John Altfather, Somerset County, Pennsylvania

Introduction: Some gun collecting books list John Altfather as a gunsmith on the basis of a single rifle that is attributed to him. I have no idea whether he really was a gunsmith, or how speculative the attribution is, but the attribution is not without controversy. The rifle is pictured on page 45 of the 2001 book "Gunsmiths of Bedford, Fulton, Huntington, & Somerset Counties", and has the initials "JA" on the lock. The earliest reference I have seen to John Altfather being a gunsmith is in the "ALLFATHER, John" reference in the 1953 edition of Gluckman's "American Gun Makers", which locates him in the vicinity of Berlin, Pennsylvania.

There is also a double barrel muzzleloader with back action locks that belonged to Edgar Altfather. This firearm is still in the family, and the family believes it was made by John Altfather and his son Edgar. This web page is not provided to affirm or refute these gunsmithing attributions, but merely to document John Altfather's life.

1818: People who have closer connections to the Berlin area than I do would know much better than me, but it seems likely that John Altfather was born and/or raised about two miles east of Berlin, on the Oldfather homestead. The mill on that farm is shown 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).

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:

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.

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:

1899: The following excerpt from Volume XXXII of the 1899 "Biographical Review" provides information on Catherine's father:

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:

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:

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.

1910: A copy of John Altfather's death certificate follows.

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

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

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

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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