Many small towns have picturesque histories, especially involving the founding of their names. Unfortunately, most of those histories and founding circumstances are relatively unknown to all but a few. This brief account is intended to preserve the particulars of one such town in Pennsylvania.
John Shellenberger, Sr. came to America in 1754 from Geneva, Switzerland, and finally settled near Richfield in 1772 after trekking up the Mahantango Creek from Liverpool, which is situated next to the Susquehanna River. He and his wife had sons, John, Peter, and David. In the early 1780's he moved west and purchased a tract of land from James Martin. The deed included most of the land of modern day Bunkertown.
Sometime after 1790, David built the Stone House that sets prominently on a hill just a few hundred yards north of the town. The house was later owned by George Martin and then by James Willis. John Shellenberger, Sr., was a clock maker and requested that a Large Window be installed in order to permit more light to illuminate his clock working area. David built a tannery in 1810 that was operated by himself and his son John. Typical for that era, the building was very long to accomodate long tables necessary for the spreading of hides. It also included several vats for chemically treating the hides. Tannning was the principal industry of the area. There were only a few houses at that time and all were situated on the North Side of the Road, which is also the same side of the road as the Stone House on the hill. David and wife had several children: John, Emanuel, Anna, Isaac, Christian, and Jacob. It was Christian who built the large Brick House which is now the Saner farm.
German Baptist Brethren formed a congregation in 1790 and worshiped in homes during their early years. They later approached clock-maker John Shellenberger, Sr. about the possibility of acquiring land on which they intended to build their first meeting house. John sold them a parcel of land and would accept nothing but their goodwill as payment. The first small meeting house constructed in 1831 and a two story brick-cased replacement structure of 1891 was known as the Goodwill Meeting House until 1941.
In the early 1800's there was no television, radio, Internet, pizza shops, or video games. There was also little or no entertainment outside the home. David's sons would often come to the tannery in the evening to create their own entertainment. It seemed that John was always bunking on one of the long tables, and usually at his favorite spot. Occasionally he would spend the night instead of going home. He soon acquired the nickname of Bunker John. As the years passed this little unnamed settlement of a few houses and some outside structures was jokingly referred to as Bunker John's Town. As is true of the history behind many place names involving a prominent figure or special event, the appellation stuck. Many people from the surrounding area also began referring to the growing village as Bunker John's Town. The tannery changed owners a few times but managed to survive until 1878.
No one seems to know when it happened but at some point following the death of John, grandson of John Sr., the emigrant clockmaker, the word John was dropped from the name, understandably, which resulted in the joining of the two remaining words Bunker and Town to form one word - Bunkertown.
J. D. Leister came to Bunkertown in 1898 and built a small General Store which offered a small line of groceries and hardware. He applied for and was granted a permit to operate a post office that same year. Naturally, the name of the post office was Bunkertown. Thus, the town was officially recognized by the U.S. Postal Service, a federal agent for the United States of America. Bunkertown was now on the map. The store changed owners several times thereafter: Ira Benner, Edward Strawser, J.E. Long, Jonathan Knouse, and finally to John Miller in 1938 who sold out in 1966. It is now a private dwelling. Mail was then delivered from the nearest post office, two miles away in McAlisterville. When Zip Codes came into being on July 1, 1963, McAlisterville was assigned the five digit 17049.
During the early 1930's many dirt roads were covered with asphalt in order to get the farmer out of the mud, as Governor Pinchot had promised. The old road turned to the right after the Black Smith Shop at the northeast end of town and continued along a ridge for about two miles to the village of Cocolamus. This was a period when many roads under construction cut through one field after another, the purpose being to increase speeds, lower travel time, and decrease wear on vehicles. A new such road was constructed through Bunkertown and Fields Beyond in 1924 with six inches of stone and four inches of flint. Electricity was provided to residents the very next year when Pennsylvania Power & Light Company set poles and strung cable along the new road. In 1928 the state legislature designated this new straighter highway as Route 35. Blacktop was added in 1930 as part of the Pinchot initiative.
Modern Bunkertown has changed a lot. The old Post Office is no longer in service, the Tannery is gone, all the Shellenbergers have moved elsewhere, there are a lot more houses on both sides of Route 35, the Brethren Church has rebuilt at another location, and nearly all of the residents of this small town have no idea how it got its name.
Written by Ronald J. Gordon
Old photographs courtesy of Don & Helen McKee
History of Bunkertown by Mary J. Hunt
History of Bunkertown from McAlisterville Sesquicentennial Booklet, 1810-1960
Construction Road Maps provided by Barry Hoffman of Pennsylvania Department Of Transportation
Additional road information acquired from Pennsylvania Highways