Honoring the First Defenders on the Fourth

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First Defenders Monument in City Park memorializing the Ringgold Light Artillery of Reading. Photo from from Berks History Center’s Henry Janssen Library

July 4, 1901 was an Independence Day in Berks County, different from most others. At promptly 10:00AM a celebratory parade moved from 24th and Penn Streets to City Park for the dedication of a newly placed monument that honored the Ringgold Light Artillery of the Union’s First Defenders. The title “First Defenders” was awarded to the five volunteer groups of Pennsylvania soldiers who were first to respond to President Abraham Lincoln’s call for militia to protect our nation’s capital from Confederate forces at the earliest stages of the Civil War.

It was April 12, 1861 when the Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter, officially beginning the war between the North and South. Washington D.C. was quickly understood to be a vulnerable and defenseless location for the Union, and action needed to be taken to protect the capital. On April 15, 1861, the President of the United States issued a proclamation calling out the militia of several states:

“Now therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, in virtue of the power vested by the Constitution and laws, have thought fit to call forth and hereby do call forth the militia of the several states of the Union to the aggregate number of 75 thousand, in order to suppress the said combination and to cause the laws to be duly executed.”

The general atmosphere among Berks County at this time was strong for maintaining the Union and upholding the Constitution. The Ringgold Light Artillery, under the direction of Captain James McKnight, had been actively preparing for this type of national emergency since January. Immediately after receiving Lincoln’s cry for support, a telegram was returned stating that the Ringgold Light Artillery “have ninety men, every one of them expecting to be ordered on duty for the U.S. Service before they leave their guns.” The following day, Captain McKnight received orders to get to Harrisburg by train as soon as possible. He left Reading with 101 of his men at 6 o’clock in the evening and arrived in Harrisburg by 8 o’clock, making the Ringgold Light Artillery the first to leave home and arrive for duty.

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Train car that carried the Ringgold Light Artillery from Reading to Harrisburg. Image: Berks History Center’s Henry Janssen Library

On April 18, 1861, fully uniformed and equipped, the Ringgold Light Artillery and four other companies left Harrisburg for Baltimore. As the First Defenders approached the center of the city to board the special train to Washington, they were met with a shower of stones, bricks, and clubs of an angry mob; fortunately, no one was seriously injured and they were able to reach the Capitol by 6 o’clock that evening. The members of the five companies were taken to the capital and were supplied with new arms. President Lincoln even greeted each and every one of the soldiers with a handshake, thanking them for their rapid efforts to protect Washington.

On April 23, 1861, Captain McKnight and the rest of the Ringgold Light Artillery were ordered to report to aid Captain Dahlgren at the Washington Navy Yard for the protection of the arsenal. It was ascertained that a rebel attempt would be made to capture the capital via said arsenal. The Reading troops remained in this position for several months before returning home. Many of them went on to see many major conflicts in the war, but regardless of other honors and credits, the survivors of these first five companies were ever proudest of the fact that they were “The First Defenders.”

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Ringgold Light Artillery in the Washington Navy Yard. Image: Berks History Center’s Henry Janssen Library

The Memorial to the First Defenders, 1901

As noted earlier, on July 4, 1901, the City of Reading dedicated a monument in City Park to memorialize the men of the Ringgold Light Artillery. An article written in the Reading Eagle on that particular day mentions that designs had been submitted by Bureau Brothers of Philadelphia (at a cost of $1,320) and P. F. Eisenbrown’s Sons of Reading (at a cost of $1,350). The committee favored to award the home contractors with the job of crafting and erecting the monument in City Park. July 4th was the chosen day of dedication “in the hopes that Mt. Penn would be set ablaze with redfire.” Adorning the front of the monument, a plaque was fastened that reads:

To commemorate the patriotism and promptitude of the Ringgold Light Artillery of Reading, Pennsylvania, which reported for duty at Harrisburg, April 16, 1861, arriving there first of the Pennsylvania companies; and with the Logan Guards of Lewistown, Washington Artillerists of Pottsville, National Light Infantry of Pottsville, and Allen Infantry of Allentown, entered the city of Washington April 18, 1861, The First Defenders of the Capital.

The monument still stands today, nearly 120 years after its dedication, reminding us of the sacrifices of those brave men—and so many others before and since—whose service to our country is the reason we are able to freely celebrate today.

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Button from the July 4, 1901 Dedication Ceremony of the First Defenders Monument. From the Berks History Center Museum Collection.

Written by BHC Curator, Amber Vroman

Berks History Center Accepts New Time Capsule to be Opened in 2119

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On December 13, 2019 at the Berks History Center’s Incorporation Day Birthday Bash event, which celebrated the 150th anniversary of the organization’s original incorporation date, BHC Trustee and 150th Anniversary Co-Chair, Floyd Turner presented a newly assembled time capsule that will be added to the BHC museum collections and opened 100 years from now.

About 120 people were in attendance at the event, which featured light refreshments and a casual happy hour with longtime friends and supporters of the Berks History Center.

Proclamations were presented acknowledging the Berks History Center’s contributions to Berks County by the Senate of Pennsylvania by Senator Judy Schwank, the PA House of Representatives by Representative Thomas R. Caltagirone, and the City of Reading by City Councilwoman, Donna Reed. Also in attendance were Craig Lutz on behalf of Senator David Argall; Bill Royer on behalf of Pennsylvania State Representative Ryan Mackenzie; and Berks County Commissioner, Kevin Barnhardt.

At 6:30pm Floyd Turner presented the time capsule to Executive Director, Benjamin Neely, who accepted the materials into the BHC’s care. The time capsule will be preserved in the BHC museum collection with instructions for it to be opened on December 13, 2119, 100 years from today on the organization’s 250th birthday.

“After opening the World War I time capsule last year (on November 28, 2018 at the Berks History Center), I thought it would be a good idea to put together a time capsule in recognition of the 150th anniversary of the Berks History Center,” said time capsule organizer, Floyd Turner. “I wanted the project to be a surprise but exactly how to do it and what to put into such a time capsule proved to be more of a challenge than I anticipated. I didn’t want to be the sole arbiter of the contents so I reached out to a number of people to ask for their contributions and let them make up their own mind regarding what they’d like to contribute.”

Contributors to the Time Capsule Include:

  • Cheryl Allerton (BHC Trustee)
  • Alexis Campbell (BHC Associate Director)
  • Corrie Crupi-Zana (Author/Historian & BHC Trustee)
  • Vicky Heffner (BHC Education Curator)
  • Matthew Jackson (Classic Harley Davidson & “Crazy Hot Dog Vendor” for the Reading Fightin’ Phils)
  • Robyn Jones (Berks County Living Magazine)
  • Linda Kelleher (Reading City Clerk)
  • Christian Leinbach (County Commisioner)
  • James Michalak (BHC Board President)
  • Lori Muhlenberg (BHC Trustee)
  • August Reichardt (Mission BBQ)
  • Mike Reinert (WFMZ Channel 69 News)
  • Judy Schwank (Pennsylvania Senator, 11th District)
  • Crystal Seitz (Berks Visitors Bureau)
  • Floyd Turner (BHC Trustee)
  • Patricia Vasquez (Community Development Coordinator for City of Reading)
  • Jennifer Winchester (Mission BBQ)

Incorporated on December 13, 1869 as the Historical Society of Berks County, the BHC is one of the oldest organizations of its kind in Pennsylvania. For a century and a half the goal of the BHC has remained consistent; to preserve the history and heritage of Berks County and to inform, educate and inspire our community regarding that history.

The Berks History Center thanks the many businesses in our community who helped to make BHC’s 150th Anniversary celebrations possible through sponsorship support:

  • Berks Packing
  • Conrad Weiser Society, C.A.R.
  • Faye & Co
  • Its A Gift
  • M&T Bank
  • Oakbrook Brewing Company
  • Pagoda Skyline
  • Pennwyn Motor Inc
  • Poore Group of Morgan Stanley
  • Security First
  • South Berks Association of Retirees
  • Stokesay Castle
  • Strausstown Rod & Gun Club
  • Sweet Streets
  • The Tillman Team of Remax
  • Thompkins Financial
  • Tom Smith, Retirement & Medicare Specialist
  • Tom Sturgis Pretzels
  • Victor Emmanuel II Beneficial Society
  • White Star Tours
  • Wyndam Advisors

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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!

Berks History Center Transfers Rare Artifact to Rightful Home in Chester County, PA

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(Right) Ellen E. Endslow, Director of Collections/Curator at Chester County Historical Society accepting the Mendenhall Box from (left) Bradley K. Smith, Curator at the Berks History Center.

The Berks History Center (BHC) is pleased to announce the transfer of a rare artifact, a wooden strongbox or chest, to the care of the Chester County Historical Society on Wednesday, January 30, 2019.

The artifact, which was designed to hold and protect important papers, is particularly unique due to its age and well documented history. While BHC staff members knew of the chest’s existence and were aware of a 1684 date carved on its face, it was only during the BHC’s 2016-2017 collections management initiative that its full history and significance came to light.

The collections management initiative was an undertaking designed to improve artifact related record-keeping through a process of inventory and historical research. PA Museums, Pennsylvania’s state-wide Museum Association, awarded the BHC with a 2018 Institutional Achievement Award in recognition of the initiative’s success.

 

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The chest belonged to Benjamin Mendenhall of Concord, a township of Chester County until the formation of Delaware County in 1789. The earliest known historical text that discusses Benjamin Mendenhall is the 1862 publication History of Delaware County, by George Smith. Smith indicates that Mendenhall was a wheelwright who emigrated from the English town of Mildenhall in 1686 (contemporary research shows that Mendenhall attended a Philadelphia wedding on November 15, 1684, so he clearly arrived in Pennsylvania sometime prior to that date).

Numerous sources indicate that he served one term in the Pennsylvania General Assembly and was an active member of the Chichester/Concord Monthly Meeting of the Society of Friends. Benjamin Mendenhall was married in 1698 to Ann Pennel and they had a large family; one of their daughters married the famed botanist, John Bartram on October 11, 1729. The Mendenhalls are also the sixth-great grandparents of U.S. President, Richard Nixon.

The Mendenhall chest remained with family members living in Chester or Delaware County until 1872, when the donor-to-be, Stephen Merideth, moved from Pughtown, Chester County to Reading, Pennsylvania. According to the BHC’s accession records, Meredith donated the small chest to the Historical Society of Berks County on September 13, 1921.

While the reasons for Merideth’s donation to the BHC are unknown, the artifact holds significant historical value to Chester County, not only in the unique age and quality of the box, but also in its well documented provenance as a cherished family heirloom.

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A caption with the photograph says “photo by Goldman, Reading, Pa”. This presumably refers to William I. Goldman (1856-1922), who first appears as a photographer in the 1877-78 edition of The City Directory of Reading, PA and continued in the photography business until his death in 1922

In 1897, teenager Earl Merideth, son of the chest’s eventual donor, wrote: “I am a profound admirer of ancestral relics, of which I have a great one, namely the money box, about 10” x 8” x 6” of Benjamin Mendenhall. On it are carvings by his own hand, artistic in nature, together with ‘B. 1684 M.’ on the front of box. The old lock though broken still clings to it. It is a wonderful old box, and I may safely say that it bids fair to outlive twice or thrice as many generations as it has in the past. I would not part with it for a great deal. It is made of hickory wood and firmly put together.”

Although the chest has been in BHC collection for nearly 100 years, the artifact has little connection to Berks County beyond the fact that its last private owner lived in close proximity to the museum’s headquarters. After careful research and consideration by the BHC Curator and Museum Committee, the BHC decided to deaccession the artifact from its collection. The BHC offered the chest in recognition of the fact that the vast majority of its history is connected with communities and families of Chester County.

As explained by BHC Executive Director, Sime Bertolet, “after careful deliberation, we concluded that the chest belongs in Chester County, the ancestral home of the Mendenhall family, and we are delighted that the Historical Society of Chester County agreed with this assessment.”

Ellen E. Endslow, Director of Collections/Curator at Chester County Historical Society, said, “the Chester County Historical Society is thrilled to have this (artifact) in the collection. This is part of what good collections management is about in the museum profession. The fact that Brad did such an excellent job researching the item and realizing that it is such an important part of Chester County’s history that it belongs in Chester County is a very professional way to treat an important object like this.”

The BHC transferred the artifact to the care of the Historical Society of Chester County on Wednesday, January 20, 2019.

Staycation in Berks with Roadside Attractions

Staycations have become increasingly popular with Americans as the trend to buy and consume locally continues to grow. A quick Google search revealed a number of lists that offered possible local vacation spots in the greater Reading area. While all are open today, many of these spots have been around for quite a while.

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Item from BHC Library’s Berks County Collection (LC 32).  

Found in the Berks History Center Library is a series of brochures from the early 1960s. Each brochure gave a short history of and advertised a local attraction that you can still visit today. The first is a 1964 brochure for Crystal Cave in Kutztown celebrating the underground attraction’s 93rd anniversary in 1964.

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The next pamphlet contains information about one of the more eccentric and unique attractions in the area. Roadside America, in Shartlesville, houses a large collection of miniature models in a large building that opened to the public in 1953. Farms, coal mines, towns, and trains are all painstakingly recreated in miniature inside this local attraction.

If life size trains seem more appealing, then the final brochure in this series is for you. It advertised rides on the WK&S train line in Kempton, Pa. According to the brochure, the track on the line dates from 1871. The train still carries passengers along this section of track today. In addition, the railway occasionally offers themed tours and events during the ride. Why go away when you can experience short vacations near home at these historic Berks County attractions!

Written by guest blogger, Sean Anderson as part of a project funded by the National Endowment for Humanities entitled: Metadata, Marketing, and a Local Archive: Creating Popular Interest from Archival Sources at the Berks History Center Research Library.

The Price of Freedom: Life in Berks County After the Emancipation Act

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From the Berks History Center Research Library Manuscript Collection

In 1780, Pennsylvania passed a gradual emancipation act. The act marked the start of the decline of slavery in the state. Still, the act’s specifics were more gradual than immediate, which created a system that allowed slavery to persist in this state. There were slaves in Berks County just like many other places in the state. Like elsewhere these enslaved people struggled to gain that freedom.

In 1796, an eight year old African American girl named Margaret was sold to Thomas Boyd for the sum of forty pounds. More than likely, Margaret worked as a domestic servant taking care of her master’s house. What is striking about Margaret’s case was that slaves were, in 1780, not allowed to be imported into the state and everyone born in Pennsylvania after 1780 was not to be considered a slave but indentured. Despite these regulations, Margaret was clearly considered a slave by Boyd in this document.

After many years of unsanctioned enslavement, Margaret gained her freedom in 1816. But, the bill of sale suggests that she did so at a steep price. The bill states that between 1816 and 1819 Margaret paid $117.75 for her freedom. This cost her almost three times her original sale price in 1796. Like so many others, Margaret bought freedom at an inflated price when she should have already been free. All enslaved people were supposed to be freed at the age of 28 in Pennsylvania. In 1816, Margaret reached the age of 28. This document clearly shows the extent to which black Americans went to better their lives in a society that constantly attempted to cripple their advancement.     

Written by guest blogger, Sean Anderson as part of a project funded by the National Endowment for Humanities entitled: Metadata, Marketing, and a Local Archive: Creating Popular Interest from Archival Sources at the Berks History Center Research Library.

WWI & Berks Exhibit Opening at the Berks History Center

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The Berks History Center is pleased to announce the opening of a special temporary exhibit, World War I & Berkson November 10, 2017 from 5:00-7:30PM at the Berks History Center, located at 940 Centre Ave. Reading, PA 19601.

The exhibit is part of the World War I & Berks project, a year-long commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of World War I that examines Berks County’s contributions to the Great War and the effects the war had on our local community. The World War I & Berks exhibit, located in the Berks History Center’s Palmer Gallery, tells how Reading and Berks County responded to the nation’s call to arms through a remarkable eagerness to serve and unwavering patriotism.

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Additional stories are being shared on the Berks History Center’s blog and social media throughout the year. The project will conclude with a County-wide celebration and a day of special programs at the Berks History Center on November 10, 2018 for the 100th Anniversary of Armistice Day.

The exhibit was curated by Richard Polityka, the World War I & BerksProject Leader and a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center. Dave Unger, another long-time volunteer, assisted Polityka. The World War I & Berks exhibit is a true labor of love for both volunteers, who dedicated countless hours to the project.

Polityka said, “Working on this exhibit has been an amazing learning experience. I enjoyed having the opportunity to explore the Berks History Center’s collections and was surprised to discover so many fascinating stories about what life was like for people in Berks County during the first World War.”
The Berks History Center invites you to participate in the grand opening of this special gallery exhibit as we kick off the year-long project. The gallery opening includes a reception from 5:00-7:30PM and a special announcement at 6:30PM. Time-period refreshments will be served. Admission is $7.00 for adults, $5.00 for seniors, and free to BHC members. Admission includes access to all museum exhibits.

A Cure for a Cut: PA Dutch Folk Medicine

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When we think about Halloween today, witches are one of the iconic figures of the holiday. Part of that image is the boiling cauldron, where the witch makes preparations for her spells and conjures up many of her evil potions. While the image of the witch is often viewed as frightening, real-life folk medicine has a long history in Berks County.

Often called “Pow-Wow,” this practice can resemble our modern conceptions of witchcraft. What if you lived in Berks County or another Pennsylvania Dutch area and you accidentally cut yourself? A document in the Berks History Center collection, and written in Pennsylvania Dutch, offers an answer. It reads:  “press the thumb on the wound and say that I should not die and the wound should not bleed, nor swell, nor fester until the mother of God bears her second son, until all the water flows up the mountain.” With this little “spell,” and a bit of pressure on the wound, the bleeding was supposed to stop. The BHC Library contains other documents on Pennsylvania Dutch folk medicine and folk religion.

Written by guest blogger, Sean Anderson as part of a project funded by the National Endowment for Humanities entitled: Metadata, Marketing, and a Local Archive: Creating Popular Interest from Archival Sources at the Berks History Center Research Library.

 

The Hexerai Letter: Supernatural or Super Strange?

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With Halloween approaching it may be interesting to explore some of the more supernatural beliefs found in Berks County. The manuscript collection at the Berks History Center Research Library holds a remarkable illustrated document from 1816 that fits this theme.

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Written mostly in Pennsylvania German, the letter prophesied that terrible events were about to occur based on the political news of the day. Called the Hexerai letter, its most striking feature is a myriad of hand drawn pictures inside. The author drew in vivid detail blood red moons, arch angels, demons, a mysterious clock, and a rendition of the day of judgment. One picture, in particular, tells the document’s story. The picture shows a devil with the number 666 written under its eyes and the name Jackson emblazoned across its forehead. That devil is General Andrew Jackson, who the author thought would soon bring doom upon the country. Produced during a time exploding with religious revival and emerging political individuality and expression, this document has much to offer researchers of the early nineteenth century.

Written by guest blogger, Sean Anderson as part of a project funded by the National Endowment for Humanities entitled: Metadata, Marketing, and a Local Archive: Creating Popular Interest from Archival Sources at the Berks History Center Research Library.

 

Welcome Guest Blogger: Sean Anderson

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Just in time for American Archives Month, the Berks History Center welcomes guest blogger, Sean Anderson. Sean will be contributing to the Berks History Center’s blog as part of a project funded by the National Endowment for Humanities entitled: Metadata, Marketing, and a Local Archive: Creating Popular Interest from Archival Sources at the Berks History Center Research Library.

Sean Anderson grew up in New Tripoli, PA and now lives in Schuylkill Haven, PA. He is currently enrolled in a Ph.D. program in History at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA where he is focusing on the cultural history of the French Caribbean in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century (slavery, colonialism, rebellion, revolution). In particular, he is researching the impact that the Creole religion (Vodou) had on the formation of the Haitian Revolution in 1789. Sean’s research methodology includes looking at the religious rituals, dances, and fashion of enslaved people, which will be the topic of his dissertation. Sean also holds a B.A. in Anthropology from Muhlenberg College and an M.A in History from Lehigh University.

Sean’s project involves creating creative content from the BHC Research Library in order to entice people to visit the History Center. For the last couple months, Sean has been using the archival materials at the Berks History Center to develop the content for his BHC blog articles.  All of his blog posts are based on specific documents found in the BHC Research Library’s archival collections. Sean’s blog articles can be found here on the BHC blog page, Keeper of Berks County’s History Mysteries, and the BHC’s social media pages including facebook, Twitter, and instagram. Follow the Berks History Center @berkshistory on social media.

Sean said, “The project is a way for me to learn more about the local history of the area while using my knowledge of Atlantic History to connect that local history to broader Atlantic and U.S. historical processes.”

In addition to spending most of his time working on his dissertation, Sean plays quite a bit of soccer in various men’s leagues in the Lehigh Valley. He also works part-time as a sound technician, plays guitar, and, in a former life, worked as a brewer.