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


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.

Daniel Rose: A Reading Clockmaker

Portrait of Daniel Rose  by Jacob Witman (1769-1795) from the BHC Museum Collection

Born in 1749, Daniel Rose of Reading became a talented watch & clock maker capable of building musical mechanisms that few in America could rival. He also sold and repaired clocks, watches, and jewelry in addition to musical instruments. In 1775, Rose instructed the drummers and fifers of the 1st Battalion of the Berks County militia. The following year, he joined the Committee of Safety in Reading, and in 1777, was appointed a captain in the militia. He served in the State Legislature from 1799 -1804, 1806 – 1808 and 1811-1812. Rose even opened his own museum in Reading in his home on Penn Street. He was also a talented musician. At the time of his death in 1827, Rose owned two organs, a piano, clarinet, hautboy (oboe), bassoon, flute and a French horn.

The Berks History Center Museum is home to several Rose tall case clocks and a full length portrait of the famous clockmaker. In the portrait, Daniel Rose is depicted as a dashing figure wearing his double-breasted coat and red silk vest by Jacob Witman. His hair is cut short and brushed forward in a style that became fashionable in the late 1790s. Rose is wearing an extensive amount of jewelry, which was all in the height of male fashion at the time, including oval knee buckles, steel cut shoe buckles, and a gold ring. Four musical instruments are also included in the portrait: a violin, flute, clarinet, and square piano. Look carefully at the piano to see where the artist, Jacob Whitman, cleverly painted his own name instead of that of the instrument maker.

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.


Lebanon Valley Railroad Bridge by John Heyl Raser


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 

Happy Birthday, Henry Janssen!

You may recognize the name “Henry Janssen” from recent news surrounding the sale of his former Wyomissing home. At the Berks History Center, Mr. Janssen is the namesake of our Library and Archival facility on Spring Street. Our Library is also the home of many items related to the businesses Janssen founded with Ferdinand Thun–including early ledgers from Textile Machine Works and bound copies of The Yarn Carrier, the magazine published for Wyomissing Industries employees. Henry Janssen was born on February 8, 1866; and, in honor of his birthday, our Library staff wanted to take a moment to remember Mr. Janssen’s contributions to Berks County and share a few tidbits about his life.


Portrait of Henry Janssen, 1937 by Egon Josef Kossuth

(Painting hangs in the Research Room of the Henry Janssen Library)

Heinrich Janssen was born in Barmen, Germany (then Prussia) in 1866. Barmen became an center for industry in the 19th century. The town was situated between hills and a river–not unlike Janssen’s future hometown–and became known for its textile industry and coal mining. Janssen’s future partner, Ferdinand Thun, was born a few blocks away in Barmen, on February 14, 1866. Both lived and studied in Germany until the late 1880s. Janssen studied manufacturing before coming to New York City to work in a braiding plant in 1889. It was in New York that Janssen met Thun and, after discovering their similar childhoods and textile skills, they decided to go into business together.


Barmen (1870) by August von Wille

(Source: Wikipedia, Image is in the Public Domain)

Janssen and Thun’s first business venture in Berks County was a small factory on Cedar Street in Reading, which they opened in 1892. This was the beginning of Textile Machines Works. In 1896, they moved their business to Wyomissing. The partners incorporated Narrow Fabrics in 1900, after they began using their own machines to make braids and other items. Six years later, Janssen and Thun added knitting machines to their lineup, which they used to produce their own range of stockings (specifically full-fashioned, which was the trend at the time). This company was incorporated as Berkshire Knitting Mills. According to many accounts, Janssen was a perfectionist. He insisted that the products produced by his companies were of the highest standards and he wanted his employees to maintain that high quality in themselves. The February 1948 edition of The Yarn Carrier (which was dedicated to Janssen following his death) included a quote by Janssen from March 1929. He advised one of his employees in German, of which the English translation is roughly: “Be thorough and accurate in both large and small things. May this always be your guide and success will never fail you.” (The Yarn Carrier vol. 17, no. 11, page 12).


Henry Janssen (center) with partners Ferdinand Thun (l) and Gustav Oberlaender (r), late 1920s-early 1930s (Image from the collections of the Henry Janssen Library, Berks History Center)

Henry Janssen was one of six children. At the time of his death, Janssen had two surviving siblings. Paul Janssen was also a businessman and later Mayor of Offenbach, Germany; while Johannes served in the German Parliament in the early 1900s. During their childhood, their father, Albert, owned a printing and book shop in Barmen. Henry married Wilhelmina Raeker in Brooklyn in 1890. Their son, Harry Janssen, died during WWI. Janssen’s two son-in-laws continued to work for Wyomissing Industries after his passing. In addition to their role at Wyomissing Industries, Janssen and Thun developed the Borough of Wyomissing. Janssen served on the Borough Council for forty years, while he also served on the Reading Hospital Board (including ten years as President). Janssen became a US citizen less than ten years after immigrating from Germany. His death on January 28, 1948 shocked many–not only in the community, but around the world. From the pages of tributes printed in The Yarn Carrier following his death, it is obvious Janssen’s influence was far-reaching. Here are just a few:

“…He was a driving force in the building of an industrial empire unparalleled in the textile industry, and unique in the entire U.S. industrial force.”

Knit Goods Weekly


“He will be missed not only as a pioneer of the hosiery industry but also as an outstanding person of the deepest humanitarian interest.”

–Robert Reiner, Inc.


“Every day was too short for this man who rate the title of industrial tycoon, titan of industry, capitalist or whatever the popular terms of the day. He could have rested on his laurels. He didn’t.”

–Herbert C. Kohler, in a Reading Times editorial, January 30, 1948.


Three photos of Janssen, about middle age.

(Images from the February 1948 edition of The Yarn Carrier, page 9)

Janssen’s philanthropic and industrial contributions live on. The Reading Health System has grown exponentially since Janssen and Thun first made their contributions. Families still flock to the grounds of The Reading Public Museum–another project of the partners. Textile Machine Works products are still in use today. In Wyomissing: An American Dream, the father and son team at Barbett Industries in Reading are shown using Thun and Janssen designed products that are over a hundred years old. They argue that these machines were made to last, unlike many produced today. This is a testament to Janssen’s commitment to perfection. In honor of his industrial expertise and advances, Barmen (now part of Wuppertal, Germany) named a street after Henry Janssen, which intersects with the street named for Ferdinand Thun.


Heinrich-Janssen-Straße [Street] Sign, Wuppertal, Germany

(Image from GoogleMaps, 2017)


If you would like to learn more about Henry Janssen, PBS39 produced a wonderful documentary on Janssen, Thun, and Wyomissing called Wyomissing: An American Dream. It is available to view both on the PBS39 website and on YouTube.

Researched and Written by BHC Archival Assistant Stephanie Mihalik


The Yarn Carrier, vol. 17, no. 11. Produced by The Wyomissing Industries: February 1948

Partners: A History of the Development of the Wyomissing Industries. Published by The Wyomissing Industries: 1936.

Wyomissing: An American Dream. Produced by PBS39 WLVT: 2016.


Berks County Belsnickel


For the Pennsylvania Germans living in Berks County, the Belsnickel was a character who visited homes shortly before Christmas to determine if children had behaved throughout the year.  Clad in furs, he would pound on the door or window with a stick before entering a home.  While he was intimidating to children – especially because he always seemed to know who had misbehaved – he did distribute treats to the children whom he would visit.  This particular rendition of the Belsnickel, located in the collections of the Berks History Center, was drawn by Edward Smith (1897-1981) as an advertisement for Reading Brewery.

Dunkelberger’s Belsnickle – Museum Collection


Belsnickel is often described as malicious and belligerent. But in this drawing by Ralph D. Dunkelberger (1894-1965), Belsnickel is made to look more like the kind and joyful Santa Clause that we know today.  Dunkelberger was a local artist who was born in Reading and went to the Pennsylvania School of Industrial Art. Many of his works feature local scenes, people, or cultural figures, including this depiction of Belsnickel that many Pennsylvania German children would have known.

Charlie Brown Christmas Tree Ornaments – BHC Museum Collection

Some of you may recall the “Charlie Brown” Christmas Tree that graced Reading’s streets two years ago. It was so named because the tree was so dilapidated and depressing that it reminded many residents of the fictional character’s tree. News of Reading’s sad tree reached national news outlets and became a local celebrity.

After the holidays wood from the tree was turned into several items, including these ornaments made by Steve Weber, a carpentry instructor at the Reading Muhlenberg Career & Technology Center. This small piece of Berks History is now commemorated in the BHC Museum Collection.

Scholla: The Whittler of Shoemakersville June 3, 1942

The Whittler of Shoemakersville  June 3, 1942

“Whittle while you work” might well have been the boyhood slogan of David A. Strausser, of Shoemakersville, whose magic penknife carves many curious objects out of wooden blocks. Forty-five years ago Strausser was a lad of ten, living on his father’s farm, near Shoemakersville. Tending cows was tedious business for the nimble-fingered boy who, even then, began to ply his knife against wooden blocks and through his skill and patience fashioned forms of familiar objects.

Each year the Berks Fersammling features an exhibit of some art or handicraft that is Berks County’s own product. This year David Strausser’s wood carvings were on hand to amaze and mystify the public. Today, at the mature age of 55 Strausser still whittles during the hours that can be spared from his employment as a machinist in a textile plant, converting bed posts into wooden chains and coaxing forms within larger wooden balls all spheroids a part of the original piece of wood.

Among other oddities Strausser has carved tiny chains from toothpicks and miniatures of farm machinery from wooden matchsticks. Free – link chains are his specialty. Not content with merely creating chains of pine timber, the carver has cut chains into chains. Marvel of marvels, these chains are longer than the original blocks from which they were cut; it is as if the artist had coused the wood to stretch. All of his products are flexible, many of them containing many moving parts. Such work requires painstaking effort and infinite patience. But to Strausser it is a hobby, and he loves it. He does not sell his treasures, for then the work would cease to be play.

One of the unique objects he has produced is an over-all series of rings or chains, somewhat resembling a mat, containing 279 links or rings, all cut from a solid board of maple. Othere curios to puzzle the notive are such things as balls in bottles whose nexks are too narrow to permit egress, anchors of ships, cotter pins that spread, made out of wood.

Strausser refuses to commercialize his hobby, but this does not mean that he is a recluse, keeping his treasures for his own sight along. He has staged many exhibits in Berks and nearby counties, notable at the Hobby Show and Fersammling.


Archival Notes: David Adam Strausser gained national fame during his life due to his creations. He was the subject of numerous newspaper articles, as well as magazines, notably Popular Mechanics of January 1947. David Strausser died with no children and his entire collection was donated to the Hershey Museum. His collection is currently not on display at the Hershey Museum, but is available to researchers by contacting the Special Collections curator. His work truly is amazing and would be well worth the time to examine in person.

For more information on David A. Strausser the Whittler of Shoemakersville you can consult:

“The Passing Scene” Volume 20 by Gloria and George IX Meiser. Reading Eagle Press. 2012

Popular Mechanics January 1947 page 146  available online through google

There are also several Reading Eagle Articles such as

May 4, 1930 pg. 36

September 6, 1938 pg. 11

Scholla: Martyr’s Mirror

Martyr’s Mirror

Second only to the Bible was the huge volume known as the Martyr’s Mirror in the homes of the early German settlers of Pennsylvania. This book is an account of the terrible persecutions suffered by Christian martyrs in every century from the birth of Christ to 1659 A.D. These experiences of those who suffered for their faith sustained many who were forced to endure the privation and suffering of frontier life in America.

The Mirror was originally written by Theilman J. Van Bracht of Dort, Holland in 1659, in the Netherlandish language German Mennonites in Pennsylvania appealed to their brethren in Europe to supply a German translantion, but when this was not forthcoming a group of Pennsylvanians set themselves to the tremendous task of translating and publishing the book which contains more than 1,000 pages.  Heinrich Funk and Dielman Kolb, prominent men in the Mennonite Meeting of Franconia were appointed to supervise the undertaking.

The work was done at Ephrata. In much the same manner that medieval monks worked in writing rooms recopying ancient manuscripts on scrolls of parchment so too the cloistered Brothers in Wisdom in Zion at Ephrata went into seclusion and set themselves to their task.

Fifteen brothers were assigned to do the work. One translated the Dutch into German, four others set type in the Ephrata press, four worked the presses, while six were employed in manufacturing the paper. In this way the work was completed in 1749. Today the Ephrata prints of the Martyrs’ Spiegel command fancy prices on the book marts as rare Americana. College Libraries, museums, and collectors are the chief customers.

The first English translation was made by I. Daniel Rupp in 1837. It was published under its English title by David Miller, near Lampeter Square in Lancaster County. Another translation was made by J.F. Funk a descendant of the Heinrich Funk who served as one of the two supervisors of the Ephrata publication.

Dielan Kolb, who served with Funk in the translation and publication of the Ephrata “Mirror” was a minister in Mannheim, Germany before he came to America. His brother, Martin Kolb, was a minister at Salford in Montgomery County as early as 1707. Dielman came a few years later. He was married to a daughter of Peter Schumacher. It was Dielman Kolb who prevailed upon Christopher Dock to publish his Schul Ordung. His greatest achievement in life was his work on the Martyr’s Mirror.

Martyr's Mirror.
Martyr’s Mirror.