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
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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

Man of Dirt: A BHC Member Profile

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BHC Member Richard Peal showing off his glass collection.

Meet Richard Peal – a new member to the Berks History Center. Richard has dug up an unusual way of connecting with the past! He calls himself “Man of Dirt.”

It all started back in the 70’s when Richard worked as a lineman for what was then, N.J. Bell. He was setting poles with a crew along the railroad in Metuchen, NJ when out of the hole popped a fully-intact bottle, which was inscribed: Thomas A. Edison Special Battery Fluid. This was the first bottle that Richard took home and put on a shelf in his garage. Over the years, while working for the telephone company, quite a few more bottles came home and were put on the shelf in the garage.

In the late 90’s Richard was still working for the phone company, which is now Bell Atlantic. He had a different job at the company when he was working on a road widening project on Route 9 in Lakewood, NJ. One of the contractors was digging up the road and bottles just started flowing out of the ground! It turns out that Route 9 went right through what used to be part of an old Lakewood dump site. Knowing that Richard kept the bottles, the contractor gave him the “go-ahead” and Richard began bringing home truck loads of glass bottles every day. What started as an accidental bottle collection suddenly became serious business!  With his first born son in tow, Richard began digging for bottles regularly and in 1999 he went to his first bottle show in Toms River, NJ.

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Later Richard became a member of the Jersey Shore Bottle Collectors Club, and by 2002, he was running the bottle show. Richard ran the show for 10 years until he moved to Exeter Township in 2013. And that’s when his interest in Berks County’s history began.

“There’s no sense in collecting Jersey bottles out here, so I changed it up and I now collect Reading Glass,” says Richard. “Currently, I do 10-12 bottle shows a year and I am always looking for something new to add to the collection.”

When it comes to local history, Richard’s glass collecting hobby has led him down a number of rabbit holes, so to speak. Richard recently visited the BHC Research Library to dig further into the history of Reading Glass Works. He discovered that there were 2 companies. The first, Reading Artistic Glass Works, operated in the 1880s and specialized in art glass. The other business, which manufactured bottles and jars, ran from about 1889 to the 1920’s along the canal at Franklin Street and River Road in Reading.

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BHC Members Touring Behind the Scenes in the BHC Museum at the January 2018 Members Happy Hour Event

At the Berks History Center, we have members of all types – Some members love the Revolution, Civil War and other American history, while others are avid genealogists and enthusiastic collectors. Some of our members favor the history of their borough or township and others simply enjoy reminiscing about Berks County’s extraordinary past. While your reasons for being a member to the BHC are as varied as the artifacts in our collections, we all share one common passion: a love for Berks County’s history.

That’s why we think it’s so important to share YOUR Berks history. This year, we would like to change things up a bit! We would like to create more opportunities for you, the members, to share your stories with one another. Instead of writing about what WE are doing at the Berks History Center in this column, we hope to share YOUR stories about YOUR Berks County history.

If you are a member of the Berks History Center and would like to share a bit about your particular passion for Berks County’s history in The Historical Review of Berks County, please contact me, Alexis Campbell, at publicity@berkshistory.org. Whether it’s a hobby of collecting, an interesting family history or just your enthusiasm for a particular subject, we want to share your Berks history!

Written by Communications Director, Alexis Campbell. Originally published in Spring 2019 Issue of The Historical Review of Berks County

Looking Forward in 2019: A Message from the Director

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To all our good friends and supporters of Berks History Center (BHC), Happy New Year!

I hope you all had a safe, happy and healthy holiday season and that you are making it through the winter of 2018-19 in good spirits. Though we still have a bit of winter left to endure, I think it’s safe to say, “the back of this winter is broken!”

A lot’s been going on, so let’s catch up.

Members Only Holiday Happy Hour and Behind the Scenes Tour:

I’ll begin by thanking all of those who attended the BHC’s January 10th Members Only Holiday Happy Hour and Behind the Scenes Tour. I was astounded by the show of support we had from our membership at this event. Over 120 people attended and got the chance to see what the staff, volunteers and interns have accomplished as we go about preserving Your Berks History! It was an evening of conviviality shared by a membership that understands the importance and is proud of its heritage. All of us at the BHC thank you for your support of what we do. I also want to thank the tour volunteers for the evening and the staff of the BHC for their hard work especially BHC Curator Brad Smith for his attention to detail that allowed us to coordinate a total of eight groups of 10-12 people departing on tours every 10 minutes with little to no confusion or congestion. It was a sight to behold! I also wish to thank Dana Lonaberger for volunteering her time as bartender and providing us the recipe for Pompey’s Punch. Thank you!

2018-2019 Strategic Plan:

Next, let me update you on the BHC’s Strategic Plan I wrote about in my winter 2018-19 column. Facilitated by the Philadelphia consulting firm Schultz & Williams, we have made considerable progress, and from the data collected so far, along with feedback from the half-day board/staff retreat held on November 30, 2018, the central strategic planning questions the BHC looks to answer include:

  • Who do we want to be?
  • Where are we going?
  • How do we get there?

To answer these questions and create a strategic plan that addresses them, six working groups made up of BHC trustees, staff and community stakeholders were organized. Each of these working groups was tasked with focusing on key planning issues, and collectively they are working together to complete the work that is so critically important to the outcome of the planning process.

 The areas of concentration for the working groups include:

  1. Mission and Relevance
  2. Programming, Exhibits, Partnerships and Collaborations
  3. Image/Community Engagement and Membership
  4. Location and Facility
  5. Financial Stability
  6. Leadership and Board Development

The groups began by working independently, meeting at least once, but it was understood that in many cases their work was dependent on and impacted the work of other groups. As an example, whereas the principal work of the Financial Stability Work Group was to set up a sustainable business model for the entire organization, a significant portion of the budget it constructs will fund the initiatives that are created from the other working groups.

Upon completion, the tasks assigned to each working group will shape the reports they will provide Schultz & Williams. Schultz & Williams will then synthesize that information into a report that will ultimately be submitted to the Strategic Planning Task Force shaping the direction and substance of the final strategic plan. This should be finalized by late March or early April and we will be sharing the report with our membership to keep you informed on the course of action the BHC will pursue over the next 3-5 years.

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150th Anniversary/Events:

As exciting as the strategic plan is by itself, one can’t help but see its symbolic importance when viewed in conjunction with the BHC’s Sesquicentennial Anniversary in 2019-2020. The BHC is 150 years old, that’s remarkable and though there are other historical organizations that old and older, this is a huge milestone for us. From July 2019 through June 2020, BHC will be celebrating in a big way and I would like to tell you about some of the events and initiatives we have already planned.

So far, events include a Charter Day Jubilee on July 12th 2019 to commemorate the day The Historical Society of Berks County was organized in 1869, a Hidden Treasures of the Oley Valley Tour on October 19th recreating the early Pilgrimages of the Historical Society, an Incorporation Day Birthday Bash on December 13th 2019 to celebrate the date the Historical Society was incorporated in 1869, as well as special 150th Gala Dinner, (date to be determined).

These events, in addition to special 150th Anniversary membership offers and giving opportunities, a new museum exhibit, and a new publication by the BHC will serve to mark this milestone in the history of our organization. Together, the BHC’s 150th Anniversary and the strategic plan can be viewed as a “Rebirth” of one of our community’s longstanding institution and will set in motion the next chapter in our already long history.

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Palmer Gallery

My final topic for this column is the renovation of the BHC’s Palmer Gallery. This is something we have wanted to do for a while and following the dismantling of the World War I & Berks Exhibit, it was time to move on this assignment.

The renovations were made possible by a generous gift from the Focht Family Foundation and include: Removing the existing wall paper, prep-work and painting of the walls, ceiling and trim, in addition to the installation of new carpeting throughout the gallery. The project will be finished in plenty of time for the installation of our upcoming exhibit commemorating the HSBC/BHC’s 150th Anniversary Celebration.

All of us at the BHC wish to thank the Focht Family Foundation for their generous support and for assisting us in entering our Sesquicentennial with an exhibit gallery worthy of this auspicious occasion.

That’s it for now and I look forward to reconvening with you with the summer 2019 issue of The Review. Wishing you all the best, until then…

The 4th Annual Berks History Conference Focuses on Berks County & the Civil War

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The Berks History Center invites you to attend the 4th Annual Berks History Conference on April 13, 2019, located at 940 Centre Avenue, Reading, PA 19601.

The Berks History Conference is an annual gathering for history enthusiasts and features a series of lectures on Berks County’s history. This year’s conference will focus on the Civil War and will cover a variety of topics that explore Berks County’s involvement in the conflict including: Berks County’s famous first, First Defenders, the Ringgold Light Artillery; Provost Marshal George W. Durell and his experiences executing the Federal Civil War draft; a photographic expose of the Antietam battlefields; and the prominent role of the PW&B Railroad in the war and its connections to Berks County.

The Berks History Center welcomes four distinguished conference speakers: Mark Pflum, First Defenders Civil War Historian; John M. Lawlor, Jr., Professor Emeritus; Stephen Recker, Photograph Collector & Author; and Scott Mingus, multiple award-winning Civil War author.

“The Berks History Conference is a unique opportunity to delve into specific aspects of Berks County’s rich history.” said Executive Director, Sime Bertolet. “And when it comes to the Civil War, there is no shortage of stories that awe and inspire.”

The Berks History Conference is sponsored by The Berks Packing Company, Inc. and Sweet Street Desserts.

Tickets are $25 for students, $50 for members, $60 for non-members and can be purchased by calling 610-375-4375.  Berks History Center is also offering a special new member fee for $95 that includes admission to the conference and a discounted membership to the Berks History Center. Lunch is included for all participants.

To register call 610-375-4375 or click here for a brochure and more information.

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Berks History Center Transfers Rare Artifact to Rightful Home in Chester County, PA

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(Right) Ellen E. Endslow, Director of Collections/Curator at Chester County Historical Society accepting the Mendenhall Box from (left) Bradley K. Smith, Curator at the Berks History Center.

The Berks History Center (BHC) is pleased to announce the transfer of a rare artifact, a wooden strongbox or chest, to the care of the Chester County Historical Society on Wednesday, January 30, 2019.

The artifact, which was designed to hold and protect important papers, is particularly unique due to its age and well documented history. While BHC staff members knew of the chest’s existence and were aware of a 1684 date carved on its face, it was only during the BHC’s 2016-2017 collections management initiative that its full history and significance came to light.

The collections management initiative was an undertaking designed to improve artifact related record-keeping through a process of inventory and historical research. PA Museums, Pennsylvania’s state-wide Museum Association, awarded the BHC with a 2018 Institutional Achievement Award in recognition of the initiative’s success.

 

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The chest belonged to Benjamin Mendenhall of Concord, a township of Chester County until the formation of Delaware County in 1789. The earliest known historical text that discusses Benjamin Mendenhall is the 1862 publication History of Delaware County, by George Smith. Smith indicates that Mendenhall was a wheelwright who emigrated from the English town of Mildenhall in 1686 (contemporary research shows that Mendenhall attended a Philadelphia wedding on November 15, 1684, so he clearly arrived in Pennsylvania sometime prior to that date).

Numerous sources indicate that he served one term in the Pennsylvania General Assembly and was an active member of the Chichester/Concord Monthly Meeting of the Society of Friends. Benjamin Mendenhall was married in 1698 to Ann Pennel and they had a large family; one of their daughters married the famed botanist, John Bartram on October 11, 1729. The Mendenhalls are also the sixth-great grandparents of U.S. President, Richard Nixon.

The Mendenhall chest remained with family members living in Chester or Delaware County until 1872, when the donor-to-be, Stephen Merideth, moved from Pughtown, Chester County to Reading, Pennsylvania. According to the BHC’s accession records, Meredith donated the small chest to the Historical Society of Berks County on September 13, 1921.

While the reasons for Merideth’s donation to the BHC are unknown, the artifact holds significant historical value to Chester County, not only in the unique age and quality of the box, but also in its well documented provenance as a cherished family heirloom.

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A caption with the photograph says “photo by Goldman, Reading, Pa”. This presumably refers to William I. Goldman (1856-1922), who first appears as a photographer in the 1877-78 edition of The City Directory of Reading, PA and continued in the photography business until his death in 1922

In 1897, teenager Earl Merideth, son of the chest’s eventual donor, wrote: “I am a profound admirer of ancestral relics, of which I have a great one, namely the money box, about 10” x 8” x 6” of Benjamin Mendenhall. On it are carvings by his own hand, artistic in nature, together with ‘B. 1684 M.’ on the front of box. The old lock though broken still clings to it. It is a wonderful old box, and I may safely say that it bids fair to outlive twice or thrice as many generations as it has in the past. I would not part with it for a great deal. It is made of hickory wood and firmly put together.”

Although the chest has been in BHC collection for nearly 100 years, the artifact has little connection to Berks County beyond the fact that its last private owner lived in close proximity to the museum’s headquarters. After careful research and consideration by the BHC Curator and Museum Committee, the BHC decided to deaccession the artifact from its collection. The BHC offered the chest in recognition of the fact that the vast majority of its history is connected with communities and families of Chester County.

As explained by BHC Executive Director, Sime Bertolet, “after careful deliberation, we concluded that the chest belongs in Chester County, the ancestral home of the Mendenhall family, and we are delighted that the Historical Society of Chester County agreed with this assessment.”

Ellen E. Endslow, Director of Collections/Curator at Chester County Historical Society, said, “the Chester County Historical Society is thrilled to have this (artifact) in the collection. This is part of what good collections management is about in the museum profession. The fact that Brad did such an excellent job researching the item and realizing that it is such an important part of Chester County’s history that it belongs in Chester County is a very professional way to treat an important object like this.”

The BHC transferred the artifact to the care of the Historical Society of Chester County on Wednesday, January 20, 2019.