Faschnachts: A Fat Tuesday Family Tradition


This year at the Berks History Center, we are celebrating foodways, which culminates with our annual Berks History Conference on April 21, 2018 featuring four food and drink historians. I describe my culinary expertise as good PA Dutch cooking, from potato filling to pig stomach, chicken pot pie with homemade noodles and “millich flitche” (milk pie). If you think about family I am sure it includes a good home cooked meal.

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I have the greatest memories of making faschnachts every year since I can remember with my grandmother Carrie Kercher, fondly known to all as Gummy (because she always had a pack of Juicy Fruit gum on her). Making faschnachts using my great-grandmother’s recipe required two days so I always spent the weekend at my grandparent’s house. One year I decided I wanted to make the perfect faschnachts and we used a cup to make circular doughnuts; That is the year my grandfather ate the fewest because he said they didn’t taste as good without corners. Another year we played canasta into the early hours of Sunday, and my grandmother decided it was “time to make the doughnuts!” So at 2 in the morning we started making the doughnuts finishing around sun rise. I think that was the year we drank homemade dandelion wine, too! Every year we counted how many faschnachts we got from our one batch, usually somewhere between 10 and 12 dozen, all divided so that everyone got to take some home to eat. And for those of you who have not eaten a true faschnacht (which is one not bought in the grocery store) there is nothing like a warm faschnacht right out of the fryer rolled in granulated sugar.

This is the 15th year of not having my grandmother telling me what to do and I sure do miss her because I usually screw something up! Every year it is a different mistake such as the yeast was bad, or I used the wrong flour, the potato water was too warm, the wood stove too hot or not hot enough over night, etc. Still I have new memories of making them with my three children. Justin only eats the dough raw, Becca has never really liked eating them and Devon, well, LOVES faschnachts but he likes his with confectionary sugar.

This year I have the great pleasure of being the premiere baker for the first ever Berks History Center faschnacht tasting party being held Tuesday, February 13, from noon until 3 pm. I’ll be making them this weekend so unfortunately they won’t be warm out of the fryer. Hope to see you then!

Written by Vicky Heffner, Education Curator at the Berks History Center

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. 


The Underground Railroad in Berks

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. “The runaway.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1899 [c1898]. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47dd-ff4c-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

In the present climate of national discord and self-interest, it’s especially important to remember those individuals who risked everything to help others, despite the contempt of the majority.

German Quakers in Germantown were the first to protest the holding of slaves in 1688. What became known as the Underground Railroad existed in Washington’s time—as early as 1786. This movement was run mostly by Quaker and Amish families. The roots of the Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania started near Columbia and Bird-in-Hand, Lancaster County. Daniel and Hannah Weirman Gibbon, Quaker leaders of the time, organized a route in Lancaster and Chester Counties beginning in the early 1800s. The Underground Railroad then extended into Berks County across the Chester County line. Thousands of slaves escaped from the South, aided by Berks Countians. Locations included Bethel A.M.E Church, Reading; Pine Forge, Douglass Township; the Parvin House; Ontelaunee Township; and the Kirbyville Hotel, near Fleetwood.

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Map of the Northeastern Corridor of the Underground Railroad, Eastern Pennsylvania 1790-1860, BHC Vertical File F10 BE-3

As a forty year resident of Robeson Township, I am especially proud of the Township’s important role in the Underground Railroad. Scarlet’s Mill, Joanna Furnace, Mount Frisby A.M.E. Church and The White Bear Inn served as “stations”, with stops spaced ten miles apart. The fleeing slaves moved from one station to another at night until reaching a safe haven, for many Canada.

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From 1854 Atlas of Berks County, BHC Research Library

According to reports, around 1832 large numbers of fleeing slaves were sent to the home of Elizabeth Pownall Scarlet and her son, who lived in Robeson Township (about five miles west of Birdsboro). Elizabeth was said to be close friends with the Gibbons Family. The dense woods of that area and huts used by charcoal burners (who were employed the nearby forges and furnaces) provided plenty of hiding places. Scarlet’s home, Bon Ridge, is said to have housed more runaway slaves than any other stop in the region. The home still exists on the road leading from White Bear to Gibraltar. This area of the county, called “The Forest”, extended from Flying Hills, south beyond Hopewell Hills.

After Elizabeth’s death, her youngest son, John Pownall Scarlet continued as a “conductor”. Thomas Lewis, married to Ellen B. Scarlet (Elizabeth’s daughter) bought the old Scarlet homestead in 1841 and continued to provide refuge. One of Elizabeth’s other sons was involved in the Underground Railroad near Christiana, PA. In 1857, Joseph Scarlett was involved in The Christiana Tragedy, when the Gap Gang tried to seize escaped slaves in the area. Two people were killed. Thomas Jackson, a Quaker who also lived in “The Forest”, near Joanna Furnace, operated a station prior to 1827. Joanna Furnace was owned and operated by Levi B. Smith, who although not a Quaker, was sympathetic to the Abolitionist cause. He hid fleeing slaves in the wooded furnace areas and in the charcoal huts. Henry Segner, a Joanna Furnace employee, used his knowledge of these woodlands to guide fleeing slaves. His home still stands along Route 10, one mile south of Plow Church.

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Elizabeth and James Scarlet’s Home from History Of Robeson Township: Bicentennial Edition, 1976

Another stop, deep in the woodlands of Fingal’s Castle (now an unrecognizable pile of rocks) were the pond fields of Chestnut Hill. It was in this area that fleeing slaves stayed with the Cole Family before moving on to the “Welsh Mountains,” which then led to the Honey Brook area. In White Bear, Thomas Lewis, a Quaker, received many runaways—The White Bear Inn opened in 1815. A number of Hopewell Furnace’s African-American workers lived in “the Forest” nearby. Beginning in 1835, this area served as a safe haven for runaway slaves on The Underground Railroad along Six Penny Creek. By 1856, the black community established the Mount Frisby A.M.E. Church, yet another station on the Underground Railroad in Berks County.

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Map of Southeastern Berks County Underground Railroad Location, published in the Reading Eagle on April 11, 2008, BHC Vertical File F10 BE-3

The Fugitive Slave Law passed in 1850 made conditions worse, but ultimately turned people against slavery. The Underground Railroad ended with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862. By then as many as 75,000 slaves had made it to freedom and thousands of people were involved.

The power of brave people to effect change is boundless.


Article Researched & Written by Gail Corvaia


  • Charles L. Blockson, The Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania, North Carolina: Flame, 1981.
  • Ron Devlin, “On the Path of Fleeing Slaves,” Reading Eagle, April 11, 2008.
  • John E. Eshelman, “Berks County’s Station on the Underground Railroad,” Historical Review of Berks County, July 1941, pages 107-109.
  • Amy L. Geiger, “Underground Railroad in Berks County,” BHC Research Library Vertical File.
  • Wayne E. Homan, “The Underground Railroad,” Historical Review of Berks County, Fall 1958, pages 112-116.
  • Dennis C. Kurjack, “Hopewell Village National Historic Site, Pennsylvania,” National Park Service Historical Handbook, Series No. 8, Washington, DC, 1954.
  • “Robeson Township,” Reading Eagle, July 8, 2002.
  • J. Earl Ruthardt, “Tunnels of City Link to History,” Reading Times, 1991.
  • “Slavery and the Abolitionist Movement,” History of Robeson Township: Bicentennial Edition, 1976.
  • “Underground Railway for Slaves Existed for Years in Berks County,” Reading Eagle, July 8, 1934.
  • Maryalice Yakutchik, “The Underground Railroad Has Tracks Through Berks,’ Reading Eagle, February 1993.
  • “African-Americans at Hopewell Furnace,” Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, https://www.nps.gov/hofu/learn/historyculture/african-americans.htm.
  • Misty Doane, “The Underground Railroad in the 19th Century – Woven With Words,” Reading Branch NAACP #2289, https://www.readingnaacp.org/woven-underground.


Punxsutawney Phil’s Worst Nightmare: Groundhog with a Side of Carrots and Potatoes



While some might consider him a sign of the season, some Berks County residents consider him dinner! That’s right, groundhog is a little-known culinary secret in Berks County.

As an avid hunter, Executive Director, Sime Bertolet is no stranger to this local food tradition. Groundhog, like other small game (rabbit and squirrel), can be hunted and prepared in a variety of ways. Sime prefers young groundhogs, which can be determined by size. After tracking and shooting a small groundhog, Sime prepares the meat by skinning and gutting the animal. He then places the meat in salted, cold water, refrigerating it overnight, which helps to draw the blood out of the meat. After 24-48 hours in a salt bath, the meat is butchered by separating the hind quarters and removing the ribcage. The tenderloin is cut into about 3 different pieces. Seasoning with salt and pepper, Sime dusts the meat with flour before pan frying the groundhog in hot oil and butter until golden brown. Fried groundhog is best served with dandelion and hot bacon dressing (recipe coming later this spring) and mashed potatoes.

Another favorite groundhog recipe involves a Berks County classic: pot pie! For a groundhog pot pie, Sime leaves the meat on the bone and simmers it in water with chopped onion, celery, carrots, and a few peppercorns. The mixture is simmered gently until the meat starts falling off the bone. He removes the meat from the broth and separates the meat from the bone. The broth is strained and both the meat and the broth are used to make a traditional Berks County pot pie – no pie crust needed! (We will also share more stories on Berks County pot pie this year).

Elaine Vardjan, a docent at the Berks History Center, is also familiar with preparing this local dish. Although, for her, the novelty has worn off. “I don’t care to cook or eat one (groundhog) ever again,” she says. “I don’t like the taste. I thought it would taste better because groundhogs mostly eat vegetation.” Elaine cooks groundhog on the stove with carrots, potatoes and onions. She agrees that the young ones are best because “the old ones are tough.” Her son Mark, however, truly enjoys groundhog, which he always cooks in a crock pot with vegetables on a very low heat.

The origins of trapping and eating groundhog are somewhat unclear. However, one could logically conclude that eating groundhog is a tradition rooted in necessity. And with the amount of destruction that a single groundhog can impose on a garden or farm, it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched that rural residents would want to economically rid themselves of these pesky marmots. Also, farmers often trap groundhogs because their dwelling habits can cause serious injury to farm animals.

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. 


Berks History Center Celebrates Berks County Foodways This Year

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The Berks History Center invites you to celebrate the Foodways of Berks County with a year-long series of events and a digital community storytelling project. The Berks History Center is located at 940 Centre Ave. Reading, PA 19601.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, foodways are the “eating habits and culinary practices of a people, region, or historical period.” Throughout 2018, the Berks History Center (BHC) will explore this compelling human experience by focusing on the foodways that are important to the people of Berks County. BHC will do so through themed programming, including Second Saturday programs and the Berks History Conference, as well online communications.

Second Saturday programs will include topics such as brewing history in Berks County, the history of culinary and medicinal herbs, butchering and traditional meat preparations and more. The BHC’s 3rd annual Berks History Conference on April 21, 2018 will feature 4 informative lectures by historians and food scholars on Berks County’s food history. Visit www.berkshistory.org for more information on BHC’s foodway-themed programs and events.

In addition to events and programs, the BHC launched a digital storytelling project that aims to highlight the diverse culinary experiences and food traditions alive in Berks County. BHC will share local foodway stories, including stories from the BHC staff and the community, on their blog, e-newsletter, and social media channels (follow @berkshistory). The BHC invites the people of Berks County to participate in the storytelling project by submitting stories about their family food traditions. For example, BHC’s first Berks County Foodway storytelling project story explored the personal history behind Education Curator Vicky Heffner’s favorite birthday dish: PA German Pig Stomach. To participate, send photos, recipes, information and video through the #MyBerksHistory project on BCTV’s SoLo app or email publicity@berkshistory.org.


Weathering the Storm: Feeling the Effects of the Great War on the Homefront

Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) · Thu, Jan 3, 1918 · Page 1
Reading Times, Thu, Jan 3, 1918 · Page 1

Winter 100 years ago was not unlike our current weather conditions; the winter of 1917-1918 was exceptionally cold. With a healthy accumulation of snow beginning in December and more on its way, temperatures dropped to the single digits as the New Year began.  The citizens of Reading and Berks County were presented with difficult challenges in January 1918. By order of President Wilson, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and the Pennsylvania Railroad had been taken over by the United States government. Nationally, the railroads were deemed inefficient for the government’s needs supporting the war effort. President Wilson appointed William Gibbs McAdoo as Director General of the Railroads. By taking control of all railroads in the United States, McAdoo’s task was to make the roads more efficient in freight transportation by eliminating competitive traffic between rival railroad companies. Locally, it would not be unusual for a P & R car to travel on the Pennsylvania Railroad line or for Pennsylvania employees to work at a P & R station. Both railroads were already cutting passenger services significantly because of the other hardship bestowed upon the local citizens – the shortage of coal.

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Reading Times · Wed, Jan 30, 1918

The origins of the coal shortage came from an act of the government and an act of nature. President Wilson appointed Harry A. Garfield to lead the Federal Fuel Administration (FFA), which was born out of the Food and Fuel Control Act of 1917. The FFA was tasked with conserving energy through the managed use of coal and oil and the war effort was first in line to access the natural resources. After the war effort was satisfied, the remaining coal was distributed down to the state and county level through agents under Garfield. At the time, Reading’s fuel administrator was H.A. Acker. It was Acker’s responsibility to set and enforce the prices of coal on the local level. Coal supplies for the public had lessened since the creation of the FFA and was perceived by the public as a gradual inconvenience. However, the winter of 1917-1918 changed the gradual inconvenience to a severe crisis. The first page of the Reading News-Times would announce when coal cars would enter the city for distribution. Relief arrived in the January 7th edition of the News-Times when the headline proclaimed that 83 cars of coal had reached Reading for distribution.

Although the coal crisis had lessened, the coal supplies remained limited. Local citizens relied on coal to heat and light their homes.  In an effort to relieve the stress of the shortage on local citizens and to ensure that households had sufficient coal to keep warm, the FFA instructed businesses not essential to the war effort to shut down 3 days a week, starting on January 14, 1918. Three days later, in a drastic effort to curb the coal famine, the government ordered all businesses to close 5 days the first week. Every week thereafter, for a duration of 10 weeks, Sundays would become “lightless nights” and Mondays and holidays would become “coal-less days”. In Pennsylvania, the Blue Laws prohibited businesses from opening on a Sunday anyway and that day did not count towards the 5-day closure rule. On the first week of the order, Penn Street looked like Sunday for six days straight – all of the businesses were closed.  Day by day, the crisis brought new adjustments to combat the coal famine. Food stores, saloons and movie theatres were affected by the ban. Those who did not comply with the rules of the FFA were initially given an embarrassing lecture on their lack of patriotism, and subsequently, if they violated the ban again, were given a fine. Shortly after the ban, food stores were ordered to be closed by noon and movie theatres were allowed to remain open.

Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) · Sat, Jan 26, 1918.png
Reading Times · Sat, Jan 26, 1918

Not everyone was happy to “live with less” as their civic duty in the war effort. Those who refused to go without risked the repercussions as Edith Grant of 139 Lemon St. learned. On January 24, 1918, Ms. Grant was arrested for hoarding coal with bail set at $300. She was charged with having 400 pounds of coal in her cellar and purchasing 1300 pounds on top that. She claimed she was ill and had no coal to heat her house. On the other side of the coal crisis, a York coal broker was held on $5,000 bail for selling coal above the price set by the FFA. Children would go door to door tagging coal shovels with cards prepared by the United States fuel administrator. The cards read: “Save that shovel of coal for Uncle Sam.” On the back of the card were 6 tips on how to conserve your coal supply.

In addition to feeling the effects of energy conservation, the people of Reading and Berks experienced other inconveniences as the war effort continued. Food was another area of national conservation. Meatless, wheat-less and pork-less days were enacted by the United States Food Administration, which was led by Herbert Hoover. Hoover did such an outstanding job heading the Belgium Relief while in London that President Wilson requested he return to the United States to lead the Food Administration. The local administrator for Hoover was Charles T. Davies and the policies enforced were similar to those of the FFA. The popular term regarding the Food administration’s policies was to “Hooverize” your food, or otherwise, to be satisfied with less. The call to restrict consumption as part of the war effort was widely regarded and expected of everyone. An article appeared in the Reading Eagle that former President William Howard Taft, on a trip to Lebanon, made a stop at the Outer Station for lunch. The newspaper reported that Taft, a man who weighed close to 300 pounds, “Hooverized” his lunch by ordering smaller portions than a man of his size would consume.

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Reading Times  · Sat, Jan 12, 1918

While the war raged on overseas, the City of Reading had its own war to fight at home with the Reading Traction Company, operators of the city’s trolley system. The Traction Company proposed raising the fare for a street car ride from 5 cents to 6 cents, which prompted outrage from the citizens, the Chamber of Commerce and the City of Reading. The Traction Company wanted to raise the fare with no justification for the increase. The coalition of opposing forces demanded the Traction Company to make their case for the increase before they would determine if it was justified. The city hired John P. Fox of New York City, a widely known traction expert, to assess the necessity of the one cent increase. The issue dragged out for several months and was not easily resolved.

YMCA Building at 631 Washington Street. Postcard belonging to Richard Polityka

Today, while we can relate to feeling the effects of the winter’s wrath, we might be stretched to understand what it is like to feel the impact of war in our daily lives. 100 years ago, the people of Reading and Berks County definitely paid a price, trading in their comfort and excess to support their countrymen overseas.  Many felt as though it was their patriotic duty and nearly everyone kept close tabs on the state of the conflict in Europe. Jerry Edwards, Secretary of the YMCA of Reading would hold Sunday talks at the Reed and Washington Streets facility on the effects of the war on Europe. Edwards spent considerable time overseas, first in Egypt and then France where he served as a camp secretary at both locations. He returned from France in November 1917 to Reading, where he travelled to Dayton Ohio to conduct a lecture series on the conditions of the war. When he returned to Reading, he continued the lecture series at the YMCA Reading branch to capacity crowds in the facilities auditorium.

Richard Polityka is a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center and project leader of the Berks History Center’s World War I & Berks project that commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Great War. 


Pig Stomach & Other Berks County Foodways


Vicky Heffner, Education Curator at the Berks History Center, has fond memories associated with pig stomach. In her family, it’s a tradition to make pig stomach every year on her father’s birthday. So today, like every January 16th, Vicky prepared this family favorite.

Vicky first learned to prepare this Pennsylvania German treat with her grandmother. The pig stomach is cleaned and soaked in salt water overnight. Then, she cubes potatoes and removes the casing from the sausage (always from Peters Brothers Meat Market in Lenhartsville), mixing both with salt, pepper, and parsley. She stuffs the pig stomach with the mixture and sews it shut with a special sewing needle, which belonged to her great-grandmother. The stuffed stomach is baked for about 3 hours at 350 degrees in a special roasting pan. As you can see from the photo, the roasting pan is well-worn because it is the same roasting pan her grandmother used to make pig stomach. A perfect pig stomach is one that does not break open while cooking. Once cooked, the pig stomach is sliced and served. Vicky says the dish tastes best with corn and coleslaw.

You can almost imagine as she prepares this traditional Pennsylvania German meal, with all the knowledge and materials passed down to her from the previous generation, Vicky’s grandmothers, standing right there beside her in the kitchen as she carefully stitches up the pig stomach with her special sewing needle and roasting pan. You can imagine them smiling as she serves this meal to her children and they taste the same comforting flavors that their great-great-grandparents once enjoyed. This is the power of foodways. Our stories, our family history, our heritage can all be told through the food we eat. Just one bite can connect us to our past.

This year, the Berks History Center will explore this compelling human experience. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, foodways are the “eating habits and culinary practices of a people, region, or historical period.” As we delve into this topic, we will focus on the foodways that are important to the people of Berks County. We will do so through themed programming, including Second Saturday programs and the Berks History Conference, as well online communications. We will share our local foodway stories, including stories from BHC staff, here on our blog, NewsBits (the BHC newsletter) and social media ( Follow @berkshistory).  We hope that you will share your stories too. Send us photos, recipes, and information about your traditional family foodways by participating in the #MyBerksHistory project or email us at publicity@berkshistory.org. We want to share as many stories about Berks County’s history as we can! Stay tuned!

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. 



Sauerkraut History: The Pennsylvania Dutchman


Happy New Year to all of our Berks County History fans! In Berks County (and beyond), pork and sauerkraut have become synonymous with the New Year. Here is Don Yoder’s interpretation of sauerkraut history from the January 1, 1951 edition of The Pennsylvania Dutchman. The photographs may be a little challenging to read, but we think this fascinating food history is well worth the effort!