Long-time activist carries on centuries-old tradition

Featured Post, Local Life December 21, 2010 1 Comment

Long-time activist carries on centuries-old tradition

Antje Mattheus is seen hitchhiking to Philadelphia in 1975. When you are trying to get justice for those at the bottom of the social ladder, like farmworkers, you may not be able to afford “luxuries” like an automobile.

by Crystal Cranmore

(see video story below)

When one steps onto the 317-year-old Cresheim Farm in Mt. Airy, one would never know it is filled with historic value. However, for Antje Mattheus the history is all too familiar.

A former social activist, Antje, 55, has lived on the farm for nearly 20 years with her husband David, and two daughters. In 1974 she immigrated to Philadelphia from Germany to battle social injustice. For Antje (pronounced “Ahn-ka”), this old farm is not just her home; it is an emblem of her life as one of Philadelphia’s most influential activists.

“Exploring the history of this farm, I can connect with the early people who came here and their stance against slavery,” said Antje.

Much like Antje, the people who lived on the farm centuries ago were German, Dutch Mennonites and Quakers who were outraged with slavery and fought against it. According to Antje, they left Europe in the late 1600s to escape religious persecution. When they settled on Cresheim Farm, they did what they could to stand up for those who could not fend for themselves.

Similarly, Antje came to America for a better life, but she also came to help those suffering from social injustice. She migrated to Philadelphia through an organization called Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, a German peace and volunteer service organization founded in the aftermath of WWII. Volunteers helped mend a broken Europe and worked with refugee camps and settlements for “displaced persons.”

After German and American peace organizations worked together for years in Europe, ARSP was asked to send German volunteers to the U.S to make sure that the  service was not “one-sided.” This would be Antje’s ticket to America.

Antje’s experience in her new country was different, to say the least, but she spent much of her time working with organizations that helped fight inequality.

Antje Mattheus came to Philadelphia in 1974 to battle social injustice. She has been an activist for a number of social causes. Here she is seen taking part in a 1976 demonstration against nuclear weapons.

One such organization was the United Farm Workers Union. As a member, Antje worked alongside activists Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta and helped form boycotts to provide farm workers with better treatment.

“It forced them to give the farm workers better contracts….” said Antje.

Antje said that her work with the United Farm Workers Union was very similar to the work of the Irish settlers who lived at Cresheim Farm centuries ago. These Irish settlers fought for their own right to be part of a union, but according to Antje, many of them were killed because they wanted justice and better living conditions.

Antje’s research indicates that in the late 1800s, a man named Franklin Gowen controlled much of the area. (Gowen Avenue in Mt. Airy is named for him.) As president of Reading Railroad, then one of the largest corporations in the state, Gowen fought against the Irish Schuylkill Mountain anthracite mineworkers and had 20 of them hanged for allegedly being a part of a pro-union, secret Irish Society.

Antje’s affiliations with activist organizations were based on her drive to eradicate inequalities as a young girl in Germany. Even though she was born after the war, Antje saw what the war had done to Jews in her own German neighborhood.

“I had to search very hard to find out what happened during the Holocaust … I had to ask who among my neighbors did this? Who was a Nazi,” said Antje.

When one walks into the Mattheus’ residence, he/she can instantly sense the historic value of the house. As the current owner of Cresheim Farm, Antje has done considerable research on the area and her own property, which includes a farmhouse, springhouse and two acres of land.

She and her husband have also done extensive renovations to the farm. In the barn, Antje and David had an apartment and an office built, and installed bathrooms, but she left the original floors, stables, threshing floor and hay loft to preserve the history. Antje and David eventually sold the barn, but continued adding more installments to the house including new roofs on five buildings, a new kitchen and porch.

“There is probably not an inch that we did not touch somehow,” said Antje.

Because of the debilitating effects of a long-time battle with Lyme disease, Antje’s activism has virtually slowed to a halt in recent years, but she has learned from her research a great deal about the Lenni Lenape Native Americans who once inhabited the entire region and about William Penn, who also lived on the farm. She researched over 300 years of the old land and has spent nearly 20 years preserving its history.

Right along with William Penn, Antje’s name could also go down in history.

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  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CJ14q4z6yDQ Brian “it is good to be Green” Rudnick

    Very nice piece on a fine person. Attached is a video of Antje describing her garden as part of the hidden garden tour in May 2009. Antje is also the managing advisor of the Wissahickon East Project (http://www.wissahickoneast.org) which is working on having land near Cresheim Creek in Mount Airy absorbed into the Fairmount Park system