The Rise and Fall of Israel G. Erb:
The King Lear of Lititz Mennonites.
He bet the family farm on corn starch, and lost everything.
Above: Israel G. Erb. Portrait in Biographical Annals of Lancaster County (1903).
Israel Erb is my favorite historic Lititz Mennonite farmer. He lived large and lost large, but he never lost my appreciation for his talents and his achievements.
Israel Erb lost his family farm and most everything else when he was president of the Lititz National Bank, which made ill-advised investments in the corn-starch business. "The Great Lititz Corn-Starch Disaster of 1909", as I call it, burned dozens of Lititz residents. The directors of Lititz's "Erb Bank" were bankrupt by this corn-starch fiasco.
In addition to being a farmer and banker, Israel G. Erb was also a surveyor, justice of the peace, and scrivener. He penned deeds, wills, and other legal documents with beautifully-crafted cursive calligraphy.
Lee J. Stoltzfus
Below: Israel Erb's ancestral family farm: The Erb Homestead.
Israel Erb lost this farm in bankruptcy in 1909.
It was Israel's birthplace, and the birthplace of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather.
Above: Israel Erb's farm as seen on Google Maps Street View.
Satellite View of the Erb Family Homestead (Left Pin):
View this farm on a larger Google map.
A Fraktur Parrot by Teenage Israel Erb:
Above: A fraktur watercolor painting by 13-year-old Israel G. Erb, dated 1855. The parrot and tulips are iconic Pennsylvania Dutch motifs. The parrot design is suggestive of the fraktur parrots of Heinrich Otto, an influential artist who had previously worked in Lancaster County. Otto created birth certificates at the Ephrata Cloister, and those certificates often included parrot borders. Otto's parrots influenced fraktur artists for generations. (Private collection.)
Above: Sarah Reist was 20 years old when she married 24-year-old Israel Erb, in 1867. She was born in Mt. Joy, Lancaster County. During this era, Mennonites often joined church after they got married. (Photos: private collection.)
Israel and Sarah Erb's Farm, the Erb Homestead
Also known as "Fairview":
Above: Two views of the Israel Erb Farm, before the front porch was enclosed.
Watercolor by Mary Louise Brubaker McDevit, granddaughter of Israel and Sarah Erb. (Photo and watercolor: Private collection).
Israel Erb: Scrivener and Surveyor
"Israel Erb...as a scrivener he had few equals." (Biographical Annals of Lancaster County, 1903).
Below: An 1868 Land Draft drawn by Israel Erb, when he was a 25-year-old surveyor / scrivener. (Clarke Hess Collection)
Above: A land draft by surveyor / scrivener Israel Erb. Farm owned by Hiram Kline, located between Lexington and Lititz.
Below: The same farm on Google Earth.
The Erb Family's Town Home and Bank in Lititz:
Above House-and-Bank Images: 1905 Historical and Pictorial Lititz, and Google Maps Street View
Israel Erb Loses his Shirt in the 1909 Corn-Starch Disaster:
Israel Erb's Business Accomplishments:
- President of the Lititz National Bank (Today's Cafe Chocolate)
- President of the Northern Trust and Savings Company of Lancaster
- President of the Independent Telegraph and Telephone Company of Lancaster County
- President of the Agricultural Mutual Fire Insurance Company of Lancaster County
- Director of the Lancaster and Lititz Turnpike Company,
- Secretary of the Penn Township Fire Insurance Company
- Treasurer of the Keystone Underwear Mills of Lititz
- Secretary of the Lititz Board of Health,
- Director of the Shamokin and Mount Carmel Electric Railway Company
- Treasurer of the Lititz Borough School District
- Justice of the peace, surveyor, and scrivener
- Owner of the 85-acre Erb family farm north of Lititz, plus adjoining farm
The Corn-Starch Company that Bankrupt Israel G. Erb:
The yellow-paper text, below, was written by Israel Erb for a chapter in the 1905 book Historical and Pictorial Lititz. Israel wrote the chapter titled “Industrial History of Lititz.” Here, Israel described the company that would bankrupt him a few years later.
The company's eight directors, with their names listed in the article, all were bankrupt by the corn-starch business. Many Lititz homes, farms, and personal possessions were sold at bankruptcy auctions in the summer of 1909.
Israel Erb's Bank Crash in a 1909 New York Times Newspaper:
Above: On April 19, 1909 Israel G. Erb and his "Erb Bank" made it into the New York Times newspaper, for all the wrong reasons. The week before, there had been a run on the bank by Lititz depositors who had heard rumors of the bank's demise. The bank failed, and Israel Erb prepared for bankruptcy.
1909: Israel Erb's Financial Crash and Bankruptcy:
Israel Erb's debts: $231,209. His assets, $22,958.
Four-day auction of Israel Erb's real estate and possessions during his 1909 bankruptcy:
1. August 12, 1909: Auction of his woodlot in Clay and his building lot in Lititz
Auction of Israel's "Jenny Lind [carriage], buggy, desk, safe, bookcase, books, grindstone, implements, etc"
August 17, 1909: Auction of his 85-acre Erb-family farm (images above)
August 18, 1909: Auction of his 3-acre farm adjoining his main farm
August 19, 1909: Auction of his store in Penryn, with 5 acres.
(Details from Lititz Record online, here.)
Below: Ad for Bankruptcy Auction of Israel Erb's Farm and his Other Real Estate
Ad printed several times in the Lititz Record newspaper in the summer of 1909.
Below: Deed to the farm that Israel Erb bet and lost to the corn-starch business:
Photo courtesy of the Amish family which now owns the farm.
(The Amish family allowed me to photograph the deed in their living room, after I knocked on their door, and told them the tale of Israel G. Erb, whose story they had not previously heard.)
Above: Israel G. Erb purchased his ancestral family farm from his parents in 1869, when he was only 26 years old. He was an up-and-coming surveyor and scrivener. The previous year, 1868, Israel had created the ornate land draft at the top of this page.
Penciled on the left side of the deed is the name of Phares H. Bomberger, the farmer who purchased this farm at Israel Erb's 1909 bankruptcy auction. The farm was auctioned for $13,611.50, as the pencil notation confirms.
Israel and Sarah Erb leave Lititz after his financial disaster.
Israel works on a farm in Virginia:
Above: Three Portraits of Israel Erb in Virginia. After Israel Erb's financial fiasco, he and wife Sarah moved from Lititz. Israel became a hired hand, and took a job as manager of Corbin Hall Farm near Samos, Virginia. He is buried at Erb Mennonite Church, near the Erb ancestral farm which he lost in his 1909 bankruptcy. Israel poses above with his grandson, Robert Brubaker, son of Israel's daughter Anna. (Photos: private collection)
Israel and Sarah Erb Rest in Peace at Erb Mennonite Church:
Above: Today I visited Israel and Sarah Erb's grave marker in the cemetery at Erb Mennonite Church. I brought with me the land draft Israel Erb created in 1868 because I wanted to photograph it with his gravestone. Hopefully Israel Erb will be remembered for his achievements, rather than for his failures. It's a hope for us all.
More Maps of Israel Erb's Farm: Three Maps of Israel Erb's family farm on three Lancaster County atlases: Here .
More Land Drafts by surveyor / scrivener Israel G. Erb: Here.
More Erb-Family Antiques: Here.