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.
One of our favorite things about living in Berks County is the abundance of local farmers’ markets that sell local, fresh produce and meat. The history of fresh markets in our area is long-standing and dates back to the original deed from Thomas and Richard Penn, which proclaimed that two fairs be held each year on June 4 and October 22. The Clerk of the Market was directed to erect as many stalls as necessary at the two markets on Penn Street, which operated weekly. The open air markets, erected in the 1840’s on Penn Square, were torn down in 1871. In the following years there were as many as 10 neighborhood market houses, each an elaborate structure.
The Crystal Palace Market on Penn Street took its name from the famous building at the World’s Fair of 1871. The South Reading Market House, considered one of the finest buildings in Reading, was built by Francis B. Shalters, the owner-editor of the Reading Times. The window on the north side resembled a rose, similar to those found in a cathedral. The iron columns supporting the first floor porch were the original posts from the second market pavilion on Penn Square, built in the 1840s. An arson fire in 2005 collapsed the structure, which had stood for 135 years. Another fine market was the Northeast Market House at 9th and Buttonwood Streets. It was built in 1874 by the Reading German Building and Savings Association. The building was known in the 1920’s as the Eagle Market, then owned by Jesse Hawley, publisher of the Reading Eagle.
In addition to seasonal open air markets like the Penn Street Market and the West Reading Farmers’ Market, Berks County has three large operating indoor farmers markets. Built in 1934 by Harold B. Ludwig (and later run by his son Ted), the Shillington Farmers Market was once an old cement block factory with a cement mixer in the middle of the building. The restaurant was added in 1948 as a lunch stand for market customers, serving hot dogs, hamburgers, and soda, and later hot roast beef sandwiches. The Farmers Market moved to a new location on Summit Avenue in Shillington in 2001. Hamid Chaudhry purchased the market from Jim Daley in 2017 (Daley is part of the family that had operated the Market since its opening). Today a Wawa occupies the original site at Museum Road and Route 724.
In 1946, LeRoy J. Weist and his wife Mary purchased 30 acres of farmland in Leesport. At first they thought about building homes, but they needed a place to sell their livestock. In 1947, they opened the Leesport Market Auction. In 1985, third generation owners Woody and Bill Weist took control and changed the name to the Leesport Farmers Market. The market has been opened year-round since 1947 and features cooked items and fresh produce. The flea market stands have been around since the beginning, but by the 1970’s, they became a large part of the business. There was a midway-like quality to the place, with entertaining pitchmen like Bernie Cohen who auctioned off just about anything out of his truck.
The Fairgrounds Farmers Market has an interesting history. It was once part of the Reading Fairgrounds Complex, established in the late 1940’s after the War Department relinquished control of the property. The first market building, mostly wooden, was located behind the back stretch of the racetrack and was built in the early 1920’s for fair and merchant displays. Back then some businesses sold goods out in the open. In 1969, a huge fire destroyed 3/4 of the market building, although the market was back operating the following Saturday. By then stock car races were promoted at the adjacent track. In 1970 the Fairgrounds Market, Inc. opened the new Reading Fairgrounds Market just north of the original structure. By 1980 the racetrack was replaced by the mall and owned by Albert Boscov. The size of the market increased to 50,000 ft and, in 2000, the former banquet facility reopened as an annex. In addition to fresh goods there are non-food vendors, a barbershop, wine retailer and several stands of antiques and collectibles. The market is open three days a week with 64 proprietors and up to 5,000 shoppers.
Joseph N. Farrell, “Regal Relics,” Reading Eagle, September 5, 1979.
Jeff McGaw, “New Life for Shillington Farmers Market,” Reading Eagle, May 18, 2017.
Irvin Rathman, “Reading’s Market Life – a Brief Scrapbook,” 1980 (F10 MA Rathman 1980).
“A Scrapbook on Berks and Lebanon Counties, PA,” Vol. 1.1 (F10 AG).
BHC Library Vertical File on the Leesport Farmers Market, VF F10 MA-29.
BHC Library Vertical File on the Fairgrounds Farmers Market, VF F11 MA-5.
“He’s was like combination of Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore – a powerful commentator on life at that time.” – John Paling on his ancestor, Thomas Jackson
It all began with a small family heirloom. At the time, John Paling didn’t know anything about the letters or his great-great uncle, Thomas Jackson. But Paling’s persistent attitude and fascination with history has lead him from Oxford, England to Gainesville, Florida to Berks County, where he uncovered enthralling stories about an idealistic Reading businessman, the struggle for abolition during the Civil War, what life in Reading was like when Lincoln was shot, and much, much more!
After more than decade of research and correspondence with Berks History Center staff and others here in Reading, Paling visited the Berks History Center last month (click here) where he was able to connect with the people who have helped him along his journey. Here is his story!
What started out as an unwanted responsibility has turned into a major fascination with the history of the American Civil War and an unknown relative’s passion to see slavery abolished. By chance, a battered metal hat box that had been passed down through my family for 150 years, finished up in my hands upon the passing of my mother. It contained an unsorted trove of old letters, many near impossible to decipher but clearly important enough so that what was clear was that “somebody” (not me for sure) should take a look at them and try to make sense of all the contents.
I have spent over 10 years trying to give them away to that “Somebody” who would put in the hours and hours necessary to transcribe and correlate them and also take them off my hands and store them somewhere for posterity. Also, if appropriate, I hoped that “Somebody” would use them as the basis of some historical research papers and maybe, even a book.
Once again, I totally failed in my intentions. Instead, I turned out to be the “somebody” who has dedicated over a decade of my life to researching the letters; The Library of Congress (click here) has become the organization that “took them off my hands” and where the original documents are now safely curated: And the book about Thomas Jackson is still to be written.
In brief, Thomas Jackson (click here) was the son of a seemingly uneducated English rope maker who was a passionate admirer of America. So much so that his father could not be suppressed from advocating that the American colonies be given their independence – not a popular position to advocate in the days of George III. As a result, he was pilloried three times and finally imprisoned for a year to shut him up!
The young Thomas Jackson was radicalized about America as being the most perfect country from the time he sat on his father’s knee. When he was 22 years old, he came over to America and struggled to start a rope making company in Reading, PA. Not long after his arrival, when he visited Richmond to get supplies, he was appalled to stumble across a slave market and witness the more obvious degradations of slavery. These experiences so conflicted with his idealized image of America that he became a fervent abolitionist and started to write powerful, first-hand accounts about the civil war and the cruelty of slavery and sent them back to his relatives in England with the request that they get them published in English newspapers. His intended strategy seems to have been that he wanted to ensure that citizens in that country would not be disposed to allow the British politicians to support the Confederacy- and hence slavery – even though their economy was hurting from the massive shortage of cotton supplies.
The full story of Thomas Jackson has many twists and turns and would even make a good film script about the power of passion and the costs that can come with a dedication to a cause that many locals did not support. But by the time of his death he was much respected and lauded by his local community. The local newspaper reporting his funeral quoted. “On the coffin rested a cross of flowers and a wreath placed there by prominent colored citizens in acknowledgment of Mr. Jackson’s devotion to the colored race and opposition to slavery.”
After a busy career as a biologist, and later, a filmmaker for the Wildlife Film Company, John Paling has spent his retirement uncovering the secrets of Thomas Jackson’s letters. As an Ambassador for Thomas Jackson and the Curator of the Thomas Jackson Collection of Civil War letters, Paling has compiled a comprehensive digital directory for the letters, making them publicly available to researchers and history enthusiasts. The Thomas Jackson letters are now being preserved in the Library of Congress where the letters will be the subject of 3 major projects. To learn more visit thomasjacksonletters.com
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!
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!
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.
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?
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.
Wyomissing Industries was the largest manufacturer of ladies full- fashioned hosiery in the world from 1920-1940’s. The three industries that comprised the Wyomissing Industries (Textile Machine Works, Berkshire Knitting Mills, Narrow Fabric Company), employed thousands of workers in its vast array of multi-floor brick buildings prior to its sale to Vanity Fair Corporation in 1969. Wyomissing Industries was founded by Ferdinand Thun and Henry Janssen following their emigration from Germany in 1892.
At its peak, it had on site a dispensary for its employees offering medical, dental and eye care. The cafeteria could seat up to a 1000 employees and a small section was opened in another building to sell over-runs to workers and their families. Seeing its success, they decided to allow the public to buy directly from them.
Berkshire Knitting Mills was chosen by the DuPont Company to test a new material known as Nylon and they quickly adapted their machinery to its use. After 1940, most women’s hosiery was made from nylon. Wyomissing Industries published a newsletter for its employees from 1931-1957 called “The Yarn Carrier.” The following is a quote from the “Say” column of the Carrier from December, 1932: “What the world needs is a telephone bell that will tell who is ringing at the other end.”
Birdsboro Steel Foundry and Machine Company traces its beginnings back to 1740 when William Bird built a forge, a saw mill and grist mill and founded the town of Birdsboro. His oldest son, Marcus, enlarged on his father’s work and constructed Hopewell Furnace. He was the largest producer of iron in America during the Revolutionary War. After the war, the forges have financial problems caused the Birds to sell their assets to Matthew Brooke changed the name to the Birdsboro Iron Foundry Company.
The forges were most successful under Brooke’s management in the mid-19th century. During the Civil War, the company produced munitions and armaments for the Union Army and began manufacturing parts for railroad cars and locomotives. This was the beginning of steel production for the family. The company continued its tradition of supplying the armed forces with providing the Navy with material for building a steel fleet during the late 19th century.
In 1906, the management decided to erect a large modern steel foundry with a potential capacity of approximately 3000 tons per month for making steel castings. In World War II, the government contracted with Birdsboro Steel and Foundry and Machine Company to produce tanks and artillery for the war effort. In 1944, a manufacturing subsidiary was established for weapons manufacturing known as Armorcast. By the end of the war, the company began to manufacture more industrial equipment, many used in the production of steel.
After 1947, the federal government and several businessmen tried to sell or use the space. Armorcast failed to win a government contract to continue production in 1975 and the plant closed in 1988 after a lengthy strike. The four smokestacks, collapsed in the planned implosion to make way for a new power-generating facility, were the last vestiges of a regional history of manufacturing started before the American Revolution.
“Manufacturing evolved from making cannon for Revolutionary War to making tanks for World War II,” said Sanders, 70, former Superintendent of Hopewell Furnace. “All that’s gone now.”