Industry in Berks: Birdsboro Steel Foundry and Machine Company

 

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Birdsboro Steel Foundry and Machine Company Foundry Pattern  on display in the Berks History Center Museum.

Birdsboro Steel Foundry and Machine Company traces its beginnings back to 1740 when William Bird built a forge, a saw mill and grist mill and founded the town of  Birdsboro. His oldest son, Marcus, enlarged on his father’s work and constructed Hopewell Furnace. He was the largest producer of iron in America during the Revolutionary War.  After the war, the forges have financial problems caused the Birds to sell their assets to Matthew Brooke changed the name to the Birdsboro Iron Foundry Company.

The forges were most successful under Brooke’s management in the mid-19th century. During the Civil War, the company produced munitions and armaments for the Union Army and began manufacturing parts for railroad cars and locomotives.  This was the beginning of steel production for the family. The company continued its tradition of supplying the armed forces with providing the Navy with material for building a steel fleet during the late 19th century.

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Photo taken in the Berks History Center Museum’s Trades to Industry Room

In 1906, the management decided to erect a large modern steel foundry with a potential capacity of approximately 3000 tons per month for making steel castings.  In World War II, the government contracted with Birdsboro Steel and Foundry and Machine Company to produce tanks and artillery for the war effort.  In 1944, a manufacturing subsidiary was established for weapons manufacturing known as Armorcast. By the end of the war, the company began to manufacture more industrial equipment, many used in the production of steel.

After 1947, the federal government and several businessmen tried to sell or use the space.  Armorcast failed to win a government contract to continue production in 1975 and the plant closed in 1988 after a lengthy strike. The four smokestacks, collapsed in the planned implosion to make way for a new power-generating facility, were the last vestiges of a regional history of manufacturing started before the American Revolution.

“Manufacturing evolved from making cannon for Revolutionary War to making tanks for World War II,” said Sanders, 70, former Superintendent of Hopewell Furnace.  “All that’s gone now.”

Article Researched & Written by Gail Corvaia

Industry in Berks: W.H. Luden Candy Company

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W.H. Luden Candy Company was established in 1879 by William H. Luden when he was twenty. During his first year in business at 35 N. Fifth Street as the sole employee, he produced 30,000 pounds of candy. He continued to add employees and relocated to larger manufacturing facilities twice, finally locating to 200 North Eighth Street. He invented the menthol cough drop eliminating the need for the menthol vials that cold sufferers had carry with them to relieve their symptoms.

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Not only did he employ high standards, but he was a great innovator as well. He invented a peanut shelling device, lined packages with wax paper to keep his candy fresh and was great at marketing his products. He sold his candy door-to-door and persuaded shopkeepers to display and stock his wares.  He gave cough drops to railroad workers, gaining national exposure for his product.

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Photo taken in the Berks History Center Museum’s Trades to Industry Room

In 1927, he sold the business to Food Industries, the Dietrich family ,under whose leadership the company continued to grow. Employing more than 1200, they produced 500 varieties of candy, introducing  the 5th Avenue Bar in 1936. Luden’s strove to provide customers with quality products at affordable prices. Post War years saw the introduction of Coc-O-Nut-O, Almond Royal, Raspberry Royal, MelloMint Patty, MelloCreme Patties and Mrs. Miller’s Cup.  In 1967, Frank Zappa wrote a sound track for a Luden’s cough drops TV commercial.  Luden’s was sold to Hershey’s Food Corporation in 1986 who sold the name and brand in 2001.

Article Researched & Written by Gail Corvaia

The First Defenders: Reading’s Famous Response to the Civil War

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April 14th marks the 156th anniversary of the First Defenders’ response to Lincoln’s call to arms, following the attack on Fort Sumter. They departed Reading on April 16, 1861, arriving in Harrisburg that evening. The Ringgold Light Artillery, commanded by Captain James McKnight, was part of the Pennsylvania Companies.  The Pennsylvania Companies were mustered in Harrisburg before taking the Northern Central Railroad to Baltimore where they were met by angry, violent mobs.

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First Defenders Monument, Reading City Park from BHC’s Research Library Postcard Collection

Upon arrival in Washington, the Ringgold Light Artillery met with Lincoln and his party first as they were first to volunteer and leave Reading.Their assignment was to protect the White House and later Washington itself. They remained at the Washington Arsenal as guards until they were mustered out on July 23, 1861 where many joined other units.

 

Remembering the Great War and Its Effects on Berks County

 

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Photographs from BHC’s Research Library Photograph Collection

This week, many across the country will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the United States entering World War I. On April 6, 1917, Congress voted to declare war on Germany after it became apparent we could not avoid the conflict in Europe. Unfortunately though, “the war to end all wars” often takes a back seat in our collective memory. As the Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, writes:

“In the shadow of World War II, the deeds and sacrifices of Americans in the Great War have sometimes been overlooked. This centennial commemoration encourages us to remember and rediscover their stores through the records they left behind.”

Archival Outlook, March/April 2017, page 13

To highlight the War’s effect on Berks County, we will be sharing stories and items from our collection each month on BHC’s social media and blog. Also stay tuned over the next nineteen months as we plan special programming at the BHC Museum and Research Library leading up the the 100th Anniversary of Armistice Day in November 2018. To get things started we asked one of our Library Volunteers, Ruth Shaffer, to research the first few weeks of WWI and the effect it had on Berks County.

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Front page of the The Reading Eagle, April 6, 1917 –  Reproduced from The Reading Eagle/Reading Times Microfilm Collection at BHC’s Research Library

U.S. WAR WITH GERMANY BEGINS TODAY declared Reading Eagle headlines on Friday April 6, 1917. By the next day Reading was ablaze with red, white and blue banners and flags on street cars, automobiles, industrial plants, business houses and homes. War was the all-consuming topic of discussion. The Eagle bulletin board, outside its 6th and Penn Streets office building, which gave information on every new move, was the destination of crowds of people and hundreds called the newspaper daily. Thousands signed petitions pledging loyalty to President Wilson and the United States, and men in every walk of life expressed their willingness to serve in any capacity. Naturalized citizens stood ready to prove their love for the country of their adoption.

Even before the official declaration of war on April 6, soldiers were stationed at various points along the Reading Railroad and Pennsylvania Railroad systems. They arrived in this area on April 3 and erected their tents at Peacock’s bridge north of Tuckerton. Guards were posted at both ends of the bridge. No one was permitted to pass over except railroad employees. Another group of soldiers were taken to the Lebanon Valley bridge. Their presence excited curiosity and hundreds congregated within sight of the camps, but were not permitted to get near the soldiers. Visiting was not encouraged. Residents were warned to avoid the bridges, since the orders were to shoot to kill anyone approaching and failing to halt on the sentry’s second challenge. Nevertheless, two young women managed to get arrested in the camp, claiming that they had been summoned by one of the privates. They were fined and jailed. They might have been shot as spies.

Researched & Written by Ruth Shaffer

A Small Artifact Spurs Big History

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Even small artifacts have the power to tell important stories, and that is certainly the case with a spur which we found during inventory of the collections at the Berks History Center. The spur belonged to Lieutenant Colonel Joseph McLean (1823 – 1862), commander of the 88th Pennsylvania Regiment.

A native of Philadelphia, McLean moved to Reading and worked as a paint shop foreman for the Philadelphia & Reading Railway.  He was also a Reading City councilman and the father of nine children.  His oldest son, Daniel (1848-1917), served alongside his father as a drummer with the 88th.
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Joseph McLean was killed in action in Manassas, Virgina at the Second Battle of Bull Run on August 30, 1862. We believe that Daniel McLean succeeded in somehow recovering the spur, for it was his son Warren who presented it to the Historical Society of Berks County in 1949. While the McLean family erected a monument in Charles Evans Cemetery, they were unable to recover Joseph’s body from the battlefield. To our knowledge, only his spur made it back to Reading.
Researched & Written by Bradley K. Smith

Mummified Cat, dated 100 BC, Found in BHC Museum Archives

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Months into our Collections Management Initiative, Curator Bradley K. Smith came across a surprising and unsettling discovery! We couldn’t believe that such a rare artifact could have been overlooked.

April Fool’s!

No, we didn’t find an ancient mummified cat in our collection during our inventory but we did dig into the history books to explore this day of foolery. We found some epic stories of April Fool’s Day hoaxes thoughout history – but what about Berks County? What local pranks take the cake in Berks County’s history? 

After digging into the archives at the Berks History Center Research Library, we discovered that the Reading Times, and subsequently the Reading Eagle, have a long history of pulling off impressive April Fool’s Day hoaxes. For example on April 1, 1978, the Reading Times reported the Concorde landed at the Reading Airport. They used a photograph enhanced by Photo Editor Cliff Yeich, which looked so realistic that many Berks residents flocked to the Airport!

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This photo by Cliff Yeich appeared on the front page of the Reading Times on April 1, 1978, long before digital photography was available.

This popular April Fool’s Day stunt was one of many legendary jokes pulled off by Berks County’s leading news publication. If you would like to see more of Cliff Yeich’s work, our Research Library has a great article about him that appeared in the Summer 2001 edition of the Historical Review of Berks County!

Do you have an April Fool’s Day prank that belongs in the history books? Share your silly stories with us! Comment in the comments section below or tag us (@BerksHistory) in your post on Facebook or Twitter.

Lebanon Valley Railroad Bridge by John Heyl Raser

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Reading and Berks County have a rich railroad history. This circa 1875 oil painting by John Heyl Raser (1824-1901) depicts the original Lebanon Valley Railroad bridge where it crossed the Schuylkill River and the Union Canal at Reading. Opening in 1858, the Lebanon Valley Railroad became a subsidiary of the Reading Railroad, and a lucrative route connecting Reading with Harrisburg. John Heyl Raser was a native of Alabama who moved to Reading in 1851 and became particularly well known for his landscape paintings. He exhibited his works at a variety of venues including the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Are you a fan of railroad history? Berks History Center’s Second Saturday program on April 8th will focus on the Northern Central Railway and its role in the Civil War. Join us for Scott Mingus Sr.’s talk, Soldiers, Steam & Spies: The Northern Central Railway in the Civil War