John & Edgar Altfather, Somerset County, Pennsylvania

Introduction and background information
Edgar Altfather's double barrel muzzle loader was still in the family in 2017. The newsletter of the Berlin Area Historical Society reports the belief that the gun was made by Edgar Altfather and his father John. In 2017 the gun was owned by Elmer C. Altfather, who received it from his grandfather John Calvin Altfather shortly before his grandfather died. As shown by his death certificate, John Calvin Altfather was the son of John and Catherine (Hay) Altfather, and was born in 1867 and died in 1950. In my opinion, we can trust that John Calvin Altfather would have known that the gun had once belonged to his younger brother Edgar when he gifted the gun to his grandson Elmer C. Altfather.

The 1953 edition of "American Gun Makers" identifies "John Allfather" as a gun maker who lived in the vicinity of Berlin, Pennsylvania, but the source of the information is not recorded. The book was published 43 years after John Altfather's death, and 27 years after the death of his wife. That is a timeframe where various individuals (including Elmer's father Lewis) may have been aware of a gunsmithing tradition. Reportedly, John Altfather is not included in the 1940 edition of "American Gun Makers". This seems to make David J. Weimer the likely source of the Allfather entry in the 1953 edition, since he is described as making "indirect contributions" to the 1953 edition.

Vaughn Whisker included "John Allfather" in a 1971 newsletter list of Somerset County gunsmiths, and reported that the basis of the list was "reviewing more than twenty-thousand names of gunmakers and gunsmiths from all over the USA checking in more than a half-dozen books." Given the "Allfather" spelling, the reported basis of the list, and the limited number of compendiums of US gunmaker names in 1971, it seems likely that Mr. Whisker's source for the name "John Allfather" was the 1953 book.

John Altfather was not included in the Whiskers' 1983 booklet "Gunsmiths and Gunmakers of Bedford and Somerset Counties". That omission is surprising to me, because the booklet includes various blacksmiths as gunsmiths who are not included in the subsequent Whisker publications I have seen. In other words, in my opinion the 1983 booklet seems over-inclusive, making it curious that John Altfather was omitted.

John Altfather is included as a gunsmith in the biography portion of the Whiskers' 1991 book "Gunsmiths of Bedford, Somerset and Fulton Counties", but I could find no explanation as to why the authors thought Altfather was a gunsmith. The book also includes a photo of a relief-carved rifle the authors attribute to John Altfather. The rifle has the initials "JA" engraved on the lock plate and seems obviously made in Somerset County. Their attribution to John Altfather is not without controversy, and I could not find where they describe the basis of the attribution. I wonder if the basis was simply a process of elimination, where all of the gunsmiths in the 1953 book with the initials "JA" could easily be ruled out, except for John Altfather.

The Whisker's 1991 book states that the "JA" rifle is the only known gun made by John Altfather. This seems to imply that the authors were unaware of the double rifle attributed to John Altfather, and seems to imply that the double rifle was not their basis for identifying John Altfather as a Somerset County gunsmith. The only known gun statement is repeated in the 2001 book "Gunsmiths of Bedford, Fulton, Huntingdon, & Somerset Counties" by Whisker & Yantz, and in the Whiskers' 2017 book "Gunsmiths of Somerset County, Pennsylvania".

The "JA" rifle has various Dormayer attributes, including the shape of the buttstock, the layout of the vine/floral carving on the buttstock, the rod-like shape of the front trigger, the tri-level configuration of the front of the stock panel for the lock bolt plate, and the design of a relief carved eagle on the cheekpiece. The Whiskers' interpret the design of the rifle as suggesting that John Altfather (1834-1910) apprenticed with Jonathan Dormayer (1826-1885), seemingly as if they felt the Altfather attribution for the rifle had somehow been adequately proven to their satisfaction. That suggested apprenticeship doesn't resonate with me, because of the relief carving aft of the cheekpiece on the "JA" rifle. I am not aware of any rifles by Jonathan Dormayer or his apprentices Charles Monroe Knupp and Elias L. Knupp that have relief carving aft of the cheekpiece. Instead, their rifles that I know of have incised carving aft of the cheekpiece.

The initials "JA" engraved on the lock plate are not enough to convince every collector and student of long rifles that a relief-carved rifle with so many Dormayer stylistic elements wasn't made by Peter Dormayer, who developed many of the stylistic elements of the Dormayer school of gun making, and who did use relief carving.

Several years after the Altfather versus Dormayer question arose, the "JA" rifle was featured on the cover of the Whiskers' 2017 book "Gunsmiths of Somerset County, Pennsylvania". Although that book attributes the "JA" rifle to Jacob (sic) Altfather, I cannot find a basis for the Altfather attribution within the book. The book does indicate it would be absurd to think the "JA" rifle was made by John Amos. This seems harmonious with, but does not prove, the process of elimination theory stated above. (In ruling out John Amos, the 2017 book states that a recent print publication claimed John Amos made the rifle. This perplexes me, because the only pre-2017 print publication I am aware of that questions the Altfather attribution clearly states it would make more sense to attribute the rifle to Peter Dormayer.)

It is possible to place the "JA" rifle directly in the hands of a different gunsmith with the initials "JA". His name was Joseph Aiken, and a 2015 auction listing for the "JA" rifle indicates that he incorporated the following marking on the inside surface of the lock plate: "1959/Joseph Aiken". Mr. Aiken's obituary in the November 1969 "Journal of the SMPTE" indicates that he was a renowned motion picture engineer from Arlington, Virginia, and his avocation was restoring antique firearms for himself and other gun collectors. Plate 53 in Kauffman's 1960 book "The Pennsylvania-Kentucky Rifle" shows a rifle from Aiken's collection, demonstrating that Aiken's collecting interests included Pennsylvania long rifles. He was also one the authors of the 1967 book "The Kentucky Rifle: A True American Heritage in Picture".

An article about the ethics of museum quality restorations that I read years ago recommended that new replacement parts be discretely marked when practicable so that future restoration experts could easily distinguish replacement parts from original parts. Because of that article, and because of the lack of cap-related corrosion on the lock plate, I wonder if Aiken replaced the lock on the "JA" rifle, adding his own initials to the front of the lock plate, and placing "1959/Joseph Aiken" on the inside of lock plate so that future experts could tell it was not original to the gun. In wondering this, I acknowledge that the initials "JA" on the front of the lock plate do not match Aiken's signature, and I acknowledge that not every gun with significant barrel surface corrosion near the nipple has corresponding corrosion on the lock plate, and I acknowledge that Aiken could have marked the inside of the lock as a theft recovery measure. Nevertheless, knowing Aiken's significant contributions to the world of motion picture engineering, I would expect a man of with his level of dedication to follow best practices in firearms restoration, and make it easy for future restoration experts to identify replacement parts. If he indeed made the postulated replacement lock, I would not be surprised if he followed the custom of engraving the maker's initials on the lock, using a script style from the 1800s that was harmonious with the period when the rifle was built.

An old saying I heard way back when is, "Everyone is entitled to their opinion, even if they are wrong." I could very well be wrong, but based on the above analysis, I do not believe John Altfather made the "JA" rifle. On the other hand, I have not found any reason to doubt the belief that John Altfather and his son Edgar made the aforementioned double barreled gun, and I suspect it may be the basis for the John Allfather entry in the 1953 book "American Gun Makers".

Biographical material
1794: The following excerpt from the WPA warrant survey map of Brothersvalley Township, Somerset County, Pennsylvania shows the location of the Frederick Oldfather, Sr. property, about two miles east of Berlin. Frederick was John Altfather's great-grandfather. Eventually, John Altfather's father Daniel became the owner of this property.

1808: Longman's 1911 book "The Genealogy of the Oldfather Family" indicates that Daniel Altfather, son of Frederick Altfather, Jr. and father of John Altfather, was born in 1808.

1818: People who have closer connections to the Berlin area than I do would know much better than me, but it seems likely that Daniel Altfather and his son John Altfather were born and/or raised on the Oldfather homestead about two miles east of Berlin. The mill on that farm is shown near a distinctive bend on White Horse Road on the following excerpt from the 1818 Melish Whiteside manuscript map of Somerset County. The mill site later become the location of the mining town of McDonaldton, as described below.

1830: Here, immediately below, is how the Altfather mill appears on the 1830 Melish map of Somerset County, which is based on the 1818 manuscript map (above).

1830: Longman's 1911 book "The Genealogy of the Oldfather Family" indicates that John Altfather's father Daniel Altfather was married to Anna Maria Johnson in 1830.

1832: In a transcript of the 1832 tax list of Brothersvalley Township, Frederick Oldfather is listed with a grist mill, 4 horses, 7 cows, a tract of 800 acres, and a tract of 500 acres with 225 acres cleared.

1834: According to his side of the tombstone he shares with his wife Catherine, John Altfather was born January 8, 1834. The following transcript of a family record from the February 1984 "Laurel Messenger" gives the same date:

1849: Longman's 1911 book "The Genealogy of the Oldfather Family" indicates that John Altfather's father Daniel Altfather died on October 27, 1849, and is buried in the family burial ground on the family farm where Daniel's father Frederick had a grist mill and a sawmill, and is also buried. A web page about the Altfather Burial Grounds locates it near the Altfather mill that is shown on the 1818 map that is included above.

The following excerpts from Longman's 1911 book outline the genealogy family of John Altfather, son of Daniel:

The following excerpts from Longman's 1911 book relate to the farm and mill and have relevance to understanding the Altfather family:

1850: The following excerpt is from the 1850 census of Brothersvalley Township, and shows John Altfather living with his widowed mother Maria and various siblings:

1860: The following excerpt is from the 1860 census of Brothersvalley Township, and shows John Altfather living with his widowed mother:

1860: The following excerpt is from the 1884 book "History of Bedford, Somerset, and Fulton Counties, Pennsylvania", and shows a single man named John Altfather living in the borough of Somerset who was a miller by trade. Perhaps this is the other Somerset County individual John Altfather, mentioned below, who died at age 58 in 1897, and perhaps it is the John Altfather who is the subject of this website. I have not had a chance to review the 1860 census of the borough of Somerset.

1861: According to the 1906 book "History of Bedford and Somerset Counties, Pennsylvania" John Altfather married Catherine Hay on February 14, 1861. The following excerpt from Volume XXXII of the 1899 "Biographical Review" provides information on Catherine's father:

The 1925 book "Countryman Genealogy" indicates that John Altfather's wife Catherine was a descendant of the celebrated Somerset County pioneer Simon Hay:

1864: According to the 1906 book "History of Bedford and Somerset Counties, Pennsylvania" John and Catherine Altfather had a daughter Annie who was born in 1864.

1867: According to the 1906 book "History of Bedford and Somerset Counties, Pennsylvania" the farm John Altfather was living on when the book was written was purchased by him in 1867.

1867: According to the 1906 book "History of Bedford and Somerset Counties, Pennsylvania" John and Catherine Altfather had a son John C. who was born in 1867. His death certificate indicates he lived in R.D. #2, Berlin, Pennsylvania and died on April 10, 1950.

1869: According to the 1906 book "History of Bedford and Somerset Counties, Pennsylvania" John and Catherine Altfather had a son named Edgar who was born in 1869.

1870: The following excerpt is from the 1870 census of Brothersvalley Township:

1876: The following excerpt from the Brothersvalley Township portion of the 1876 "County Atlas of Somerset Pennsylvania" shows a John Altfather residence near Berlin. More research would be needed to prove that this is the residence of the subject of this web page.

Here (below) is a copy of the same 1876 map, but rotated so that north is generally at the top of the page, for easier comparison to other maps.

Here (below) is a 1967 topographic map (based on a 1923 survey) to show the terrain. Although some of the roads have changed since 1876, it appears that the John Altfather farm would be about where the "Y" in Brothersvalley is on the topographic map.

1880: The following excerpt is from the 1880 census of Brothersvalley Township and shows Edgar Altfather living in the household of his father John Altfather:

1894: Although one cannot tell whether it refers to the father or the son, the following notice appeared in the November 21, 1894 issue of the "Somerset Herald" newspaper:

1897: To keep matters interesting, there was also another John Altfather living in Somerset County. The obituary of the other John Altfather follows. He is buried in the Altfather Cemetery in Stonycreek Township. The following obituary is from the November 17, 1897 "Somerset Herald" newspaper.

1897: The article that follows is from the November 12, 1897 "Berlin Record" newspaper. It describes the circumstances of the death of John Altfather's son Edgar:

1897: The article that follows is from the November 17, 1897 "Somerset Herald" newspaper. It also describes the death of Edgar Altfather:

1903: The following excerpt is from the January 1, 1903 "Individual and Business Directory of Somerset County, Pa."

1903-1906: According to the 1906 book "History of Bedford and Somerset Counties, Pennsylvania" John and Catherine Altfather’s daughter Annie was married to Engineer Frank L. Mead in 1903, and Annie and Frank were living at home with Annie's parents when the 1906 book was written.

1906: Volume 3 of the 1906 book "History of Bedford and Somerset Counties, Pennsylvania" provides the following biography of John Altfather while he was still alive. It does not indicated that John Altfather was ever a gunsmith or gunmaker.

John Altfather, a retired agriculturist of Berlin, Somerset county, Pennsylvania, was born on a farm near Berlin, Pennsylvania, January 8, 1834, the son of Daniel and Maria (Johnson) Altfather. He is the grandson of Frederick Altfather, who was a native of Germany.

Daniel Altfather was born near Berlin in 1808, and was by occupation a farmer and miller. In political relations he was a Democrat, and in church connections a member of the Reformed church. He married, in 1830, Maria Johnson, of English descent, who was born in 1810 in Berlin, Pennsylvania, and still living, at the age of ninety-six years, and in fairly good health. When eighty years of age she met with an accident that interferes with her walking. Otherwise she is a wonderfully well preserved woman. The children born of this marriage are: John, of whom later; Henry D., a farmer of Ursina, Pennsylvania; William P., an electrician in Texas; Daniel, a farmer of Virginia; Susan, married William Dively, of Roxbury, Pennsylvania; and Margaret, married Albert Gressinger, of Berlin, Pennsylvania.

John Altfather, son of Daniel and Maria (Johnson) Altfather, was educated in the township schools, and assisted on the home farm until he was sixteen years of age. He then went to work in a flour and grist mill and learned the trade of miller. This occupation he followed in connection with farming until 1867, when he purchased his present farm, and to this he gave his entire attention until his retirement a few years ago. It is well situated and adapted to stock and grain raising. In political relations he has always been a Democrat, casting his first vote for James Buchanan in 1856. Although a loyal and patriotic citizen, and one who has always evinced a lively interest in the welfare of the community, Mr. Altfather has never aspired to the honors of emoluments of public office. He has been a member from his youth of the Reformed church, in which he has served as deacon and is now elder. He was a teacher for years in the Sabbath school of his church, and was a member of the building committee when the present brick church edifice was erected in Berlin in 1883. Although the victim of several accidents at the mill and on his farm, Mr. Altfather, at seventy-three years of age, is in good health, and on clear Sundays always occupies his seat in church. He is of an exceedingly genial nature, and has learned the art of growing old gracefully. He is universally respected and admired. He is a firm good roads advocate, bewailing the present inferior methods.

Mr. Altfather married, February 14, 1861, Catherine Hay, a daughter of Simon and Lydia Hay, a prominent family of Somerset county. The father, Simon Hay, died at the age of ninety-six years. Catherine (Hay) Altfather was educated in the common schools and resided at home until her marriage. Of this marriage, the following named children were born: Annie, 1864, married, February, 1903, Frank L. Mead, an engineer, and they live at home with her parents; John C., 1867, was educated in the township schools, and is now engaged in agricultural pursuits; he married Elizabeth Levy, of Berlin, and they have one child, Lewis V.; Edgar T., 1869, lost his life by being caught in the belting of a flouring mill at Ursina, Pennsylvania, when but twenty-one years of age.

1909: The 1909 will of John Altfather follows:

The March 31, 1910 issue of the Connellsville "Daily Courier" Newspaper carries the following obituary: "Berlin, March 30 - John Altfather, an old and highly respected citizen of town, died at his home in East End this morning from a lingering illness. Several months ago he was stricken with paralysis from which he never fully recovered, and for the past six weeks he passed the time in a sitting position, the only way he could rest. Until two years ago, deceased resided in Brothersvalley township, about a mile east of town, where the Niver Coal Company are operating mines. The past two years he resided at East End where he built a home and lived until the end came. He was a devout Christian and a member of Trinity Reformed Church, of town, all his life. He is survived by one daughter, Mrs. Frank Meade, who resides at home."

1910: John Altfather and his wife Catherine are buried in the International Order of Odd Fellows Cemetery in Berlin, Somerset County, Pennsylvania. The tombstone says "Altfather" at the top, "Catherine June 20, 1837 July 21, 1926" on the left, and "John Jan. 8, 1834 Mar. 29, 1910" on the right. A copy of John Altfather's death certificate follows.

1926: The 1926 death certificate of John Altfather's wife Catherine (Hay) Altfather follows:

Click here to see the Altfather notes from the May 1970 issue of the "Laurel Messenger".

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