At 19 feet long and over 300 pounds, it is hard to believe that this artifact had gone unnoticed for so long. On November 30, 2019, a crew of 11 volunteers met at the Northeast Taproom to retrieve Old Glory from its hiding place. After a short time and a lot of muscle power, the behemoth tiller saw the light of day for the first time since the dawn of the 20th century. Thanks to Orth’s Towing, Old Glory was transported to its new home at the Berks History Center.
While the efforts to move Old Glory were great, the stories behind this artifact were well worth the work. In his research, Rick discovered that Old Glory was one of many tillers that coasted the streets of Reading in late 1800s and early 1900s. “Coasting” down popular sledding slopes, such as Chestnut, Buttonwood, Elm, Greenwich, Spring and Robeson streets, was a favorite winter pastime in the City of Reading.
As for Old Glory, up to 20 children could fit on the sled, which could travel up to 65-70 mph, with no way of stopping it. Tillers provided an entertaining yet dangerous thrill for children and adults alike and the phenomena was commonplace until several serious accidents caused authorities to start cracking down on the activity. By 1925 tillers were rarely seen on city streets. Old Glory was involved in an accident with an 8 man tiller at the intersection of 11th & Chestnuts Sts. on February 16, 1916. It has sat in the basement of the Northeast Taproom at 12th & Robeson since – until last week when it was moved to the Berks History Center.
A Note from the Berks History Center:
A lot of research went into discovering the story behind this and other tillers in the winter of 2016-2017 by the tiller team of Charlie Adams, Corrie Crupi, Sharon Merolli, Jon Showers Jr., Dave Kline, Richard Polityka and Michelle Napoletano Lynch. A huge thanks to all these fantastic #BerksHistoryBuffs for making this story come alive. Also a big thanks to all the folks who volunteered to move Old Glory to its new home at the Berks History Center, including Orth’s Towing!
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.
“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.
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:
“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.
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.
“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.
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).
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.
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
“Berks County Women in History: Profiles, Volume 1,” edited by Irene Reed, pages 314-315, Tudor Gate Press, 2005.
The Socialist Movement in Reading, Pennsylvania, 1896-1936: A Study in Social Change, Henry G. Stetler, 1943.
By her own admission, Pearl Haines never worked a day in her life. She was born to entertain and share her joy of performing with young people willing to follow in her footsteps of dance and entertainment. The work she did was more than a source of income; it was her passion. She was a long-time dance instructor for 54 years, with most of that time spent at her dance studio at 108 South 6th Street. She touched the lives of many with her dance instruction and became a name that all in Reading knew well.
Pearl Haines was born on July 17, 1899 in Reading, PA to William and Catherine (Yoder) Haines. By an early age it was clear that entertaining people was in Miss Pearl’s blood. At age 3, she made her first public appearance when she recited a poem at a Sunday school rally at St. Marks UCC on 211 Greenwich St. Dance lessons soon followed at the age of 6 with Professor (Pappy) Drexel at his studio in the rear of 1144 Perkiomen Avenue. Her early years were formative in her development in theatre -First as the lead in “Alice in Wonderland,” which was performed at the Orpheum Theatre on August 28, 1908. Miss Haines performed as Alice many times in her early career at both the Orpheum and Academy of Music, which prompted children to call out “Hello Alice” when they saw her riding on an open trolley car.
Later, she was cast as the lead in “Dream of Mysticland” as “Little Miss Nobody” to highly favorable reviews. More performances followed in the ensuing years at the Rajah Temple at Pearl and Franklin Streets, The Orioles Home on South 9th Street, Redmen Hall on Walnut Street and the Hippodrome on Penn Street. By 1914, she was a shining star on the theatre and recital scene in Reading, where she was the featured attraction to the delight of audiences citywide. Theatre-goers simply could not get enough of the charismatic young Haines, as she performed with her Juvenile Minstrels as the featured attraction, gaining headlines for the reviews that followed in the daily paper. By 1915, everybody in the city knew of Pearl Haines.
Pearl opened her first dance studio at the Moss and Marion Fire Hall in 1915 at the age of 16. For a young girl who was still in school, she kept an active social schedule performing in theatres and halls to large audiences and taught dance to young children, who emulated her with the desire to follow in her footsteps. It was at this time she met a young Irene Burkhart, who would accompany Miss Haines as her pianist for 35 years. As the popularity of her dance classes increased, Haines dance studio was moved to its long-time location at 108 South 6th Street. This was the location behind her home that Pearl Haines established herself as a dance instructor to thousands of young children.
Pearl continued to work as a dance instructor and entertainer into the 1920’s, when she was cast as Fi-Fi in the comedy “Fi-Fi of the Toy Shop” in a Rogers Company of New York production. The production was performed to a large crowd at the Rajah Theatre for the benefit of St Mary’s Episcopal Church, which had been damaged by fire.
By 1927, a great adventure awaited Miss Pearl Haines. She hired an agent, George Hamid, and proceeded on a 14-year summer tour of county fairs up and down the Eastern Seaboard as the Pearl Haines Revue. Her dance revue was known as “Polly and her Polly-Anns” and they performed as part of the price of admission in front of the grandstand. Newspapers advertising their local county fairs consistently listed the “Pearl Haines Revue” as one of the featured acts in their promotions. They started with a rented truck, which eventually grew to a 5-ton truck, to carry props, scenery, floodlights, and a tent with a kitchen, dining room and dressing room. Accompanying the troupe was Pearl’s mother Catherine, who cooked meals and made all the costumes. Five girls in the company took turns assisting Catherine. Mr. Hamid dubbed them the “Biggest Little Show on Earth.”
In 1934, Pearl’s troupe sailed to San Juan Puerto Rico to perform at the Gran Feria Exposition de Puerto Rico, making the revue the first dance group from Reading, Pa to travel overseas. During this trip Pearl and “Polly Ann” Marie Shalter were invited be on a radio program to sing a duet while Pearl played a marimba solo. They also saw President Roosevelt as his parade passed by their hotel balcony! Pearl and the Polly-Anns greeted him with a “Hi Frank!” He looked up and waved and gave a big smile. Another memorable moment was in 1938, when a young photographer asked if he could take a photo of the girls relaxing between acts. Later they discovered he was a photographer from Life Magazine and they made the September 26th edition.
During her travels, Pearl Haines was very well-known in Reading. Between the success of her dance studio, her adventures working county fairs from Canada to Florida, and her performances in the theaters of Reading, Pearl Haines was a local celebrity. Her picture appeared as a feature act in the daily entertainment news next to a photo of Cary Grant and her name was mentioned in the same articles as John Barrymore and Myrna Loy, as she continued to perform around town. From 1936 to 1949, Pearl returned to the scene of her first lead roll when her revue danced in the Civic Opera at the Orpheum Theater. The county fair tour ended in 1941, although the Reading Fair still saw the Poly- Anns. The group even helped Reading celebrate its Bi-centennial with a revue at the City Park Bandshell.
Life changed for Pearl Haines when she married George Horton of Afton, New York in 1952. She met George at the county fair in Afton, where she later started a dance studio. Unfortunately, George passed away in 1958. Following his death, Pearl returned to Reading to live with her mother Catherine. Pearl then began teaching dance at Micky Norton’s School of Dance in Laureldale. Two of her pupils opened their own dance studios and one student aspired to higher success. Robin Miller opened a dance studio and performed in the Court of Ballet at Radio City Music Hall and served as an understudy to the lead dancer in Broadways “West Side Story”.
Pearl Haines retired from teaching dance in 1970, but she remained an active individual. She became president of the Women’s Club of Reading from 1974-1976 and again from 1982-1984. During her first term Pearl presided over the Women’s Clubs celebration of the 200th Anniversary of the Second Continental Congress on May 10, 1975. The event was billed as “A Day to Remember” as the club held a tea dressed in colonial attire to mark the event.
“Your life is God’s gift to you – what you do with your life is your gift to God.” – Pearl Haines in the December 1974 Women’s Club Bulletin
Pearl was an individual who gave her all to the people in her life, especially when she taught and entertained. Pearl Haines passed away at the age of 96 on January 18, 1996. As famous as she was in her time, she never became wealthy, but in her own words she had everything she wanted:
The Berks History Center (BHC) is pleased to announce a new acquisition, “Puppy Watching Chicks with Worm,” oil on canvas by Ben Austrian.
The acquisition was made possible with a gift from the Spinnaker Foundation, which focuses on the arts, athletics, education and health with an emphasis on educating children, encouraging philanthropic activities and improving the local community. Most notably, the Spinnaker Foundation has helped to promote the preservation and collecting of Berks County art by Berks County artists.
With the support of the Spinnaker Foundation, “Puppy Watching Chicks with Worm” was purchased from Greshville Antiques in December, 2018 and is now on display in the BHC museum. The 15”x20” gold leaf framed painting (copyright 1906) depicts a brown and white puppy watching two chicks fight over a worm.
Ben Austrian was an American painter best known for his realistic portrayals of farmyard life. Much of his subject matter focused on hens and their chicks, cats, dogs, horses, and game. Born on November 22, 1870 in Reading, PA, Austrian was largely self-taught. His work was influenced by other well-known Berks County artists including Federick A. Spang. Austrian is best known as the painter of the famous Bon Ami chicks.
With this new addition, the BHC has a total of nine Ben Austrian paintings its collections. However, the subject matter is quite varied. Other Austrian works in the BHC collection include: “Still Life,” “Trees, Grass & Meadow,” a portrait of “John Misler,” “The Stand Off Terrier with Chick,” “Chicks with Basket,’ “Rooster & Hens,” and two “Hanging Game” paintings.
“Puppy Watching Chicks with Worm” is a particularly charming addition to the BHC’s collections of Ben Austrian’s work and epitomizes the subject matter for which this Berks County artist is famous. This painting, along with a number of Austrians, are now on display in the BHC Museum, open Tuesday-Friday, 10AM-3PM, and Saturday 9AM-3PM.
The Great War was a constant exercise in patriotism for the citizens of Reading and Berks County. Citizens were asked to support the war effort through Liberty Loan drives, which were followed by Red Cross drives and ongoing petitions to purchase War Savings Stamps. Meanwhile, the YMCA and YWCA required more young men and women to do their part in the name of victory for the soldiers fighting overseas. Amidst all these demands for local citizens to fulfill their patriotic duties, leaders in Berks worked tirelessly to keep the spirit of patriotism alive in Berks County. And thus, the Liberty Chorus was born.
On July 17, 1918 a meeting was held in the Chamber of Commerce to organize committees and appoint lieutenants to arrange community sings throughout the summer. The meeting consisted of leading musical representatives from the Reading Rotary, the Penn Wheelmen, the Kiwanis Club, the Chamber of Commerce, and other musical organizations. The lieutenant’s role was to recruit choir singers and musicians to create a community singing chorus to lead the community in popular war songs. They believed a singing community would never know the burdens of war.
Reading had a reputation for its excellent singers and strong church choirs. Reading also had a prize-winning choral society under the direction of Edward Berg. With this rich history in organized singing, the Liberty Chorus was formed on July 18, 1918 with a membership of 350 men who were ready to keep the fires of patriotism burning in Berks County. The men present at the meeting that night could not have envisioned just how popular the Liberty Chorus would become.
The Liberty Chorus was headed by “sing leader” George F Eisenbrown. Before the American entry in the Great War, Eisenbrown was busy developing Muhlenberg Park, Illustrious Potentate of the Rajah Temple, and was partnered with his brother Charles in the family business, Eisenbrown Granite Works (P.F. Eisenbrown & Sons).
What began as a summertime experiment became a local phenomenon. Within a few weeks of their first sing at the 7th and Laurel playground on July 23, 1918, the Liberty Chorus had stoked the fires of the Reading’s patriotic spirit, making them a popular attraction in the community. They performed before crowds of 15,000 on Sundays in City Park. This was significant at a time when 19 men could be arrested for violating the Blue Laws for playing baseball.
Whether it was a pre-planned community sing or an impromptu appearance to celebrate good news from the Western Front, the Liberty Chorus made themselves available whenever the need to promote patriotism arose. One such instance was a Sunday night/Monday morning gathering in front of the Berkshire Hotel. Despite unfortunate timing and weather, the Liberty Chorus sang their hearts out and led a parade of 5,000 citizens in joyous celebration through the rain-soaked streets of Reading (more on this topic in a future article).
After the war, their popularity didn’t diminish, but their role in the promotion of patriotism drew to a close. Their performances were less frequent but still popular among the community. The Liberty Chorus was scheduled to lead a Christmas Carol sing-a-long on Christmas Eve in Penn Square, only to have it cancelled due to rain. Later they performed to honor the late, former President, Theodore Roosevelt at the Rajah Temple and they set an attendance record at the Colonial Theatre. Their last performance was on June 3, 1919 at the Auditorium on South 5th St to welcome home Company A, a fitting farewell to Reading’s Patriotic Singers.
On November 10, 2018, the Reading Choral Society will be bringing the sound of the Liberty Chorus back to life when our 1918 time capsule will be opened at the Berks History Center. The Reading Choral Society will be performing popular songs sung by the Liberty Chorus during the Great War. Click here for more information on this historic event. (for more on the Liberty Chorus, see the Historical Review of Berks County, Winter 2017-2018).
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.