Following his service as a colonel in the Pennsylvania Militia during the American Revolution, Thomas Bull joined three other men to acquire land in Berks County’s Caernarvon and Robeson Townships where they established an iron furnace named Joanna, after the wife of one of the partners. Thomas Bull served as the first ironmaster, and as his partners soon died off, he became the principal owner of the furnace. His daughter Elizabeth married John Smith, a life-long Berks County ironmaster who later purchased his father-in-law’s interest in Joanna furnace, eventually becoming the sole owner.
In 1833, John Smith’s son Levi Bull Smith, a Reading lawyer, became the sole owner of Joanna Furnace. The furnace and adjoining property was then inherited in 1877 by his son Levi Heber Smith, a Civil War veteran, who took over as ironmaster until his death in 1898, when the furnace was shut down permanently.
At some point before Bethlehem Steel purchased the Joanna Furnace property, another business set up shop there to make leather goods. According to this 1949 Philadelphia newspaper, the owner had a surprising family connection to Joanna and when they were visiting the area, they asked someone at the Historical Society of Berks County for directions.
“He’s was like combination of Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore – a powerful commentator on life at that time.” – John Paling on his ancestor, Thomas Jackson
It all began with a small family heirloom. At the time, John Paling didn’t know anything about the letters or his great-great uncle, Thomas Jackson. But Paling’s persistent attitude and fascination with history has lead him from Oxford, England to Gainesville, Florida to Berks County, where he uncovered enthralling stories about an idealistic Reading businessman, the struggle for abolition during the Civil War, what life in Reading was like when Lincoln was shot, and much, much more!
After more than decade of research and correspondence with Berks History Center staff and others here in Reading, Paling visited the Berks History Center last month (click here) where he was able to connect with the people who have helped him along his journey. Here is his story!
What started out as an unwanted responsibility has turned into a major fascination with the history of the American Civil War and an unknown relative’s passion to see slavery abolished. By chance, a battered metal hat box that had been passed down through my family for 150 years, finished up in my hands upon the passing of my mother. It contained an unsorted trove of old letters, many near impossible to decipher but clearly important enough so that what was clear was that “somebody” (not me for sure) should take a look at them and try to make sense of all the contents.
I have spent over 10 years trying to give them away to that “Somebody” who would put in the hours and hours necessary to transcribe and correlate them and also take them off my hands and store them somewhere for posterity. Also, if appropriate, I hoped that “Somebody” would use them as the basis of some historical research papers and maybe, even a book.
Once again, I totally failed in my intentions. Instead, I turned out to be the “somebody” who has dedicated over a decade of my life to researching the letters; The Library of Congress (click here) has become the organization that “took them off my hands” and where the original documents are now safely curated: And the book about Thomas Jackson is still to be written.
In brief, Thomas Jackson (click here) was the son of a seemingly uneducated English rope maker who was a passionate admirer of America. So much so that his father could not be suppressed from advocating that the American colonies be given their independence – not a popular position to advocate in the days of George III. As a result, he was pilloried three times and finally imprisoned for a year to shut him up!
The young Thomas Jackson was radicalized about America as being the most perfect country from the time he sat on his father’s knee. When he was 22 years old, he came over to America and struggled to start a rope making company in Reading, PA. Not long after his arrival, when he visited Richmond to get supplies, he was appalled to stumble across a slave market and witness the more obvious degradations of slavery. These experiences so conflicted with his idealized image of America that he became a fervent abolitionist and started to write powerful, first-hand accounts about the civil war and the cruelty of slavery and sent them back to his relatives in England with the request that they get them published in English newspapers. His intended strategy seems to have been that he wanted to ensure that citizens in that country would not be disposed to allow the British politicians to support the Confederacy- and hence slavery – even though their economy was hurting from the massive shortage of cotton supplies.
The full story of Thomas Jackson has many twists and turns and would even make a good film script about the power of passion and the costs that can come with a dedication to a cause that many locals did not support. But by the time of his death he was much respected and lauded by his local community. The local newspaper reporting his funeral quoted. “On the coffin rested a cross of flowers and a wreath placed there by prominent colored citizens in acknowledgment of Mr. Jackson’s devotion to the colored race and opposition to slavery.”
After a busy career as a biologist, and later, a filmmaker for the Wildlife Film Company, John Paling has spent his retirement uncovering the secrets of Thomas Jackson’s letters. As an Ambassador for Thomas Jackson and the Curator of the Thomas Jackson Collection of Civil War letters, Paling has compiled a comprehensive digital directory for the letters, making them publicly available to researchers and history enthusiasts. The Thomas Jackson letters are now being preserved in the Library of Congress where the letters will be the subject of 3 major projects. To learn more visit thomasjacksonletters.com
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.
Birdsboro Steel Foundry and Machine Company traces its beginnings back to 1740 when William Bird built a forge, a saw mill and grist mill and founded the town of Birdsboro. His oldest son, Marcus, enlarged on his father’s work and constructed Hopewell Furnace. He was the largest producer of iron in America during the Revolutionary War. After the war, the forges have financial problems caused the Birds to sell their assets to Matthew Brooke changed the name to the Birdsboro Iron Foundry Company.
The forges were most successful under Brooke’s management in the mid-19th century. During the Civil War, the company produced munitions and armaments for the Union Army and began manufacturing parts for railroad cars and locomotives. This was the beginning of steel production for the family. The company continued its tradition of supplying the armed forces with providing the Navy with material for building a steel fleet during the late 19th century.
In 1906, the management decided to erect a large modern steel foundry with a potential capacity of approximately 3000 tons per month for making steel castings. In World War II, the government contracted with Birdsboro Steel and Foundry and Machine Company to produce tanks and artillery for the war effort. In 1944, a manufacturing subsidiary was established for weapons manufacturing known as Armorcast. By the end of the war, the company began to manufacture more industrial equipment, many used in the production of steel.
After 1947, the federal government and several businessmen tried to sell or use the space. Armorcast failed to win a government contract to continue production in 1975 and the plant closed in 1988 after a lengthy strike. The four smokestacks, collapsed in the planned implosion to make way for a new power-generating facility, were the last vestiges of a regional history of manufacturing started before the American Revolution.
“Manufacturing evolved from making cannon for Revolutionary War to making tanks for World War II,” said Sanders, 70, former Superintendent of Hopewell Furnace. “All that’s gone now.”
April 14th marks the 156th anniversary of the First Defenders’ response to Lincoln’s call to arms, following the attack on Fort Sumter. They departed Reading on April 16, 1861, arriving in Harrisburg that evening. The Ringgold Light Artillery, commanded by Captain James McKnight, was part of the Pennsylvania Companies. The Pennsylvania Companies were mustered in Harrisburg before taking the Northern Central Railroad to Baltimore where they were met by angry, violent mobs.
Upon arrival in Washington, the Ringgold Light Artillery met with Lincoln and his party first as they were first to volunteer and leave Reading.Their assignment was to protect the White House and later Washington itself. They remained at the Washington Arsenal as guards until they were mustered out on July 23, 1861 where many joined other units.
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.
Many residents of Reading will remember the towering figure of the one-time chief of police of this city, Mahlon Shaaber. He stood six feet, seven and one-half inches, a giant stature. Early in the trying days of the Civil War Shaaber joined the company of Zouaves officially known as Company B of the 93rd Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers. This company was recruited in October, 1861, from Reading, Bernville, and Womelsdorf and other sections of Berks County. Mahlon Shaaber was the tallest man in the entire regiment and won for himself the nick name, the “infant of the regiment.”
In January, 1862, the 93rd Pennsylvania Regiment passed in review along Pennsylvania Avenue of the nation’s capitol. Among those who reviewed the troops was Abraham Lincoln, the President of the United States. When the Reading Zouaves passed the reviewing stand Lincoln’s attention was attracted by the tall lanky private who towered high above his comrades. A signal from the President to the captain of the Zouaves led to the order to Shaaber to fall out of line and approach Lincoln.
“How tall are you?” asked Lincoln.
“Six feet six and one-half,” replied the Berks volunteer.
“And how old are you?”
“Seventeen and weigh 140 pounds.”
Then, as Shaaber related it years later, Lincoln introduced himself, “I am old Abe,” and then introduced Shaaber to Hannibal Hamlin, the vice president.
The three tall men stood side by side. The unusual picture made an impression upon Lincoln. Two other Pennsylvanians were invited to join the group and then the President made the following notes in a small black notebook:
Mahlon Shaaber, Co.
B, 93rd Rgt. P.V. … 6 ft. 6 ½ inches
President…… 6 ft. 4 inches
Vice President … 6 ft. 0 inches
Gov. of PA. ….. 6 ft. 2 inches
General ……. 6 ft. 1 inch
Total heights 31 ft. 1 ½ inches
After the interview Lincoln gave the soldier a pass permitting him to rejoin his regiment and inviting him to visit at the White House.
Several months later Shaaber and Sergeant Fritz of the Zouaves paid a call upon the President in the executive mansion. They were ushered into the Blue Room and there were greeted by the President. Lincoln invited his Berks County guests to dine with him. The young men lost courage and fumbled for excuses. According to Shaaber’s testimony he “preferred bean soup and hard tack better than a reception dinner.” In later years the Reading chief of police expressed regret that he had not accepted the President’s invitation to dine.
Archival Notes: For more information please refer to Norman Gasbarro’s blog, http://civilwar.gratzpa.org/2013/01/mahlon-shaaber-tallest-soldier-of-the-civil-war/ He does an excellent job of providing a more detailed account of Mahlon Shaaber.