Today, it’s a popular hiking and hunting destination. But in the early 1750s, it was an ironworks that manufactured metal farm implements, domestic goods, and, during the Revolutionary War, cannons for George Washington’s Continental Army.
At the intersection of River Road and Route 324 lies the crown jewel of Martic Forge—the former ironmaster’s house. According to the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County, the building is a well-preserved example of a high-style Pennsylvania German design.
At its height, this property was once a 3,400-acre tract—as a frame of reference, that’s 5.3 square miles. It was first warranted to Abraham, James, and Thomas Smith in 1737, with the house being built in several stages. Thomas Smith likely built the earliest section of the house between 1737 and 1769, although Zillow has the date listed as 1735.
James Webb likely made additions to the before 1769 as an advertisement for a Sheriff Sale that year describes the structure as a two-and-one-half stone house, one room wide, with two rooms on the first floor. Much of the structure’s exterior came from sandstone quarried from nearby slopes during the late 1760s.
Ownership of the iron furnace, mansion, and 3,400 acres of land changed hands several times over the decades. Its owners also included Edward Brien (son-in-law of General Edward Hand) and Michael Hillegas (first Treasurer of the United States).
Side Note. If you are thinking, “Hey, wait a minute! I thought Alexander Hamilton was the first Treasurer of the United States!” then you made the same mistake I did. Hamilton was the first Secretary of the Treasury. The Treasury Department is administered by the Treasury Secretary and is a member of the Cabinet.
Today the Treasurer of the United States has limited statutory duties but advises the Secretary on various matters such as coinage and currency production. Signatures of both officials appear on all Federal Reserve notes.
When Hillegas and fellow patriot George Clymer were appointed on July 29, 1775, by the Continental Congress to share the office, it was called the “Treasurer of the United Colonies.” After Clymer’s resignation on August 6, 1776, Hillegas assumed sole ownership of the office. He used much of his own fortune to support the cause.
Then on September 9, 1776, the Continental Congress officially changed the country’s name to the United States of America, but Hillegas’s title did not officially change until March 1778. On September 11, 1789, Congress created the Treasury Department, and Alexander Hamilton took the oath of office as the first Secretary of the Treasury.
On that same date, Hillegas tendered his resignation, and Samuel Meredith was appointed Treasurer.
Robert Coleman—the owner of the Elizabeth Furnace, one of the nation’s first millionaires, and father of Anne Coleman, the ill-fated fiancée of future President James Buchanan—acquired the property in 1793. It is likely that the projecting three-bay section of the present building may have been built by this wealthy ironmaster between 1793 and 1805.
This hypothesis is based on style details and tax assessments. The house’s appraised value jumped from $5,785 in 1796 to $15,200 in 1805, which is a staggering amount of money in the early 19th century. A change of this magnitude frequently results from new construction.
Based on interior woodwork design, a section linking the two existing parts of the house was probably built between 1805 and 1815.
It was common practice at the time that the manager of the forge occupied the ironmaster’s house. The forge continued operating into the late 19th century.
In 1924, Mary Kepler bought the property at public auction for $6,600. She then donated it to the YWCA as a summer retreat. It was named Kepler Lodge in honor of her mother, Mary Mathilda Slaymaker Kepler.
The first summer it was open, 350 “angels” were registered as campers. They slept on cots, eight girls to a room. The following year, they camped in tents set up on platforms. The girls learned to swim in a nearby concrete pool, and tried their hand at archery, nature study, and crafts, where they made bracelets, leather belts, and ceramic ashtrays.
To use the bathroom, campers had to trudge up a hill to a stone building they called “The Sunset.” It is located in the upper left-hand order of the drawing below and shown directly below. The structure was divided into separate accommodations for counselors and campers. Curtains hung between the seats, and campers liked to cut snippets to take away as souvenirs.
After lunch, there was quiet time for resting and writing letters. This quiet afternoon was designed to guard against polio, the dreaded disease that crippled so many before the availability of a vaccine in 1955.
The drawing shown below is from the July 1999 issue of The Card, the Lancaster County Postcard Club’s monthly publication. It offers a snapshot of what Kepler Lodge looked like during its 1931 camp season. Ninety years later, a few of the structures pictured here are still visible such as Kepler Lodge, Crafts Spring House, the gym, and the pool (although the pool is mostly filled in).
In addition to camp activity sites, the hand-drawn map identifies the locations of a wishing rock, whipping post, trolley station, and a “Negro burial ground.” It is unclear if a camper or staff member created this postcard map.
The postcard was postmarked on July 30, 1931, and sent from Eddie to Robt. Kennesau in Raleigh, North Carolina. Since this was a girls-only camp, it is likely that Eddie either worked in the kitchen, was a groundskeeper, or a counselor’s spouse.
According to newspaper reports from 1924, the most unusual feature in the house was “perhaps the oldest and quaintest bathtub in America, fashioned from the trunk of a monster tree, and with the top flush with the floor.”
Below is a series of Kepler Lodge, mostly from 1929 and 1930.
The YWCA ran Kepler Lodge as a summer camp until the late 1940s when the Lancaster Jewish Community Center purchased it.
The Lancaster JCC renamed the property Camp Taemoh, which is “At Home,” spelled backward. They ran it as a co-educational day camp, busing campers from its former headquarters on East King Street over winding roads to the hillside where the lodge and its outbuildings overlook the Pequea Creek.
Campers would pack their lunches and enjoyed activities, which included a rifle, horseback riding, tennis, archery, crafts, baseball, and kickball. However, the last two had a hint of danger to them as you needed to be careful not to throw the ball near a stone springhouse (bottom left-hand corner in the hand-drawn image shown above) called the “snakepit” as it was rumored to have snakes.
Campers called the nearby bridge that crossed the Pequea Creek “the Singing Bridge.” It had a ridged metal surface, and car tires would hum as they drove over.
At least one camper recalled mysteries in the stone lodge’s attic containing “odd passageways and old furniture which could only be reached by slim youngsters on narrow and precarious stairs.”
The camp was closed on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath, but as many as 125 families would gather there on Sundays. People would set up charcoal grills and make a day of it.
Camp Taemoh remained in operation until the late 1960s.
The house suffered extensive deterioration after Camp Taemoh closed its doors. In 1977, Mr. and Mrs. Paul Weitzel of Rawlinsville purchased the property at auction for $44,000 from former owners J. Emmett and Carolyn Murphy. At this time, the home contained 32 rooms and eight fireplaces!
They began a slow but steady rehabilitation of the mansion. Since then, several private owners have continued to remodel parts of the building.
Today, a tenant house (now called the guest house), barn, spring house, and shed also stand on the property.
Zillow describes the property as a circa 1735 is a stone 2 1/2 story of 5,000 square foot in Georgian and Federal styles on 4.3 acres. Adjacent to the main house is the beautifully restored matching guest house. The Mansion sits on a knoll overlooking the Pequea Creek.
It has six bedrooms, including a gracious master suite and two full baths. Throughout are period moldings, mantles, windows, and hardware. The East Wing boasts original butterfly shelves in cabinetry flanking first floor and second story fireplaces that are symmetrically back to back.
The massive great room has a walk-in fireplace with crane and deep windows. It has seven fireplaces in all. The two-bedroom guest house is fully functional.
Below are some recent Zillow listing photos. The property is currently for sale (September 2022). Click here to see the full Zillow listing.
Where to find Kepler Lodge
Kepler Lodge can be found at 1164 Marticville Road, Pequea, PA 17565. Remember that this is private property, and sightseeing should be limited to your view from the road.