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.

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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.