Ancestor’s handiwork brings family together in Pine Grove

PINE GROVE (AP) — Johannes “John” Bonawitz moved to Pine Grove from Womelsdorf in 1809, bringing with him a knack for gunsmithing.

On Saturday, dozens of Bonawitz descendants from across the country gathered at Twin Grove Campground for the first Bonawitz family reunion. Among the food, drinks and documents detailing the family tree was a family artifact made by Johannes himself.

A Kempton gunshop owner, Greg Dixon, had an original Bonawitz rifle in his possession and was invited to attend the reunion at the request of event organizer Erica Elliott. He acquired the rifle in the mid-1980s in an estate purchase and knew right away what he had. In the 1700s, gunsmiths would have individualized stylings of their guns so people knew who made it, similar to an artist signing a piece of their art today. Years spent in the gun-selling business allowed Dixon to recognize the characteristics of the patchbox, a small container located on the butt of the rifle for greased linen patches; the engraving on the metal; and the carving on the wood of the gun as evidence of Bonawitz’s style.

Dixon was contacted by Elliott two months ago when she discovered he had an original Bonawitz rifle and asked if it could be borrowed for the day’s events.

“I’m lucky enough to have it, but these people have his DNA,” Dixon said.

Elliott was looking for someone who had a Bonawitz rifle after she found a Bonawitz rifle collector, Henry Bishop, in Georgia, who could not attend the reunion with his guns. Steve Yoder, another descendant of Bonawitz, helped Elliott find Russell Bonawitz, who put her in touch with Dixon.

Yoder, a six-greats-grandson of Johannes Bonawitz, discovered his relation to Bonawitz after a cousin working in Harrisburg went through the archives and pieced together the family tree. Yoder began taking care of Johannes’ grave, which is located across the street from St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Pine Grove, two years ago.

“I felt like I had an obligation,” he said.

Gunsmithing seems to be in the family genes as Bonawitz’s descendent, Jim Bonawitz, who hails from Billings, Montana, has been making guns since 2014. He calls himself an apprentice, given his limited time on the subject, but in the last few years he has made 13 guns. It takes him two months, working eight hours a day to construct one rifle.

Half a dozen of his creations, five rifles and one pistol, were on display next to Johannes’ gun. The style of rifles Jim Bonawitz builds is from the Federalist period of gunsmithing, which was from 1783 to 1830.

Jim Bonawitz, who is a six-greats-nephew of Johannes, found out about his ancestry before entering gunsmithing. A friend’s father was looking through Joe Kindig Jr.’s book “Thoughts on the Kentucky Rifle in its Golden Age” and saw the name Bonawitz in it and mentioned it to Jim Bonawitz’s friend. Research on the name led to the realization he was a descendant of a gunsmith. Initially, Jim Bonawitz wanted to build his own medieval armor.

“I’ve always been fascinated with medieval armor,” Jim Bonawitz said.

A shoulder injury forced him to reconsider, since the injury made it difficult to hit steel all day to fashion his armor. Instead, he switched to rifles, watching Youtube videos for tips and advice on building a gun from scratch. Jim Bonawitz said he was making everything but Bonawitz rifles until he spoke with Bishop, who told him to use his name and fashion a gun Johannes would have made.

The best part of making a rifle is the “satisfaction of building something I can appreciate,” Jim Bonawitz said. “It’s a piece of artwork when I’m done.”

A newspaper in Montana told of Jim Bonawitz’s gunsmithing, and Elliott found the article online, leading her to invite him to the reunion. Elliott, an Ohio resident, said descendants traveled from across the country to Pennsylvania where their ancestor made his mark creating guns.

“This is Johannes’ home,” Elliott said.