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Middletown: Home of a 200-year-old rags to riches story

Dec 9, 2021 | Real Estate Advice | 1 comment

By: Danielle Wadsworth

Middletown: Home of a 200-year-old rags to riches story

The George Frey Estate then and now

Approximately 1,100 homeowners in Middletown, Pennsylvania do not own the land their home sits on. Their land is owned by a man who died more than 200 years ago. How does that work? The homeowners actually own a “leasehold estate.” While similar to the common residential lease, this lease is for the land itself and runs for a far longer term. In this case, each lease runs for 99 years (state law prohibits leases of 100 years or longer).  Each homebuyer buys the home and is assigned the lease for the land.  

As a real estate instructor, I love using Middletown as an example of long-term, leasehold estates, but as a history buff, I just had to know more. With a 99-year lease, I assumed that George Frey must have died in the early 1900s.  I was surprised to find out he died in 1806, and George Frey wasn’t even his real name! 

How it all started

George Frey (Johannes Eberhardt) was born in Germany in 1732  He arrived in Pennsylvania in 1749 as a redemptioner – a person who went into voluntary servitude for a certain period in exchange for passage to America. On a trip near Fort Hunter, he was captured and mistaken for a runaway indentured servant. He cried out, “Ich bin frei” (I am free).  He was able to prove that he was, indeed, a free man and thereafter was known as Frey.  

Frey was a very industrious man who opened a store, a grist mill, and bought parcels of land as often as he could. At one point, he owned much of the land in what is now Hummelstown and Middletown. Despite all his successes, one dream had not been fulfilled; he and his wife were childless.  In his will, he elaborately set out the plans for the orphan house that would be his legacy. In his own words:

“And as to my worldly estate which the Lord has entrusted to and endowed me with and which I would willingly so apply as that his holy name may be adored and praised through time and eternity. To this end, I have concluded with God’s permission to erect an orphan house which shall be called “Emaus,” at the place I have chosen for that purpose…”

According to the Lower Swatara Township Historic Preservation Society, over 1,400 acres were included in Frey’s estate at the time of his death. Unfortunately, a series of lawsuits over his estate diminished the assets of the estate over a period of about 25 years.  An 1872 court opinion was published in a local newspaper in which the judge described the early days of the Frey Estate, “The history of George Frey’s estate presents a scene of neglected duties, peculation, plunder, and rascality, which gives us a very bad opinion of human nature, and is well calculated to deter anyone from endeavoring to establish a charity to be carried into effect by others after death.”

Despite the delay and troubles, Frey’s orphanage did finally get built in 1837 between Union and Spring Streets. In 1840, the school was started for the orphans’ education, and the building enlarged in 1841. In 1872, the orphans moved to a new building at 1020 North Union Street (where Frey Village now stands).  

The orphanage operated until the 1960s. Prevailing opinion that foster care was a more appropriate living situation for orphans was one of the main reasons for closing the orphanage. 

200 years later

Frey and his legacy are still going strong more than 200 years after his death.  While the orphanage no longer operates, the rents collected from the leasehold parcels are still used in a charitable manner. One of the trustees explained that the funds mainly support the Middletown Food Pantry and Middletown Human Needs as well as the Middletown Boy and Girl Scouts. 

What does this mean for homeowners and home buyers in the Middletown area? First, it is important to know if the property is indeed part of the Frey Estate. The easiest way to find that out is to look at the deed for the property. Second, as a homeowner, you will pay annual rent for the land. It is possible to “buy out” of the lease, but the amount varies as do the rental amounts. 

If you are purchasing a home, your mortgage company will want the lease to be long enough to cover the mortgage term. Many leases are expiring within the next 10-40 years, so a lease renewal will need to be done and provided to your mortgage company and title company. Don’t worry! Your Dream Home agent will help you through this process. 

So where’s George now?

The truth is no one knows! In the summer of 2012, a search took place for Frey and his wife in anticipation of an expansion project at the Union Street retirement village. The remains, that were believed to be under a monument, were not there. Great efforts were taken including excavations and radar equipment, but still no George. A grave was dug and is held for their remains, should they ever be found. As of the writing of this article, they still have not been found. 

So, the next time you drive through Middletown remember that things are not always as they seem. Homeowners mowing their lawns, kids playing in the yard, decorating for holidays, all on land owned by a ‘missing’ 200-year-old dead man. George Frey isn’t just a real estate term we run into from time to time. He was a real man with real dreams. And I love dreamers. 


1 Comment

  1. Ginny (Hamill) Walls

    I love this article. I grew up I. One of these homes in Oak Hills, on Spruce Street. And I went to Grandview Elementary School with two boys from the home, John Carr and Phillip Myers. I’ve often wondered what happened to them as I spent 10 years of my adult life houseparenting in a childrens home. As a kid we heard horrible stories of how the orphans had to live.


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