The idea of the American “Victory Garden” was pioneered by forestry expert and third-generation businessman, Charles Lathrop Pack, a multi-millionaire and one of the five wealthiest men in America.
As the United States entered the first World War in 1917, Pack organized the US National War Garden Commission and launched the war garden campaign. His pamphlet, “Victory Gardens Feed the Hungry: The Needs of Peace Demand the Increased Production of Food in America’s Victory Gardens” is one of the leading monographs in the campaign for the Victory Garden program.
In addition to advocating for US war gardens, Pack talks about the unfortunate conditions in some European countries due to the ongoing war and the need for Americans to come to their aid by providing seeds for food products and trees. After the war, he documented the victory garden movement in The War Garden Victorious.
Part of the Berks History Center’s 2020 “Berks History for Victory Campaign.” Click here for more information.
Drawing upon information from their collections and additional historical research, the Berks History Center (BHC) will embark upon an educational campaign and community story-telling project to promote home gardening for food security in Berks County and beyond. The initiative focuses on the revitalization of historic victory gardens, providing both the historical context and practical information for home-scale food production.
The “Berks History for Victory” campaign will launch digitally on Monday, April 13th on the Berks History Center’s social media platforms and will feature home gardening techniques for both urban and suburban residents as well as the national and local history behind victory gardening. Homeowners and renters alike are encouraged to participate and share stories about their victory gardening efforts using the hashtag #BerksHistoryforVictory
Currently closed to the public as ordered by Governor Tom Wolf and the PA Department of Health, the BHC has continued its operations remotely, employing all staff for the duration of the shut-down. Although many day-to-day roles involve interacting with visitors, the BHC quickly re-strategized after closing in March and developed creative ways to continue serving their community in a time of need.
“Despite losses to a significant portion of our revenue stream, our team has been able to adapt quickly, developing creative solutions to allow the organization to retain staff and continue fulfilling our mission,” says Executive Director, Benjamin Neely.
In the first week of the shutdown, the BHC launched “Berks History at Home” an educational resource page on the BHC website. The page allows families to explore Berks County’s history digitally with entertaining videos, a wealth of stories and articles, and a variety of resources and learning activities for families including downloadable coloring pages, junior historian prompts and more. Additional content is being released on the Berks History Center’s social media channels.
Reading Times, April 22, 1918
Reading Times, April 22, 1918
As state-wide stay at home measures were implemented, the BHC looked to the history books and discovered that in times of crisis, the American people, and more specifically the people of Berks County, have always been ingenuitive, adaptive, and overwhelmingly generous.
“In the past, producing food at home was an act of national solidarity in times of crisis, collectively taking the strain off of the American food system during the great world wars. Today, with uncertainty in our future, we can look to the lessons of the past to get us through this difficult time,” says Associate Director, Alexis Campbell.
“Gardening can be daunting for some, but we hope to demonstrate that home food production is both possible and fun, not to mention therapeutic. Even if you only grow one potted plant, we hope that gardening at home will be a source of inspiration and comfort, connecting you to the past and uniting our community in troubled times.”
First promoted during WWI, Americans were encouraged to produce their own food by planting vegetable gardens in their backyards, churchyards, city parks, and playgrounds.
At that time, the City of Reading offered residents several areas around town to start victory gardens, encouraging citizens to raise their own vegetables for consumption and conserve farm produce for the war effort. Gardens sprung up all over Reading, from the Hampden and Buttonwood reservoir plots, to the grounds near Sternbergh’s Stirling and Spring and Weiser Streets. Open city blocks, city parks with reservoirs or open land on private property were all made available to Reading residents for rent or free of charge.
Victory Gardens were again promoted by the U.S. government during World War II complementing a country-wide Food Rationing Program in 1942. Victory gardens were widely promoted during 1943 through 1945. However, once the war ended, so did government promotions and America’s reliance on victory gardens.
The “Berks History for Victory” campaign is primarily a digital learning experience, with historic images, stories and instructional videos released on social media. Two BHC staff will provide video-journals of their home gardening efforts. The BHC hopes to expand the program, by installing a small demonstration garden and living exhibit on the grounds of the BHC museum, located at 940 Centre Ave. However, plans to do so are tentative and dependent on the status of the state-wide stay at home order.
The “Berks History for Victory” campaign will complement a “Victory Container Garden” initiative led by District 1 Councilwoman, Lucine Sihelnik. By joining Sihelnik’s District 1 Victory Container Garden taskforce, the BHC will work to cultivate the community food system during the outbreak. Further collaborations are expected to grow, as the BHC and the task force encourage all citizens, community organizations, and businesses to get behind the revitalization of home food gardening.
“Victory Gardens are a positive way to feed our community, inspire stewardship, and are fruitful economically,” says Councilwoman Sihelnik.
The BHC invites families in Reading and Berks County to join them in their campaign to promote food security during the COVID-19 pandemic by learning about the history of victory gardens and growing their own gardens at home, wherever possible.
In 1915, the Justice Bell travelled on a flatbed truck to all 67 counties in the state of Pennsylvania with its clapper stabilized, not to ring until women were given the right to vote. This year, on the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, the Justice Bell will ring loudly when it is at the Berks History Center, starting on March 10, 2020 through April 7, 2020.
We invite the press and the general public to visit the Berks History Center, located at 940 Centre Ave., Reading, PA 19601, to enjoy the traveling exhibit of the Justice Bell from March 10, 2020 through April 7, 2020 during regular museum hours: Tuesday-Friday, 10:00am-3:00pm and Saturdays, 9:00am-3:00pm.
Admission is $7.00 for adults, $5.00 for seniors, $4.00 for children under 10, and free for members of the Berks History Center.
The public is also invited to view the Justice Bell at the Berks History Center on March 14, 2020 at 10:00am during “Votes for Women,” the kickoff event of the Berks Suffrage 2020 Centennial, a county-wide, non-partisan celebration of the 100th anniversary of women having the right to vote.
Admission to the program is $8.00 for non-members and $5.00 for members.
Transported from the Brandywine River Museum, the Justice Bell will arrive at Berks History Center on Tuesday, March 10, 2020. The bell will remain on display at the Berks History Center until April 7, 2020, when it will be moved to another county. While the Justice Bell united the women of the early 20th century in their desire for the right to vote, today it will unite the people of Berks County with other counties in Pennsylvania during its state tour on the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment.
The Justice Bell will serve as an educational centerpiece at the Berks History Center museum during National Women’s History Month and will help to kick-off the Berks Suffrage 2020 Centennial on March 14th. The Justice Bell demonstrates the diligent efforts of suffragists, not only in Berks County, but in the state of Pennsylvania and beyond.
“We are very excited to be hosting the Justice Bell at the Berks History Center,” remarked Executive Director, Benjamin Neely, “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for our community to participate in a state-wide initiative that celebrates Pennsylvania’s unique contribution to the suffrage movement.”
Owned and transported by the Justice Bell Foundation, the visiting Justice Bell is a replica of the original Justice Bell, which is currently preserved in the Washington Memorial Chapel in Valley Forge National Park.
According to the Reading Times, the original “Other Liberty Bell” first visited Berks County on October 13, 1915, when it was met by a group of Berks County suffragists led by Mrs. Emily Habel in Adamstown. The bell also made stops in Shillington, downtown Reading, City Park, Friedensburg, Yellow House, Boyertown, and Hereford.
The Justice Bell’s 2nd visit to Berks County was made possible from the generous support of the Berks Women’s History Alliance and their tireless volunteers.
For an in depth look at the Justice Bell’s history, Executive Director of The Justice Bell Foundation, Ms. Amanda Owen, will provide a 45-minute presentation of rare photos that document the inspiring story of women’s fight for the vote and how the justice bell became an icon of the Women’s’ Suffrage movement on March 28th at 10:00am at the Berks History Center.
Admission to the program is $8.00 for non-members, $5.00 for members and includes free admission to the BHC museum. Light refreshments will be provided.
In anticipation of the 100th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage Movement in America, a group of nonprofits, educational institutions and individuals formed the Berks Women’s History Alliance to provide a framework for Berks County’s celebration of 100 years of women having the right to vote.
Under the banner The Berks Suffrage 2020 Centennial, the Alliance promotes activities and exhibits of its member groups, encourages widespread community participation, and provides networking opportunities for interested organizations and individuals.
Her ancestors resided in Berks County even before it was Berks County. Names like Keim, DeTurk, and Bertolet appear in her ancestral lines, along with Bechtel and Spohn. They were mostly farmers, residing in the Oley Valley, although later they moved west to Ruscombmanor Township and the Fleetwood/Kutztown area. Her mother grew up in a bilingual household; her grandparents spoke Pennsylvania Dutch. Her generation was the first to speak only English at home–and the family has been in Berks since the 1690s.
“I’ve been interested in history as long as I can remember,” says BHC member, Karen Guenther. “What I have learned from my family’s history is that their history is Berks County’s history…”
We have the scoundrels, such as my 8th great-grandfather Matthias Baumann, who founded a religious sect in which one of the main beliefs was that man could not sin. And we have the heroes, like my 5th great-grandfather Jacob Griesemer, who accompanied General George Washington across the Delaware prior to the Battle of Trenton and served as an interpreter for the captured Hessian troops. One of my ancestors came to Pennsylvania as an indentured servant then married the daughter of his master.
My ancestors weren’t just farmers, however. My 3rd great-grandfather Guenther taught German at Reading High School and one of his sons (my 2nd great-grandfather) was a boilermaker for the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad. My paternal grandfather’s brother was an executive with Berkshire Knitting Mills. My maternal grandfather worked at Carpenter Steel, and my paternal grandfather worked for what is now BARTA as a dispatcher. My heritage reflects the rich history of Berks County and I am proud that my ancestors played a role in Reading’s growth as a prominent industrial city.
My immediate family moved a few times while I was growing up. I was born at Reading Hospital and lived in West Lawn until halfway through 1st grade. Then we moved to Connecticut and later to Houston, Texas. Wherever we moved we continued the family traditions and each time we were the only home in the neighborhood with a “Wilkum” sign on the front door. We saw ourselves as transplanted Berks Countians, and when I had to choose a research topic for my dissertation, I chose something related to Berks County’s history–the history of Exeter Monthly Meeting in the 18th century.
I have also had the opportunity to “live” Berks County’s history as a costumed interpreter at Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site and at Daniel Boone Homestead in the mid-1980s. I certainly had no idea when I was stationed in costume at the Bertolet Log House that I was hanging out in one of my ancestor’s homes. I also was an intern in the library/archives at the Historical Society of Berks County in the summer of 1982 and 1983, translating taufscheins and helping researchers. Fortunately, Aimee Sanders allowed me to use the 18th century newspapers in the collections, which helped with my master’s thesis on Reading’s churches in the 18th century.
You can’t understand American history without understanding state and local history, and Berks County has everything you want to know about American history–from its residents participating in all of the nation’s wars to its industrial growth (and decline) to its agricultural productivity to its religious diversity. To understand American history is to understand Berks County’s history–and it’s why I became an historian–to tell the story of how one county can be a microcosm of a larger story. It’s also why my students get a taste of Berks County history in my classes, whether they like it or not.
A member since 1978, Karen Guenther loves Berks County’s history. She works as a history teacher at Mansfield University in Mansfield, PA. While she is not currently a resident of Berks County, Karen Guenther is a Berks Countian through and through. At the Berks History Center, we have members of all types. While the 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.
Interested in becoming a member of the Berks History Center? Click here to join our community!
This year, 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 firstname.lastname@example.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!
This article was originally published in the Fall 2019 Issue of The Historical Review of Berks County.
There are two Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas customs which, unlike the Christmas tree and Santa Claus, are of ancient, possibly even a pre-Christian origin.
My grandfather Steigerwalt was a farmer in Carbon County. Each Christmas Eve, just before the hour of midnight, he went out to the barn and placed a pile of hay in the open, in the barnyard. There it lay during the course of the night so that the Christmas dew could fall on it.
In the morning my grandfather then fed this hay, heavy with Christmas dew, to his cattle, believing by doing so that his horses and cows would prosper until the next anniversary of our Saviour’s birth.
The folk mind – not knowing the origin of this custom – gave it an interesting significance. It is the “grischtkindel” or Christ Child – not Santa Claus- who brought our Pennsylvania Dutch forebears their presents on Christmas Eve.
The “grischtkindel” had no reindeer – he made his rounds on a lowly ass. And, said the folk, the hay in the barnyard on Christmas night was intended for the Christ Child’s beast of burden.
Another custom, quite like the one we have just discussed, is putting out a loaf of bread on Christmas Eve – either on the windowsill or in the yard. Again it is let lie there through the night.
In the morning, before the family eats its Christmas breakfast, the mother of the household breaks of the bread, wet with the Christmas dew, and gives a piece to each member of the family. It is eaten with the belief that then health and happiness will continue until another Christmas rolls around.
These are customs which were formally generally to the whole of the Pennsylvania Dutch country. Today they are, regrettably, followed in but a few families anymore. The time has come, I think to revive beautiful custom such as these.
Excerpt by A.L.S. Found in the December 1949 issue of the Pennsylvania Dutchman, BHC Research Library collection
On December 13, 2019 at the Berks History Center’s Incorporation Day Birthday Bash event, which celebrated the 150th anniversary of the organization’s original incorporation date, BHC Trustee and 150th Anniversary Co-Chair, Floyd Turner presented a newly assembled time capsule that will be added to the BHC museum collections and opened 100 years from now.
About 120 people were in attendance at the event, which featured light refreshments and a casual happy hour with longtime friends and supporters of the Berks History Center.
Proclamations were presented acknowledging the Berks History Center’s contributions to Berks County by the Senate of Pennsylvania by Senator Judy Schwank, the PA House of Representatives by Representative Thomas R. Caltagirone, and the City of Reading by City Councilwoman, Donna Reed. Also in attendance were Craig Lutz on behalf of Senator David Argall; Bill Royer on behalf of Pennsylvania State Representative Ryan Mackenzie; and Berks County Commissioner, Kevin Barnhardt.
At 6:30pm Floyd Turner presented the time capsule to Executive Director, Benjamin Neely, who accepted the materials into the BHC’s care. The time capsule will be preserved in the BHC museum collection with instructions for it to be opened on December 13, 2119, 100 years from today on the organization’s 250th birthday.
“After opening the World War I time capsule last year (on November 28, 2018 at the Berks History Center), I thought it would be a good idea to put together a time capsule in recognition of the 150th anniversary of the Berks History Center,” said time capsule organizer, Floyd Turner. “I wanted the project to be a surprise but exactly how to do it and what to put into such a time capsule proved to be more of a challenge than I anticipated. I didn’t want to be the sole arbiter of the contents so I reached out to a number of people to ask for their contributions and let them make up their own mind regarding what they’d like to contribute.”
Patricia Vasquez (Community Development Coordinator for City of Reading)
Jennifer Winchester (Mission BBQ)
Incorporated on December 13, 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.
The Berks History Center thanks the many businesses in our community who helped to make BHC’s 150th Anniversary celebrations possible through sponsorship support:
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!
Following his service as a colonel in the Pennsylvania Militia during the American Revolution, Thomas Bull joined three other men to acquire land in Berks County’s Caernarvon and Robeson Townships where they established an iron furnace named Joanna, after the wife of one of the partners. Thomas Bull served as the first ironmaster, and as his partners soon died off, he became the principal owner of the furnace. His daughter Elizabeth married John Smith, a life-long Berks County ironmaster who later purchased his father-in-law’s interest in Joanna furnace, eventually becoming the sole owner.
In 1833, John Smith’s son Levi Bull Smith, a Reading lawyer, became the sole owner of Joanna Furnace. The furnace and adjoining property was then inherited in 1877 by his son Levi Heber Smith, a Civil War veteran, who took over as ironmaster until his death in 1898, when the furnace was shut down permanently.
At some point before Bethlehem Steel purchased the Joanna Furnace property, another business set up shop there to make leather goods. According to this 1949 Philadelphia newspaper, the owner had a surprising family connection to Joanna and when they were visiting the area, they asked someone at the Historical Society of Berks County for directions.
The Berks History Center (BHC) is pleased to welcome its new Executive Director, Benjamin Neely, from the Adams County Historical Society. Ben was selected for the position upon the retirement of the BHC’s previous Executive Director, Sime Bertolet.
“After a rigorous search and screening process, the BHC Board of Directors is confident in our selection for the next Executive Director,” says Board President, Jim Michalak. “Benjamin Neely is a qualified museum professional who will bring many years of experience and a fresh perspective to the Berks History Center.”
Benjamin Neely has been a museum professional since 2005. With a bachelor’s degree in Marketing from the State University of New York at Oswego, Ben completed his graduate work at Shippensburg University where he earned a Master of Arts degree in Applied History. During his time as a graduate student, he began working for the Adams County Historical Society as the Collections Manager and was the lead historian during the development of the Gettysburg Seminary Ridge Museum. Ben was the Executive Director of the Adams County Historical Society for the past 7 years. He supported the Adams County community through his service on numerous committees and boards. Ben has supported the museum community at the state level through his service as a board member for PA Museums, an organization that advocates for government support for Pennsylvania’s museums and organizes conferences to support continuing education for museum professionals.
After 13 years of service to the BHC, previous Executive Director, Sime Bertolet, retired in July 2019. Bertolet left the organization with a comprehensive strategic plan that will support the new director’s efforts to lead the BHC.
“I am incredibly proud of the work that we have accomplished over the past 13 years. We couldn’t have done it without the help of our dedicated staff, volunteers, Board of Directors, our members, and of course, the generous businesses and organizations who have supported the mission of the BHC,” says Bertolet. “I feel truly blessed to be a part and to be a leader of this organization that will soon celebrate its 150th Anniversary. More importantly, I am honored to have served as the Executive Director of the organization that preserves and shares our Berks history. My decision to retire came after much reflection and thoughtful consideration. In the end, I determined that it is time for the next generation to assume their leadership role. I have no doubt that Mr. Neely will do a great, and better job, than I have done.”
The BHC Board of Directors thanks Sime Bertolet for his years of service to the organization and for all of his accomplishments. Upon his retirement, the BHC Board will confer the title of Executive Director Emeritus on Bertolet. Bertolet’s accomplishments cited by the Board include:
The acquisition and renovation of the BHC’s Research Library, the Henry Janssen Library building located at 160 Spring Street;
the 75th and 80th Anniversary Celebrations of John Phillip Sousa’s last act as a conductor here in Reading, PA;
exhibits such as Beer & Pretzels Berks County Style, Berks County Long rifle and Gun makers,I Have Dream, I Want to Hold Your Hand, and the Magical History Tour, a cultural and musical happening;
the 2010 American Alliance of Museums Institutional Museum Assessment Plan;
two revisions of the BHC Bylaws and the implementation of board term limits;
the 2013 rebranding initiative from The Historical Society of Berks County to the Berks History Center;
the 2014 Strategic Plan and the 2019 Strategic Plan facilitated by Shultz & Williams;
the 2017-2018 Collections Management Initiative and its recognition by the PA Museums’ Institutional Achievement Award
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: