Muhlenberg Artists: Christopher Shearer and Mary Leisz

 

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Christopher High Shearer (1846-1926), a prolific landscape artist of national reputation, was raised on the family farm in Shearertown, located in Tuckerton, Berks County, Pa., where his father built him his first studio.

During his youth he spent time in the studios of  well-known artists Francis D. Devlan and J. Heyl Raser, and later became a student of both before opening his own studio in Reading at the age of twenty-one. When about 27 years old, being well on his way to success, he traveled to Germany to further pursue his studies in the great schools of art in Dusseldorf and Munich.

In 1876, Christopher began exhibiting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, and also at the art exhibition celebrating the United States Centennial. During that time he attracted great public attention and won the favorable opinion of art critics for his large landscapes.

In 1878 he went back to Europe and spent four years there, two in Germany and the remainder in Paris.  When returning home, he and his second wife, lived in a home along the Schuylkill River, off Stoudt’s Ferry Bridge Road (close to Shearertown) where Christopher maintained an art studio and held outdoor art classes for his many students.

During this time, another well-known Berks County artist, Mary Leisz, studied with Shearer and became his closest protégé, moving into the Shearer Homestead to share studio space in 1914.

Shearer was also an acknowledged naturalist with a large collection of butterflies and moths. He was instrumental in helping to found the Reading Public Museum along with his friend, Dr. Levi Mengel, persuading Mengel to include works of art. It then became known as the Reading Public Museum and Art Gallery where Shearer was appointed the art curator.

Much of the work of Christopher High Shearer, his brother Edmund Shearer, and that of Christopher’s son Victor, is displayed prominently in many private homes, museums, etc. throughout Berks County.

 

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Mary B. Leisz was born in Reading in 1876. Leisz began lessons with Christopher H. Shearer at the age of fifteen. Mary mastered both oil and watercolor painting and eventually developed her own distinct style, separate from her teacher.

She often painted near Tuckertown and Onteluanee in Berks, capturing flowing streams, gristmills, springhouses, and colorful foliage in her landscapes. Mary’s work also includes watercolor portraits, which focus on young women and children. Mary became one of Christopher’s closest “proteges” and eventually taught art classes with him in his home studio.

Written by M. Catherine Shearer

 

 

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Patriotic Fever in Berks County during the Great War

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When the Great War broke out in the Summer of 1914 the seeds of patriotic fever were planted in the citizens of the United States. Originally, President Woodrow Wilson adopted a strict neutrality policy, declaring that the United States is “neutral in fact, as well as in name.” The issue of involvement was hotly debated in the United States in the early stages of the War, especially between the isolationist and preparedness movements that were growing in the country.

During the period of 1914-1916, patriotic fever gained momentum as tales of the atrocities in Belgium spread. Then came the sinking of the British liner Lusitania, which claimed 128 American lives and fueled the fire of a growing anti-German sentiment. This was an era when the concept of Americanism – what is means to be an American – was energetically courted and hotly contested. This wave of fever found its way to Berks County as it did everywhere in the nation. As propaganda posters (pictured above) and Tin Pan Alley composers did their part to energize this movement nationally, Reading and Berks County felt the effects and responded with national pride.

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Mary Archer, chairman of the Belgium Relief Committee in Berks County, worked tirelessly to ensure food was shipped to the starving Belgians. A full-page advertisement in the Reading Times detailed what the money raised could buy to aid in the relief effort.  The ad from November 12, 1914 is rich in dialect informing its readers the time to feed starving women and children is now, and the cargo ship is waiting in Philadelphia for your reply! By April 1917, Reading led the nation in the relief effort, giving 50 cents per capita, which was 5 times more than the national average. The Reading Patriotic Committee was formed, which coordinated the patriotic functions in the area. Their efforts to stoke the fires of patriotism really blossomed when the United States entered the war. Even a story I worked on for the Historical Review earlier this year showed the patriotic fever. The spring issue of the Review tells the story of a large Tiller sled of the era by the name of “Old Glory.”

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When the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, and no sooner than George M Cohan wrote the song “Over There”, the Reading Patriotic Committee had a parade organized to be held April 14, 1917, to showcase the City’s patriotic pride. The parade had 30,000 participants, with the parade column 4 miles long. There were 53 bands participating in this event, which took 2-1/2 hours to completely pass any one point. The parade started at 9th and Windsor Streets, winding its way through the city and ending at 6th and Oley Streets. Jonathan Mould had the distinguished honor of appearing in the parade twice, marching the route entirely with the Reading Planning Commission in the first column. Mould then went downtown to watch the parade, to see the Reading Rotary Club with a strong contingent marching. Being an enthusiastic Rotarian himself, Mould joined the column at  4th and Elm Streets to rousing cheers by the members of the club. The Hippodrome filmed the pageant with the motion picture to be shown in conjunction with its vaudeville acts later in the week.

There was an incident of interest that occurred during the parade on Penn St. As a recruiting officer was driving in the parade at a point on Penn St., a young man made an insulting remark about the service. The officer stopped his vehicle, and proceeded to give the young man a lecture he was not likely to forget. The offender said nothing, fearing a beating from those who heard his insulting remark. The officer told him that enlisting would make a good citizen out of him. The draft was met enthusiastically on the local level. According to the Reading News-Times, “Practically every man expressed a willingness to go to war when the time came. Volunteering for service rather than being drafted appeared to meet with more favor.” The American Red Cross recruited volunteers from the Reading Hospital Nursing School to serve at home and abroad.

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“To the Tannery” An Effigy (stuffed costume) of Kaiser hung in downtown Reading, PA c. 1915 from the Berks History Center Research Library Collection

As America moved forward in the Great War, the local swell of patriotic pride did not diminish. National guardsmen were stationed at strategic points along both the Philadelphia & Reading and Pennsylvania Railroad lines for fear of sabotage. The strong influence of Germanic descent in the area brought an awareness of who was loyal to our country and who harbored loyalties to the Kaiser.

The Reading Defense Committee was organized, headed by  H.J. Hayden, with Mary Archer in charge of agricultural work. Patriotism was on display in Berks.  Scenes such as 1200 people singing patriotic songs to the music of the Ringgold Band at Reading Saddle Manufacturing at 316-322 Maple Street, and the Liberty Committee offering you to “Pack All Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag” and come to Lauer’s Park for a patriotic sing along were all too common.

Richard Polityka is a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center and project leader of the Berks History Center’s World War I project that commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Great War. 

Muhlenberg Township: A Suburban Boom from a Pastoral Past

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from Map of Berks County from Actual Surveys published by H.S. Bridgens. 1860

Though it was dotted with villages like Tuckerton, Temple, Laureldale, and Rosedale, Muhlenberg Township’s population of 1,676 in the 1860 census grew to only 2,069 by the 1900 census.  Small housing development in the 1920s and 1930s exploded into an all-out suburban housing boom in the years following World War II.  The small villages found themselves overlooked by unincorporated subdivisions like Riverview and Muhlenberg Parks, College Heights, Wedgewood Heights, Whitford Hills, Rivervale, and Hyde Villa.  The baby boom of the mid century created the need for more schools, culminating in the large academic campus containing the consolidate grade school, and middle and high schools situated on the Muhlenberg-Laureldale border.

Fifth Street Highway became the major retail strip, beginning in the late 1950s, with the original Muhlenberg Shopping Center and now boasting strip malls from the far northern section of the township south to the city line.  An effort is currently underway to revitalize struggling sections of these malls including the now nearly vacant, 37-year-old Fairgrounds Square Mall.

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Photograph of Rt. 12 bridge construction near Kutztown Road in Muhlenberg Township c.1970. BHC Research Library Collection

Manufacturing also took hold as much farmland was rezoned for light industrial with many warehouses built and businesses established. The farms, including the last two surviving Reed farms on Tuckerton and Stoudt’s Ferry Bridge roads, became apartment and housing developments. Still, despite the proliferation of mid- to late-20th century and 21st century houses, there remain, in the ancient corners of the township along the waterways that the Lenni Lenape once occupied, homes that existed in the colonial era and that would inspire the renowned native artist Christopher Shearer in the late 19th century through the early decades of the next.

Written by Donna Reed

Memory Lane in Muhlenberg Township: The Muhlenberg Dairy

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In 1907, the dairy industry began to flourish in Berks County with a number of prominent dairy farms in Muhlenberg Township including Fairfield, Fink, Keystone, Luden, Muhlenberg, St. Lawrence, Dietrich and Clover Farms. The Muhlenberg Dairy opened its doors for operation as a manufacturer of dairy products in 1916.

According to a 2011 Reading Eagle article, Muhlenberg Township was “…a big area for milk delivery, with three major dairies working in neighborhoods along Route 61″ during the 1950s and 1960s. These three dairies were Muhlenberg Dairy, Clover Farms and St. Lawrence Dairy. Home delivery in Berks County ended in the late 1980s (according to the same article). Clover Farms, who bought the Muhlenberg Dairy in the 1980s, still operates on Rt. 61 today.

The Muhlenberg Dairy produced a number of dairy products including a popular Berks County treat called the Cho-Cho, a chocolate malt dessert. Cho-Chos have been popular in Berks County for at least 60 years and are a nostalgic reminder of a time when children relied on corner stores and the ice cream man to satisfy their summer sweet-tooth cravings. This old-fashioned treat was reinvented in 2006 at Intel’s Sandwich Shop in Muhlenberg Township by Randy Gilbert and Julie Sansary, who later established Julie’s Olde-Tyme Cho-Chos. 

 

 

Muhlenberg Township: Kelly’s Lock

 

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The Schuylkill Navigation Company operated from 1825 to 1917. The canal stretched from Philadelphia to Port Carbon a distance of 108 miles. Most of the traffic on the canal carried anthracite from the coal region to Philadelphia. There were 92 locks on the canal to overcome a 588 foot difference in elevation. There were numerous dams and locks in Berks County. Most were destroyed during the Schuylkill River reclamation in the 40’s and 50’s. Fortunately remnants of the canal survive to this day. Kelly’s Lock (pictured above) was located in Muhlenberg Township. One wall of the lock chamber survives to the present. River Road runs just behind the lock.

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This picture from 1907 shows a canal boat in the lock chamber at Kelly’s Lock. The lock lifted the boats to 221 feet above sea level.

 

 

The Reading Fair & The Reading Fairgrounds

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Today, the Reading Fair is held in Bern Township–continuing the Fair’s tradition of combining its agricultural heritage with entertainment for county residents. The purpose of the earliest fairs in Berks County was to bring farm goods to city dwellers. These fairs utilized the Penn Square Market Houses and occurred twice a year in October and June, starting in 1766 and continuing at that location until 1850.  A more modern fair on Penn Commons (City Park) existed from 1854 until 1887, attracting many excursion trains from Lancaster and Philadelphia due to its popularity.

A twenty-five acre plot on N. 11th Street in Muhlenberg Township, with good transportation connections, was purchased in 1888. (The creation of a new fairgrounds was caused by a controversy over the jurisdiction of common land in City Park.) Amusements and harness racing were eventually added. In its peak years, two hundred horses took part.

After twenty-five years, the fair was relocated to a new plot, also in Muhlenberg Township. The 1915 location featured exhibition buildings, a racetrack, a grandstand and a midway. In 1922, a theatrical unit was constructed and in 1947 a rollerskating rink was added. There were also beer tents. Auto racing was introduced in 1924 as a one day event at the yearly fair. Stunt driving was later added. By 1932, there were three stunt shows and sprint car racing. Weekly auto races continued until 1978. Everything imaginable could be found at the Fair!

In 1979, the property was sold for development and it became the home of the Fairgrounds Square Mall.

Sources:

Edwin B Yeich, “Reading Fairs-Then & Now” Historical Review of Berks County, Vol. XX July 1955, Number 4, p.98-117.

Carol J Hunsberger, editor, The Muhlenberg Story:A Township Evolves, 1851-2001, published 2001.

Article Researched & Written by Gail Corvaia

Muhlenberg Township: How Laureldale Retained its Sovereignty

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October 9, 1915 edition of The Reading Eagle from the BHC Research Library

Before becoming part of Laureldale, Laurel Hill was a Muhlenberg Township real estate development “on the trolley.” This 1915 ad from the BHC Research Library Reading Eagle Collection boasts electric lighting, beautiful views, 50 foot streets, and “mountain spring water piped all over the property.”

According the 2010 Census, some 3,911 people call Laureldale home. The petition to create the borough of Laureldale was made Feb. 29, 1929. Leading that effort was Frederick W. Shipe, a housing developer frustrated by the lack of side streets in the area (only Elizabeth and Bellevue Avenues were in decent shape) who had managed to see streetlight installed by 1924. In the petition to incorporate were the “villages and real estate developments” known as Rosedale, Belmont, Belmont Park, Laurel Hill, Rosedale Addition, Roselawn, and adjacent territory. President Judge Paul N. Schaeffer, on April 8, 1930, signed a decree making Laureldale the 29th borough in Berks County.

The sturdy mostly brick homes, duplexes, and singles in square or classic styles, dominated the original part of the borough. The borough name is credited to Clayton N. Fidler who combined the “Laurel” from Laurel  Hill and “dale” from Rosedale. It seems that Rosedale was the preferred moniker, but there was already a post office by that name in neighboring Chester County.

Excerpt written by Donna Reed