Julia Nagel Shanaman Elmer: A Berks County Musician

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Julia Nagel Shanaman Elmer (1900-1986) was a Berks County woman of many talents. Many may not know her by name, but her legacy carries inspiration far beyond what anyone would expect from a small town music teacher. Julia Nagel Shanaman started the Shanaman Studio of Music in Reading, Pa around 1924 after receiving her teacher’s diploma. In 1927 she received her diploma in music theory and in 1929 she received her Piano Soloist Diploma. She later attended the Philadelphia Music Academy, receiving her Artist Diploma in 1935, in addition to gracefully achieving her Bachelors in Music in 1937 just after her marriage to Jasper Elmer in 1936.

Music Theory Diploma 1927

Despite adopting a new surname, Julia kept moving above and beyond in the music world. She was a skilled pianist and music teacher. She received her Graduate Certificate in Piano from Ornstein School of Music in Philadelphia in 1951, and served with them for the next five years. Afterwards she served the Combs College of Music for the next ten years.  Elmer became involved with the Community School of Music and the Arts in Reading as a piano and theory instructor in 1966, overlapping with her time serviced to the Music Club of Reading as their president for two consecutive terms. In addition to all of her glowing achievements, Julia was elected to the American College Musicians Hall of Fame in 1968.

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Her legacy as a profound musical educator and instrumentalist was honored with the establishment of the Julia N. Shanaman Elmer Piano Scholarship in 1987 by the Music Club of Reading, just after her passing. She was a marvelous teacher, musician and friend who had an unsurpassable enthusiasm for her craft. Her legacy lives on through her only son, Cedric Nagel Elmer, whose donation of concert recordings, programs and photographs to the Berks History Center has made all of this information and acknowledgement possible for the late and great Julia Nagel Shanaman Elmer.

Researched & Written by Mackenzie Tansey

Taproom Treasure: Uncovering Old Glory

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When Rick Polityka first caught a glimpse of the front cover of The Historical Review of Berks County (Vol. 82. #1, Winter 22016-2017) he had a nagging suspicion that he was looking at something familiar. The photo, depicting a vintage winter scene, captured a number of adults sitting upon a large sled. In this particular issue, the editor of The Review, Charles J. Adams III, had called for readers to assist in identifying the location and date of the photograph, a mysterious item from the Berks History Center’s research library collection.

After some contemplation, it finally hit him. He had seen this sled before! Not only in the photograph, but he had actually seen this artifact up close and in person! He wasn’t entirely sure his hunch was accurate. However, he was curious enough to investigate the mystery.

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Rick called a few friends and headed to one his favorite local watering holes, The Northeast Taproom. There, with the permission of the owner, Rick and his friends ventured down into the dark, dusty basement of the Northeast Taproom. Sitting along the wall, covered in dust and boxes, Rick uncovered a very large sled, 19 feet in length.

This exciting discovery was just the beginning of Rick’s journey uncovering the history and mystery behind what we now know to be, “Old Glory,” the hand-built, Berks County tiller from the early 1900s. Rick wrote about his adventure and research in an article that will be published in the Spring 2017 Issue of The Historical Review of Berks County. 

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The name “Old Glory” can be read on the face of the sled.

To read Rick’s entire story and research about Old Glory, subscribe to The Historical Review of Berks County. Copies of The Review can also be purchased in the Berks History Center Museum Store.

Rick Polityka is a local history enthusiast,  lifelong Reading resident, and a long-time member and volunteer at the Berks History Center.

The Tale of Tommy Hannahoe, the “Mayor of Irishtown”

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Alvah O. Schaeffer, a German musician, loved to play Irish songs for his friend Tommy C. Hannahoe, the”Mayor of Irishtown”.  Tommy owned the Stars & Stripes Hotel, a saloon located on 514 S. 11th Street.

Longtime friends despite their cultural differences, Tommy and Alvah agreed that: “If Tommy dies first, Alvah would play music at his grave each St. Patrick’s night. Should Alvah go first, Tommy would keep Alvah’s grave green forever.”

Tommy died first on February 10, 1897 of typhoid pneumonia. Alvah kept his promise to Tommy and played “Lass O’ Galway” and “Nearer My God to Thee” over his friend’s grave that year.

Alvah never forgot his pact with Tommy. Nor did he let a St. Patrick’s Day go by  without visiting his grave. Alvah continued this tryst until the day he died on March 10, 1947 at the age of 81. Alvah was buried a week later on St. Patrick’s Day in St. Peter’s Cemetery in East Reading on Nanny Goat Hill.

The tradition continues today with Tommy’s great, great-grandson, Corey Hannahoe. Click here to learn more this local St. Patrick’s tradition. 

Reference: Passing Scene Vol. 1, pgs. 169-178

Researched & Written by Volunteer & Historian Corrie Crupi

 

Can History Go A Day Without A Woman?

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Can you really imagine A Day Without A Woman? Historically speaking, women have always been essential to our nation’s security and economic well-being. After the United States entered World War II in 1941, the Coast Guard formed a Women’s Reserve, better known as SPAR. Created to relieve men of office work so that they could go overseas to fight, most of the jobs were clerical in nature.

Mildred Hiller Snyder, a Kutztown graduate and teacher at Reading Schools, served our country in SPAR as a Specialist, Petty Officer of the First Class. From 1944 to 1946, she worked in collaboration with the FBI in processing fingerprints at her office in Philadelphia. These artifacts, articles of Snyder’s time in the military, are now on display in Berks History Center’s Museum for Women’s History Month.

Snyder’s contributions are just one local example of how our national history has been shaped by women. Yesterday’s International Women’s Day Strike is another. Today women continue to make their mark, as they always have, in the books of American history.  How do your daily activities contribute to history-in-the-making?

Women’s History Exhibit Items Curated & Researched by Erin Benz

The Fabric of Daily Life: Museum Textile Collection

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Often referred to as “show towels” by collectors, these long, narrow pieces of cloth were originally known as “hand towels” to their makers. Most were made by Mennonite and Schwenkfelder women in Lancaster, Lebanon, Berks and Montgomery Counties from about 1800 to 1880. Meant for display rather than for actual use, such towels were typically hung on the door between the door of the Stube (parlor) and the Kammer (bed chamber) in a Pennsylvania German home.  The example pictured here, marked “M. B. 1840” is one of several attractive examples which we have found during inventory of the Berk’s History Center’s textile collections.

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While some items were strictly for show, other items intended for daily use were no less in quality and craftsmanship. During our inventory of the Textile Collection we also found a somewhat worn potholder with a date of 1855.  Despite its condition, it is a significant discovery which reminds us that the Pennsylvania Germans of Berks County had  a propensity for decorating very common, utilitarian items which they intended to use.  The artifact was donated by Dora Wanner of Shillington (1877-1967).  We believe it was made by her aunt, Lydia Wanner, (1834-1883).

Researched & Written by Bradley K. Smith

Riding the Rails of History: How the Railroad Industry Sparked Government Intervention

 

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The artifacts we collect at the Berks History Center have the power to tell compelling stories, especially when they relate to issues that are still relevant today. This is certainly the case with a simple iron pin which we recently found during our collections inventory.

In the 19th century, railroad “brakemen” coupled cars using pins like this one in conjunction with large iron links. Because coupling required a brakeman to work between moving cars, it was extremely dangerous work. By 1890, the average brakeman had an 11% chance of being injured – with nearly half of their injuries occurring during coupling.

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Drawing depicting a Breakman using a coupling pin & link to couple railcars. (Source Unknown)

Inventors were aware of the problems posed by the link-and-pin system, and they sought to develop safer coupling methods.  One of these inventors was a dentist from Bernville, Berks County, William H. Scholl, who designed a new coupling system in 1868.  We do not know what prompted a Berks County dentist to design couplers, and there is no evidence of him seeking a patent for his creation, but his design survives in the form of a model, also located in the collections of the Berks History Center.

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Scholl’s Model of a Coupler from the Berks History Center Museum Collection

Railroads were hesitant to jettison their links and pins, even after the advent of a commercially viable and safe alternative, known as the knuckle coupler, in 1873.  Outfitting an entire fleet of equipment would be expensive, and they feared that upgrading would render them unable to interchange their cars with railroads that still used the older coupling method.

While railroad executives grappled with this quandary, their industry was becoming increasingly dangerous. In a four-year span between 1887 and 1890, North American railroads broke annual records for employee fatalities on three occasions, reaching a staggering 806 deaths for the year of 1890.

While the United States Government had been largely indifferent to the affairs of corporations, this railroading safety crisis caught its attention and led to intervention. In 1893 Congress passed the Railroad Safety Appliance Act which mandated a variety of safety upgrades, including a provision specifying that any railroad engaged in interstate commerce must adopt “automatic couplers that can be uncoupled without a man going between” prior to 1900.

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Example of a Knuckle Coupler (Photo of the Reading Railraod Locomotive Model in the Berks History Center Museum Collection)

 

This was a radical and unprecedented move for a government which had never involved itself with worker safety or corporate regulation.  It opened the door for subsequent regulation including additional railroad safety acts and the Adamson Act which established an eight-hour work day for railroad employees.

Despite some corporate resistance, implementation of the Railroad Safety Appliance Act was a relatively smooth process, and studies showed that employee injuries declined sharply after 1900, despite the fact that railroads were greatly expanding their operations. With the link and pin coupling system obsolete and illegal, most coupling hardware was discarded and lost to time.

The “P&R” marking on our coupling pin is the abbreviation for the Philadelphia & Reading Railway – the corporate predecessor to the more commonly known Reading Railroad.  It was discovered by a resident of Leesport who generously donated it to the History Center in 2014.  We also discovered a coupling link in our collection, though its railroad of origin is undocumented. These artifacts are unique survivors that remind us of an era when industrial jobs were extremely dangerous and the United States Government took unprecedented measures to address the problem.

Article Researched & Written by Curator Bradley K. Smith

Remembering the U.S.S. Maine & a local Monument at the Henry Janssen Library

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(From the Postcard Collection, Henry Janssen Library at Berks History Center)

Today in 1898, the U.S.S. Maine exploded and sank in the Port of Havana. 267 Americans were killed, including one man from Reading–Frank Anders. Many at the time believed Spain deliberately blew up the ship because it was sent to the area during Cuba’s revolt against Spain. The Spanish-American War started about two months later. Parts of the ship were salvaged after the explosion, including an anchor later presented to the City of Reading. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt unveiled the monument, which still stands in City Park, on July 31, 1914. The monument was rededicated in 2014.

In addition to numerous postcards depicting the anchor in City Park, we also have two scrapbooks in the Henry Janssen Library compiled by Frank Anders’ family.