By Larry Herrold
Among the most famous residents of the former Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg is Elsie Singmaster Lewars. She was born in Schuykill Haven, Pennsylvania, on 29 August 1879 to the Rev. Dr. John Alden Singmaster and his wife Caroline Hoopes Singmaster. Elsie often reflected fondly on her childhood and her hometown, Macungie. “It was a quiet, tree-shaded village, lying at the foot of a wooded hill which we called ‘the mountain’.” Her later works incorporated memories of Macungie and its landscapes and people. She lived there from 1882–1885 whilst her father served six local Lutheran parishes. Though the family would move away to Brooklyn (1887–1890) and Allentown (1890–1900), they returned each summer to Macungie.
During these summers at home the family lived in the former Wesco Baptist Meeting House on the Singmaster farm. Reflecting on the character of the colonial home and the “green fields” and “the blast-furnaces” that surrounded it, Elsie wrote “it was a perfect period in our lives—the fields and streams were ours, affection and good will surrounded us.” She and her brothers, James, John, Edmund, and Paul, loved their summers in Macungie, leaving with “drooped heads” on the first day of September when they returned to the city for schooling. Elsie graduated in 1894 from Allentown High School.
The lives of Elsie and her brothers would change again when in 1900 the family moved to Gettysburg. Her father became a professor at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg. Soon after, in 1907, she graduated from Radcliffe College as a Phi Beta Kappa. In April 1912 she married Harold Steck Lewars, a musician and English professor. She was pregnant with their only child when Lewars passed away at age 33 in March 1915. Their baby would pass away only two months later.
After her marriage, Elsie continued to use Singmaster as her pen name, despite taking on the Lewars surname. Elsie’s inspiration for much of her work was her childhood and the Pennsylvania Germans with whom she grew up in Macungie. Macungie was renamed Millerstown, and its residents became models for Singmaster’s cast of characters throughout her work. Her books are credited for helping to preserve the Pennsylvania German and Lehigh County histories, dialects, and social customs.
Singmaster’s work gained broad appeal, not only in Pennsylvania and the United States, but even internationally. Her novel Bennett Malin was published in the United Kingdom in 1923 by London publishing house Hurst & Blackett, Ltd. Her 1929 novel You Make Your Own Luck was published in Denmark in 1930. In the 1920s and 30s her writing generally shifted toward focusing on her Gettysburg surroundings and the town’s history as the site of one of the most consequential battles of American history. Her 1934 novel Swords of Steel was a Newberry Award honor book.
Later in her career Singmaster was named a “Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania” by Governor James H. Duff. Reflecting the positive view of her Pennsylvania German neighbors, Singmaster herself served her community diligently and joyfully. She was active in the Gettysburg Civic Nursing Association, the American Red Cross, the Adams County Historical Society, the Adams County Public Library System, The Women’s Missionary Society, and the Lutheran Church and its various institutions. She also helped to sponsor young men and women in her community who demonstrated strong professional potential.
Singmaster died on 30 September 1958 and was buried in Fairview Cemetery in Macungie, Pennsylvania. Patrons of the A.R. Wentz Library and the Krauth Memorial Library of United Lutheran Seminary can borrow several of Elsie Singmaster’s works from the collection, including: The Long Journey, A High Wind Rising, The Hidden Road, and others. Check these books out and discover the joy and talent of Singmaster.
Hannah Tonn has put together an exhibit about Singmaster at the Wentz Library. Stop by to learn more and see a display of Singmaster’s books!