Berks History Center Acquires Artifacts Belonging to a Berks County Civil War Hero


cropped-blogheader.pngThe Berks History Center is pleased to announce a new acquisition of personal and military artifacts of Captain George W. Durrell to the BHC Museum Collection, donated on March 27, 2017.

The donated items include a large escutcheon, an NCO sash, an officer’s sash, a Model 1840 Light Cavalry Sabre, as well as personal and military correspondence from Captain George W. Durell. George Durell first gained notoriety in Berks County as the Orderly Sergeant of the Ringgold Light Artillery, the preeminent light artillery company in the Pennsylvania Militia before the Civil War. The Ringgold Light Artillery would later earn greater fame by becoming a member of the  First Defenders, which were the first troops to respond to President Lincoln’s call for volunteers at the outbreak of the War of the Rebellion. A watercolor portrait of Durell as Provost Marshal of Berks County and a photo album were also included in the donation.


Born in Wilmington, Delaware in 1816, George W. Durell eventually moved to Reading seeking employment with the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad (P&R RR). He was a painter by trade and rose to become superintendent of the P&R RR paint shop. In addition to being a skilled painter, Durell led one of the most celebrated batteries in the Civil War. Captain Durell’s battery was composed mostly of men from Berks County.

“These artifacts are of immeasurable value to the understanding of Berks County’s history. This donation will help us learn about an actual Berks Countian who played an important role during our Civil War. ” said Mark Pflum, Civil War historian and leading authority on Berks County’s Civil War artillery units.

The Durell artifact collection is now on display in the Berks History Center Museum. The items will be exhibited until the end of June. Durell’s correspondence and photo album will be available to the general public for research in the Berks History Center Research Library.

Berks History Center thanks Mark Pflum for providing his expertise and information on the Durell artifacts. 

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

The Watchmen: A Brief History of Reading’s Police Force from the Museum Collection




The photos shown here depict artifacts in our collection that belonged to and were used by the Reading Police Department prior to 1967. Most of these artifacts, with the exception of the black and white photo, were donated to the Berks History Center in 1967 by Vincent H. Ahrensfield, a former police officer here in Reading. Found in the attic during our inventory, these objects help tell the story of the forces that have helped keep Reading safe for over a hundred and fifty years.


Since its inception in 1748, Reading has always had some sort of police protection to keep order and to protect its citizens. However, it was not until the end of the Civil War in 1865 that Reading established its first uniformed department, seen in the black and white photo here. Prior to this, police were known as “Watchmen,” or if they took on the added duty of maintaining the oil lamps in the streets at night, they were called “Night Watchmen.” After Mayor Nathan Eisenhower established the new department in 1865, succeeding mayors found it necessary to increase the force as the city’s population grew larger. Once mayor terms began to get longer in the late nineteenth century, the police force changed less frequency and become more effective.


When Vincent Ahrensfield arrived on the force, he had just finished fighting in World War II as a Sergeant in the Marine Corps. According to the Reading Directory, Ahrensfield began his time as an officer in 1951. Towards the end of his time at the Reading Police Department, Ahrensfield donated the coat and police supplies to the Berks County Historical Society. The objects here include: a cap marked “Chief of Police,” a gun holster, brass knuckles, keys, a Reading Police badge, a nightstick, a bow tie, a neck tie, a billyclub, a belt with a gun holster, and a winter cap. The coat is marked “Reading Police PA” and has a rank patch on the sleeve while the buttons are marked “Reading Police” as well. Currently, we know that Ahrensfield donated the collection, but we do not which of these items he used while working with the Reading Police. During his time with the force, Ahrensfield would have handled artifacts such as these in order to keep the City of Reading safe.

Researched and written by Erin Benz

Rainbow Fire Company “Parade Hat” from the Museum Collection


Firemen of the 19th century often participated in parades while wearing painted stove pipe “parade hats” such as this example from the collections of the Berks History Center.   The date on the hat, 1773, is a reference to the date on which Reading’s Rainbow Fire Company was established. This particular hat might have been worn in 1873, when the Rainbow Fire Company participated in a particularly large parade to celebrate their 100th anniversary.

The hat is discretely marked with the name “J. Angstadt”.  In the mid-1800s, Reading was home to a Joel, a Jacob a Joseph and two John Angstadt’s.   We assume that one of these men served with the Rainbow Fire Company and wore this hat.  However, since Joel and Joseph Angstadt were well known painters, it is possible that one of them also supplied the art work.

Fireman’s Hat from the Museum Collection

In the spirit of our upcoming Second Saturday program on February 11th, we are taking a look at Berks County’s Historic Heros. We don’t have any artifacts that memorialize September 11th, but we do have a treasure trove of artifacts that honor Berks County’s Firefighers and Police.

This fireman’s hat from the early 20th century belonged to George W. Reed (1881-1971), a member of Reading’s Junior Fire Company #2. Formed in December 1813, the Junior Fire Company is the city’s second oldest fire department, and for much of its history occupied a building at the corner of Walnut and Vine Streets. George Reed was a machinist for Progressive Machine Works who had a long affiliation with the Junior Fire Company, serving as its president in 1912 and 1913, and appearing as an active member at least as late as 1938.