Jake Weiggel and the Legend of the Counterfeit $20s

As we continue to tell the history of Howard Falls, there are stories outside the Howard family we feel are equally important to share – stories about families who were also stewards of the Falls Run Gorge. One such family was the Weiggels, who owned a portion of the Falls Run Gorge property to the north of Howard Falls. A young, newlywed couple, Conrad and Katherine Weiggel, purchased the property from distant relatives in the late 1800s and would have 3 children; Michael in 1890, Jacob in 1892, and Marie in 1896. Conrad Weiggel had emigrated from Germany in 1888 and settled first in Erie. There he met Katherine Hosch, who had emigrated in 1887 with her parents. They would marry soon after and settled in Franklin Township next to the Howard family.

The story starts with a Howard Family legend passed down through the generations – the story of engraved metal plates used to counterfeit $20 gold certificates hidden on the property in the 1910s. The search for the plates’ elusive hiding spot would affectionately pause countless family hikes through the gorge and the woods.

But how did this legend come to be? We turn to the story of the middle Weiggel child, Jacob, or known later in life as Jake. Jake lived on the family property until his passing in 1981. Before his mother died, Jake had a falling out with her, and she would not permit him to come into her house. Therefore, Jake set up a bunk in his workshop nearby and lived there. When his mother died in 1951, Jake continued to honor his mother’s wishes and never entered her home. The house eventually fell into disrepair, and only portions of the foundation remain.

Jake’s workshop had only simple electricity, a potbelly stove, and a dirt floor. He cooked on the stove, collected rainwater for drinking, and generally subsisted on a meager diet. Toward the end of his life, he trusted only two people, Ralph Mischler, who lived to the south of Howard Falls, and Dennis Howard. Ralph would go to Fairview occasionally to cash Jake’s pension check for him and to buy his groceries. Dennis would go to Jake’s on Sunday afternoons for a visit and to check on him. During these visits, Dennis would come to learn Jake’s story.

Jake was born on the family farm and became a master blacksmith and an expert mechanic. His brother, Michael, was a skilled engraver. The sons of a farmer and in their late teens and early 20s, the brothers had convinced family and friends that they were hard at work in the family barn designing an automobile patent. But in 1912, Michael was caught in Cleveland trying to pass a counterfeit $20 gold certificate in a department store. Jake, waiting outside, managed to duck and escape police officers. While running away, he tossed aside $500 in $20 bills (about $14,000 in value today). Jake was eventually arrested on a neighboring family farm back in Pennsylvania.

1906 United States $20 Gold Certificate (via Wikipedia)

One is not quite sure how the brothers, living twenty miles outside of Erie, came into the possession of silk-grained United States’ currency paper. But Jake, the blacksmith, made the plates with his brother, the skilled engraver, making the counterfeit design. Secret Service agents from Washington D.C. and a detective sergeant from Pittsburgh had tracked down the brothers’ counterfeiting operation. Newspaper reports state the “bogus bank notes are excellent specimens” and were only discovered after “spurious $20 nation banknotes” flooded the country resulting in “heavy losses to banks all over the United States on account of the excellence of the reproduction.”

Michael would be sentenced to 7 years for the counterfeiting to be served at The United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. However, he would be pardoned after 1 year and 6 months after the evidence “failed to show any further passing or attempting to pass counterfeit money.” The pardon states “the defendant appears to have gotten into the difficulty through his desire to make some money whereby he might be married to an estimable young woman.” Michael would marry in 1917 and have one son, however, he tragically passed away at the age of 40 in a trolley car accident in Erie.

It seems Jake would not serve any time for his role in the counterfeiting and would go on to join the 801st Aero Squadron as a Corporal from 1917 to 1919 in France. During World War 1, he would once again use his mechanical expertise to assemble airplanes that arrived to France in crates from America. At the time, the master mechanic that signed off on each completed assembly was required to take the plane on its maiden flight – Good old quality control at work. Jake learned to fly there and survived the war.

After the war, Jake came back to Erie, where he met Dorothy Smiley, and the two married in the mid-1920s. By 1930, they had divorced with no children. Jake returned to the farm near Howard Falls to live with his parents and open a blacksmith and repair business there. His dad died in 1941, and his mother in 1951. As Jake got older, he trusted fewer and fewer people. Business for a master blacksmith and mechanic dwindled, and Jake lived a reclusive life in his shop.

After Jake passed away in 1981, the property was inherited by descendants of his brother, Michael, who were living in California. Over the years, the Howard family corresponded with them regarding the purchase of the property. In early 1997, the descendants offered the Howard family the opportunity to purchase the land. The property is spectacular, with the deep gorge of Falls Run cutting through the woods and a wonderful walking trail following the gorge’s rim. The gorge itself is unique, with rare plants and animals. The Howard family still refers to this portion of the property as “Jake’s Place.”

In late 1997, a post and beam family room addition was built at Howard Falls. Lumber found within Jake’s workshop, by then in ruins, was used to make the wainscot under the windows of the addition. A commemorative plaque on the wall over it describes where the wood came from and that Jake was a master craftsman. In addition, a small piece of gingerbread trim from the eaves of Jake’s mother’s house was salvaged from ruins. That trim now hangs on the wall of the new house on the property as a tribute to Jake and the Weiggel family. And hopefully, the story of the Weiggel family and the legend of the counterfeit $20s continues to be passed on for generations to come.

The Tribune-Republican. Scranton, PA .October 22, 1912

One thought on “Jake Weiggel and the Legend of the Counterfeit $20s

  1. Thanks for the refresher, hadn’t heard that story in years.
    I’d love to hike that rim trail sometime.

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