Home Over There: The Role of the YMCA & YWCA in the Great War

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WWI YWCA Poster from the BHC Museum Collection

When America entered the Great War in 1917, it needed to draft, train and mobilize an army capable of waging war against Germany. Once recruited and trained, the troops arrived in France as early as June 1917 and, in earnest, by October 1917. At home, families and loved ones were deeply concerned for the well-being of the sons and brothers of America. Thankfully, the Young Men’s Christian Association, or better known as the YMCA, tended to the soldiers overseas, giving both peace of mind to families at home and comfort to soldiers abroad.

The YMCA’s involvement in the Great War did not begin with the American entry into the war. Three years prior to the start of WWI, the YMCA entertained and provided for British, Canadian and Australian soldiers in England and other fighting fronts. Viscount Bryce, former British Ambassador to the United States, wrote to E. C. Carter, secretary for France and England of the YMCA, commending their work.

“I can truly say”, Bryce writes in his letter, “that I have heard from every quarter, including many naval and military authorities, the warmest acknowledgement and excellent work done by the Young Men’s Christian Association during these three terrible years of war. Many plans have been devised, many methods successfully employed, to provide for their benefit comforts, recreation, literature of the right sorts and many other wholesome influences. I believe that the American Association which will have the benefit from our experiences, which will be worked with true American energy, and which may command larger funds than we had, may render the greatest possible services in France to those American soldiers who Britain and France rejoice to welcome as their allies in this fight for freedom and right”. This statement appeared in the Reading Times on August 4, 1917. Clearly, American involvement in the YMCA effort was as welcome to the conflict as the military strength that the United States offered to the allies.

The YMCA gave soldiers a place where they could get away from the harsh realities of the war. They organized canteens at the front lines in France. The huts or tents at the front lines were run by “Secretaries,” who provided writing materials, stock libraries, and sometimes, a gramophone and records. Nearly 1500 entertainers, singers, dancers and musicians met with troops in their off hours.

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Dances were organized in Paris and London. The YMCA had its own letterhead as volunteers helped soldiers write letters home. The organization produced pamphlets, raised money back home and provided religious activities. General John Pershing endorsed the YMCA on a popular poster (pictured above): “I have (had) opportunity to observe its operations, measure the quality of its personnel, and mark its beneficial influence upon our troops and I wish to unreservedly commend its work for the Army”.

At home, the YMCA offered free membership to guardsmen that guarded the train lines in the Reading area when the United States entered the war. At the outset of the war, the Lebanon Valley Bridge and the Peacocks Bridge were guarded against sabotage. Jerry H. Edwards, the secretary of the Reading YMCA left for Egypt in December 1916. When he left there were no indications that America would join the war. When he arrived at the Franklin Street Station in November 1917, he stated to friends who greeted him that he was “glad America came into the war”. Dressed in an army trench coat, he noted, “When I got off of my boat yesterday and walked up the street I looked at the flags and demonstrations of patriotism on every side. It was a revelation to me. It was a different America from the one I left”. The Reading Times reported Edwards was soon to leave for Dayton Ohio where he was to deliver a lecture at their city’s YMCA on the conditions of the war in Europe. The lecture supported a $35,000,000 national campaign to extend the work of the YMCA. He reported that YMCA’s evening concerts attracted 4,000 soldiers on a regular basis. He was in charge of the YMCA station in Cairo, Egypt, and ran a service hut in France for American troops.

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WWI YWCA Poster from the BHC Museum Collection

The Young Women’s Christian Association, or the YWCA, aimed to support the war efforts as well. During WWI, the YWCA was responsible for forming work councils, operating hostess houses on camp grounds as well as manufacturing areas. Their mission was to do its share for men in uniform, with its main purpose to meet the needs of women and girls, including the wives and families of service men, nurses and employees at military posts, workers in war industries, and others directly affected by the emergency needs of the nation. The local YWCA formed a patriotic league for its members and concentrated on food conservation and Red Cross work. The Reading Times reported the members took the following pledge: “Realizing my nations need. I will express my patriotism by doing to the best of my ability whatever work I have to do. I will be dignified, thoughtful of the welfare of others, including women of other nations, careful to keep such standards of living as shall make me a good citizen. I will render whatever concrete service I can at this time to my country”. Throughout the Great War, the YMCA and YWCA made significant and critical contributions to the war effort.

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

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Welcome Guest Blogger: Sean Anderson

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Just in time for American Archives Month, the Berks History Center welcomes guest blogger, Sean Anderson. Sean will be contributing to the Berks History Center’s blog as part of a project funded by the National Endowment for Humanities entitled: Metadata, Marketing, and a Local Archive: Creating Popular Interest from Archival Sources at the Berks History Center Research Library.

Sean Anderson grew up in New Tripoli, PA and now lives in Schuylkill Haven, PA. He is currently enrolled in a Ph.D. program in History at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA where he is focusing on the cultural history of the French Caribbean in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century (slavery, colonialism, rebellion, revolution). In particular, he is researching the impact that the Creole religion (Vodou) had on the formation of the Haitian Revolution in 1789. Sean’s research methodology includes looking at the religious rituals, dances, and fashion of enslaved people, which will be the topic of his dissertation. Sean also holds a B.A. in Anthropology from Muhlenberg College and an M.A in History from Lehigh University.

Sean’s project involves creating creative content from the BHC Research Library in order to entice people to visit the History Center. For the last couple months, Sean has been using the archival materials at the Berks History Center to develop the content for his BHC blog articles.  All of his blog posts are based on specific documents found in the BHC Research Library’s archival collections. Sean’s blog articles can be found here on the BHC blog page, Keeper of Berks County’s History Mysteries, and the BHC’s social media pages including facebook, Twitter, and instagram. Follow the Berks History Center @berkshistory on social media.

Sean said, “The project is a way for me to learn more about the local history of the area while using my knowledge of Atlantic History to connect that local history to broader Atlantic and U.S. historical processes.”

In addition to spending most of his time working on his dissertation, Sean plays quite a bit of soccer in various men’s leagues in the Lehigh Valley. He also works part-time as a sound technician, plays guitar, and, in a former life, worked as a brewer.

A Walk Through History: Celebrating Education through the Arts at the Berks History Center

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Fall is finally here and a kaleidoscope of vibrant autumn leaves aren’t the only changes we see here in the Centre Park Historic District. Students of two local high schools are bringing a splash of color to the Berks History Center, brightening the path to our shared local history.

The Berks History Center has partnered with award-winning mural artist Michael Miller, the Wyomissing Area High School, Reading High School, and the Berks Arts Council to design and create a permanent piece of artwork that is being installed on the walkways between the Berks History Center Museum and Research Library buildings.

The art installation, or “Art Walk,” is being painted directly on the sidewalk surrounding the Berks History Center using a series of repeating stencil patterns, which were designed and created by the students. Reflecting the Berks History Center’s role in preserving Berks County’s cultural heritage, the stencil designs are inspired by Berks County’s historical crafts and iconic images such as fraktur, the distelfink, quilt work, Berks County redware, and city landmarks. The installation also serves as a neighborhood beautification project that will enhance the Centre Park Historic District and the surrounding neighborhood. Mural artist Michael Miller, who is an art instructor at Wyomissing Area School District, is leading the project.

Miller explains, “Over the past several years, I have worked with various groups to create a number of beautification projects that work with stencils. We often think that images can only be made with paint and brush, but we can use stencils to create complex images on almost any surface. The project at the Berks History Center has allowed us to focus on the rich traditional crafts and patterns native to Berks County.”

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The project will conclude with a Community Celebration on October 26th at 5:00PM where the Berks History Center will acknowledge the students’ work with a free public celebration and ceremonious reveal of the completed work. The Berks History Center will serve refreshments to those in attendance. Free entertainment, children’s activities, and tours of the museum will also be available. Along with the Berks History Center staff and trustees, guests may include city officials, neighbors, families, and members of the Centre Park Historic District.

This project is supported in part by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. Berks History received a grant from the Pennsylvania Partners in the Arts program administered locally by Berks Arts Council with additional support from The Wyomissing Foundation.

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Muhlenberg Artists: Christopher Shearer and Mary Leisz

 

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Christopher High Shearer (1846-1926), a prolific landscape artist of national reputation, was raised on the family farm in Shearertown, located in Tuckerton, Berks County, Pa., where his father built him his first studio.

During his youth he spent time in the studios of  well-known artists Francis D. Devlan and J. Heyl Raser, and later became a student of both before opening his own studio in Reading at the age of twenty-one. When about 27 years old, being well on his way to success, he traveled to Germany to further pursue his studies in the great schools of art in Dusseldorf and Munich.

In 1876, Christopher began exhibiting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, and also at the art exhibition celebrating the United States Centennial. During that time he attracted great public attention and won the favorable opinion of art critics for his large landscapes.

In 1878 he went back to Europe and spent four years there, two in Germany and the remainder in Paris.  When returning home, he and his second wife, lived in a home along the Schuylkill River, off Stoudt’s Ferry Bridge Road (close to Shearertown) where Christopher maintained an art studio and held outdoor art classes for his many students.

During this time, another well-known Berks County artist, Mary Leisz, studied with Shearer and became his closest protégé, moving into the Shearer Homestead to share studio space in 1914.

Shearer was also an acknowledged naturalist with a large collection of butterflies and moths. He was instrumental in helping to found the Reading Public Museum along with his friend, Dr. Levi Mengel, persuading Mengel to include works of art. It then became known as the Reading Public Museum and Art Gallery where Shearer was appointed the art curator.

Much of the work of Christopher High Shearer, his brother Edmund Shearer, and that of Christopher’s son Victor, is displayed prominently in many private homes, museums, etc. throughout Berks County.

 

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Mary B. Leisz was born in Reading in 1876. Leisz began lessons with Christopher H. Shearer at the age of fifteen. Mary mastered both oil and watercolor painting and eventually developed her own distinct style, separate from her teacher.

She often painted near Tuckertown and Onteluanee in Berks, capturing flowing streams, gristmills, springhouses, and colorful foliage in her landscapes. Mary’s work also includes watercolor portraits, which focus on young women and children. Mary became one of Christopher’s closest “proteges” and eventually taught art classes with him in his home studio.

Written by M. Catherine Shearer

 

 

Patriotic Fever in Berks County during the Great War

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When the Great War broke out in the Summer of 1914 the seeds of patriotic fever were planted in the citizens of the United States. Originally, President Woodrow Wilson adopted a strict neutrality policy, declaring that the United States is “neutral in fact, as well as in name.” The issue of involvement was hotly debated in the United States in the early stages of the War, especially between the isolationist and preparedness movements that were growing in the country.

During the period of 1914-1916, patriotic fever gained momentum as tales of the atrocities in Belgium spread. Then came the sinking of the British liner Lusitania, which claimed 128 American lives and fueled the fire of a growing anti-German sentiment. This was an era when the concept of Americanism – what is means to be an American – was energetically courted and hotly contested. This wave of fever found its way to Berks County as it did everywhere in the nation. As propaganda posters (pictured above) and Tin Pan Alley composers did their part to energize this movement nationally, Reading and Berks County felt the effects and responded with national pride.

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Mary Archer, chairman of the Belgium Relief Committee in Berks County, worked tirelessly to ensure food was shipped to the starving Belgians. A full-page advertisement in the Reading Times detailed what the money raised could buy to aid in the relief effort.  The ad from November 12, 1914 is rich in dialect informing its readers the time to feed starving women and children is now, and the cargo ship is waiting in Philadelphia for your reply! By April 1917, Reading led the nation in the relief effort, giving 50 cents per capita, which was 5 times more than the national average. The Reading Patriotic Committee was formed, which coordinated the patriotic functions in the area. Their efforts to stoke the fires of patriotism really blossomed when the United States entered the war. Even a story I worked on for the Historical Review earlier this year showed the patriotic fever. The spring issue of the Review tells the story of a large Tiller sled of the era by the name of “Old Glory.”

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When the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, and no sooner than George M Cohan wrote the song “Over There”, the Reading Patriotic Committee had a parade organized to be held April 14, 1917, to showcase the City’s patriotic pride. The parade had 30,000 participants, with the parade column 4 miles long. There were 53 bands participating in this event, which took 2-1/2 hours to completely pass any one point. The parade started at 9th and Windsor Streets, winding its way through the city and ending at 6th and Oley Streets. Jonathan Mould had the distinguished honor of appearing in the parade twice, marching the route entirely with the Reading Planning Commission in the first column. Mould then went downtown to watch the parade, to see the Reading Rotary Club with a strong contingent marching. Being an enthusiastic Rotarian himself, Mould joined the column at  4th and Elm Streets to rousing cheers by the members of the club. The Hippodrome filmed the pageant with the motion picture to be shown in conjunction with its vaudeville acts later in the week.

There was an incident of interest that occurred during the parade on Penn St. As a recruiting officer was driving in the parade at a point on Penn St., a young man made an insulting remark about the service. The officer stopped his vehicle, and proceeded to give the young man a lecture he was not likely to forget. The offender said nothing, fearing a beating from those who heard his insulting remark. The officer told him that enlisting would make a good citizen out of him. The draft was met enthusiastically on the local level. According to the Reading News-Times, “Practically every man expressed a willingness to go to war when the time came. Volunteering for service rather than being drafted appeared to meet with more favor.” The American Red Cross recruited volunteers from the Reading Hospital Nursing School to serve at home and abroad.

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“To the Tannery” An Effigy (stuffed costume) of Kaiser hung in downtown Reading, PA c. 1915 from the Berks History Center Research Library Collection

As America moved forward in the Great War, the local swell of patriotic pride did not diminish. National guardsmen were stationed at strategic points along both the Philadelphia & Reading and Pennsylvania Railroad lines for fear of sabotage. The strong influence of Germanic descent in the area brought an awareness of who was loyal to our country and who harbored loyalties to the Kaiser.

The Reading Defense Committee was organized, headed by  H.J. Hayden, with Mary Archer in charge of agricultural work. Patriotism was on display in Berks.  Scenes such as 1200 people singing patriotic songs to the music of the Ringgold Band at Reading Saddle Manufacturing at 316-322 Maple Street, and the Liberty Committee offering you to “Pack All Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag” and come to Lauer’s Park for a patriotic sing along were all too common.

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

Muhlenberg Township: A Suburban Boom from a Pastoral Past

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from Map of Berks County from Actual Surveys published by H.S. Bridgens. 1860

Though it was dotted with villages like Tuckerton, Temple, Laureldale, and Rosedale, Muhlenberg Township’s population of 1,676 in the 1860 census grew to only 2,069 by the 1900 census.  Small housing development in the 1920s and 1930s exploded into an all-out suburban housing boom in the years following World War II.  The small villages found themselves overlooked by unincorporated subdivisions like Riverview and Muhlenberg Parks, College Heights, Wedgewood Heights, Whitford Hills, Rivervale, and Hyde Villa.  The baby boom of the mid century created the need for more schools, culminating in the large academic campus containing the consolidate grade school, and middle and high schools situated on the Muhlenberg-Laureldale border.

Fifth Street Highway became the major retail strip, beginning in the late 1950s, with the original Muhlenberg Shopping Center and now boasting strip malls from the far northern section of the township south to the city line.  An effort is currently underway to revitalize struggling sections of these malls including the now nearly vacant, 37-year-old Fairgrounds Square Mall.

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Photograph of Rt. 12 bridge construction near Kutztown Road in Muhlenberg Township c.1970. BHC Research Library Collection

Manufacturing also took hold as much farmland was rezoned for light industrial with many warehouses built and businesses established. The farms, including the last two surviving Reed farms on Tuckerton and Stoudt’s Ferry Bridge roads, became apartment and housing developments. Still, despite the proliferation of mid- to late-20th century and 21st century houses, there remain, in the ancient corners of the township along the waterways that the Lenni Lenape once occupied, homes that existed in the colonial era and that would inspire the renowned native artist Christopher Shearer in the late 19th century through the early decades of the next.

Written by Donna Reed

Memory Lane in Muhlenberg Township: The Muhlenberg Dairy

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In 1907, the dairy industry began to flourish in Berks County with a number of prominent dairy farms in Muhlenberg Township including Fairfield, Fink, Keystone, Luden, Muhlenberg, St. Lawrence, Dietrich and Clover Farms. The Muhlenberg Dairy opened its doors for operation as a manufacturer of dairy products in 1916.

According to a 2011 Reading Eagle article, Muhlenberg Township was “…a big area for milk delivery, with three major dairies working in neighborhoods along Route 61″ during the 1950s and 1960s. These three dairies were Muhlenberg Dairy, Clover Farms and St. Lawrence Dairy. Home delivery in Berks County ended in the late 1980s (according to the same article). Clover Farms, who bought the Muhlenberg Dairy in the 1980s, still operates on Rt. 61 today.

The Muhlenberg Dairy produced a number of dairy products including a popular Berks County treat called the Cho-Cho, a chocolate malt dessert. Cho-Chos have been popular in Berks County for at least 60 years and are a nostalgic reminder of a time when children relied on corner stores and the ice cream man to satisfy their summer sweet-tooth cravings. This old-fashioned treat was reinvented in 2006 at Intel’s Sandwich Shop in Muhlenberg Township by Randy Gilbert and Julie Sansary, who later established Julie’s Olde-Tyme Cho-Chos.