The following was condensed and adapted from an article written in 2015 by Susan Colestock Hill and published in Volume 21 of the Adams County History Journal, Article 4.
Our fellow Adams Countian, Elsie Singmaster Lewars (1879-1958), was a well-known author of regional fiction during the first half of the twentieth century. Having descended on her father’s side from Pennsylvania Germans, who settled in the eastern part of the state beginning in the eighteenth century, she spent her early years in an ethnic Pennsylvania German community, Macungie, Pennsylvania. When she began to write for publication in 1905, her first characters and plots drew upon her heritage. Her writings were of people and places that she knew first hand, with her stories modeled around the lives of “her people”, because she lived among them. An early twentieth century interest in local color literature contributed to the initial popularity of her stories, which were published in American literary journals of the time. Known professionally as Elsie Singmaster, she established a reputation as a skilled and sympathetic portrayer of Pennsylvania German life in a developing and diverse American culture.
The Singmaster family moved to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in 1900, when Elsie’s father, the Reverend Doctor John Alden Singmaster, became a professor of biblical studies at Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary, eventually becoming its President. It was in Gettysburg, where she lived until her death in 1958, that Elsie found another rich source of literary inspiration, in the historical surroundings of her new home. She wrote fictional stories and books about characters based on Gettysburg’s townspeople and their legends. Already famous for her Pennsylvania German fiction, her Civil War stories appeared in popular magazines as early as 1907. As the 1913 celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg approached, the public readership were intrigued by her unique perspective as a local author, who lived and worked on Seminary Ridge, the site of the first day’s exchange of cannon shot and bullets on July 1, 1863 , and later the site of a hospital for the wounded of both armies. Her collected stories, Gettysburg; Stories of the Red Harvest and Its Aftermath (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1913) were reprinted as Gettysburg; Stories of Memory, Grief and Greatness (University of Alabama Press, 2003), in recognition of the abiding contribution of Singmaster’s timeless and human interpretations of the Battle of Gettysburg.
Elsie penned numerous stories, books, and articles about the days and years before, during, and after the battle. She gave voice to male and female residents of the town, soldiers of the Union and Confederacy, veterans and their battle legacies, families divided by sectional loyalties, town and battlefield guides and visitors to the memorialized battleground, heroes, heroines, and cowards of all ages, and both slave and free African Americans, all of whom populate Singmaster’s horizon. She was insightful, hopeful, and patriotic, offering an uplifting voice in a country she believed was destined for greatness.
Adams County Historical Society’s members and friends are encouraged to read about the Battle of Gettysburg and its repercussions, as well as many other aspects of the county’s past, through the eyes of one of the area’s own daughters. Singmaster’s body of work is available in many locations and formats. Free E-Book reading sites, such as Gutenberg.org, the Hathi Trust or Google Books, have several of her publications scanned for online reading or download. Local library collections offer limited access to books that may only be available to read on site. Stores offering used books, both online and on the street, include Singmaster volumes. Many original document Singmaster magazine stories and articles are part of the Adams County Historical Society’s collection and are available upon request for readers. Copies of old magazine stories can be requested from the Adams County Public Library, and the Gettysburg College Library also has collected volumes of magazines where Singmaster stories and articles may be found. Online magazine, newspaper, and library archive searches are also good sources for finding Singmaster’s writings.
We will periodically republish select Singmaster stories on our #15SouthBlog. Signup for our newsletter today to stay informed on blog posts, monthly programs, and special events!