Berks History is Personal: Member Profile

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.

Me at Daniel Boone Homestead--1986
Photo: BHC Member, Karen Guenther at Daniel Boone Homestead in 1986

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.

Interested in becoming a member of the Berks History Center? Click here to join our community!

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 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!

This article was originally published in the Fall 2019 Issue of The Historical Review of Berks County.

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