Paving the Way for Women, Up & Down Duryea Drive: Rhea Duryea

Rhea Duryea, BHC Museum Collection

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!

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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 Duryea on a Duryea automobile. BHC Museum Collection. 

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?

Answer to Mystery Woman #2

Wilma Rudolph


Fighting for Democracy at Home and Abroad

Image: Duke University, Rare Book, Manuscript and Special Collections Library, Digital Scriptorium

When war erupted in Europe in 1914, the United States was a nation steeped in racial divides. Discrimination was evident everywhere in the country and, in the south, ‘Jim Crow’ laws forced people of color to use separate and usually inferior facilities, denied them equal protection under the law, and condoned vigilante mob violence. Starting in 1915, a devastating boll weevil infestation ravaged the south, destroying cotton crops and putting thousands of African Americans out of work. It was during this time that African Americans began to flee from the south in search of safety, social equality and economic opportunity. Known as the Great Migration, close to 500,000 African Americans moved to northern cities in the largest relocation event America had ever seen.

While many historical accounts cite economic opportunity as the driving force behind the Great Migration, first hand accounts reveal that African Americans relocated primarily in an effort to escape increased oppression from black codes, including ‘Jim Crow’ laws in the southern states. In addition, the industrial economy was growing in the north and a freeze on European immigration made an abundance of low wage jobs available. Despite increased opportunities, racial unrest prevailed during the Great Migration and many African Americans experienced resistance and violence from white citizens as they settled in northern states. One notably violent event occurred in East St. Louis, Missouri on July 2, 1917, when a four day riot between white and black workers left 125 black residents dead.

Violence also erupted at Camp Logan in Houston, Texas when black soldiers of the 3rd Battalion of the 24th Infantry grew tired of racial discrimination by white citizens and police personnel. The soldiers marched to assert their rights and a riot ensued. 4 soldiers and 16 civilians and law enforcement personnel were killed in the conflict. The army court-martialed 110 soldiers. 63 were given life sentences and 13 were hung without due process.

Despite the violence, black press and civil organizations insisted that African Americans be given the opportunity to serve their country in the army. When the United States entered the Great War in 1917, Woodrow Wilson stood before Congress and stated “the world must be made safe for democracy.” These words resonated deeply in the African American community as they had yet to experience true democracy here in America. How could Wilson’s words be sincere if America set out to fight for democracy in Europe while people of color were treated like second class citizens at home? Viewing the conflict as an opportunity to prove their equality as citizens, African Americans were eager to join the fight overseas.

 The Famous 369th Arrive in New York City. Members of the 369th [African American] Infantry; ca. 1917 – 1919; Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, Record Group 165. 

African American draftees were assigned to the 92nd & 93rd Combat Divisions. However, the army assigned most African American soldiers to service units since many army officials believed that black soldiers were more suited to manual labor than combat duty. However, there were instances where African American soldiers did see combat; most notable was the 93rd Division 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the Harlem Hellfighters. The Hellfighters served in combat on the frontline for 191 days, ceded no ground to the Germans, and were the first regiment to reach the Rhine River after the Armistice. With the longest consecutive duration of service in combat in WWI, the Harlem Hellfighters received a regimental Croix-De-Guerre, one of France’s highest honors. They returned to the United States national heroes.

Unlike the 93rd Division, the 92nd Division did not enjoy the same recognition for their accomplishments and were treated inhumanely even as they served their country.  Depite being segregated during their training in the U.S., which impeded the unit’s cohesion and pride,  the 92nd Division served on the front lines with valor. However, the division faced significant challenges due to racist attitudes, particularly from commanding officers Lieutenant Brigadier General Bullard, and Col. Allen J. Greer. White army officials spread rumors about the black troops to French civilians, calling them rapists. Furthermore, the 92nd Division encountered their most challenging incident during the Allied Meuse-Argonne offensive in September 1918. During the offensive, the 368th Infantry Regiment of the 92nd Division failed to complete an assignment on the front lines. Ignoring the lack of training, equipment, and communicaiton provided to the men, army officials touted the incident as evidence that African American officers and soldiers were failures to the war effort. African American soldiers contested the slanderous assertions of the Army well into the post war period.

City Board 4 Colored 8503.jpg
Photo: From the BHC Research Library Collection

The first African American draftees to leave the City of Reading departed on October 27th 1917. A total of 8 men assembled in front of the Courthouse at 8 AM to begin their departure. The 8 draftees were seated in automobiles draped in American flags. A parade was led by the Cadet Band with the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks in the World (I.B.P.O.E.W.) marching in front. The parade started at the Courthouse, made its way to 6th and Penn, marched down to 4th Street, counter marched to 6th Street, and then headed north on 6th Street to the Outer Station. According to the Reading Eagle’s account of the day “no lot of selected men received a finer farewell”. All lodge members carried American flags as the automobiles slowly moved out 6th Street. The Reading Eagle also noted that the men carried cards bearing the words: “Forward; to preserve for all mankind the freedom that the government of the United States has preserved for us; Reading Pa.” As the draftees and their families made for the Outer Station, the band assembled on the platform and all hats were removed for “The Star Spangled Banner.” The draftees were headed for Camp Meade, Virginia.

It wasn’t until August 5, 1918 when the second group of African American draftees departed from Reading for their service. 31 men gathered at the Baer Building at Court & Church Streets to embark on their journey to Camp Custer in Battle Creek, Michigan. At 7AM, a parade began and was led by the Reading Patriotic Committee, The Peerless Band and 400 family and friends. Most draftees were members of the I.B.P.O.E.W., or “colored Elks.” The Reading New-Times declared “A happier crowd of selected men never left the Outer Station” as the “good natured draftees” paraded toward the train depot singing “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Dixie.”

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William C. Gilyard was one of approximately 350,000 African American soldiers who served during World War I. After the war he moved to Reading, PA, seeking employment opportunities. As a trained blacksmith, one of Gilyard’s first jobs in Reading was with the American Chain and Cable Company, which later became Carpenter Technology. Van Gilyard, William’s grandson and the Vice President of the Central Pennsylvania African American Museum, says that even as servicemen in WWI, his grandfather and other African American soldiers were subjected to racism and unequal treatment.

“The majority of government officials believed that blacks should not be armed, or that they would turn and flee in the face of battle. That belief contradicts history because blacks served prominently in each war starting from skirmishes, fighting alongside first settlers, colonists, and during the Civil and Spanish-American wars, just to name a few. My grandfather served (in WWI) and he expected to have some equality when he returned home. But of course, when an African American (soldier) returned home and was walking the streets in uniform, it was frowned upon. They were sometimes jumped and their uniforms were torn off of them.”

Central PA African American Museum Vice President, Van Gilyard sharing about the African American experience during World War I

Even in the face of discrimination and unequal treatment, African Americans fought for freedom, both at home and abroad. Their legacy of service and accomplishment lives on today thanks to those who work to preserve African American history. In Berks County, the Central Pennsylvania African American Museum is a premier resource for local African American history.

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

The Berks History Center thanks Van Gilyard, Vice President of the Central PA African American Museum, for providing research, resources and his personal contributions to this article. 



Bryan, Jami, “Fighting for Respect: African-American Soldiers in WWI,” On Point, 2003.

Swick, Gerald D., Wilson Jr., Joseph E., “Come Out Fighting – The 761st Tank Battalion/Deeds Not Words The 92nd Infantry Division,” World War II Magazine, 1998.

Harlem Hellfighters: Black Soldiers in World War I


Reading: The Town of Widow Finney

During the month of March (National Women’s History Month) I will be posting a blog on some of the women of Berks County. I hope I will be choosing some women that will be interesting to you and you may find them as amazing as I do. Also, I will include a Mystery Woman of the Week for you to read and test your knowledge.


Have you ever eaten at The Speckled Hen? For the longest time, historians thought that this log cabin had been the home of Sarah Finney, better known as Widow Finney. Later it was determined that the original Finney home was where Judy’s on Cherry is located today.

Sarah was born about 1685 in Philadelphia, to what we might call “well-to-do” parents. She married Joseph Finney and the two of them decided to make a life of their own as homesteaders near the ford in the Schuylkill River along what was called the Perkiomen Path. They had two sons, Sam and John and two daughters, Rebecca and Anne. Joseph planned a plantation with fruit trees and for two years, Joseph and Sarah and their sons and daughters worked tirelessly to clear the land, and make a home for the Finney family. Unfortunately, Joseph died in 1734 only a few years after making their homestead. Not long after that, Sam and John died also.

Making a life in the wilderness was no easy task! So Sarah was left along the frontier, with her two daughters. Her family wanted her to come back to Philadelphia and live there with them. Whether she was stubborn or determined, I’m not sure, but she decided to stay at their homestead. She couldn’t bear the thought of leaving the land they had worked so hard to settle. Her home became a haven and rest stop for travelers, hunters, trappers and Native Americans as they walked or rode along the Perkiomen Path. Sarah always had fresh bread, soup or stew on the hearth for those who stopped in. And, oh yes, her pies were made with the fresh fruit from the orchard! Occasionally, a traveler might spend the night.

Her homestead was so well-liked that the area which today is Reading, was once known as The Town of Widow Finney! For more than ten years Sarah welcomed and chatted with Conrad Weiser, Mordecai Lincoln, Joseph Hiester and the Lenni Lenape Indians. She said she got along better with the Lenni Lenapes than she did with Thomas and Richard Penn and Thomas Lawrence! She felt that they represented land hungry businessmen! They owned the property adjacent to hers, and had mapped out a city plan and they were after her prime property. Sarah died in December of 1743 and the deed to the property went to Rebecca. Through the use of clever land agents and surveyors, the Penns were able to recover the prominent site from the widow’s heirs and build their town at the best location. And, the rest, so they say, is history!


Mystery Woman of the Week (Watch for the answer in my next blog)

I was the first female doctor in the US, graduating from Geneva College in 1847, even though my acceptance there was considered to be a joke!


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. 


Weathering the Storm: Feeling the Effects of the Great War on the Homefront

Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) · Thu, Jan 3, 1918 · Page 1
Reading Times, Thu, Jan 3, 1918 · Page 1

Winter 100 years ago was not unlike our current weather conditions; the winter of 1917-1918 was exceptionally cold. With a healthy accumulation of snow beginning in December and more on its way, temperatures dropped to the single digits as the New Year began.  The citizens of Reading and Berks County were presented with difficult challenges in January 1918. By order of President Wilson, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and the Pennsylvania Railroad had been taken over by the United States government. Nationally, the railroads were deemed inefficient for the government’s needs supporting the war effort. President Wilson appointed William Gibbs McAdoo as Director General of the Railroads. By taking control of all railroads in the United States, McAdoo’s task was to make the roads more efficient in freight transportation by eliminating competitive traffic between rival railroad companies. Locally, it would not be unusual for a P & R car to travel on the Pennsylvania Railroad line or for Pennsylvania employees to work at a P & R station. Both railroads were already cutting passenger services significantly because of the other hardship bestowed upon the local citizens – the shortage of coal.

Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) · Wed, Jan 30, 1918.png
Reading Times · Wed, Jan 30, 1918

The origins of the coal shortage came from an act of the government and an act of nature. President Wilson appointed Harry A. Garfield to lead the Federal Fuel Administration (FFA), which was born out of the Food and Fuel Control Act of 1917. The FFA was tasked with conserving energy through the managed use of coal and oil and the war effort was first in line to access the natural resources. After the war effort was satisfied, the remaining coal was distributed down to the state and county level through agents under Garfield. At the time, Reading’s fuel administrator was H.A. Acker. It was Acker’s responsibility to set and enforce the prices of coal on the local level. Coal supplies for the public had lessened since the creation of the FFA and was perceived by the public as a gradual inconvenience. However, the winter of 1917-1918 changed the gradual inconvenience to a severe crisis. The first page of the Reading News-Times would announce when coal cars would enter the city for distribution. Relief arrived in the January 7th edition of the News-Times when the headline proclaimed that 83 cars of coal had reached Reading for distribution.

Although the coal crisis had lessened, the coal supplies remained limited. Local citizens relied on coal to heat and light their homes.  In an effort to relieve the stress of the shortage on local citizens and to ensure that households had sufficient coal to keep warm, the FFA instructed businesses not essential to the war effort to shut down 3 days a week, starting on January 14, 1918. Three days later, in a drastic effort to curb the coal famine, the government ordered all businesses to close 5 days the first week. Every week thereafter, for a duration of 10 weeks, Sundays would become “lightless nights” and Mondays and holidays would become “coal-less days”. In Pennsylvania, the Blue Laws prohibited businesses from opening on a Sunday anyway and that day did not count towards the 5-day closure rule. On the first week of the order, Penn Street looked like Sunday for six days straight – all of the businesses were closed.  Day by day, the crisis brought new adjustments to combat the coal famine. Food stores, saloons and movie theatres were affected by the ban. Those who did not comply with the rules of the FFA were initially given an embarrassing lecture on their lack of patriotism, and subsequently, if they violated the ban again, were given a fine. Shortly after the ban, food stores were ordered to be closed by noon and movie theatres were allowed to remain open.

Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) · Sat, Jan 26, 1918.png
Reading Times · Sat, Jan 26, 1918

Not everyone was happy to “live with less” as their civic duty in the war effort. Those who refused to go without risked the repercussions as Edith Grant of 139 Lemon St. learned. On January 24, 1918, Ms. Grant was arrested for hoarding coal with bail set at $300. She was charged with having 400 pounds of coal in her cellar and purchasing 1300 pounds on top that. She claimed she was ill and had no coal to heat her house. On the other side of the coal crisis, a York coal broker was held on $5,000 bail for selling coal above the price set by the FFA. Children would go door to door tagging coal shovels with cards prepared by the United States fuel administrator. The cards read: “Save that shovel of coal for Uncle Sam.” On the back of the card were 6 tips on how to conserve your coal supply.

In addition to feeling the effects of energy conservation, the people of Reading and Berks experienced other inconveniences as the war effort continued. Food was another area of national conservation. Meatless, wheat-less and pork-less days were enacted by the United States Food Administration, which was led by Herbert Hoover. Hoover did such an outstanding job heading the Belgium Relief while in London that President Wilson requested he return to the United States to lead the Food Administration. The local administrator for Hoover was Charles T. Davies and the policies enforced were similar to those of the FFA. The popular term regarding the Food administration’s policies was to “Hooverize” your food, or otherwise, to be satisfied with less. The call to restrict consumption as part of the war effort was widely regarded and expected of everyone. An article appeared in the Reading Eagle that former President William Howard Taft, on a trip to Lebanon, made a stop at the Outer Station for lunch. The newspaper reported that Taft, a man who weighed close to 300 pounds, “Hooverized” his lunch by ordering smaller portions than a man of his size would consume.

Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) · Sat, Jan 12, 1918.png
Reading Times  · Sat, Jan 12, 1918

While the war raged on overseas, the City of Reading had its own war to fight at home with the Reading Traction Company, operators of the city’s trolley system. The Traction Company proposed raising the fare for a street car ride from 5 cents to 6 cents, which prompted outrage from the citizens, the Chamber of Commerce and the City of Reading. The Traction Company wanted to raise the fare with no justification for the increase. The coalition of opposing forces demanded the Traction Company to make their case for the increase before they would determine if it was justified. The city hired John P. Fox of New York City, a widely known traction expert, to assess the necessity of the one cent increase. The issue dragged out for several months and was not easily resolved.

YMCA Building at 631 Washington Street. Postcard belonging to Richard Polityka

Today, while we can relate to feeling the effects of the winter’s wrath, we might be stretched to understand what it is like to feel the impact of war in our daily lives. 100 years ago, the people of Reading and Berks County definitely paid a price, trading in their comfort and excess to support their countrymen overseas.  Many felt as though it was their patriotic duty and nearly everyone kept close tabs on the state of the conflict in Europe. Jerry Edwards, Secretary of the YMCA of Reading would hold Sunday talks at the Reed and Washington Streets facility on the effects of the war on Europe. Edwards spent considerable time overseas, first in Egypt and then France where he served as a camp secretary at both locations. He returned from France in November 1917 to Reading, where he travelled to Dayton Ohio to conduct a lecture series on the conditions of the war. When he returned to Reading, he continued the lecture series at the YMCA Reading branch to capacity crowds in the facilities auditorium.

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


Pig Stomach & Other Berks County Foodways


Vicky Heffner, Education Curator at the Berks History Center, has fond memories associated with pig stomach. In her family, it’s a tradition to make pig stomach every year on her father’s birthday. So today, like every January 16th, Vicky prepared this family favorite.

Vicky first learned to prepare this Pennsylvania German treat with her grandmother. The pig stomach is cleaned and soaked in salt water overnight. Then, she cubes potatoes and removes the casing from the sausage (always from Peters Brothers Meat Market in Lenhartsville), mixing both with salt, pepper, and parsley. She stuffs the pig stomach with the mixture and sews it shut with a special sewing needle, which belonged to her great-grandmother. The stuffed stomach is baked for about 3 hours at 350 degrees in a special roasting pan. As you can see from the photo, the roasting pan is well-worn because it is the same roasting pan her grandmother used to make pig stomach. A perfect pig stomach is one that does not break open while cooking. Once cooked, the pig stomach is sliced and served. Vicky says the dish tastes best with corn and coleslaw.

You can almost imagine as she prepares this traditional Pennsylvania German meal, with all the knowledge and materials passed down to her from the previous generation, Vicky’s grandmothers, standing right there beside her in the kitchen as she carefully stitches up the pig stomach with her special sewing needle and roasting pan. You can imagine them smiling as she serves this meal to her children and they taste the same comforting flavors that their great-great-grandparents once enjoyed. This is the power of foodways. Our stories, our family history, our heritage can all be told through the food we eat. Just one bite can connect us to our past.

This year, the Berks History Center will explore this compelling human experience. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, foodways are the “eating habits and culinary practices of a people, region, or historical period.” As we delve into this topic, we will focus on the foodways that are important to the people of Berks County. We will do so through themed programming, including Second Saturday programs and the Berks History Conference, as well online communications. We will share our local foodway stories, including stories from BHC staff, here on our blog, NewsBits (the BHC newsletter) and social media ( Follow @berkshistory).  We hope that you will share your stories too. Send us photos, recipes, and information about your traditional family foodways by participating in the #MyBerksHistory project or email us at We want to share as many stories about Berks County’s history as we can! Stay tuned!

This article was written as part of the Berks History Center’s 2018 Berks County Foodways Project. Click here to learn more about Berks County Foodways. 



Holidays on the Homefront: Reading at Christmastime in 1917

Mon, Dec 17, 1917
Reading Times, December 17, 1917

On December 21, 1917, a Red Cross worker made his way up Penn Street toward the imposing iron gates of the Berks County prison. With him, he carried a service flag and 77 “gifts” to be distributed. Meanwhile, George H. Zellers was delighted serving in an English aviation camp and Sergeant Joseph Eisenbrown sent greetings home from Camp Hancock in Augusta, Georgia. 

The holiday season in Reading and Berks County during the first year of the American involvement in the Great War moved along at a normal pace, despite the additional distractions of war. New recruits were leaving the area for camp on a regular basis, knowing that they would ultimately participate in the war theatre in Europe.

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At the bequest of President Wilson, the Red Cross began a national campaign to raise $100 million to support soldiers and civilians affected by the war. The drive ran from December 16th to December 23rd and aimed to enroll 50,000 new memberships.  Adult memberships ranged from $1.00 to $100.00 and junior memberships were $0.25 each. The Mansion House at 5th and Penn Streets served as the headquarters for the drive. During that time, Penn Square was decorated with trees for Christmas and a large Santa was placed on the balcony of the Mansion House with a candle. Santa’s goal was to make his way to the other side of the balcony to light 50,000-membership candles by the end of the drive. On the first day of the drive, Reading was digging out of its second biggest snow in 5 days and 2 trainloads of coal were delivered to relieve the city of its coal shortage. The snow-covered streets made delivering the coal to city homes difficult, and in some cases, impossible.  Despite these poor conditions, the people of Reading were not deterred from making their way to Penn Street for their Christmas shopping.

Mansion House on 5th and Penn. BHC Research Library Postcard Collection

The Red Cross campaign was kicked off on Saturday, December 15, 1917, with the Penn Wheelmen providing inspiration. Riding a sleigh with a piano mounted on its deck, the Penn Wheelmen, led by Joseph M. Eshelman, William G. Rees and Paul E. Glase, sang patriotic songs through megaphones with various slogans of the Red Cross shouted between the songs. “We want 50,000 members! Where is your button? Have a heart and a dollar!” and “You will want a Red Cross emblem to shine in your window Christmas Eve,” were among the slogans shouted. The Boy Scouts contributed as well, raising a large Red Cross flag on the rooftop of the Mansion House. The first day of enrollment was quite successful, with 15,000 enrollees registered.

The drive brought interesting stories to the daily newspaper, like William H. Luden enrolling all 26 residents at the Boys Home on Schuylkill Avenue in the Red Cross. The most surprising participation in the drive was at the Berks County Prison in City Park. The prison raised a service flag because all 77 inmates at the prison enrolled in the Red Cross. Memberships were distributed as gifts to the inmates. At the same time, a warrant was issued for the arrest of Warden C. Herbert Schwartz on the charge of selling dope to inmates in July 1917. The Red Cross achieved its goal both locally and nationally. The amount of money raised in such a brief time was a monumental achievement; the $100 million at the time is equivalent to over $1 billion today.

Berks Prison in City Park. BHC Research Library Postcard Collection

Just before the Red Cross campaign began, Reading learned of its second casualty of the war on December 13, 1917. Martin Diebert, formerly of the 200 block of Front Street, was officially listed as a British casualty. At the time, Reading was beginning to experience lightless nights, an order of the fuel administrator in a effort to conserve the coal supply. By 9 p.m. only street lights were burning. The “Great White Way” of Penn Street was dark, making citizens well aware that the country was at war. Neighborhoods were also dark and an eerie feeling crept over the entire city.

The city experienced other unusual happenings as the citizens prepared for the first wartime Christmas. On December 18, 1917, a parade was held on Penn Street by the Foresters of America for Charles S. Rissmiller of Reading for his gold star. Rissmiller was a member of the Foresters and the first Reading casualty of the Great War. Also, the first coasting (sledding) casualty was reported December 20, 1917. Luther E. Schaeffer of 1223 Mulberry Street died when he and his brother hit a curb while coasting at the Spring Street Subway. Luther was steering when he and his brother wrecked. Luther complained of back pain but the boys walked home after the accident. The next day, after still complaining of pain, Luther’s father took him to the Reading Hospital. There they learned that he sustained an injury to his spine and he died two days later.

WWI Red Cross Pin from the BHC Museum Collection

While life at home was somewhat unsettling, soldiers stationed at camp or overseas longed to be back home. Many sent letters, which were published in the newspaper as Christmas day approached. From the trenches, H. L. Rourke, 18th Canadian Reserve Battalion, formerly of Reading, wrote of his willingness to give up his Christmas cheer for the trenches abroad. At the time he wrote to George Kemp, asking him to forward his address to his friend Will Keffer, who he didn’t know had died since he joined the 18th.

After he left Camp Hancock, Joseph Eisenbrown rose to the rank of Lieutenant by September 1918. He sent home war relics, which were displayed in G. O. Glase Carpet store on Penn Square. Eisenbrown later attained the rank of Major by 1939 and served in both World Wars. Lieutenant George H. Zellers of Morgantown wasn’t as fortunate. Engaged in a dogfight with German aircraft, Zellers’ plane was riddled with machine gun fire after he flamed two German fighters on July 30, 1918. Zellers managed to fly back to his own lines only to die after landing his damaged plane. In his December 26, 1917 letter, Zellers noted that he was a quick learner. Zellers excelled in training and became a trusted flier for the British as an American officer. Zellers was a 1911 Reading High School graduate and a biology teacher in Hazelton when he enlisted. The same day Zellers’ letter was published, Second Lieutenant Ralph M. Getz of Reading received a unique distinction – he was the first officer or enlisted man in the entire United States Army to be honorably discharged from the Great War.

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


WWI: Don’t Be a Slacker!

Reading Times,  October 2, 1918

It was an unseasonably warm, sunny day when Aaron Krick of Reading wandered along the railroad tracks outside of Dauberville on October 8, 1918.  At 65 degrees, it was a perfect day for a walk and Krick had no intention of breaking the law. Suddenly the young man was confronted by uniformed railway police. After being accused of trespassing and arrested, Krick was hauled before the Alderman. He was asked to produce his draft registration card, but acknowledged that he did not possess one. He did not know that the country was at war, he told the Alderman, and he had no intention of joining the army. Aaron Krick was a “slacker.”

When our country entered the Great War in April 1917, the U.S. Army was ill-prepared to wage war against Germany. President Wilson asked for an Army of 1,000,000 men, and at first, relied on volunteers to meet that quota. When the volunteer pool slowed well below the desired number of recruits, the Selective Service Act of 1917 was passed on May 8th that year. The Act required all able-bodied men between the ages of 21 and 30 to register for the draft. Nationally, the draft was a success. 2 million of the 4.8 million men in service came from the draft. However, the number of men who “dodged” the draft nationally was somewhere around 325,000.

WWI Draft Cards, Berks History Center Museum Collection

The term slacker had its beginnings on a national level. One week after the United States entered the war, a column appeared in the New York Evening World, which described the many different slackers and how a slacker is “willing to die of old age for his country.” The article also spoke directly to the reader, stating that before you called someone out for being a slacker, you must first look at yourself and make sure you were not a slacker as well.

In the eyes of a nation at war, draft dodging was taken seriously. The dodgers were constantly sought by the Department of Justice, who were responsible for their prosecution. If, like Aaron Krick, a young man was of age and did not register for the draft, he was detained by the authorities. In the instance that a young man registered for the draft but did not report, they were sought by authorities and held for the actions of the Department of Justice. Such was the case with Pedro Gomenz and Eugene Berlanger, who evaded the call to the Fleetwood board by going to Reading. They were prosecuted and branded as slackers. If a man was rounded up as a slacker, his name was published and he was considered a traitor to the U. S. and a disgrace to the community.

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Reading Times,  December 16, 1918

The term slacker also applied to those with actions that were deemed unpatriotic. If a man missed work in a plant that was vital to the war effort, he too was deemed a slacker. If a fundraising drive was held and someone refused to contribute, as an employee of Carpenter Steel did during a Red Cross drive, they were subject to ridicule by coworkers. Slacker Day was proclaimed at Carpenter Steel where anyone who did not subscribe to the Red Cross drive was subjected to the wrath of his fellow coworkers. One man who refused to contribute was met at the door, pinned down, and had a yellow stripe painted on his back. When he made it back to his feet, he was blasted with a fire hose as he left the property. Two other men who did not contribute to the drive discovered a sign mounted at their station in the water department which said, “There are two slackers here.” They claimed they had contributed and ripped up the sign. Their coworkers then posted another sign with an American flag draped over it. The two slackers were forced to contribute twice as much to the Red Cross as they had claimed. Then their coworkers made both men kneel and kiss the flag. One did so willingly while the other man’s actions did not go over well. He was chased from the area while women from another department threw stones at him as he left the facility.

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Reading Times,  November 15 1918

In Reading, Mayor Edward Filbert worked to break up the “loafing ring” of industrial slackers. He instructed city detectives to round up all industrial slackers and force them to work or hand them a jail sentence. Movie theatres, such as the Lyric, 808-810 Penn St., The Queen, 410 N 11th St., and the Majestic, 108 Oley St., showed moving pictures about slackers. The patriotic fever that was strong in this community during the Great War would not stand for anyone who “slacked” behind in their duties to their country and community. For some branded as slackers, jail might have been preferable than the wrath they faced in the community.

As for Aaron Krick, the man who wasn’t registered for the draft in October 1918 and claimed that he didn’t know the country was at war, he wasn’t completely honest with the Alderman in Dauberville. In September 1917, Krick was arrested in Reading for…being a slacker! Krick’s actual residence was Mohnton but he moved to Reading to avoid the draft and cause confusion as to which precinct he was registered. Krick continued to be investigated by police as late as 1921, when he was arrested at 9th and Penn Sts. on a charge of suspicion. Police believed he was wanted for being a draft dodger.

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.