Man of Dirt: A BHC Member Profile

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BHC Member Richard Peal showing off his glass collection.

Meet Richard Peal – a new member to the Berks History Center. Richard has dug up an unusual way of connecting with the past! He calls himself “Man of Dirt.”

It all started back in the 70’s when Richard worked as a lineman for what was then, N.J. Bell. He was setting poles with a crew along the railroad in Metuchen, NJ when out of the hole popped a fully-intact bottle, which was inscribed: Thomas A. Edison Special Battery Fluid. This was the first bottle that Richard took home and put on a shelf in his garage. Over the years, while working for the telephone company, quite a few more bottles came home and were put on the shelf in the garage.

In the late 90’s Richard was still working for the phone company, which is now Bell Atlantic. He had a different job at the company when he was working on a road widening project on Route 9 in Lakewood, NJ. One of the contractors was digging up the road and bottles just started flowing out of the ground! It turns out that Route 9 went right through what used to be part of an old Lakewood dump site. Knowing that Richard kept the bottles, the contractor gave him the “go-ahead” and Richard began bringing home truck loads of glass bottles every day. What started as an accidental bottle collection suddenly became serious business!  With his first born son in tow, Richard began digging for bottles regularly and in 1999 he went to his first bottle show in Toms River, NJ.

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Later Richard became a member of the Jersey Shore Bottle Collectors Club, and by 2002, he was running the bottle show. Richard ran the show for 10 years until he moved to Exeter Township in 2013. And that’s when his interest in Berks County’s history began.

“There’s no sense in collecting Jersey bottles out here, so I changed it up and I now collect Reading Glass,” says Richard. “Currently, I do 10-12 bottle shows a year and I am always looking for something new to add to the collection.”

When it comes to local history, Richard’s glass collecting hobby has led him down a number of rabbit holes, so to speak. Richard recently visited the BHC Research Library to dig further into the history of Reading Glass Works. He discovered that there were 2 companies. The first, Reading Artistic Glass Works, operated in the 1880s and specialized in art glass. The other business, which manufactured bottles and jars, ran from about 1889 to the 1920’s along the canal at Franklin Street and River Road in Reading.

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BHC Members Touring Behind the Scenes in the BHC Museum at the January 2018 Members Happy Hour Event

At the Berks History Center, we have members of all types – Some members love the Revolution, Civil War and other American history, while others are avid genealogists and enthusiastic collectors. Some of our members favor the history of their borough or township and others simply enjoy reminiscing about Berks County’s extraordinary past. While your 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.

That’s why we think it’s so important to share YOUR Berks history. This year, we would like to change things up a bit! We would like to create more opportunities for you, the members, to share your stories with one another. Instead of writing about what WE are doing at the Berks History Center in this column, 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 publicity@berkshistory.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!

Written by Communications Director, Alexis Campbell. Originally published in Spring 2019 Issue of The Historical Review of Berks County

Looking Forward in 2019: A Message from the Director

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To all our good friends and supporters of Berks History Center (BHC), Happy New Year!

I hope you all had a safe, happy and healthy holiday season and that you are making it through the winter of 2018-19 in good spirits. Though we still have a bit of winter left to endure, I think it’s safe to say, “the back of this winter is broken!”

A lot’s been going on, so let’s catch up.

Members Only Holiday Happy Hour and Behind the Scenes Tour:

I’ll begin by thanking all of those who attended the BHC’s January 10th Members Only Holiday Happy Hour and Behind the Scenes Tour. I was astounded by the show of support we had from our membership at this event. Over 120 people attended and got the chance to see what the staff, volunteers and interns have accomplished as we go about preserving Your Berks History! It was an evening of conviviality shared by a membership that understands the importance and is proud of its heritage. All of us at the BHC thank you for your support of what we do. I also want to thank the tour volunteers for the evening and the staff of the BHC for their hard work especially BHC Curator Brad Smith for his attention to detail that allowed us to coordinate a total of eight groups of 10-12 people departing on tours every 10 minutes with little to no confusion or congestion. It was a sight to behold! I also wish to thank Dana Lonaberger for volunteering her time as bartender and providing us the recipe for Pompey’s Punch. Thank you!

2018-2019 Strategic Plan:

Next, let me update you on the BHC’s Strategic Plan I wrote about in my winter 2018-19 column. Facilitated by the Philadelphia consulting firm Schultz & Williams, we have made considerable progress, and from the data collected so far, along with feedback from the half-day board/staff retreat held on November 30, 2018, the central strategic planning questions the BHC looks to answer include:

  • Who do we want to be?
  • Where are we going?
  • How do we get there?

To answer these questions and create a strategic plan that addresses them, six working groups made up of BHC trustees, staff and community stakeholders were organized. Each of these working groups was tasked with focusing on key planning issues, and collectively they are working together to complete the work that is so critically important to the outcome of the planning process.

 The areas of concentration for the working groups include:

  1. Mission and Relevance
  2. Programming, Exhibits, Partnerships and Collaborations
  3. Image/Community Engagement and Membership
  4. Location and Facility
  5. Financial Stability
  6. Leadership and Board Development

The groups began by working independently, meeting at least once, but it was understood that in many cases their work was dependent on and impacted the work of other groups. As an example, whereas the principal work of the Financial Stability Work Group was to set up a sustainable business model for the entire organization, a significant portion of the budget it constructs will fund the initiatives that are created from the other working groups.

Upon completion, the tasks assigned to each working group will shape the reports they will provide Schultz & Williams. Schultz & Williams will then synthesize that information into a report that will ultimately be submitted to the Strategic Planning Task Force shaping the direction and substance of the final strategic plan. This should be finalized by late March or early April and we will be sharing the report with our membership to keep you informed on the course of action the BHC will pursue over the next 3-5 years.

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150th Anniversary/Events:

As exciting as the strategic plan is by itself, one can’t help but see its symbolic importance when viewed in conjunction with the BHC’s Sesquicentennial Anniversary in 2019-2020. The BHC is 150 years old, that’s remarkable and though there are other historical organizations that old and older, this is a huge milestone for us. From July 2019 through June 2020, BHC will be celebrating in a big way and I would like to tell you about some of the events and initiatives we have already planned.

So far, events include a Charter Day Jubilee on July 12th 2019 to commemorate the day The Historical Society of Berks County was organized in 1869, a Hidden Treasures of the Oley Valley Tour on October 19th recreating the early Pilgrimages of the Historical Society, an Incorporation Day Birthday Bash on December 13th 2019 to celebrate the date the Historical Society was incorporated in 1869, as well as special 150th Gala Dinner, (date to be determined).

These events, in addition to special 150th Anniversary membership offers and giving opportunities, a new museum exhibit, and a new publication by the BHC will serve to mark this milestone in the history of our organization. Together, the BHC’s 150th Anniversary and the strategic plan can be viewed as a “Rebirth” of one of our community’s longstanding institution and will set in motion the next chapter in our already long history.

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Palmer Gallery

My final topic for this column is the renovation of the BHC’s Palmer Gallery. This is something we have wanted to do for a while and following the dismantling of the World War I & Berks Exhibit, it was time to move on this assignment.

The renovations were made possible by a generous gift from the Focht Family Foundation and include: Removing the existing wall paper, prep-work and painting of the walls, ceiling and trim, in addition to the installation of new carpeting throughout the gallery. The project will be finished in plenty of time for the installation of our upcoming exhibit commemorating the HSBC/BHC’s 150th Anniversary Celebration.

All of us at the BHC wish to thank the Focht Family Foundation for their generous support and for assisting us in entering our Sesquicentennial with an exhibit gallery worthy of this auspicious occasion.

That’s it for now and I look forward to reconvening with you with the summer 2019 issue of The Review. Wishing you all the best, until then…

Berks History Center Hosts Premiere of Groundbreaking Book: Working Girls

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The Berks History Center and Glitterati Publishing invite you to an exclusive, first-time ever presentation and book signing of Working Girls: An American Brothel, Circa 1892, The Secret Photographs of William Goldman by Robert Flynn Johnson on Monday, September 10, 2018 at the Berks History Center, 940 Centre Ave. Reading, PA 19601. The program will begin with a reception and book signing at 5:00pm followed by a presentation by the author at 6:30pm.

Working Girls is a historical, artistic and sociological interpretation of the personal collection of 19th century professional photographer and Reading native, William Goldman. In his program, author and Curator Emeritus at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, Robert Flynn Johnson, will detail his research and how he came to unearth the collection of more than 200 vintage photographs that artistically capture a group of women who lived and worked at a brothel in Reading, PA.

 

The Berks History Center is honored to host this premiere event, which precedes the official book launch and exhibition opening that will be held later that week in New York City, NY. The launch of Working Girls will be held at Rizzoli Bookstore in NYC on September 12, 2018, and the opening of an exhibition of the William Goldman photographs will be held at the Ricco / Maresca Gallery,  W 20th St  in Chelsea, NYC on Sept 13, 2018.

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In the book, Johnson, a noted photography curator, uses these photographs to detail their historical and sociological importance in the history of photography, alongside essays from feminist scholars Ruth Rosen and Dennita Sewell that provide an insightful historical overview of these images in context of the period in which they were taken.

“We are thrilled to have an opportunity to share Johnson’s groundbreaking book and photograph collection with Reading and Berks County,” says Executive Director, Sime Bertolet. “While the focus of the book explores and interprets both the artistic vision of photographer William Goldman and the lives and historical context of the women in the photographs, we feel as though Working Girls has unearthed an unseen aspect of Reading and Berks County’s story that was previously lost to history. As the stewards of Berks County’s heritage we believe it is our duty to provide a space for all facets of Berks County’s history to be explored and discussed.”

Working Girls is the result of over a decade of research, which began when the author first visited an art fair and became captivated by the beauty and originality of a group of 19th century photographs of women. Curious to know more about these women, Johnson began an investigation into their origin, authorship and purpose.  However, it wasn’t until 2015 when Johnson’s research led him to the Berks History Center, after he discovered a photograph of a woman posing with a copy of the Reading Eagle. Berks History Center Research Library staff, along with local historian George M. Meiser IX, assisted Johnson with his research.

The cost of the Working Girls program is $8.00 for members and $10.00 for non-members. Reservations are recommended as seats for this exclusive program are limited. Due to subject matter and content, this program is age restricted to 18 and older. Call 610-375-4375 to reserve your seat or click here for more information.

The cost of Working Girls is $60.00. The Berks History Center is accepting pre-sales for the hardcover book, which will be available for pick-up on September 10th from 5:00-8:00PM during the program and following the event during regular museum hours. Call 610-375-4375 to order a copy of Working Girls.

Floyd N. Turner: A Berks County Navy Veteran

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Floyd N. Turner II

U.S. Navy

Radioman 1st Class, Submarine Qualified

August 1979 – April 1989

Growing up in Shoemakersville, I knew at a relatively young age that I wanted to join the Navy and serve on submarines. With my parent’s consent, I committed to the Navy to be a submarine Radioman while still a senior in Hamburg High School and left for boot camp a couple months after graduation. As a submarine Radioman, I was trained in electronics and teletype repair in order to maintain the communications equipment while underway. After 2 years of schools, I was stationed onboard the USS Ray (SSN 653), a fast-attack submarine based in Charleston, SC. Fast-attack submarines serve many functions but their primary role is as hunter-killers of other submarines and surface ships. Missions also included a variety of special operations and intelligence gathering. While I was onboard, the Ray went to sea many times including extended deployments to the North Atlantic, above the Arctic Circle, and into the Mediterranean.

 

After nearly 4 years onboard Ray, I re-enlisted and was transferred to serve as an instructor at the Submarine Satellite Information Exchange System School at Naval Submarine School in Groton, CT. While attending instructor training, I was selected to instead serve as an Evaluator in the school’s Curriculum and Instructional Standards Office. In this position, I helped evaluate over 500 instructors and over 100 courses to ensure training methods and standards remained as high as possible. With almost 10 years in the Navy, I chose to return to civilian life in Berks County and pursue other adventures.

A Cure for a Cut: PA Dutch Folk Medicine

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When we think about Halloween today, witches are one of the iconic figures of the holiday. Part of that image is the boiling cauldron, where the witch makes preparations for her spells and conjures up many of her evil potions. While the image of the witch is often viewed as frightening, real-life folk medicine has a long history in Berks County.

Often called “Pow-Wow,” this practice can resemble our modern conceptions of witchcraft. What if you lived in Berks County or another Pennsylvania Dutch area and you accidentally cut yourself? A document in the Berks History Center collection, and written in Pennsylvania Dutch, offers an answer. It reads:  “press the thumb on the wound and say that I should not die and the wound should not bleed, nor swell, nor fester until the mother of God bears her second son, until all the water flows up the mountain.” With this little “spell,” and a bit of pressure on the wound, the bleeding was supposed to stop. The BHC Library contains other documents on Pennsylvania Dutch folk medicine and folk religion.

Written by guest blogger, Sean Anderson 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.

 

Muhlenberg Township: Kelly’s Lock

 

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The Schuylkill Navigation Company operated from 1825 to 1917. The canal stretched from Philadelphia to Port Carbon a distance of 108 miles. Most of the traffic on the canal carried anthracite from the coal region to Philadelphia. There were 92 locks on the canal to overcome a 588 foot difference in elevation. There were numerous dams and locks in Berks County. Most were destroyed during the Schuylkill River reclamation in the 40’s and 50’s. Fortunately remnants of the canal survive to this day. Kelly’s Lock (pictured above) was located in Muhlenberg Township. One wall of the lock chamber survives to the present. River Road runs just behind the lock.

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This picture from 1907 shows a canal boat in the lock chamber at Kelly’s Lock. The lock lifted the boats to 221 feet above sea level.

 

 

The Reading Fair & The Reading Fairgrounds

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Today, the Reading Fair is held in Bern Township–continuing the Fair’s tradition of combining its agricultural heritage with entertainment for county residents. The purpose of the earliest fairs in Berks County was to bring farm goods to city dwellers. These fairs utilized the Penn Square Market Houses and occurred twice a year in October and June, starting in 1766 and continuing at that location until 1850.  A more modern fair on Penn Commons (City Park) existed from 1854 until 1887, attracting many excursion trains from Lancaster and Philadelphia due to its popularity.

A twenty-five acre plot on N. 11th Street in Muhlenberg Township, with good transportation connections, was purchased in 1888. (The creation of a new fairgrounds was caused by a controversy over the jurisdiction of common land in City Park.) Amusements and harness racing were eventually added. In its peak years, two hundred horses took part.

After twenty-five years, the fair was relocated to a new plot, also in Muhlenberg Township. The 1915 location featured exhibition buildings, a racetrack, a grandstand and a midway. In 1922, a theatrical unit was constructed and in 1947 a rollerskating rink was added. There were also beer tents. Auto racing was introduced in 1924 as a one day event at the yearly fair. Stunt driving was later added. By 1932, there were three stunt shows and sprint car racing. Weekly auto races continued until 1978. Everything imaginable could be found at the Fair!

In 1979, the property was sold for development and it became the home of the Fairgrounds Square Mall.

Sources:

Edwin B Yeich, “Reading Fairs-Then & Now” Historical Review of Berks County, Vol. XX July 1955, Number 4, p.98-117.

Carol J Hunsberger, editor, The Muhlenberg Story:A Township Evolves, 1851-2001, published 2001.

Article Researched & Written by Gail Corvaia