Her ancestors resided in Berks County even before it was Berks County. Names like Keim, DeTurk, and Bertolet appear in her ancestral lines, along with Bechtel and Spohn. They were mostly farmers, residing in the Oley Valley, although later they moved west to Ruscombmanor Township and the Fleetwood/Kutztown area. Her mother grew up in a bilingual household; her grandparents spoke Pennsylvania Dutch. Her generation was the first to speak only English at home–and the family has been in Berks since the 1690s.
“I’ve been interested in history as long as I can remember,” says BHC member, Karen Guenther. “What I have learned from my family’s history is that their history is Berks County’s history…”
We have the scoundrels, such as my 8th great-grandfather Matthias Baumann, who founded a religious sect in which one of the main beliefs was that man could not sin. And we have the heroes, like my 5th great-grandfather Jacob Griesemer, who accompanied General George Washington across the Delaware prior to the Battle of Trenton and served as an interpreter for the captured Hessian troops. One of my ancestors came to Pennsylvania as an indentured servant then married the daughter of his master.
My ancestors weren’t just farmers, however. My 3rd great-grandfather Guenther taught German at Reading High School and one of his sons (my 2nd great-grandfather) was a boilermaker for the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad. My paternal grandfather’s brother was an executive with Berkshire Knitting Mills. My maternal grandfather worked at Carpenter Steel, and my paternal grandfather worked for what is now BARTA as a dispatcher. My heritage reflects the rich history of Berks County and I am proud that my ancestors played a role in Reading’s growth as a prominent industrial city.
My immediate family moved a few times while I was growing up. I was born at Reading Hospital and lived in West Lawn until halfway through 1st grade. Then we moved to Connecticut and later to Houston, Texas. Wherever we moved we continued the family traditions and each time we were the only home in the neighborhood with a “Wilkum” sign on the front door. We saw ourselves as transplanted Berks Countians, and when I had to choose a research topic for my dissertation, I chose something related to Berks County’s history–the history of Exeter Monthly Meeting in the 18th century.
I have also had the opportunity to “live” Berks County’s history as a costumed interpreter at Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site and at Daniel Boone Homestead in the mid-1980s. I certainly had no idea when I was stationed in costume at the Bertolet Log House that I was hanging out in one of my ancestor’s homes. I also was an intern in the library/archives at the Historical Society of Berks County in the summer of 1982 and 1983, translating taufscheins and helping researchers. Fortunately, Aimee Sanders allowed me to use the 18th century newspapers in the collections, which helped with my master’s thesis on Reading’s churches in the 18th century.
You can’t understand American history without understanding state and local history, and Berks County has everything you want to know about American history–from its residents participating in all of the nation’s wars to its industrial growth (and decline) to its agricultural productivity to its religious diversity. To understand American history is to understand Berks County’s history–and it’s why I became an historian–to tell the story of how one county can be a microcosm of a larger story. It’s also why my students get a taste of Berks County history in my classes, whether they like it or not.
A member since 1978, Karen Guenther loves Berks County’s history. She works as a history teacher at Mansfield University in Mansfield, PA. While she is not currently a resident of Berks County, Karen Guenther is a Berks Countian through and through. At the Berks History Center, we have members of all types. While the reasons for being a member to the BHC are as varied as the artifacts in our collections, we all share one common passion: a love for Berks County’s history.
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This year, we hope to share YOUR stories about YOUR Berks County history. If you are a member of the Berks History Center and would like to share a bit about your particular passion for Berks County’s history in The Historical Review of Berks County, please contact me, Alexis Campbell, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Whether it’s a hobby of collecting, an interesting family history or just your enthusiasm for a particular subject, we want to share your Berks history!
This article was originally published in the Fall 2019 Issue of The Historical Review of Berks County.