Industry in Berks: Wyomissing Industries

1,000,000,000th Stocking on Display in the Berks History Center Museum

Wyomissing Industries was the largest manufacturer of ladies full- fashioned hosiery in the world from 1920-1940’s.  The three industries that comprised the Wyomissing Industries (Textile Machine Works, Berkshire Knitting Mills, Narrow Fabric Company), employed thousands of workers in its vast array of multi-floor brick buildings prior to its sale to Vanity Fair Corporation in 1969. Wyomissing Industries was founded by Ferdinand Thun and Henry Janssen following their emigration from Germany in 1892.

At its peak, it had on site a dispensary for its employees offering medical, dental and eye care.  The cafeteria could seat up to a 1000 employees and a small section was opened in another building to sell over-runs to workers and their families. Seeing its success, they decided to allow the public to buy directly from them.

Photo taken in the Berks History Center Museum’s Trades to Industry Room

Berkshire Knitting Mills was chosen by the DuPont Company to test a new material known as Nylon and they quickly adapted their machinery to its use. After 1940, most women’s hosiery was made from nylon. Wyomissing Industries published a newsletter for its employees from 1931-1957 called “The Yarn Carrier.” The following is a quote from the “Say” column of the Carrier from December, 1932: “What the world needs is a telephone bell that will tell who is ringing at the other end.”

Article Researched & Written by Gail Corvaia

Industry in Berks: Birdsboro Steel Foundry and Machine Company


Birdsboro Steel Foundry and Machine Company Foundry Pattern  on display in the Berks History Center Museum.

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.

Photo taken in the Berks History Center Museum’s Trades to Industry Room

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.”

Article Researched & Written by Gail Corvaia

Industry in Berks: W.H. Luden Candy Company


W.H. Luden Candy Company was established in 1879 by William H. Luden when he was twenty. During his first year in business at 35 N. Fifth Street as the sole employee, he produced 30,000 pounds of candy. He continued to add employees and relocated to larger manufacturing facilities twice, finally locating to 200 North Eighth Street. He invented the menthol cough drop eliminating the need for the menthol vials that cold sufferers had carry with them to relieve their symptoms.

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Not only did he employ high standards, but he was a great innovator as well. He invented a peanut shelling device, lined packages with wax paper to keep his candy fresh and was great at marketing his products. He sold his candy door-to-door and persuaded shopkeepers to display and stock his wares.  He gave cough drops to railroad workers, gaining national exposure for his product.

Photo taken in the Berks History Center Museum’s Trades to Industry Room

In 1927, he sold the business to Food Industries, the Dietrich family ,under whose leadership the company continued to grow. Employing more than 1200, they produced 500 varieties of candy, introducing  the 5th Avenue Bar in 1936. Luden’s strove to provide customers with quality products at affordable prices. Post War years saw the introduction of Coc-O-Nut-O, Almond Royal, Raspberry Royal, MelloMint Patty, MelloCreme Patties and Mrs. Miller’s Cup.  In 1967, Frank Zappa wrote a sound track for a Luden’s cough drops TV commercial.  Luden’s was sold to Hershey’s Food Corporation in 1986 who sold the name and brand in 2001.

Article Researched & Written by Gail Corvaia

A Small Artifact Spurs Big History


Even small artifacts have the power to tell important stories, and that is certainly the case with a spur which we found during inventory of the collections at the Berks History Center. The spur belonged to Lieutenant Colonel Joseph McLean (1823 – 1862), commander of the 88th Pennsylvania Regiment.

A native of Philadelphia, McLean moved to Reading and worked as a paint shop foreman for the Philadelphia & Reading Railway.  He was also a Reading City councilman and the father of nine children.  His oldest son, Daniel (1848-1917), served alongside his father as a drummer with the 88th.
Joseph McLean was killed in action in Manassas, Virgina at the Second Battle of Bull Run on August 30, 1862. We believe that Daniel McLean succeeded in somehow recovering the spur, for it was his son Warren who presented it to the Historical Society of Berks County in 1949. While the McLean family erected a monument in Charles Evans Cemetery, they were unable to recover Joseph’s body from the battlefield. To our knowledge, only his spur made it back to Reading.
Researched & Written by Bradley K. Smith

Lebanon Valley Railroad Bridge by John Heyl Raser


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.

Are you a fan of railroad history? Berks History Center’s Second Saturday program on April 8th will focus on the Northern Central Railway and its role in the Civil War. Join us for Scott Mingus Sr.’s talk, Soldiers, Steam & Spies: The Northern Central Railway in the Civil War 

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.

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.

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.

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

Scholla: The Reed Clock Dated 1704 June 15, 1943

The Reed Clock Dated 1704    June 15, 1943

Two hundred and thirty-eight years ago a huge time-piece began to tick off the minutes and hours; these grew to days, months, years and decades. Two centuries passed; wars began and ended; the Duke of Marlboro, Frederick the Great, Napoleon and others flitted their little once on this troubled planet; American was born, grew to titanic strength and girded herself to bring her light of liberty to a war torn world, and still the Reed family clock in Stouchsburg ticked on and on. Today it is still marking the mortal’s concept of time, ticking away the minutes and striking the hours as it has done for generation after generation of the descendants of Leonhart Reed, Tulpehocken pioneer.

Proud of his handiwork, Jacob Gorgas, clockmaker, inscribed his name and the date in the brass face of the clock. There is no mistaking the figures which spell out 1704, an ancient date indeed for any relic in America.

We cannot help but wonder whether there is another object in all America of greater antiquity, still performing the purpose for which it was originally designed.

In addition to his name and the date, the craftsman cut scrolls into each corner of the metal face of the clock and flowers are depicted in the field which forms between the numerals. The clock does not show a moon, as many of the old grandfather’s clocks do, but the date of the month is shown.

The huge case of the clock is made of solid walnut wood and the pieces are joined by wooden pegs. The time-piece stands seven and a half feet high.

The present owners of the clock are Mr. and Mrs. John Reed, of Stouchsburg. Mrs. Reed as well as her husband is a lineal descendant of the early Reeds of Tulpehocken. The clock came into their possession through Mrs. Reed’s parents, Frank B. Reed, and his wife. These people, in turn, inherited the clock from their parents, John S. Reed. The complete line of ownership is not known exactly, but it is known that the relic stood in the original Reed homestead near Stouchsburg, as long as the memory of man and tradition can establish. It was removed from the old homestead in 1908.

Scholla: A Message in Green

A Message in Green

It was August, 1917, and the first contingent of selected servicemen were leaving Manheim, Lancaster County to report to Camp Meade for induction into the Army. Friends and relatives clustered about them on the platform of the Reading Railroad station, giving their heroes-to-be an enthusiastic send-off.

William Haas paid little attention to the cheers and farewells that were being uttered. Instead he craned his neck, trying to peer over the crowd, as if he were looking for someone who ought to be there.

Minnie Burkholder had planned to go to the station to add her fond goodbye to the boys and to embrace her sweetheart, Bill, right there where all could see. That is Minnie had planned it, before old Susan Gork, the town gossip, had paid a visit to the Burkholder home. Now it was different! She would not be ashamed before the eyes of the townspeople. Bill had been untrue, so Susan had reported, and, girded with the sword of the righteous, she had come directly to Minnie to tell her so.

Black smoke poured from the stack of the locomotive. A hiss of steam, a shriek of a whistle and rolling wheels and Bill Haas was off to the wars. Minnie sobbed and bitter tears of remorse and wiped them away with a brush of resolution.

Bill Haas was a man of pride. His fiancée had proclaimed to the world that his going away was no concern of hers. Everyone in Manheim and for miles around, would know that Minnie had not come to the station. Should he write and learn the reason for absence. He did, but there was no reply. Could mutual friends intercede? They tried but they were always met with stony indifference. The Leviathon carried the distraught soldier to exciting scenes. Brest, Mons, Chateau-Thierry, Sedan, the Armistice. In April 1919, the huge Leviathon was bringing Bill home again.

Old Susan was visiting at the Burkholder home, chattering like a crushing machine in a stone quarry:

“I guess, Minnie, you will be glad when Bill gets back?”

“Please, Susan, let’s not talk about that.”

“Why Minnie, you ain’t still mad at him yet, are you? Not over that little fib I told you before he went off.”

“Fib?” demanded Minnie. “Then it wasn’t true?”

“Ach No! I just made it up Minnie.”

“After all these months Oh! – a torrent of tears washed away her indignation.

Bill is coming home, yes, but Bill is proud. Certainly she could explain, but would Bill listen to an explanation I private when he had shamed him in public? Perhaps he no longer cared. How should she tell the world that she was still in love with him and tell it to Bill, too, without forcing herself upon him.

The long terrace which led to the porch of the Burkholder mansion was being spaded for new sodding. Minnie watched the gardener at work, leveling the lawns with an iron rake. Suddenly she approached the work man and ordered:

“Sam, leave the lawns to me from now on.”

The Reading Company locomotive puffed its way into the Manheim station in early May of 1919. When the train halted a khaki-clad Bill Haas alighted and began his walk on the last lap home from the wars. His route took him along the street which the Burkholder Mansion stood, Looking up at the house he was surprised to see the terraces completely bare of grass. Only in the center was there anything that was green.

There, formed in the shape of letters spelling “Welcome,” the returned soldier saw the green plants of blossoming Sweet Williams.

Only then was Bill aware that people were following him and others were watching him.

Sam, the gardener, came up to the soldier and whispered.

“That means you.”

Bill mounted the stairs – door was opened – but that is all that the world may know, except that they live happily, together, ever since.

SS Leviathan. Source:
SS Leviathan. Source:

print the words are welcome on the mat of green grass

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: Old-Time Fences

Old-Time Fences

A correspondent, who prefers to remain anonymous to readers of this column, has sent us an account of old-time fences which once marked the boundary lines of fields in eastern Pennsylvania. In compiling his list the contributor is aware that he has overlooked some types and asks us to appeal to readers for information about other kinds of early fence structures. Here we reproduce his list, including some comments which he has made and adding some of our own.

Stone Fences: One of the earliest types. Usually built by carrying the rocks from the cleared fields and making them serve as walls around the field. In this way a dual purpose was served. Such fences were common along the glacial edge which runs a direct line through southern Berks.

Slab Fences: Made from slabs of wood cut from logs at saw mills. No lumber was to be wasted.

The Pale Fence, or Clapboard (Glappboard), frequently used to enclose the premises of the house and garden. This type of fence required annual white-washing. A small village near Brownsville still bears the local name Glappbordstettle, as a tribute to the succession of houses whose front yards are enclosed by pales, neatly white washed.

The spite Fence, a type not confined to Berks, by any means.

Ornate Iron Fences, frequently of elaborate designs. This kind of fence has made Friedensburg famous among tourists.

The “worm” or Warrem Fence, cuttling a zipzag line between fields was not the same as the Stake or Schtalka Fence according to our correspondent. The “worm” fence was constructed of smaller timbers than the stake fence and was designed to keep only smaller animals, such as sheep, in pasture while the larger stake fence was built to enclose the pasture for cows and horses.

Then there was the “stickle” fence, usually constructed by driving stakes into the ground close together; the Storm Fence formed by planting evergreens closely so that they formed a windbreak. The state highway department has used the same idea in the construction of snow fences; the Privet Hedge and Brush (Hecke) Fences.

Unique in the farming area of eastern Pennsylvania is the artistic Barnyard Fence. The commonest type was fence of seven or more rails or sliding boards attached to stone pillars of limestone. Frequently these pillars were topped off by a miniature roof arrangement. These ornate fences served to add another artistic touch to the Swiss-type barn.

The writer mentions the Horse Shoeing Fence known to the English as stocks but named Node Stahl by the Pennsylvania Dutch. Graveyards usually fenced in by some very secure fences or walls, frequently of native limestone.

August 16, 1921 Threshing grain on Swartz Farm, west of Wernersville, PA along pike tenanted by James Luckenbill. Notice stone fence around barn courtyard, and post and rail fencing in foreground.
August 16, 1921 Threshing grain on Swartz Farm, west of Wernersville, PA along pike tenanted by James Luckenbill. Notice stone fence around barn courtyard, and post and rail fencing in foreground. Courtesy of the Berks County Historical Society.
August 25, 1925 Former Daniel Degler Farm buildings, southern side of buildings. In North Heidelberg Twp. Berks Co., about a half a mile NW of Richard M. Gruber home. After the Degler Ownership Richard Miller Owned it.  Notice post and rail fencing on the left and  split rail fencing on the right. Courtesty of Berks County Historical Society.
August 25, 1925 Former Daniel Degler Farm buildings, southern side of buildings. In North Heidelberg Twp. Berks Co., about a half a mile NW of Richard M. Gruber home. After the Degler Ownership Richard Miller Owned it. Notice post and rail fencing on the left and split rail fencing on the right. Courtesty of Berks County Historical Society.