, who at one time had worked for the Joel Schwartzentruber family.
9.Told by Ezra Zehr of near Shakespeare, January 13, 1979.
10.Interview with Michael Ropp of Tavistock, January 12, 1979.
11.Told by William Bender, January 10, 1979. This same story was later narrated by Mahlon Bender of New Hamburg, February 9, 1979.
12.Interview, January 15, 1979. Alma Roth is a daughter of Samuel Bender of near New Hamburg, the last Amish host with whom Fred Hoffman stayed in the winter of 1926.
13.This story was related on January 19, 1979, by Mrs. Ivan Cressman of Floradale, a daughter of Amos Martin.
15.Information provided by Sandy Kehl of the Sunnyside Home, March 22, 1979.
16.This story was related by Alice and Melinda Bender, January 13, 1979.
17.Account given by Orvie Shantz, December 28, 1978.
18.Interview with Mrs. Aaron Martin, January 22, 1979. That David B. Horst had first learned the woodcarving art directly from Fred Hoffman is doubtful, in view of the fact that known carvings from his hand date as early as 1883. It is possible, however, that these two carvers knew of each other since both lived in the St. Jacobs area at various times. Certain technigues, including chip-carving along edges of surfaces and the application of red and green spots for decorative embellishment, characteristic of Fred Hoffman's wall boxes, appear on the numerous wooden animals and other objects carved by David Horst in the 1930s and 1940s, suggesting possible influence from the former.
Waterloo Historical Society, Annual Volume 69  pg 111-126