Ownership History of the Star Barn
The earliest documented owner of the land on which The Star Barn Complex currently occupies was Benjamin Brown. Colonel James Crouch, a Revolutionary War soldier purchased the farm from Mr. Brown in 1778. “Walnut Hill” is the earliest known name of the farm – so named for a reference of a walnut tree that served as a boundary marker for the property. Upon Colonel Crouch’s death, the property was willed to his son, Edward Crouch, who was also a veteran of the Revolutionary War and served as a member of the House of Representatives, an associate judge of Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, and a member of the thirteenth United States Congress. After Edward Crouch’s death in 1827, his only daughter, Mary, and her husband, Benjamin Jordan, inherited the Walnut Hill farm estate. Mr. Jordon represented the Dauphin district in the Pennsylvania State Senate. The farm remained in the Jordon family until 1872 when John Motter purchased the 164-acre Walnut Hill farm at auction for $19,310.34.
John Motter was born in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania in 1822. His father, Philip Motter (Matter) ran a hotel in Palmyra for many years. John Motter was a self-made man, beginning work as a saddler in Palmyra. In 1840, he moved to Harrisburg and began raising horses. He became a large shipper of stock to the western states. For many years, his sale stables were headquarters for dealers in fine horses and his upright business methods and principles gained him a large patronage. During the Civil War, Mr. Motter furnished the United States army with thousands of mounts as well as mules for a baggage train service. After the war, he widened the scope of his business enterprises. He was president of the Farmer’s Bank as well as a member of the Board of Trustees. He also invested heavily in other agricultural pursuits. Following the trend of other gentleman farmers, he diversified his interest in horses to include several other types of animal husbandry as well as many types of crops. Each farm John Motter purchased was transformed into a model of late nineteenth century progressive farming. At the time he purchased the Walnut Hill farm, it consisted of 164 acres with a large stone farmhouse and minor outbuildings. Motter hired Daniel Reichert, a mortician as well as a master carpenter, to transform the farm.
Reichert designed and constructed a rear ell addition to the farmhouse, a summer kitchen, chicken coop, carriage house/corncrib, pig barn, and the main barn structure. In addition to remodeling the farmhouse, Mr. Reichert also built a summer kitchen, a wood frame structure with four gables. It contained a stylized belfry with pointed arches centrally located on the roof. The summer kitchen was badly damaged by a 1980’s fire and was subsequently demolished. The John Motter Farm was the last known surviving barn constructed by Mr. Reichert. He also built the Hetrick and Neil Funeral Parlors in Progress, Pennsylvania.
Motter’s new barn and all the outbuildings were constructed in the Gothic Revival style. Each of the buildings had characteristics of that style including cross gables, pointed arch ventilators, trefoil brackets, and spired cupolas. The stars on The Star Barn served an important function other than decoration. The stars were made of wood louvers that provided additional light and important air circulation for the drying of hay and other grains.
The early nineteenth century stone house located on the property at the time of Mr. Motter’s purchase was significantly remodeled to also include many of the trappings of the Victorian era. After several alterations, including a 1986 two-story rear ell, constructed on the rear or north elevation, the building bears little resemblance to an early farmhouse. W. W. Jennings, a skilled ironworker from Harrisburg, completed the ironwork for the house, including the cast iron lions that were placed at the entrance walk to the house. Although the house was extensively remodeled, Mr. Motter never lived at the farm. Franklin Wolf and his family, manager of the farm, resided at the farmhouse.
After Mr. Motter died in 1901, the estate was passed onto his wife, Annie, and later to his oldest daughter, Elizabeth Motter Fletcher. The farm eventually passed onto the Nissley Family in 1925 and was converted to dairy farming. The change in farming production brought several changes to the farm. The lower level of the barn was dramatically altered to accommodate cattle. Additionally, a cement block milk house was constructed just east of the barn. Two cast cement silos were constructed to the northeast of the main barn. The dairy cows needed additional food which could be stored in the silos. The installation of electrical wiring and minor repair and alterations were also completed. However, with the process of raising a specialized farm product, many of the secondary buildings were no longer used for animals. The outbuildings were used primarily for storage of equipment. This neglect eventually caused severe decay to the small frame outbuildings because they were no longer integral components of the working twentieth century farm.
In 1940, ownership of the farm passed to Aaron J. Hoffer. Four generations of the Hoffer Family continued to work the land until 1986. The large farm property was subdivided in March, 1994. At that time, the farmhouse and the majority of the farm east of Nissley Drive became part of one parcel. The barn and remaining outbuildings (carriage house, pig barn, milk house, silo, and equipment shed) were separated to a parcel of 3.6 acres.
On February 29, 2000, the Millport Conservancy and Preservation Pennsylvania joined forces and funds to purchase The Star Barn Complex. The two organizations shared common goals in moving to save this endangered property: to preserve The Star Barn complex as a symbol of the region’s agricultural heritage and to insure its future survival by making it a part of the life of the communities that now surround it.
In December, 2007, Agrarian Country, a non-profit corporation from Middletown, Pennsylvania, assumed ownership of The Star Barn.
Note: Segments of the above narrative were taken from the National Register of Historic Places Registration Form and supplemental pages. We appreciate the efforts of Karen Arnold, Program Director of Historic York, Inc. of York, Pennsylvania, her staff, and other contributors for their extensive and comprehensive research and documentation on the history of The Star Barn Complex and agriculture in America and Pennsylvania.