Elsie Singmaster Society of Gettysburg

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In 1950, Pennsylvania’s governor, James H. Duff, named Elsie Singmaster Lewars a “Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania.”   An author of fictional stories and books about the Pennsylvania Germans and the citizens and soldiers of Gettysburg, Singmaster published widely from 1905-1950 in national literary journals, popular magazines, and prominent publishing firms like the Houghton Mifflin Company of Boston and New York.  She received an O Henry Award in 1924 for “The Courier of the Czar” (Saturday Evening Post, June 7, 1924) and her book Swords of Steel:  The Story of a Gettysburg Boy (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1933) was declared an honor book in the 1934 Newbery Award series.

Of Pennsylvania German and French Quaker descent, Singmaster was born in Schuylkill Haven in eastern Pennsylvania on August 29, 1879.  She was a proud American of immigrant roots, the daughter of Reverend Doctor John Alden Singmaster (1852 – 1926) and Caroline Hoopes Singmaster (1852 – 1931).  The German “Zangmeister” family (spelled “Singmaster” at the time of the Revolutionary War), settled in eastern Pennsylvania after 1749 eventually residing in Millerstown, now Macungie.  Singmaster’s earliest teachers there spoke only Pennsylvania German, and Millerstown became the “place” for regional stories about “her people.”  After living in Brooklyn and Allentown, the clergy family moved to Gettysburg in 1900 where Dr. Singmaster was called to teach at the Lutheran Seminary there from which he was graduated in 1876.  Relying on a sense of place once more for inspiration, Singmaster’s Gettysburg writings depended on first hand interactions with local folk, some of whom had witnessed the famous 1863 Battle of Gettysburg.

Singmaster valued education for men and women.  A graduate of Allentown High School and then West Chester Normal School, she attended Cornell University from 1898 - 1900.  After a hiatus from school, she transferred to Radcliffe College where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1907 at age twenty-seven.  She published her first short story, "Lese-Majeste of Hans Heckendorn" (Scribner's, November 1905) while a student there.  Pennsylvania's Gettysburg College (1916), Muhlenberg College (1928), and Wilson College (1933) all recognized Singmaster's success with honorary doctor of literature degrees.



In 1912, Singmaster wed Harold Steck Lewers, a musician and assistant professor of English at Gettysburg College. The couple lived in Harrisburg where Lewars served as a church organist and music teacher.  He also conducted the Gettysburg Oratorio Society.  Lewars died in March 1915 at age thirty-three after becoming ill in Gettysburg during the prior Christmas holiday.  Singmaster was pregnant at the time of Harold’s death with the couple’s only son, Harold Singmaster Lewars, who tragically, died in May 1915, just two months after the death of his father.

Now a self-supporting single woman living with her parents on the campus of Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary, Elsie Singmaster fully embraced her literary career.  Established professionally as "Elsie Singmaster" prior to her marriage, she built her reputation as an accurate portrayer of Pennsylvania people.  She was the first woman in Adams County to be listed in Who’s Who in America.  A natural leader, she helped organize the local American Red Cross and the Adams County Library.  A lifetime member of Christ Lutheran Church, Gettysburg, she participated both locally and nationally in the Women’s Missionary Society.  Singmaster served as an officer in the Adams County Historical Society and led a community protest when the Board of Trustees at Gettysburg College in 1926 voted to discontinue co-education.  Her friend Mary Lou Schwartz said of Singmaster, “She was a determined tiger when she thought she was right.”

Elsie Singmaster Lewars died September 30, 1958 and was laid to rest next to her husband and son in Fairview Cemetery, Macungie, Pennsylvania.  She lives on in her literary contributions and in the hearts of members of the Elsie Singmaster Society who desire to make her known in perpetuity.