Joanna Furnace: The Lost Years

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Illustration of Joanna Furnace from the 1876 Atlas of Berks County. Berks History Center Research Library Collection.

Following his service as a colonel in the Pennsylvania Militia during the American Revolution, Thomas Bull joined three other men to acquire land in Berks County’s Caernarvon and Robeson Townships where they established an iron furnace named Joanna, after the wife of one of the partners. Thomas Bull served as the first ironmaster, and as his partners soon died off, he became the principal owner of the furnace. His daughter Elizabeth married John Smith, a life-long Berks County ironmaster who later purchased his father-in-law’s interest in Joanna furnace, eventually becoming the sole owner.

In 1833, John Smith’s son Levi Bull Smith, a Reading lawyer, became the sole owner of Joanna Furnace.  The furnace and adjoining property was then inherited in 1877 by his son Levi Heber Smith, a Civil War veteran, who took over as ironmaster until his death in 1898, when the furnace was shut down permanently.

At some point before Bethlehem Steel purchased the Joanna Furnace property, another business set up shop there to make leather goods. According to this 1949 Philadelphia newspaper, the owner had a surprising family connection to Joanna and when they were visiting the area, they asked someone at the Historical Society of Berks County for directions.

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Hello and Farewell: New Leadership at the Berks History Center

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New Executive Director of the Berks History Center, Benjamin Neely

The Berks History Center (BHC) is pleased to welcome its new Executive Director, Benjamin Neely, from the Adams County Historical Society. Ben was selected for the position upon the retirement of the BHC’s previous Executive Director, Sime Bertolet.

“After a rigorous search and screening process, the BHC Board of Directors is confident in our selection for the next Executive Director,” says Board President, Jim Michalak. “Benjamin Neely is a qualified museum professional who will bring many years of experience and a fresh perspective to the Berks History Center.”

Benjamin Neely has been a museum professional since 2005.  With a bachelor’s degree in Marketing from the State University of New York at Oswego, Ben completed his graduate work at Shippensburg University where he earned a Master of Arts degree in Applied History.  During his time as a graduate student, he began working for the Adams County Historical Society as the Collections Manager and was the lead historian during the development of the Gettysburg Seminary Ridge Museum.  Ben was the Executive Director of the Adams County Historical Society for the past 7 years.  He supported the Adams County community through his service on numerous committees and boards.  Ben has supported the museum community at the state level through his service as a board member for PA Museums, an organization that advocates for government support for Pennsylvania’s museums and organizes conferences to support continuing education for museum professionals.

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Director Emeritus, Sime Bertolet Retired in July 2019

After 13 years of service to the BHC, previous Executive Director, Sime Bertolet, retired in July 2019. Bertolet left the organization with a comprehensive strategic plan that will support the new director’s efforts to lead the BHC.

“I am incredibly proud of the work that we have accomplished over the past 13 years. We couldn’t have done it without the help of our dedicated staff, volunteers, Board of Directors, our members, and of course, the generous businesses and organizations who have supported the mission of the BHC,” says Bertolet. “I feel truly blessed to be a part and to be a leader of this organization that will soon celebrate its 150th Anniversary. More importantly, I am honored to have served as the Executive Director of the organization that preserves and shares our Berks history. My decision to retire came after much reflection and thoughtful consideration. In the end, I determined that it is time for the next generation to assume their leadership role. I have no doubt that Mr. Neely will do a great, and better job, than I have done.”

The BHC Board of Directors thanks Sime Bertolet for his years of service to the organization and for all of his accomplishments. Upon his retirement, the BHC Board will confer the title of Executive Director Emeritus on Bertolet. Bertolet’s accomplishments cited by the Board include:

  • The acquisition and renovation of the BHC’s Research Library, the Henry Janssen Library building located at 160 Spring Street;
  • the 75th and 80th Anniversary Celebrations of John Phillip Sousa’s last act as a conductor here in Reading, PA;
  • exhibits such as Beer & Pretzels Berks County Style, Berks County Long rifle and Gun makers, I Have Dream, I Want to Hold Your Hand, and the Magical History Tour, a cultural and musical happening;
  • the 2010 American Alliance of Museums Institutional Museum Assessment Plan;
  • two revisions of the BHC Bylaws and the implementation of board term limits;
  • the 2013 rebranding initiative from The Historical Society of Berks County to the Berks History Center;
  • the 2014 Strategic Plan and the 2019 Strategic Plan facilitated by Shultz & Williams;
  • the 2017-2018 Collections Management Initiative and its recognition by the PA Museums’ Institutional Achievement Award

 

New Exhibit to be Unveiled at 150th Anniversary Kick-Off Celebration Event

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The Berks History Center is pleased to announce the grand opening of 150 Objects of Berks History, a new temporary exhibit that celebrates 150 years of preserving Berks County’s history at the Berks History Center. The exhibit will open during the Berks History Center’s 150th Anniversary kick-off celebration, the Charter Day Jubilee, on July 12, 2019 from 6pm-9pm, located at 940 Centre Avenue, Reading, PA 19601.

Since 1898, the Berks History Center (BHC) has been dedicated to building a groundbreaking collection of artifacts, artwork, manuscripts and library materials. Today, the BHC’s diverse holdings feature more than 20,000 objects related to all facets of Berks County’s rich heritage. Curated by BHC Curator, Bradley K. Smith in honor of the organization’s 150th Anniversary, 150 Objects of Berks History will showcase 150 rarely-seen items from the BHC collection that tell compelling stories of Berks County’s unique past. Thanks to a generous donation by the Focht Family Foundation, the BHC’s Palmer Gallery was newly renovated for the exhibit opening.

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“This exhibit showcases an assortment of obscure artifacts that were discovered during the Collections Management Initiative, along with select items from our library collections,” says exhibit curator, Bradley K. Smith. “Because of the breadth of materials in the BHC collections, it was a challenge to select only 150 objects. However, each object helps to tell an important story about Berks County’s history, including stories about its people, its unique sense of community, its industries and commerce, its notable connections to national events, and of course, its commitment to valuing and preserving history.”

The opening of the new 150th Anniversary exhibit coincides with a historic milestone for the organization: the Charter Day Jubilee marks the anniversary date of when the organization’s charter was first signed in July, 1869. We invite you to join us for the opening of 150 Objects of Berks History at the BHC’s 150th Anniversary kick-off event, the Charter Day Jubilee, which will be held from 6-9pm in the BHC Museum.

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Party like it’s 1869 and enjoy an evening of enchantment and entertainment with BHC’s special “museum theatre” featuring historical characters and storytellers throughout the museum. Berks historical figures such as Widow Finney, Rhea Duryea, and George Durell will come alive and share their Berks history in the 13 galleries and exhibits of the BHC museum. Participants will also enjoy hors d’oeuvres, a champagne toast, a silent auction, special guests, and musical entertainment. A cash bar featuring a specialty “throwback” cocktail menu will be provided by Pollen Consolidated. Participants will also have an opportunity to enjoy BHC’s exclusive 150th Anniversary beer, brewed by Oakbrook Brewing Company.

Tickets to the 150th Anniversary Charter Day Jubilee are $25.00 and can be purchased by calling 610-375-4375 or click here to purchase online. Food, musical entertainment, a champagne toast, admission to the museum theatre and the 150 Objects of Berks History exhibit are included in the cost.

The Berks History Center’s 150th Anniversary is supported by a number of Berks County businesses who recognize the importance and value of historical preservation in Berks County. The Berks History Center would like to thank its 150th Anniversary sponsors:

  • M&T Bank
  • Conrad Weiser Society, C.A.R.
  • Faye & Co
  • Oakbrook Brewing Company
  • The Tillman Team of Remax
  • Stokesay Castle
  • Pagoda Skyline
  • Tom Smith, Retirement & Medicare Specialist
  • Wyndam Advisors
  • White Star Tours
  • Poore Group of Morgan Stanley
  • Tompkins Financial
  • Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission

Remembering D-Day 75 Years Later

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“Emotions and reactions ran the scale through excitement, apprehension, solemnity and immediate speculation…” as news of the D-Day invasions spread through Reading and Berks County 75 years ago today. D-Day was the start of Operation Overlord, the Allies’ assault on the Germans and the Western Front. Hearing the news of the invasions, many Reading residents (of all faiths) came together to pray for those involved. Today we remember all of the men who landed on those beaches or who were dropped behind enemy lines, not knowing what would happen next. We especially are thinking about the thousands of men who didn’t even make it to solid ground that day.

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This photo and article were published in the June 13, 1944 edition of “Reading Newsweek,” which was published weekly by the Reading Eagle Press and distributed to Berks County service men and women by local industries. The papers were later printed in two bound volumes.

Berks History Center Celebrates Its 150th Anniversary

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The Berks History Center (BHC) invites you to celebrate its 150th Anniversary this year, starting with its kickoff event, the Charter Day Jubilee on July 12, 2019 from 6:00-9:00pm at the Berks History Center Museum, located at 940 Centre Ave. Reading, PA.

Incorporated in 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.

Today, the BHC welcomes over 6,000 visitors, including students, homeschoolers, senior groups, and more. To maintain the archives and museum collection and provide access to visitors, a small, professional staff is aided by dedicated volunteers who give thousands of hours of assistance simply because they’re passionate about Berks County’s history. In addition to its staff and volunteers, the BHC’s efforts are supported by a committed membership exceeding 1,200.

BHC tells the stories of Berks County’s history through its research library and museum collections, some of which are displayed in 13 newly renovated galleries and exhibits including the Trades to Industry Room, Transportation Room, PA German Room and Building Berks exhibit. The continuing efforts to improve our stewardship of Berks County history were recently recognized by PA Museums, Pennsylvania’s statewide museum association, with an Institutional Achievement Award.

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“The BHC is very proud to have served the citizens of Berks County for 150 years and we excited to celebrate this milestone with our community, says Executive Director, Sime Bertolet. “This year we are hosting several special programs and events to commemorate our anniversary that will educate, entertain and inspire our friends.”

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The first major event celebrating the BHC’s 150th Anniversary will be the Charter Day Jubilee on July 12, 2019 from 6:00-9:00pm at the Berks History Center Museum, located at 940 Centre Ave. Reading, PA. The event commemorates the day The Historical Society of Berks County was organized in July 1869 and will serve as the kick-off to the BHC’s anniversary year. The Charter Day Jubilee is a community celebration where participants will enjoy historic reenactors, hors d’oeuvres, live music, a champagne toast, and a cash bar in the BHC Museum. Food and bar service will be provided by Pollen Consolidated. Tickets to the jubilee are $25.00 and can be purchased by calling 610-375-4375 or visiting berkshistory.org/event/jubilee

Also, please join us for the Hidden Treasures of the Oley Valley Tour on October 26, 2019 from 1:00-4:00pm, located at 3098 Friedensburg Rd, Reading, PA 19606. This unique historic house and property tour seeks to recreate the early pilgrimages of the Historical Society. Participants will have the rare opportunity to explore the historic Reiff Farm and the newly renovated Hartman Farm on a special property tour, which includes a visit to Berks County’s oldest tree, the Sacred Oak. Locally produced refreshments will be included. Tickets are $15.00 and can be purchased by calling 610-375-4375 or visiting berkshistory.org/event/hiddentreasures

The Incorporation Day Birthday Bash, which will be held on December 13, 2019 from 5:30pm-7:30pm, will celebrate the date the Historical Society was incorporated in 1869. Please join us for a good old-fashioned birthday party at the Berks History Center Museum, located at 940 Centre Ave. Reading, PA 19601. Enjoy birthday cake and other refreshments with longtime friends and supporters of the BHC. During this event the BHC will be recognized for its contributions to the community. This event is free to the public but reservations are required. Please call 610-375-4375 to RSVP.

The BHC will also hold a special Gala Dinner Fundraiser, to wrap up the organization’s anniversary celebrations in 2020. The details of this event, including location and date, are to be determined.

Other 150th Anniversary activities include:

  • Special 150th-Related Second Saturday Programs
  • Special Membership Offers throughout the Anniversary Year
  • A Special 150th Anniversary Craft Beer Brewed by Oakbrook Brewing Company
  • A New Exhibit Opening in July 2019: 150 Objects of Berks County’s History

Berks History Changed My Life

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Curator, Bradley K. Smith (left) with Volunteer Amber Vroman (right) on the 4 Centuries in Berks Historic Property Tour

If someone were to ask me of a specific place that has positively influenced my life, I would not hesitate with my response; that place is the Berks History Center.

Only a few short years ago I had absolutely no idea as to the direction for my life. I had tried different majors in college, and while I watched my friends graduate and start their careers, I still searched for my calling. I had only a few classes left to take when my world was turned upside down; my fiancé was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. At twenty-three years old, I never imagined I would live through something like that with my best friend. Suddenly, my “lost” feeling was buried under sadness, anger, and fear for what we had to face. It was not an easy road, but, after receiving treatments and encountering countless blessings, he has been in remission ever since.

Perhaps the most influential lesson I took away from these two years of illness is that our time is never guaranteed. I found a new appreciation for the simplest things, and wanted to make a difference for myself and the people surrounding me. Knowing how fragile time is, I wanted to be sure I was serving a greater purpose…but how?

My answer came when I made a spontaneous visit to a local museum. While walking through one of the exhibits, I experienced an overwhelming certainty that I was meant to work in a museum; it was a true “calling.” This ultimately led me to the Berks History Center because, unlike other organizations, the BHC provided opportunities for me to experience hands-on collections work.

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I remember vividly my excitement when I first saw the collections storage area. The elevator door opened and I saw row after row of floor-to-ceiling shelves that housed the many wonderful treasures of Berks County! Suddenly, I wanted to know what everything was, who these objects once belonged to, and what that person’s life had been like.

Since that day, the experiences I have gained at the Berks History Center have only assured me that I am where I should be. BHC Curator Brad Smith mentored me on the many facets of what a museum career is all about. He patiently explained various processes, trained me in proper collections care and handling, and included me in research opportunities uncovering the fascinating stories of Berks County.

One such story involved two large and somewhat awkward statues of Mozart and Shakespeare. Brad and I wondered why the BHC had accepted such objects decades earlier, since neither Mozart nor Shakespeare have anything to do with Berks County! Through some detective work and archival research we were able to document that these statues once adorned the exterior balcony of the Grand Opera House on Penn Street. I was delighted to be involved in research that proved these statues were, in fact, wonderful treasures from the county’s history and belonged in the BHC’s collection!

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Grand Opera House Statues. BHC Museum Collection

The Berks History Center has been a place of growth and discovery for me. I have learned my calling and passion in life, and I could not feel more blessed for the opportunities I have been given. Over the course of the past year I have seen how valuable this institution is to others as well. I see the interest and awe on visitors’ faces as they walk through the exhibits, or join us for our many educational programs. The BHC is a place where community members feel welcomed by the helpful staff; where 5,000 local school children can learn many fascinating stories of our county’s past that shaped us into the diverse and enriching community we are today. Truly, it is a place where many different people learn and flourish.

Unfortunately, the Berks History Center receives very little government funding and depends primarily on public support. We operate through donations from members like you. This year, I am donating $50, but gifts of all sizes are needed and greatly appreciated. Please join me today in support of this institution that, throughout its 150-year history, has preserved the rich heritage of Berks County, and means so much to me and our community. Click here to support the Berks History Center today!

With Sincerest Gratitude,

Amber Lynn Vroman

Lilith Martin Wilson: Berks County’s First Female State Politician

“Her life was dedicated to the Common Man.”–These words are inscribed on Lilith Martin Wilson’s tombstone in Aulenbach Cemetery. Wilson was the first woman elected to the Pennsylvania State Legislature from Berks County. She also was the first woman to run for Governor of Pennsylvania, in 1922. Arriving in Reading just a few years after women earned the right to vote, Wilson was already well-known member of the Socialist Party in the US.

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Lilith Martin Wilson, as a young woman. (Reading Eagle)

Lilith Browne was born on September 13, 1886 in Dublin, Indiana. Not much is known about her early life in Indiana. From Census records available online, it looks like the Browne family moved around Indiana, before settling in Anderson, Madison County. On September 14, 1903–the day after her 17th birthday–she married George Springer Martin in Anderson. Later, she was educated at The Rand School of Social Science in New York. Formed by members of the Socialist Party of America in 1906, it taught both traditional humanities coursework and served as training center for socialist theory (“Guide to the Rand School…”).

Before coming to Reading, Lilith traveled around the US lecturing on socialism and acting as a party and campaign organizer. According to the Coshocton (Ohio) Morning Tribune, Lilith had been contracted by the Pennsylvania State Socialist Association in May 1915 to lecture around the country. In 1920, she was living in New York and was a speaker at the Indiana State Socialist Convention (Indianapolis Star, May 22, 1920.) Ancestry.com has a number of articles that detail her travels around the US lecturing on Socialism. The Ogden (Utah) Standard Examiner described her as an “earnest, forceful speaker”–obviously, she had made a name for herself as an ardent advocate for Socialist ideals.

She moved to Reading in 1921 to support Socialist campaigns in Reading and Pennsylvania on behalf of the Socialist Party. She had been elected that year to the National Executive Committee of the Socialist Party (“History of Women in the PA House”). She married L. Birch Wilson, also a Socialist and later Reading City Controller, in October 1921. Even though Lilith Wilson was a  prominent Socialist in her own right, author William C. Pratt proposed that her prominence and successful elections were due in part to being the wife of well-known Socialist (Pratt, 81).

In 1922, Wilson was nominated to be the Socialist Party’s candidate for Pennsylvania Governor. According to the Pennsylvania Manual, 1921-1922, Wilson lived at 521 S. 15th Street in Reading. She was one of fifty women running on major Pennsylvania tickets in the 1922 election. She won more than 30,000 votes, and came in third after Gifford Pinchot (the winner) and John A. McSparran (who won Berks County). The next year she ran for Reading School Board and lost (Pratt, 80).

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521 S. 15th Street (as it looked in 2011): Wilson lived in this home when she ran for Governor of Pennsylvania in 1922 (Google Maps)

According to William C. Pratt, by the late 1920s, the Socialist Party in Reading was having trouble getting both men and women to vote. A special effort was made, though, to appeal to working-class women. A tax assessment and increase in 1927 hit a nerve with Reading women and attendance at the regular meetings of the Women’s Socialist League increased (Pratt, 74). In 1928, Lilith Wilson was named the chair of the Socialist Party’s new National Women’s Committee.

After unsuccessful local elections, Wilson ran for the State Legislature in 1930 and won. She was the first woman elected to a state office from Berks County, as well as the first Socialist woman elected to any legislative body in the United States. She was reelected in 1932 and 1934. Various sources site her causes as women and children’s rights, workman’s compensation, a minimum wage, health care, and pensions.

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Lilith Martin Wilson, ca. 1930s (Pennsylvania House of Representatives)

Lilith Martin Wilson died in the Wernersville State Hospital on July 8, 1937. She was unable to finish her third term, due to poor health. It is hard to know what Wilson’s political career would have been like in the late 1930s. According to William C. Pratt, the local Socialist movement faced a fight between the “Old Guard” Socialists and the new “Militant” members. Other Socialist groups seemed to break up or dissolve by then. The Women’s Socialist League actually reorganized amid the Party’s chaos in 1941; however, Socialist women in Berks County and nationwide were relegated to support positions and few were actually elected to higher office.

Researched and Written by BHC Curator, Stephanie Mihalik

Sources:

  1. Berks County Women in History: Profiles, Volume 1,” edited by Irene Reed, pages 314-315, Tudor Gate Press, 2005.
  2. The Socialist Movement in Reading, Pennsylvania, 1896-1936: A Study in Social Change, Henry G. Stetler, 1943.
  3. Guide to the Rand School of Social Science Records TAM.007,” Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive at New York University, http://dlib.nyu.edu/findingaids/html/tamwag/tam_007/.
  4. “Woman To Talk on Socialism,” Coshocton Morning Tribune, May 28, 1915.
  5. “Socialists Open State Convention Here Today,” The Indianapolis Star, May 22, 1920.
  6. “Miss Lilith Martin Will Speak Friday,” Ogden Standard Examiner, April 14, 1921.
  7. “History of Women in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, 1923-2005,” written by Jeanne H. Schmedlen, Office of the Speaker of the House John M. Perzel, 2005.
  8. Berks County Marriages, Book 63, page 43.
  9. William C. Pratt, “Women and American Socialism: The Reading Experience,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 99, no. 1, January 1975, pages 72-91.
  10. “Miller is victor for 129th seat with a 54% tally” Peter L. DeCoursey, Reading Eagle, Wednesday, November 4, 1992.
  11. “Accomplished Women of Berks County,” Reading Eagle, March 17, 2002.
  12. “A woman’s place: Lilith M. Wilson,” Reading Eagle, March 16, 2003.
  13. Pennsylvania Politics Today and Yesterday: A Tolerable Accommodation, Paul B. Beers, The Pennsylvania University Press, 1980.
  14. “The Socialist Administration in Reading, Pennsylvania: Part I, 1927-1931,” Kenneth E. Hendrickson, Jr., Pennsylvania History vol. 39, no. 4, October 1972.
  15. “Triumph and Disaster: The Reading Socialists in Power and Decline, 1932-1939–Part II,” Kenneth E. Hendrickson, Jr., Pennsylvania History vol. 40, no. 4, October 1973.