Benjamin Franklin Derk: A Life Cut Short

Benjamin Franklin Derk was born on January 1, 1907 in the small village of Trevorton, nestled in central Pennsylvania’s coal region. Benjamin was the third child of Benjamin Franklin Derk (1879-1950) and Anna Laura Morgan, both born in Trevorton. Young Benjamin Franklin came from a family that appears to have favored this name as at least five of his relatives and ancestors also shared the popular family name. From a young age, Benjamin would be known as Frank; at times, he would go by Frank Morgan Derk, incorporating his mother’s maiden name along with his father’s surname (possibly to differentiate him from other relatives sharing his name).

From his boyhood, Frank excelled at both academic and athletic endeavors. During his years as a student in Trevorton schools, Frank participated in every sport available to him, and he captained the school’s baseball, basketball, and football teams during his high school years. Frank graduated as class valedictorian from Trevorton High School in 1925, having received a state certificate of commendation for his perfect attendance through twelve years of education. Frank’s high scholastic standing won him a scholarship to Dickinson Seminary in Williamsport, Pa. where he continued his educational career for one year before entering Penn State College for a pre-medical course; Frank aspired to become a physician and surgeon.

DerkBF_1926 DickinsonSeminary

The Dart: 1926 – Dickinson Seminary, Williamsport, Pa.

Continuing the same high scholarly standards at Penn State that Frank had demonstrated through his previous thirteen years of schooling, Frank earned election into pre-medical honors fraternity Alpha Pi Mu, Phi Kappa Sigma fraternity, and had been active in Penn State athletics. Upon Frank’s graduation from Penn State in June 1929, he returned to Trevorton to spend a couple days visiting family and friends. Following this short visit, Frank left for Philadelphia for an appointment with the dean of Jefferson Medical College to enroll as a medical student. Of the more than 2,000 men and women vying for enrollment with the next class, Frank was among the 160 who received enrollment for the upcoming fall term.

Immediately following his trip to Philadelphia, Frank proceeded to Lake Wallenpaupack, in the Pocono Mountains, to begin his summer work as a counselor at Camp Pocono, a Boy Scout camp. Frank, along with college friend Sam Curry, were at the start of their second year working at this camp; both were licensed American Red Cross lifeguards, expert swimmers, and swimming instructors. On June 29, 1929, a few days after their arrival at camp, Frank and Sam rigged sails to a canoe and set out for an enjoyable sail around Lake Wallenpaupack, which is 18 miles long and 3 miles wide. A short time after beginning their adventure, winds picked up and they were presented with waves reaching 5 to 6 feet in height. After managing the sails for some time, a sudden powerful wind caused their craft to capsize and throw them from the vessel. Quickly grabbing on to the overturned craft, they realized they would have to swim for shore, which was a mile and a half in either direction. The young men took off with Sam in the lead and Frank, being the stronger swimmer, following behind. Sam turned to check on Frank when they were about seventy-five feet from shore, Frank responded that he was alright. When Sam finally reached the beach, he turned to greet Frank, but he was no where in sight. Sam waited, but Frank did not surface. Being in a somewhat remote part of the lake, Sam ran a quarter-mile before finding a boat house in which he was able to summon men to man a boat to search for his friend. And search they did. Campers, counselors, locals, professional divers as far away as New York, residents of Shamokin and Trevorton, and family and friends all searched for Frank. Although the organized search for Frank’s remains were abandoned by July 8, a general watch was maintained and on the morning of July 15, 1929, the recovery was made by local pioneer resident Joseph Spindler. The Derk family finally had mental relief as they would now be able to bury Frank’s mortal remains with proper religious services. Born Benjamin Franklin Derk, Frank Morgan Derk was buried on July 18, 1929 in the family lot at Odd Fellows Cemetery, Coal Township, Pa.


*The life of Benjamin Franklin Derk was pieced together from records accessed through, as well as news articles published in the Mount Carmel Item and Shamokin News-Dispatch.

Fearless Females: March 10 – Church

March 10 — What role did religion play in your family? How did your female ancestors practice their faith? If they did not, why didn’t they? Did you have any female ancestors who served their churches in some capacity?


Growing up, I never heard anyone talk about church, talk about going to church or even mention what our ancestor’s religion was. This was normal for me and never thought twice about it until I was involved with genealogy for a few years. Once my research took be back so far, I wasn’t sure where to look next since my people were farmers out in the middle of nowhere. And by this point I just figured that you were only supposed to following the males since the women almost always seemed to drop of the face of the Earth never to be seen again…unless you were lucky enough to find a parent on a census listed as the mother or father-in-law of the head of the household.


It was only in the past couple of years that I received a death certificate listing a Lutheran Cemetery in Trevorton as the place of burial. Off to Trevorton I went, found my ancestors and discovered that the cemetery was affiliated with the local Lutheran Church in that town. I had searched every other avenue and turned up empty but this was something new to go on. A visit to told me that microfilm was available that contained the church records for the years I was researching…best $7 I even spent.


Once the microfilm was delivered to my local Family History Center, I began the task of trying to decipher when I was looking at and then it hit me that it was in German. Bummer! I kept scrolling until I hit a point where I understood a few of the words. A few years later all of the records were written in English…thankfully. WooHoo…I found a Wetzel! I turns out that my ancestor’s weren’t attending church or baptizing their children, not even a marriage record up to this point. Everything changed when my 2nd great grand uncle Howard Wetzel married Hannah Elizabeth Osman in 1903.


Hannah was baptized in this church in 1882 and this is the church she would attend for the entirety of her life. Her children were baptized here and this is also where a few of them married. Now, while Hannah wasn’t a blood relative she was the one who influenced my family to join the church. Through her guidance and example, many of my people did in fact join the church and would be baptized as adults. Once such baptism brought tears to my eyes; at the age of nine my great grandmother was baptized at Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church. The sponsors were her uncle and his wife; the parents list were Laura Wetzel and …Richard Williams. My great grandmother was born out of wedlock and the family never provided the name of the father so nobody ever knew who he was…including my great grandma.


Where did they sit?

Where did they sit?

Though my line of the family didn’t stay with the church, it was this introduction that generated enough records to help me find my family. I know that there are some Wetzel lines coming out of Trevorton that have remained with the church and continue to practice their faith to this day.

Tombstone Tuesday: Weimer Jonas Wetzel and Iona Mary Conrad


Christmas day was especially exciting in 1880 for the Wetzel household as presents were not the only addition in the house this day.  The Christmas birth of Weimer Jonas Wetzel was an exceptional present for Henry and Catherine (Kissinger) Wetzel and their four children.  Weimer was born in the family’s Trevorton, Pennsylvania home.


Not only was Weimer’s birthday easy to remember but so was his wedding anniversary.  On July 4, 1904 he married Iona Mary Conrad at Zion’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Trevorton.  Iona Mary was born in Trevorton on March October 12, 1881 to parents Frank and Harriet (Miller) Conrad.


Through his life, Weimer was employed by Philadelphia and Reading Coal & Iron Company as a carpenter in the local colliery.


Weimer passed away on the morning of February 28, 1933 at the couple’s Coal Street home in Trevorton after battling sarcoma of the abdomen wall for the previous six months.  The 80th anniversary of his death is in two days.  Iona passed away in Sunbury on Christmas Eve of 1952.  Weimer and Iona are buried together in Northumberland Memorial Park, Stonington.

Northumberland Memorial Park - View from Weimer and Iona's grave.

Northumberland Memorial Park – View from Weimer and Iona’s grave.

Tombstone Tuesday: Death befalls the Derrick children

Four of the Derrick (Derk) children died within 10 days.

Four of the Derrick (Derk) children died within 10 days.

1888 was a sad year for Benjamin and Alice Derrick (Derk) as they buried all four of their children within ten days.  The couple’s fifth child was born right in the middle of this tragedy and it is a miracle she did not meet the same fate.


What killed these children?  Cholera, Typhoid, Scarlet Fever, or possibly Yellow Fever?  1888 saw an outbreak of Small Pox in Pennsylvania; was this the cause of so much loss?


Between 1881 and 1906, the Derrick family would have thirteen children born with seven surviving to adulthood.  The four children here are buried with their parents and a number of the siblings at the Lutheran Cemetery in Trevorton.

Tombstone Tuesday: Carrie Agnes Wetzel

Carrie Agnes WetzelLutheran Cemetery; Trevorton, Pennsylvania

Carrie Agnes Wetzel
Lutheran Cemetery; Trevorton, Pennsylvania


The 1900 federal census told me that Carrie was still living at home with her parents, five of her siblings, and her niece (my great grandmother); it also told me that she was 25, single and did not have an occupation.  When I moved on to the 1910 census for the family unit, I was not surprised to see her absent; I just chalked it up to yet another female relative lost to marriage.  Oh, but wait…the 1910 census for a neighboring county lists a Carrie A Wetzel who is 35, single and without an occupation.  Could this be my ancestor…an inmate at the State Hospital for the Insane?  Whoa, what did I miss?


A federal census record for a woman with a similar name does not prove that she is one of mine so I had to just sit on this for a spell.  When Pennsylvania made death records for certain years available as public records at the beginning of 2012 the first this I did was to go through the death index year by year looking for any listing for a Carrie Wetzel.  There she was, or so I hoped, in that same neighboring county of Montour just six short years later.  The two and a half hour drive to the State Archives seemed to take forever…I just wanted to get there and see this death certificate (along with a few others).


Carrie A Wetzel…yeah, yeah, yeah…parents…Henry and Catherine Wetzel of Trevorton.  It was her!  Cause of death, phthisis pulmonalis; contributory cause, epilepsy…she was Epileptic.  But why was she in the State Hospital?  Examining the death certificate further for any additional clues, I saw that she resided at the institution for 12 yrs, 3 mos, 6 ds; this meant that she has been there since August 17, 1904.  Ah, now it is becoming clearer.  Her mother passed away in February of 1904.  Her mother must have been the caretaker and after her passing, the family may not have been able to provide adequate care.  I like to think that they made a go at it since Carrie remained at home for another six months.  I don’t know if a decline in her health or the fact that all of the adults in the house were working the mines which kept them out of the house for much of the day but it must have been a very difficult and painful decision for all.  Thankfully, Carrie’s death certificate also provided her place of burial, which was unknown to this point; now the family can visit this woman whose final years were so tragic.


Those Places Thursday: My Wetzel homestead

My first time I found documentation on my 3x great grandfather was in 2000 and it was purely accidental.  I had been tracking my great grandmother backwards and was hoping that the 1910 census would show her married and possibly with a child or two.  While I was very happy to find this was the case, I was not surprised by the information.  The surprise that I found in this census was that not only was she living with her husband and child but was also living with her grandfather who was listed as the head of the house.  There he was, Henry Wetzel aged 64…living right where I knew our people were from.  At that instant, not only did I feel connected with Henry but I was also drawn to Trevorton like never before.

In a relatively short period of time I found that Henry had moved to Trevorton by 1870.  At some point between 1880 and 1900 he purchased the home where multiple generations of my family would be born, live and die.  It is this home where I found him in 1910.

The family home in 1891.  The woman in the picture is Catherine, my 3x great grandmother.  This is the only photo I have ever seen of her.  The young girl in front of her is my great grandmother.

The family home in 1891. The woman in the picture is Catherine, my 3x great grandmother. This is the only photo I have ever seen of her. The young girl in front of her is my great grandmother.

To say I am obsessed with this house might just be an understatement.  After Henry’s death in 1913, his son Howard purchased the home from the estate and in turn raised his family in the place he grew up.  Though I was not certain what happened to the house after 1940, I never stopped looking or searching for more information on it.

In 2012 I met many of the descendants of Howard and was incredibly happy to find out that the house remained with the family until after Howard’s passing in 1957 and that everyone had many wonderful memories and stories of the “Wetzel Homestead”.  Through this portion of the family I have had the privilege to view many old family photos that clearly show the importance this house played in the lives of so many.  It was also through these photos that I realized that I knew this house.  This was the green house directly across from the school I attended in my youth.

I have made the three hour trip back home many times for genealogical research and always make sure to take a quick drive by though always refraining from knocking to ask for a looksie.  Can you imagine my surprise when I opened my RSS reader a couple of weeks ago only to have the address of my ancestors home jumping off the screen at me.  The news article was about the “life change” the owners were experiencing and while I feel bad for them, I couldn’t stop my first thought from wondering if my house was going to be put up for sale.

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