A Family Story: Doc Gabe, the Herb Doctor

Gabriel, my great-great-great-great grandfather (4 times great), born in 1789, was a young lad (between 7-10, depending which history source you read) when he rode the wagon south from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania to the Shenandoah Valley and his family settled in the shadow of Mole Hill near Hinton, Virginia. The family traveled with the barest of belongings and soon settled into the log cabin.  Even though young, Gabriel would have been a valuable asset to his father helping to clear timber to build a house, tilling the land to plant crops, and working in the clobber shop. Faith was an integral part of the Heatwole life.  He was taught and spoke the German language only.

In 1810, at the age of twenty-one he married Margaret (Polly) Swank. Two years later his first son was born, and by 1816 he had purchased a place of his own on Dry River where he set up a saw mill and cooper shop. “The History of the Heatwole Family” states, “Being of strong constitution, together with an indomitable will, he plied his axe and maul to advantage, and as the forest trees by which he was surrounded grew less in number, so little by little his few tillable acres in the course of time increased to quite a farm, the boundaries of which were so situated that never, through the whole course of his life, did it suit to join fencing with any of his neighbors.” It is recorded that either alone or with others he owned in excess of 3,000 acres. “By the Grace of God” says, “Doc Gabe had a saying which he truly believed and worked hard to make come true: ‘Prosperity comes to those who possess a strong will to succeed.’  Apparently Doc Gabe was born with that will, along with a genius for getting ahead.” He was fascinated with astronomy, studied his almanac, and planted and harvested by the phases of the moon.

From “By The Grace of God” I quote or retell all of the following….

Along with farming, he was a cooper by trade.  In his cooper shop he made many valuable antiques, measuring kegs, churns, baskets, wood flails , farm tools, fence palings, roof shingles and split bottom chairs. He was a woodsman and hunter, scouring the hills for rabbit, squirrel and coon.  It is reported that he used a Pennsylvania blunderbuss and old Yeager rifle which he had inherited from his grandfather Matheus.  It is said he and his eight sons were a lively clan, gadding about, outfitted in cowhide boots, thick, hand knitted salt and pepper socks, rough nutmeg breeches, cinnamon vests and onion-toned homespun collarless shirts. He taught his boys to whittle, whet and whistle. He taught them how to collect herbs and roots that he used in doctoring.

Photo copied from “By the Grace of God” by Nancy Burkholder Hess, page 114.

Doc Gabe

Around the age of 46, Gabe became interested in the study of medicine and ordered text books from a prescribed home study system put together by Dr. Samuel Thomson of Vermont which advocated “Natural remedies only are beneficial to the human body; therefore only vegetable and herb medicines should be taken internally.”  From the Thomson’s school of medicine he acquired the title “Thomsonian Herb Doctor” and the nickname “Doc Gabe”.  It is said that he was a good doctor; who saved lives, doctored during epidemics, delivered babies and answered  community needs. He raised grapes (wine), apples and herbs and yarb which he used in his doctoring. He build a doctoring office attached to the front of the house

A Man of Faith

Gabe was a man of strong faith and for church going, he and his boys would dress up in proper, somber attire. Gabe wore a black Prince Albert frock coat and a tall, wide-brimmed hat. He held to the Mennonite faith and was a pillar in the church as well as the Mole Hill community, supporting his church with his money as well as being vocal. Occasionally he was asked to preach. I quote, “All his children were raised by the Holy Write and fed Scripture pie and cake. They taught their children and grandchildren to live in peace and harmony just like the Great Designer planned”.  In 1847, he donated a portion of land on a bluff overlooking Dry River for a cemetery and a church which he and his boys built, along with their Mennonite neighbors. The Bank Mennonite Church was the third Mennonite church to be built in the Valley.

The Bank Mennonite Church was built in 1847. (Picture was taken around 1900). You can see from the picture the large size of the church and crowd of people signifying the rapid influx and growth of Mennonites in the area. Note the two entrance doors. Men sat on one side and women on the other. Photo was copied from “By the Grace of God” page 114.

Family Life

Gabriel and Polly had twelve children.  Their children were well versed in German and English and attended winter school. In their home was good reading material, singing books, world maps and newspapers from Pennsylvania. They ate well with meat always on the table from their butchered game, lamb, beef, hogs and chicken. He grew bumper crops of grain, hemp, tobacco, maize and hay. He always worked to improve and build up the soil. His animals were sleek and well-fed.  Like their European counterparts who feared contaminated water and threats of typhoid, they did not drink water unless it was boiled but sipped instead on cider and wine which Gabriel made and fermented deep in the dark small room in the cellar. When his children left home and married, he set them up on land from his vast acreage. It is amazing to me the difference in assets and wealth that happened so quickly between David’s father and his generation. Times were quickly changing.

Gabe: The Man

“Gabriel was a pleasant man of medium to small build, with a wide, winning smile, large puffy jaws and a good-sized Adam’s apple which jiggled up and down when he spoke. He had heavy steel brows and warm, dark, expressive Heatwole eyes. He was an ingenious codger, exceptionally intelligent, innovative, and shrewd. He was an ambitious man, robust by nature, hospitable, family-loving, a friend to all and entertaining to be around; ‘A happy contented man.’

Civil War

When he was seventy-two (1861), the Civil War began between the states. He and his family were deeply affected by the war. Being a peace-loving man. he doctored both Yankee and Rebel. Under the house he had a bed of hay where his grandson hid during the Civil War. Under the front room he kept his meat on hooks, safely hidden from marauding solders. During the war a horse was kept hidden in the basement. Once Polly went below and discovered a Yankee searching for food.  She fixed him a hearty meal before he went on his way.

In her book “By the Grace of God” Nancy Hess describes in much detail the horror and destruction of the war and its devastating impact on the valley.  The Mennonites, a peace-loving  people, refused to take up arms to fight. Though Gabriel was unscarred in body from the war, his old heart was torn asunder by the terrible war that had robbed him of his children and scattered his grandchildren. His house and barn was one of the few not burned.  I quote from “By the Grace of God”, page 130, “In this valley of grief, the war was ugly before the Federal General Sheridan came; but after his coming, the destruction wrought was almost incomprehensible……General P.H. Sheridan set out to burn everything. He already had instructions from Grant to make the Valley untenable for the Rebel Army. He used this excuse along with his wrath to devastate this Valley. In L.J. Heatwole’s scrapbook of recollections, he writes, ‘The morning after the terrible burning started, gray smoke hung over Mole Hill, a stench filled the air.’ Nearly every barn in West Rockingham County was burned, as were numerous houses.

There are two stories told about why Gabriel’s house and barn survived. One account has it that in her seventy-fourth year, Gabriel’s wife (Polly) stood by and dared Sheridan’s men to start a fire. When they lit a flame in the hay on the barn floor, she bravely scraped out the fire, not once, but three times. At least one descendant believes the barn was never set afire because of the medical assistance Doc Gabriel gave the North.”

No longer could he stand on Mole Hill and look out across his beautiful acres. Shortly after the war the lovable, old, white-haired doctor, semi-retired, either sold or divided most of his holdings between his twelve children and their children. On June 18, 1875, at the age of 85, he passed on to his reward.


From his fourth child, Joseph, comes my great-grandmother Molly Grace Coffman and from his seventh child, Jacob S, is the family line of great-grandfather Melvin Jasper Heatwole. It is the union of Melvin and Molly that I wrote my book “The Story of Melvin Jasper Heatwole and Molly Grace Coffman” in 1983.


I can not take credit for any of the information posted in this blog. It is a combination of information from:

  1. “History of the Heatwole Family” by Cornelius J. Heatwole, 1907.
  2. “By the Grace of God” by Nancy Burkholder Hess, 1979.  Some is quoted and some rewritten.

Permission from both parties was granted for the story to be retold in my book “The Story of Melvin Jasper Heatwole and Mollie Grace Coffman” by Pat Hertzler, 1982.

Additional blog posts:

A Family Story: Death on the High Seas

A Family Story: Triumph Over Tragedy


  1. luvlyladye Said:

    Love history, especially when you know someone connected to it. So very interesting!



  2. Kendra L Said:

    I’m enjoying these family history posts. I should get a copy of your book. And I smiled several times at the mental image of the “clobber shop” in the first paragraph. =)

    • Pat Said:

      I have extra books. They are $7 each and your mom is coming down on Saturday!!! Just saying!

  3. Carolyn M Hockman Said:

    I’ve been searching for information about my great grandfather, Reuben J. Heatwole, to share with my grandchildren and came across your very informative and helpful blog.

    Reuben was born at Mole Hill also but later he moved to Kansas.

    Further investigation shows that Reuben’s father, John S. Heatwole, was a brother to Gabriel Heatwole. These two brothers married sisters, Nancy and Margaret (Polly) Swank. So Reuben would have been a double cousin to Gabe’s children.

    Reuben’s parents died when he was still a child. His sister, Susanna, married Harry Brunk, to whom custody of Reuben was given. But reading this I wonder if Gabe also became like a second father to Reuben.

    Reuben was very active in the churches of Kansas. He also practiced homeopathic medicine and was known as a singer. Your blog helps me understand the possible beginnings of Reuben’s interest in homeopathic medicine. I’m curious if the Gabe Heatwole family was musical.

    Do you know if the Gabe Heatwole house still stands? I hope to visit in the area in the next year or so since there are grandchildren in Harrisonburg, and would love to see it.

    • Pat Said:

      Yes it does. It is 2099 Bank Church Rd. Dayton, Va

      • Pat Said:

        The David Heatwole family has lived there probably the last 100 years or thereabouts. David is a direct descendent of Gabriel and his son Dale and his wife Doris live there now. They love to give tours of the place. Her number is 540-820-5756. Have fun. It was nice to connect with you. Pat

  4. Karl Rhodes Said:

    Your great-great-great-great grandfather, Gabriel “Doc” Heatwole, is an important character in a fact-based novel I just published called Peggy’s War. See peggyswar.com

    • Pat Said:

      Very interesting. How can I get one of the books?

      • Karl Rhodes Said:

        PeggysWar.com works. Or you can send me your name, address, and a check for $27.10 made out to “Dale Enterprise Literary Society.” My address is 11223 Byfield Court, Richmond, VA 23233. Also, in the Harrisonburg, VA area, the book is available at Rocky Cedars and at Rocktown History.

      • Karl Rhodes Said:

        My wife and I had supper with Dale and Doris Heatwole in their historic Jacob Heatwole home. It was wonderful. –Karl

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