Shedding New Light on a Pennsylvania Painter: Finding “R. Fibich” and His Graveyard
©2008 By Judith S. Pyle
The painting that would become known as “York Springs Graveyard” (Image 1: Cemetery Painting; Courtesy New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, NY) was sold to Connecticut folk art collectors Jean and Howard Lipman in about 1939 by Joe Kindig, an antiques dealer from York, PA. The 18”x 24” oil painting on canvas, of mid-19th century people and carriages at a cemetery, complete with cattle in the middle distance, is signed “R. Fibich”. (Image 2: Detail, Cemetery Painting; Courtesy NYSHA, Cooperstown, NY)
The New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, NY, subsequently acquired the painting from the Lipmans. It was cleaned, documented, studied and then exhibited at various venues including Primitives Gallery of Harry Stone (1942); Union College of Art Gallery, Schenectady (1951); Museum of Fine Arts of Houston, Texas (1956); M. Knoedler, NYC (1956); Roberson, Binghamton NY (1966-67); New York State Fair at Syracuse (1970); the DeCordova Museum, Lincoln, MA. (1972) ; The Whitney Museum, NYC (1974) and Smith College Museum of Art Collection (1975) . In addition to inclusion in The Flowering of American Folk Art, (1776-1976), which was published in conjunction with the 1974 Whitney Bi-centennial exhibit, it also appeared in American Primitive Painting, Metropolitan Miniature Series (1953) and in Life magazine, where readers were solicited for any information about the artist.
In The Flowering of American Folk Art (1776-1876), the index of artists’ biographies states
“R. Fibich (active c. 1850). Known for a single oil landscape of a York Springs, Pa., graveyard.”
Researching the Artist In the fall of 2007, this writer, a resident of Adams County, Pennsylvania, with childhood ties to York Springs and its surroundings, saw “York Springs Graveyard” in The Flowering of American Folk Art: 1776-1976 and began what would become extensive research on the painting and its maker.
At the encouragement of historian and 19th century photography expert, William A. Frassanito, the approximate date of the painting (c. 1850) was extended to the 1870’s, based on Frassanito’s assessment of the style of the women’s clothing in the painting. At the same time, another historian and fellow researcher, Debra Sandoe McCauslin, (Yellow Hill, For the Cause Productions, Gettysburg, PA, 2005) contacted the New York State Historical Association to see if additional information on the painting were available. The society responded with a packet of research, including the provenance and other information. One paper included the actual statement written on the back of the frame of the painting: “found in York Springs, Pa”.
Several trips to the cemetery in York Springs, known as Bonner’s or Sunnyside Cemetery, were made and photographs taken and compared to the painting. Upon close examination of the photos, (Image 3: York Springs Cemetery; Photo by Judith S. Pyle) several things became clear: 1) the mountains on the horizon at York Springs can hardly be seen; they are actually about 50 miles away at Thurmont, MD; what appears to be a mountain is actually Big Round Top, at Gettysburg Battlefield, about 10 miles distant; 2) Route 94, the Carlisle Road –see the flatbed tractor trailer—in the middle of the photograph can be plainly seen from Sunnyside Cemetery; it is not in the painting; and 3) an iron fence, not like any in the painting, surrounds one of two Bonner Monuments—but there are no other fences. Also, the cemetery roads are laid out at right angles to each other, with no curves, (Image 4; York Springs Cemetery Roads; photo by Judith S. Pyle), and the plots in the cemetery are rectangular. Therefore, using the expanded timeline to circa 1870, and the emphasis on the word “found” from the back of the painting, which broadened the scope of the search, this writer began an intensive search which has shed some light on the painting’s origins and its elusive maker.
Robert Fibich (1820-1878) and His FamilyRobert Fibich, (pronounced Fee- bick) born in Prussia about 1820, was living in Reading, Pennsylvania when he made application for United States citizenship in 1856. He gave his age as thirty-six. He is listed in the 1856-57 Reading City Directory as a “Painter”, and was living on the south side of Neversink Street below Bingaman Street. By May 1865, Fibich had moved to Tamaqua, PA, which is about 45 miles north of Reading, where he appears on an IRS Tax Assessment List; he was taxed $1.56 on his income. Although there was no evidence of Fibich in the 1860 census, he does appear in the 1870 US Census for Tamaqua (Middle Ward*), Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania:Robert Fibich, occupation Painter, was listed as age 50, born in Prussia. Living with him were his wife, Jane, 36, and their son, Edward, 14, both born in Pennsylvania. On the 1875 Tamaqua map (Schuylkill County 1875 Atlas, Pennsylvania; F.W. Beers & Co.), R. Feibich [sic] is listed as living on Pine Street between properties labeled as “Lewall” and “F. Lawall”. Robert Fibich died February 15, 1878, age 58. The cause of death is undetermined, but we can assume that it was unexpected, since it was his wife Jane who, upon his death, purchased a plot at the new Odd Fellows Cemetery in Tamaqua. The 1880 US Census for Tamaqua (East Ward*) on Rail Road Street shows Jane as a widow, living with her son, Edward, 24, who was also a painter, married to Kate, 21, born in Pennsylvania.
Although Jane’s existence past the date of her husband’s death might seem irrelevant at first, it may have some bearing on the subsequent provenance of the graveyard painting. To that end, the thread of census continues: the 1890 census is nonexistent, and the 1900 tally (US Census, Tamaqua, Middle Ward*) finds Edward, Kate, and their children Howard, Eddie, Lenorad [sic] Pearl and Guy, all with middle initial A, and eight-year-old Ella Morris on Pine Street. Jane, Robert’s widow, on the other hand, was now living in Greenwood Township, Perry County, PA, at the home of Isaac Staley, a widower, age 51. If Jane and Isaac were related, it is not stated.
Isaac Staley was the youngest of at least seven siblings. In 1870 he lived with his father and mother, Isaac and Prit, a number of siblings, and grandparents John and Ruth Staley. Elizabeth Cleckner, lived there as well. Isaac was 19 and still at home in 1880, and Mary Kleckner was listed as “Boarder-- niece”; “niece” is crossed out. Since there are no census records for 1890, only assumptions can be made about Isaac’s marriage and subsequent widowhood in the space of 20 years.
By the 1910 census, which includes street addresses, the household at 321 Pine Street in Tamaqua consisted of Edward, Katie, Howard A. Eddie, Guy and Pearl. By this time, Edward’s son, Lenard, and his wife, Berla, lived across the street at 316 Pine Street. In 1920, the family (the last name is spelled Febech now) was at the “old home place”: Edward, “painter” and Kate, their sons Howard, (according to neighbor Charles Kellner, Howard had a little convenience store on Pine Street at some point) painters Edward, Lenard (divorced), and Guy, with his wife, Anna. (Guy’s draft registration card of June 5, 1917 says he was born June 10, 1890, that he had a wife, lived at 321 Pine Street, and he was medium height and build, his eyes blue and hair light brown.) In the 1930 census, the house at 321 Pine Street was worth $10,000. (Image 5: 321 Pine Street in April, 2008; Photo by Judith S. Pyle) Living there were Edward Sr., with sons Howard, Edward, Lenard, Guy and his wife Anna. Edward Sr. died in 1943; his wife Kate had died on May 27, 1926. Howard, who died in 1947, was a Spanish American War veteran, and was buried in Soldier’s Circle at Odd Fellows. According to neighbor Charles Kellner, Anna Febich, who cared for her husband and in-laws, died penniless, on the “fifth floor” (apparently a euphemism for “insane and/or indigent”) at the state hospital in Coaldale.  Her name does not appear in the cemetery register for the Fibich lot, nor do those of her brother-in-law, Lenard or her husband, Guy. Since both she and Guy died in Coaldale, Schuylkill Co., perhaps they are buried there.
We don’t know if Jane Fibich, who died November 25, 1917, died in Perry County or if she had moved back to her son Edward’s home in Tamaqua by then. We do know, however, according to Odd Fellows records, that she is buried in the Fibich lot in Odd Fellows Cemetery in Tamaqua. Two babies, Myrtle and Roy (died in 1884 and 1888) are buried in the plot as well.
Odd Fellows Cemetery in Tamaqua, PAThe Odd Fellows Cemetery in Tamaqua (Image 6: Sign at the side entrance of Odd Fellows Cemetery; Photo by Judith S. Pyle) opened in 1865, welcoming all people. It was a planned garden cemetery covering thirty-one acres, with plots, concentric roads and paths radiating from the central Soldiers’ Circle. A 50’ marble pillar with an eagle on top was installed at the center of the Soldiers’ Circle in 1870.(Image 7: Soldiers’ Monument; Photo by Judith S. Pyle) The cemetery is situated on a hill facing east, overlooking the town, with the Little Schuylkill River running through the town. A range of mountains can be seen as well. The headstones of the oldest part of the cemetery face east, looking out over the valley below. Access to the area includes steps up from Rt. 209—a main artery in town—at the front, as well as a road leading around to the side of the cemetery from the same road. According to sextant Justin Bailey, iron fences surrounded the family plots at one time, but they were removed and melted down during World War II as part of the war effort. Today the plots are mown grass, with kneeling stones—round marble rolls at each end of a raised marble step, many of which are sunken to ground level—where gates into the plots would have been.
The Artist and the Cemetery
The Artist To establish that Robert Fibich is indeed the artist who painted “York Springs Graveyard”, two intertwining cases must be made. First, that Robert Fibich who lived in Tamaqua from the 1850’s until his death in 1878, is the artist, and second, that the Odd Fellows Cemetery, established in Tamaqua in 1865, is the cemetery in the painting.
Other than the R. Fibich discussed here, no other exists on any census that this researcher studied in Pennsylvania or any other state for the timeframe established. While the surname appears occasionally, the rest of the information doesn’t fit.
The signature that R. Fibich made on the painting, (see Image 2) although printed letters, holds a clear resemblance to the signatures (Image 8: Citizenship Application; Courtesy Schuylkill County Historical Society, Pottsville, PA) made by Robert Fibich on both the application for citizenship in 1856 and the grant of citizenship in 1863. Note that the letters are precise, measured and even; note, too, how the lower right tail of the R seems to be held in reserve, as opposed to swinging out away from the rest of the letter.
Finally, and this is the most difficult to prove, we must accept the premise that the skills and materials used by a house painter could, in conjunction with a unique creative urge, expand and translate to produce such a painting. Because this is the only painting attributed to Fibich, we have no body of work with which to compare it, to see how the artist’s style evolved over time.
The CemeteryThe Odd Fellows Cemetery is much changed since the time that Robert Fibich painted the view (Image 9: Odd Fellows Cemetery: April 2008; Photo by Judith S. Pyle); there are more headstones, more trees, more buildings and no cows, horses or carriages. Photos taken in the spring show the view without too many leaves, but the trees remain. However, the lay of the land is the same: there is a sharp drop down to the main street of town, there are hills, mountains, and there are curving roads in the cemetery. Note that the photograph of the main street shows bends in the road, mimicking the curves of the road in the painting. The few buildings in the painting are not easily identified, and may not be standing. While the Soldiers’ Monument is much larger than the monument to the left in the painting, the monument in the painting could be one of the numerous obelisks in the cemetery. Several of the converging roads match the pattern found in the painting. What has been thought to be a lamb in some research might be a kneeling stone instead, or a group of head stones.
Most telling, however, are the two fenced triangular plots in the painting. They aren’t visible in the cemetery now because the iron railings, as mentioned before, were removed as part of the war effort. However, when sextant Bailey was asked how so many coffins could fit in the space where there is only one headstone, (Image 10: Gravestone: Edward Febich and Kate H. Febich; Photo by Judith S. Pyle) he answered, “Well, first of all, the plot is triangular.” It was at that point that this researcher fully understood the importance of the seemingly insignificant iron-fenced triangles in the painting.
Unanswered Questions, Assumptions and Pure Speculation
The Nameplates on the Fences Of the two nameplates in the painting, only one can be read, and several variations of the spelling (Image 11: Cemetery Name Plate; Courtesy NYSHA, Cooperstown, NY) were explored: Stubl, Stuble, Stabler were some, but no one by any of those names was buried in Odd Fellows in Tamaqua or Baber in Pottsville; another variation, Stahler, yielded different results. Odd Fellows sextant Bailey confirmed that several Stahlers were buried near the Fibich lot: two children, an infant in 1875 and Elmer, 6 months, in 1876, as well as Israel and Aaron Stahler who died as adults. More research yielded the following: Israel Stahler was a son of Reuben and Catherine Stahler in West Penn Township, Schuylkill County in 1850. He was 17. By 1870, he and two brothers, Gideon and Charles, were living and working in Tamaqua, raising families.
Gideon and his wife Sarah had eight children and Charles had at least one child. Israel and his wife Fianah (also spelled Fian and Fiance) had two children who lived to adulthood: Harry E., born in 1861, and Aaron W., born in 1879. Israel, who died after the 1880 census, and Aaron are buried with Elmer and a 14 day-old daughter. If Fianah, who was living at 412 Oak Street in 1900, is buried there, it was not noted.
By 1910, Fianah had died, and her sons, Aaron and Harry, a laborer in the mines and a chair maker, respectively, were living with their distant relative-by-marriage – “Aunt” on the census record: Angeline Weaver and her family.
Robert Fibich could have been commissioned to paint the funeral of one of the Stahler babies, which he could have completed before his death in 1878. That would mean that the painting might have remained in the possession of the Stahler family. While Israel’s son Harry had moved to Reading, as indicated by his draft registration in 1918, Aaron continued to live with Angeline Weaver, through 1930. While neither Aaron nor Harry had heirs, the painting could have remained in Weaver’s household, which included her granddaughter, Helen Rhinehart Klingaman, a bank clerk, and wife of Howard Klingaman, who was working as a car inspector in 1930.
Misidentification of the Site of the Painting
A question that remains unanswered is the apparent misidentification of the site of the painting. It may never be known if antiques dealer Kindig actually “found” the painting in York Springs, Adams County, PA or if he purchased it somewhere else. In fact, it may also never be known if he or someone else wrote the notation “found in York Springs” on the painting.
Further, it seemed serendipitous that the cemetery at York Springs has a large monument and is situated on a hill. However, it has been this writer’s experience that there are many cemeteries with large monuments situated on hills, and, at first glance, any one of them could have been the subject of the painting. Only by careful deduction can it be determined that Odd Fellows Cemetery at Tamaqua alone meets all the criteria of the painting, including the direct connection to the artist.
ConclusionThis researcher believes that the maker of the painting known as “York Springs
Graveyard” is Robert Fibich, born in Prussia in 1820 and died in Tamaqua, Pennsylvania in 1878. He lived and worked there for about twenty-five years; long enough to see the cemetery in its earliest planning stages through the placement of the Soldiers’ Monument in 1870. We don’t know if he painted the view he hoped to have after his death, if the subject simply appealed to him aesthetically, or if he were commissioned to make the painting. While we may speculate about the reason for the painting, the site of the painting is clear: the mountains, the hills and the road leading through the settlement to the base of the hill of Odd Fellows Cemetery all fit the painting, as do the roads in the cemetery. The most compelling pieces of evidence, however, are those triangular plots, which are not found anywhere else in the area.
Of course, the overarching question remains: if “Found in York Springs” is Kindig’s notation, and it is correct, how did the painting get from Tamaqua to York Springs, a distance of just over 100 miles? For the time being, we can only guess at the answer. Hopefully, as more records become accessible, research may provide the answer. This writer hopes that this paper provides what might be a first chapter in the search for answers about Robert Fibich and his work. Until that time, there are always opportunities to pore over old newspapers, on the off chance that a 1930’s auction notice lists an old painting of a country cemetery.
To Debra Sandoe McCauslin for calling me in for an opinion on an unrelated painting and subsequently contacting New York State Historical Society at Cooperstown for painting records and research on the York Springs Cemetery painting; to historian William A. Frassanito, for strong encouragement to look at later than 1850 records and for advice and editing; to Timothy Smith, Assistant Director for Research at Adams County Historical Society, Gettysburg, PA, for advice and help with research; to Dr. Peter Yasenchak and the staff at Schuylkill County Historical Society for their help with research; to Barbara Brophy and the staff at the library at the Berks County Historical Society for their help with research; to Nancy Buelher, research director at Baber Cemetery in Pottsville for her patient responses to my emailed queries; to Justin Bailey for meeting me more than once to explain cemetery records and to walk over the Fibich area at Odd Fellows; to Tamaqua residents Jody Kellner, her father Charles Kellner and Wayne Freudenburger for making the family who lived at 321 Pine Street come alive; and finally, to Robert L. Bittick and William A. Bixler, who took time from their busy lives to tirelessly edit this article.
 Research documents and provenance, New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, NY
 Lipman, Jean and Winchester, Alice. The Flowering of American Folk Art: 1776-1976. The Viking Press, New York, NY, 1974.
 Frassanito, who earned his master’s degree at the Cooperstown Graduate Programs in 1969, is the author of several books on Civil War photography, including Gettysburg: A Journey in Time, Charles Scribner’s Sons/ New York, 1975.
 Research documents and provenance, New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, NY
 United States Citizenship Application, courtesy Schuylkill County Historical Society, Pottsville, PA.
 Reading City Directory 1856-57, J. Knabb—Journal Office. Courtesy of the Reading Historical Society; Reading, PA.
 U.S. IRS Tax Assessment Lists, 1862-1918, District 10; Annual Lists; May 1865
 US Census 1870, Tamaqua, East Ward, Schuylkill Co., PA
 Odd Fellows Cemetery records, Tamaqua, PA; courtesy of Justin Bailey, sextant for the cemetery
 US Census 1880, Tamaqua (middle ward), Schuylkill Co., PA
* East Ward and Middle Ward seem to be interchangeable terms/locations.
 US Census 1900, Tamaqua, District 199, Schuylkill Co., PA
 US Census 1870, Greenwood Township, Perry Co., PA
 US Census 1880, Greenwood Township, Perry Co., PA
 US Census 1910, Tamaqua, District 99, Schuylkill Co., PA
 Kellner, Charles, present owner of the Fibich home at 321 Pine Street; interview April 22, 2008
 Amazon.com: World War I Draft Registration: 1917-1918
 US Census 1930, Tamaqua, Middle Ward, Schuylkill Co., PA
 Kellner interview
 Social Security Death Index, Master File; Social Security Administration.
 Justin Bailey, sextant, Odd Fellows Cemetery; interview, April 22, 2008
 Schuylkill County Historical Society; copies from Schuylkill County Naturalization Records, Schuylkill County Court House, Pottsville, PA
 William A. Frassanito: suggestion for looking at tombstones, Fall of 2007
 Justin Bailey, sextant, Odd Fellows Cemetery, Tamaqua, PA
 Nancy Buelher, Research Director, Baber Cemetery, Pottsville, PA
 Justin Bailey, sextant, Odd Fellows Cemetery; interview, April 22, 2008
 US Census, 1870: West Penn Township, Schuylkill County, PA
 US Census, 1880: Tamaqua, Schuylkill County, PA
 Bailey conversation.
 US Census, 1890: Tamaqua, Schuylkill County, PA
 US Census, 1930: Tamaqua, Schuylkill County, PA
 Author’s note: upon asking the research director Nancy Buelher at Baber Cemetery in Pottsville, PA, which could have been a likely alternative to Odd Fellows Cemetery, the researcher stated, “No triangular plots at CBC!”
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