COOLSPRING TOWNSHIP – The Zahniser family’s 147-year run set on Saturday is going to be hard to beat.
That how many consecutive years this bedrock Mercer County family has held its reunion.
Among Mercer County’s earliest settlers, Zahnisers’ first reunion was in 1875 – that’s one year before General Custer’s last stand at Little Big Horn and America’s centennial.
It’s impossible to know how many family descendants still call Mercer County home.
“We’re past a couple hundred that’s for sure,’’ said John Zahniser, who helped with the reunion.
Tracing its roots to Germany, the family had a rough start arriving on American shores.
Born in 1749 in Moersheim, Germany, Matthias Zahniser landed in Philadelphia with his mother in 1753, family plaques say. His father and a brother died aboard ship on the journey but the cause is unknown.
They ended up in Lancaster County, Pa., for a time with Matthias fighting in the Revolutionary War. He moved the clan to Allegheny County in 1790.
Family records boast that Matthias and his family were among the very first Mercer County settlers. They arrived in 1796 and established a farm in Lake Township.
From there, family numbers exploded. Matthias fathered 13 children, although five died young, family records said.
This year’s reunion was held at Coolspring Presbyterian Church in Coolspring Township. Over the years other venues chosen include Buhl Park in Hermitage and Brandy Springs Park in Mercer.
Zahnisers are literally on the map: Zahniser Road is in Jefferson and Lackwannock Townships. There have been several spellings of the name; the majority chooses “Zahniser”. But depending on the map the road’s name can be listed as “Zahnizer” with a second Z.
There are slews of extended family members with different last names as women descendants took their husbands’ names
Among them is Marilyn McCullough. At 92, she was among the oldest family attendees. Her maternal grandparents were Zahnisers from New Wilmington who at one point owned three farms. She recounts their basic lifestyle.
“I was 9 when they finally got electricity,’’ McCullough said. “I helped carry the electric lines.’’
And during World War II she recalls babysitting all night for 10 cents.
“That would buy me a tube of lipstick,’’ McCullough said.
The family has spread everywhere. Dick Zahniser traveled from his La Verne, Calif., home to attend the event. The played the piano player to provide the reunion’s entertainment.
“I try to get back to every reunion,’’ he said.
Last year’s reunion came close to folding as the COVID-19 pandemic hit. A Zoom reunion was created to allow people to see each other and talk.
Attendance at the reunion has declined over the years as the family’s lineage has branched out and younger members are losing interest. Decades ago attendance hit 300; Saturday’s event drew roughly 75.
For Bruce Slater, a Zahniser descendant, said it wasn’t distance that made his attendance difficult. In his early years he worked on his nearby family farm.
“Saturdays were always a working day for us, and the reunions are on Saturday,’’ Slater said. “Sometimes it was hard to get away.’’
But he’s become a strong reunion supporter.
“I get to meet people I wouldn’t be able to meet otherwise,’’ Slater said.
No fee is charged for the pot luck luncheon reunions. But the family created it’s own organization – the Zahniser Foundation – to collect donations and bequeathments from wills.
A foundation business meeting was held at the event for the family to discuss items such as future reunions and care for the family’s Jackson Center cemetery.
Around 50 family members are buried at the private cemetery. But its last burial was in the mid-1980s, according to David Zahniser, a Sharpsville elementary school art teacher who sits on the family’s cemetery committee.
“We’ve done things like repairing tombstones to seeing everything is maintained,’’ he said.
When it comes to who they really are, several family members point to a passage in an undated written record of their history.
“The record of the family is an unusually good one,’’ it said. “Zahnisers have been the avowed supporters of education and morality.’’