A New Homcoming for Old Glory

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In the winter of 2016, BHC Trustee Rick Polityka uncovered a history mystery. After a series of serendipitous events,  Rick unearthed the history behind an early 1900s sled, or  tiller known as Old Glory, that was hidden away in the basement of the Northeast Taproom in Reading, PA. The tiller, which is believed to be over 100 years old, has made its way to a new home: the Berks History Center.

At 19 feet long and over 300 pounds, it is hard to believe that this artifact had gone unnoticed for so long. On November 30, 2019, a crew of 11 volunteers met at the Northeast Taproom to retrieve Old Glory from its hiding place. After a short time and a lot of muscle power, the behemoth tiller saw the light of day for the first time since the dawn of the 20th century. Thanks to Orth’s Towing, Old Glory was transported to its new home at the Berks History Center.

While the efforts to move Old Glory were great, the stories behind this artifact were well worth the work. In his research, Rick discovered that Old Glory was one of many tillers that coasted the streets of Reading in late 1800s and early 1900s. “Coasting” down popular sledding slopes, such as Chestnut, Buttonwood, Elm, Greenwich, Spring and Robeson streets, was a favorite winter pastime in the City of Reading.

As for Old Glory,  up to 20 children could fit on the sled, which could travel up to 65-70 mph, with no way of stopping it. Tillers provided an entertaining yet dangerous thrill for children and adults alike and the phenomena was commonplace until several serious accidents caused authorities to start cracking down on the activity. By 1925 tillers were rarely seen on city streets. Old Glory was involved in an accident with an 8 man tiller at the intersection of 11th & Chestnuts Sts. on February 16, 1916. It has sat in the basement of the Northeast Taproom at 12th & Robeson since – until last week when it was moved to the Berks History Center.

A Note from the Berks History Center:

A lot of research went into discovering the story behind this and other tillers in the winter of 2016-2017 by the tiller team of Charlie Adams, Corrie Crupi, Sharon Merolli, Jon Showers Jr., Dave Kline, Richard Polityka and Michelle Napoletano Lynch. A huge thanks to all these fantastic #BerksHistoryBuffs for making this story come alive. Also a big thanks to all the folks who volunteered to move Old Glory to its new home at the Berks History Center, including Orth’s Towing!

Paving the Way for Women, Up & Down Duryea Drive: Rhea Duryea

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Rhea Duryea, BHC Museum Collection

When I began my “career” as a docent at the Berks History Center, I learned about a young woman named Rhea Duryea. She was pictured in the museum’s Transportation Room. If you’ve been there, you know there is a Conestoga Wagon, a Horse Car, and a Duryea Phaeton car. When I was searching for a woman from Reading to portray in the DAR’s Famous Ladies’ Tea, I decided to find out more about Rhea. She was born in 1885 in Peoria, Illinois, but moved to Reading when she was 14 years old because her father, Charles, brought his Duryea Power Company to Reading. From 1900-1911, automobiles were manufactured here. Rhea was the oldest of the four children who lived first on Spruce Street and later moved to Douglass Street. Charles encouraged Rhea and her sister, Grace, to be involved in whatever interested them, not in just what was expected of a woman of the 1900s. Rhea grew up learning all about motors and bicycles and cars and how they ran!

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She is probably best known for being her father’s test car driver–at age 15! In 1901, when she had mastered the skill of successfully cranking the drive shaft, she was often seen driving her dad’s three or four wheeled vehicles toward Mt. Penn. At Mt. Penn she would then drive the car up Mt. Penn Boulevard (now known as Duryea Drive) and back down again. Her dad would not agree to sell a car unless the car could be successfully driven up and down the hilly and winding road now known as  Duryea Drive. Not many women drove cars (or were thought of as being physically able to) because of several reasons: it was difficult to crank the drive shaft, which could take  two minutes or more of strenuous cranking; there was no steering wheel, you had to steer by using a perpendicular tiller located between the two front seats; with one hand, you had to steer, set the clutch, and throttle the motor! Make sure you check out the Duryea vehicle in the  BHC Museum Transportation Room. You could sit on either side of the tiller in the front and of course there were no speed limits or rules. Her biggest problem on the road were the horses, that would balk and refuse to move when she was near them in a car!

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Rhea Duryea on a Duryea automobile. BHC Museum Collection. 

Rhea was unafraid to try things that were not the “norm” for a woman of that time. She graduated from  Ursinus College in 1908, where she sang, acted in plays and was the manager of the women’s basketball team. She became a teacher and author of several books about genealogy. Rhea was a woman of many firsts: the first baby to be carried to the top of the Washington Monument; the first teenaged girl to drive a car; the first woman named to the Ursinus Board of Directors. She served in that capacity from 1926-1969! I could not find out much information about Rhea after she left Reading and got her degree. I know she married, rather late in life, to a man from Philadelphia, whose last name was Johnson. As far as I could find out, she had no children. I even had to ask an Ursinus alumnus to help me find out anything about her later life. I do think that Rhea was a woman of many interests and dreams. She helped pave the way for women to step out of their comfort zones and experience new opportunities that previously had been unheard of for a woman.

Hallie Vaughan is a Women’s History enthusiast, instructor and reinactor and longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center. As a guest blogger Hallie will focus on Women’s History in Berks County. 

#WomensHistoryMystery

Mystery Woman of the Week #3

I was the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court. I was appointed by President Reagan in 1981. Who am I?

Answer to Mystery Woman #2

Wilma Rudolph