David Kuhns Ernst
Updated: Feb 14
EDITOR'S NOTE: This blog post gives the reader an idea of the adventure one can take when a simple question comes to us at the historical society. Included in this post are links to additional images, newspaper articles, advertisements, and other documents that were discovered while researching this "Twin Borough" personality. DRW
By William C. Brunner, President Emeritus
Paul Chrisman, a member of the SFAHS Society, stopped by the museum one day with a copy of an old invoice from a Ford Dealer in Royersford. He asked about it and where it was located. No one knew much about it, and I began to search for information with the help of Mike Osiol and Dave Willauer. I gathered all the news clippings, documents and census reports I could find to make some sense of it all. I hoped to find a photo of the dealership but to date I have not found a photo, so I must depend on my words to paint a picture. As I assembled the information, I found D. K. Ernst to be an interesting man whose life and career were so diverse, with Spring City and Royersford being just one stop along his journey.
David Kuhns Ernst was one of five children of Rev. George W. & Mattie M. Ernst. He was born in Chambersburg, Franklin County on July 12, 1886. His father was a farmer and Mennonite minister. George’s occupation, as listed in the census, was that of a farmer. His death certificate states his name clearly as Rev. George W. Ernst and I was able to verify the Mennonite affiliation in church records on file.
David lived in many places during his lifetime, and it makes his journey interesting. In 1900, he was living in Guilford, PA with his parents, two sisters and two brothers. He was 13 and in school at the time. Since I relied mainly on census records there were often gaps that occur because we only have census reports every ten years. News stories can often fill in the gaps when they are available.
In 1910 David had moved out from his home and is a young man living with the Gaul family in Mifflintown, PA. He is a boarder there and works full time as a laborer at the local creamery. On February 18, 1911, David Kuhns Ernst married Esther Mae Smith.
David Kuhns Ernst was living in Springfield, Montgomery County in the 1920 census. He was listed as a car salesman, and is living with his wife, Esther, and their two sons at the time. In 1920, D. K. Ernst opened a new Ford dealership in Jonestown, PA. A news clipping about the opening of the dealership was in the local paper as well as advertisements for the cars being sold at the business. Jonestown is in Lebanon County. A newspaper story from Jonestown in 1922 tells of a fire at his home in the borough so I know he was living in Jonestown.
It is interesting to note that official records of the Ford Motor Company found in the 1917-18 ledger show that David K. Ernst and Edwin W. Connelly were listed as dealers for Royersford. The ledger for 1924 shows D. K. Ernst as the sole owner of the dealership. This information was supported from a local newspaper notice published in May 1924 announcing that the official partnership of Ernst and Connelly had been dissolved. The only question left unanswered was if Ernst was involved in the Royersford dealership while he was operating a dealership in Jonestown. I must assume he was involved with both businesses.
In the 1930 census D. K. Ernst was living on Church Street in Spring City and his occupation was an automobile dealership operator in Royersford. Ernst’s Ford dealership was on Main Street in Royersford. Phone books from 1925 show him living at Church and New Streets, Spring City with his business at 2nd & Main in Royersford.
In 1935, the phone book shows his home residence as 211 Seventh Avenue, Royersford, with his garage still at 2nd & Main. The building that housed Ernst’s showroom was later removed and today is a macadam driveway and parking area. The original showroom housed three cars and faced Main Street. In a February 1935 newspaper story, a runaway truck came down Main Street hill and en route crashed over the sidewalk and steps in the front of Ernst’s showroom store and ended up at the railroad crossing gates at the bottom of the hill.
D. K. Ernst continued to be innovative in promoting Ford sales in Royersford. In 1934, he was able to arrange through Ford Motor Co. for the showing of the movie “Rhapsody in Steel”. The Home Building at 201 Main St., one door up from his showroom, had a small theater that was booked for November 12th through the 16th. The movie was critically acclaimed and produced by Ford Motor Co. to be shown at the Chicago World’s Fair. The movie was shown at the Ford Exposition Building on the grounds of “A Century of Progress” in Chicago where it played to capacity crowds daily. Some of the scenes from the movie showed the manufacturing of Ford V8 automobiles taken in one of their manufacturing plants. The movie was a great advertising tool and was meant to help Ernst’s sales.
In August of 1936, Ernst had a big display of new Fords and Lincolns at the Montgomery County Farmer’s Picnic. The Farmer’s Picnic was held annually at Lakeview Park in Royersford and became a longstanding tradition which started around 1919. By 1936 it had become a gala event that was spread out over three days and attracted a total of 20,000 people. There were so many events, competitions, displays, and concerts held during the three-day event that a schedule in the newspaper covered three full columns. There were numerous lectures, livestock judging, concerts and demonstrations day and evening. Sporting events such as baseball games, water sports in the lake and other competitive skill events were also held. There were award ceremonies and trophy presentations, with gigantic fireworks displays in the evenings. The biggest event of all at the end of the picnic was a drawing for a brand new 1936 Ford Tudor sedan which was presented at 11:30 PM on Friday night. The raffled car along with many other new Fords were on display throughout the fair.
Another newsworthy event to come to the local papers involved the D. K. Ernst Dealership and the Dobbs brothers. In August of 1937, the Dobb’s brothers, who lived on 5th Avenue in Royersford, showed up at 2nd & Main Street looking for trouble. It was their reprocessed car that caused all the trouble. It appears the Montgomery County Sheriff had delivered the car to Ernst’s garage as their auto loan agency reported that they were delinquent with their payments. They wanted the car back and ended up punching both Ernst and his son. This act resulted in their arrest. It is interesting for me to note that back in the 1980s when I worked at Wagner Auto Sales as the service manager that I had a similar incident where a car was towed into our dealership overnight. I arrived in the early morning to find a newer Mercury parked in the back with a bank notice attached. To avoid any trouble, I had the body shop man put it inside of our paint booth and close the shop doors. When the owner showed up asking if we had his car, I told him I did not see it anywhere and he should call his bank. The car was removed later that day without incident.
The Ford dealership in Royersford prospered in the 1930s as large advertisements appeared in 1936,1937, and 1938, but in 1939 I could not find any. I assume the dealership closed rather abruptly as I know cars sales and manufacturing were affected during the WW2 era. Many auto makers were making tanks and war related items. In January of 1942, the Federal Government ceased by law all manufacturing of cars, commercial trucks, and auto parts in the United States. That order lasted from February 1942 until October of 1945. That would have put a lot of new car dealers out of business. Ernst was found living in Reading, Berks County, in the 1940 census. His occupation is now reported as a commissioned auto salesman. By this time, Ernst had become interested in hypnosis and in the late 1930s he began to give lectures on the subject.
During the 1940s, the name of David K. Ernst started appearing in newspapers as a hypnologist who was doing programs and speaking on the subject. He called himself a practical psychologist and practicing hypnologist. He first got Interested in the field of hypnology during the depression but did not do widescale public appearances until the early 1940s. He gradually shifted his full-time job from the automotive business to that of being a full-time speaker. In the 1950 census Ernst was living in Lower Alsace Township, near Reading, Berks Co. and working full-time as a hypnotist. His shows were widely acclaimed and drew big crowds. They were held mostly in high school auditoriums and the cost of a ticket was $1.00 each in the 1950s. Many schools and sponsoring institutions would book Ernst back again for a return engagement. In the early 1930s he considered hypnotism a hobby, but it is safe to say that by 1940 his hobby was a career. In the early years, tickets were 35 cents and part of the proceeds were often donated to a charity. In 1943, Porter High School booked Ernst and it was advertised as a Red Cross benefit program with some of the proceeds given to the organization.
Ernst always stressed to his audience that his interest and practice was not magic, or witch-doctor stunts as seen in many vaudeville routines. He was serious in his study and felt that the use of hypnosis had genuine medical implications. He felt the art could be used to heal people and he sincerely believed that. In 1970, at the age of 83, he did a program at the Pine Grove High School auditorium. Advance tickets were 75 cents and $1.00 at the door. This may have been one of his final appearances as he died less than two years later.
When he died in March of 1972, the first line of his obituary stated that “Ernst was a professional hypnologist and lecturer”. The three-column obituary does not mention his automotive connection at all. It tells us his final home was at 100 Melrose Avenue, Stony Creek Mills east of Reading. He hypnotized over 45,000 people and lectured to over a million people during his career. His wife. Esther S. (Smith) Ernst. had died in January 1968, four years before him. He was survived by three sons, Earl S. of Honolulu, Hawaii; George L., El Paso, Texas; & Ralph I., McLean, Virginia.
D. K. Ernst was, like his father George, a Mennonite, and a member of the local Fairview Mennonite Church. During his 30 plus years on the lecture circuit he covered all parts of the country. He was buried in Forest Hills Memorial Park in Reiffton, near Reading, PA.
Looking for information about a Ford dealer on Main Street in Royersford led me on a journey of discovery. In that search I found the owner was a man named D. K. Ernst. who had an interesting life that was divided between the automotive world in his early years and art of hypnotism in his latter years. By the time he reached the age of 85, his involvement with hypnotism overshadowed his career in the auto world to the point that it was not even mentioned in his obituary and was only a distant memory.
William C. Brunner served on the board of the Spring-Ford Area Historical Society for 30 years, 15 of those years serving as its president. He now serves as President Emeritus and continues to write articles, blog posts, and newsletter inserts for the society. Bill has written three books about Spring City and Royersford, all available at the museum. He loves photography, garden railroading, postcard collecting, and local history. He graduated from Spring-Ford High School in 1962. He and his wife of 60 years, Joyce, live in Spring City. They have a son, Chuck, a daughter, Joyce, three grandchildren, Amber, Willie & Frank, and 6 great grandchildren.