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

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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.

Berks History Center Acquires New Painting by Famous Berks County Artist, Ben Austrian

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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.

Good Feelings Wrapped Up in Bao

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For second generation Berks Countian, Vi Phan, Berks County Foodways are more than pretzels and pot pie. In addition to local favorites like potato filling and red beet eggs, Vi’s family’s Berks County culinary traditions include a rich inheritance of Vietnamese cuisine.

Banh bao generally isn’t made for a holiday or special time of year. You can buy it on the street any day of the week in Vietnam. However, not many people make it at home because preparing and cooking banh bao is a labor of love! So for Vi’s family, banh bao is a special treat reserved for family gatherings.

“When I was young, we only made banh bao when family from out-of-state would get together (about twice a year). It was too labor intensive otherwise. As time went on and more people left, my mother had less help. She still wanted to make banh bao on her own, so I started getting more involved. As a child, I would help cut the extra ingredients and assemble the buns, but now I’m in charge of making the dough too. I make the dough while my mom mixes the filling. I still have to master the filling part but I’m too busy making the dough! I enjoy making it and cherish the special bonding time I have with my mom when we do. It’s a lot of good feelings wrapped up into such a small bao.”

Banh bao is a sweet and savory Vietnamese bun made with seasoned pork or chicken, onions, eggs, mushrooms and vegetables. Banh bao often has Chinese sausage and a portion of a hard-boiled egg inside. All of the ingredients are prepared and assembled into a sweetened dough. For Vi and her family, chopping the vegetables; mixing and seasoning the meat; boiling, peeling and slicing the eggs; and preparing and proportioning the dough can take up to 8 hours of work. Once all of the ingredients are prepared, the fillings are lined up on a table and carefully assembled into small pockets of dough. The buns are sealed with a special twisting motion that takes some skill and time to master. The artfully-made buns are then steamed for about 15 minutes.

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Vi recalls that, “every time we make this, my mom and aunts would look to see if any of the baos burst open on top. If they find one, they always say “it’s smiling!” and then they giggle EVERY TIME.”

“I know that I say “This is one of my favorite foods” to just about every Vietnamese dish my mom makes, but a fresh banh bao is really up there on the list. The fluffiness, ever-so-slight sweetness of the dough soaked with the juices from the pork filling makes my mouth water just thinking about it. You happily munch away and suddenly you hit the jackpot, Chinese sausage! It takes the flavor profile to a whole new level. Man, I love banh bao. If you’ve been lucky enough to have a fresh one, you know what I’m talking about.”

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. 

Why Berks History Matters to Me: A Letter from a Former Intern

 

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Dear Fellow Members and Friends of the Berks History Center,

Admiration. Curiosity. Gratitude. These are the feelings that capture the essence of my experience with the Berks History Center. In the fall of 2016, I had the pleasure of working alongside seasoned museum professionals at the Berks History Center (BHC) museum. As a junior at Albright College, I interned at the BHC and helped with their collections management initiative, which involved inventorying more than 28,000 items in the collection. From textiles to furniture, to posters and machinery, my eyes were exposed to more curiosities than I ever could have imagined. Some days I felt like Abigail Chase from the film National Treasure, holding the Declaration of Independence and eager to uncover the detailed history woven into its fabrication.

Despite being a South Jersey native, I developed a sincere admiration for the Berks County artifacts we inventoried. Each had a place in the museum and I wanted to know how and why all of these items were collected, and how they contributed to preserving the legacy of Berks County.

On one of my first days at the museum, I learned about the mystery of the Chippendale chairs. There was a rumor that the chairs belonged to the former Pennsylvania governor, Joseph Hiester. My supervisor, BHC Curator Brad Smith, said that he wanted to find out if the legend was true. So we began our quest with several visits to the BHC Research Library and the Berks County Courthouse.

It was from those visits that we discovered the legend was true!

Thanks to the curiosity of our team, we located the original acquisition documentation for the chairs, which traced the lineage to the former governor. I felt like a museum detective and only wanted to explore more mysteries!

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Photo: Mackenzie inventorying items in the BHC Museum Collection.

After getting a taste of curatorial research, my admiration for Berks County history grew exponentially. I wanted to know things like: why the collection held so many fire company artifacts; how a Conestoga wagon got into the basement; and how so many valuable things had been acquired.

I discovered the answers to these questions and more through persistent research and constant support from the BHC’s talented and supportive staff.

As more information was uncovered, I realized that I was beginning to help preserve the legacy of Berks County. It wasn’t until my last few weeks at the BHC that I noticed how much gratitude I felt for the collection, its keepers and its scholars.

In the winter of 2017, Brad asked me and fellow intern, Erin Benz, to present our findings at a community event at the BHC. Through this experience I understood that I had the potential to grow as a museum professional.

After presenting some of my favorite paintings from the collection, I was told by an attendee that one of the works was improperly labeled. I was grateful to this community member because I learned that historical organizations like the BHC rely on input from the local community to accurately preserve and interpret local history.

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Photo: (left to right) BHC Intern, Erin Benz; BHC Curator, Brad Smith, BHC Intern, Mackenzie Tansey; Executive Director, Sime Bertolet

When I left my internship at the BHC, I knew it wouldn’t be a final farewell.

The BHC is a place I admire for both its collection of artifacts and its dedicated staff and volunteers. It’s also a place where curiosity is welcomed and shared among scholars and a place I’m grateful for because it’s where I discovered my passion for collections management.

The BHC has the power to ignite a fire of curiosity in community members of all ages and backgrounds. That fire found its way into the heart of this Albright Lion from New Jersey and I believe it can touch the hearts and minds of many more to come!

This year I’m giving back to the place that supported me by making a $100 donation.

Please join me today and share your gratitude to the BHC by donating any amount you can to support this vital community treasure. Click here to donate online or you can mail your support to 940 Centre Ave. Reading, PA 19601.

The BHC continues to find innovative ways to preserve history while educating and inspiring the citizens of Berks County and beyond. Your strong financial support is vital to ensuring that it can continue to do just that. Thank you for your help.

With gratitude,

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Mackenzie Tansey
2016 Berks History Center Intern