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.

Muhlenberg Artists: Christopher Shearer and Mary Leisz


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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



Among the Greats: Victor Nehlig Painting in the BHC Museum Collection


Daniel Boone by Nehlig 2.jpgVictor Nehlig (1830-1909) was a French-born painter renowned during his lifetime for historical paintings.  While no longer a household name, Nehlig’s works are preserved in institutions like the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and even the Berks History Center.

Daniel Boone by Nehlig 1

Berks History Center’s Nehlig painting, shown above, depicts Berks County native Daniel Boone in a frontier scene. This was one of several studies which Nehlig completed while he lived in Frankfurt, Kentucky in the 1870s.  Nehlig hoped to earn a commission painting scenes of the iconic frontiersman for display in the Kentucky State Capitol, but the commission never materialized.

Researched & Written by Bradley K. Smith

A Sign of the Times: Uncovering More Berks County History

Haak Sign.jpg

New research is shedding light on an artifact which is currently on display at the Berks History Center.  The artifact belonged to George E. Haak (1842-1915) of Reading.

After serving in the Civil War, Haak found employment as a “digger”.  However, by 1870 he was working in the dry goods store of his father-in-law, Amos Potteiger (1824-1897), which operated at 310 Penn Street.  It appears that by 1877, he was running an independent China & Glass business within his father-in-law’s store.  It also appears that by 1882 he had moved his china and glass business into its own location, next door at 312 Penn Street, while his father-in-law continued operating the dry goods store at 310 Penn Street.


The sign was presumably made in the early 1870s, while Haak was still working from his father-in-law’s store.  The sign is marked “Baker” and we assume that this refers to William B. Baker (1850-1920), a painter who lived at 27 South 11th Street in Reading.

Researched & Written by Curator Bradley K. Smith

Scholla: Peter Derr, Craftsman 1793-1868 January 12, 1943

Peter Derr, Craftsman 1793-1868 January 12, 1943

After asking many inquires about the life and work of Peter Derr we have met with success in the favor of George W. Yeagley, of Reading, who sends us a biographical account and some valuable photographs dealing with the early Berks craftsman. Many antique collectors have looked at metal objects hoping to find the letters “P.D.”  and a date imbedded in the metal. Many persons know Peter Derr’s work, but few know anything about the man himself. Here are a few facts, condensed from Mr. Yeagley’s longer account.

Peter Derr’s grandfather came to America in 1734, on board the brig “St. Andrew,” a vessel which brought many Palatines to these shores. Hannes Derr obtained lands in Jefferson Township through the agency of Conrad Weiser. There he reared a huge family. The second Hannes Derr, father of Peter Derr, served in the Revolutionary War in Benjamin Weiser’s company. Peter Derr was born in 1793, married to Elizabeth Hubler, died in 1868, and lies buried in the Host Churchyard.

Peter Derr was not an ordinary blacksmith; he made all of his own tools and discovered a way to harden copper so that a cutting edge could be put on it. He always stamped his work with the initials  “P.D.” which now marks his wares for collectors. In his shop he made useful kitchen utensils. Perhaps his best known products are the “Shmutz Amschels” or Betty Lamps used in earlier days, be he made other objects just as skillfully, such as spoons, forks and branding irons to mark horses hoofs to show what insurance company they belonged to.

Among other objects he made ornamental hinges, the hinges of the doors to Host Church are his products; clocks, ear-rings, finger rings, and pincers to pull teeth. He worked in silver, gold, copper, brass, wood and stone.

One of his most remarkable feats of skill resulted in the carving of a ten-foot water trough out of a solid block of sandstone. The trough was 30 inces wide and 30 inches deep. It weighed five tons. His two daughters, Marie aged 15, and Salome, aged 17, assisted him in cutting the stone. The trough still stands near the foot of the Blue Mountain and bears the full inscription: Peter Derr, November 20, 1845.

Derr was a quite a diarist. Among his notations is the interesting circumstance in 1833 when it was believed that the world was about to come to an end. He states that it was announced in church. On the fateful night of November 13, Derr gathered his family about him and all of them knelt in prayer while the heavens were putting on a display of shooting stars. But the awful night passed and when daylight came nothing could be seen of the havoc that was being spread during the night.

On another occasion the heavens above the Blue Mountains seemed to be aflame. Again Derr and his family prayed through the night.

Among other things he noted that a bluebird made its appearance on February 27, 1847, and this was always interpreted as a sure sign of spring, but this time the sign failed because the next day brought a fierce blizzard which closed the roads for several weeks.

Archival Notes: In our photo it is noted the trough was located in Bernville at the time the picture was taken. More information on Peter Derr is available on pages 36,40-42, Vol.2 of the Passing Scene Meiser & Meiser.

Peter Derr Water Trough November 20, 1845. Courtesy of the Historical Society of Berks County.
Peter Derr Water Trough November 20, 1845. Courtesy of the Historical Society of Berks County.

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: Wooden Pitch Forks February 13, 1942

Wooden Pitch Forks      February 13, 1942

Perhaps you will find a few wooden pitch forks offered at farmer’s sales during this winter. If you listen to the bidding you will be surprised to learn that there are many who are willing to part with cash in exchange for the implement. You will find farmer’s bidding against antique collectors. The reason for this unique circumstance is that such forks are now on the border line between useful objects and antiques which speak of an earlier day.

Many farmers like to use a “Schittelgawwel” at threshing time. They are especially useful in clearing the threshing floor of stray strands of straw. Antique dealers want them because they represent a handcraft which is all but forgotten.

These forks were made of hickory saplings, one of the toughest kinds of wood. The manufacture of the implements called for a stick of hickory ranging in thickness from an inch to an inch and a half in width and more than five feet long. The thickness of the stick determined the number of prongs that could be cut out of the business end of the fork. The number of prongs vary from two to seven, the greater the number of prongs, the more expert the craftsmanship required in the manufacture.

The end of the stick which was to serve as the business end was measured into widths of ¾ inches each and then cut with a rip saw. These cut sections were to become the prongs. The next step was to bore holes through these strips in which wooden dowel pins could later be inserted into the holes to hold the prongs apart and in their proper positions.

After this operation the fork end of the stick was steamed so that the fork could be curved and the prongs spread out in the shape of a fan. The butt of the fan was placed in a “schneidbank” or Schnitzelbank and held there tightly while the craftsman shaped and smoothed the prongs with his “schneid messer” or drawing knife.

When the prongs were properly shaped the wooden dowel pins were inserted, the fork assumed its true shape. But the raw hickory had to be charred in a grate to insure that it would retain its shape. After all of this was done the surface of the fork and handle was given a coating of resin to provide smoothness and to fill in uneven spaces. An iron rivet through the base of the fan bound the spread prongs together.

Shaving a wooden pitchfork.
Shaving a wooden pitchfork.