Lantz Mills is a community near the town of Edinburg in Shenandoah County. It was founded in 1747 by a German immigrant named Hans George Lantz. The presence of deaf residents in the community dates to the 1760s, when the Haller (Hollar) family came from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, after receiving a land grant from Lord Fairfax for property on Stoney Creek in what was then Frederick County. The family of Petter Haller, who was born in Alsace, France, in 1715, and Ann Dorothea Halrin Haller, who was born about 1729 in an unknown location, included two deaf children: Barbara, who was born about 1750, and Catherine, who was born in 1755.
Petter Haller left his property on Stoney Creek, which included a sawmill and a grist mill, to his son Petter Haller II (1748–1813), who in turn left a portion of the land to his son Peter Hollar (1783–1855), who was deaf. Hollar married Magdalene Dake (b. 1790), who, like Haller, was deaf. They had three children, including one deaf daughter, Barbara Annie Hollar (1829–1902), who married William Nester (1825–1901), who was also deaf and had attended the Virginia School for the Deaf, Dumb and Blind, as the Virginia School for Deaf and Blind was then known, in Staunton.
Under pressure from debts, in 1815 the Hollar family sold the land that included the grist mill that would give Lantz Mill its name to Samuel Morrison Stuart, who then sold the mill to George Adam Lantz in 1824.
The Shared Signing Community at Lantz Mills
Many families in Lantz Mills consisted of a mix of hearing and deaf members. Many of these families were connected to other deaf communities, including those in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Highland County, Ohio. Deaf Lantz Mills residents had a mixture of both hereditary deafness, as in the case of the Hollar family, and illness-caused deafness. There were at least fifty-two deaf residents living within a five-mile radius of Lantz Mills identified in the 1880 U.S. Census.
Due to the number of deaf residents, Lantz Mills developed into a unique community where a majority of members, both hearing and deaf, communicated in a visual language, creating what is known as a shared signing community. While there are a handful of deaf communities like Austin, Texas, and Rochester, New York, that employ signed languages as a primary means of communication among deaf residents, most hearing residents of these communities do not know or use signed languages. The best-documented historical shared signing community in the United States is the town of Chilmark in Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts, as chronicled by Nora Groce in her book Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha’s Vineyard (1985). As with Lantz Mills, deaf and hearing residents in this community communicated in a commonly understood local signed language, in this case what became known as Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language.
As in Martha’s Vineyard, residents of Lantz Mills were fluent in locally used signed languages. These included a now-endangered regional sign language, Lantz Mills Sign Language; versions of American two-handed manual alphabets that evolved from British Sign Language, a two-handed manual alphabet that depicts the shapes of written English characters that was imported to the colonies in the late eighteenth century; and early iterations of American Sign Language, a one-handed manual alphabet that eventually became the primary, standardized sign language used in the United States.
A Deaf-owned Business: Christian & Sons
According to oral interviews and signed narratives, deaf citizens of the Lantz Mills area were deeply involved in the life and economy of the community. The cabinetmakers Christian & Sons was one such business that was essential to the local economy. According to the Shenandoah Herald, local deaf entrepreneur William Christian founded Christian & Sons in 1877, one of the first known deaf-owned and run businesses in nineteenth-century Virginia. He married Isabella Hollar, who was deaf, in 1863. After her death, he married Henrietta Creath, who was also deaf and whom he had met at the Virginia School for the Deaf, Dumb and Blind, in 1902.
After William Christian’s death in 1915, the business was run by his sons and eventually his grandson, who made custom cedar chests for the community until he passed away at age eighty. All in all, three generations of the deaf-owned Christian family businesses served Lantz Mill and the surrounding Edinburg commercial area for nearly eighty years. However, with the death of longtime residents and the development of new economic opportunities in the late twentieth century that lured other residents away, the Lantz Mills community declined, taking with it some of the last memories of the shared sign language that was created and sustained in the area.