John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) was a renowned American musician, composer and conductor whose music is celebrated to this day. While he led both the United States Marine Band and the United States Naval Reserve Band, he is probably better known for leading his own “Sousa Band” which he established in 1892. According to his obituary in the New York Times, the Sousa Band “covered an aggregate itinerary of a million and a quarter miles, visiting nearly every city in this country, a great many in Europe and others in all parts of the world”.
On the Saturday afternoon of March 5th, 1932, Sousa’s travels brought him to Reading, Pennsylvania. He was in the city to conduct the Ringgold Band on the occasion of its eightieth anniversary concert, scheduled for the following afternoon. His busy itinerary began with a three-hour rehearsal at the American Legion Building at 133 North Fourth Street and was followed by an 8pm banquet at the Wyomissing Club. Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack, shortly after midnight that evening, in his room at the Abraham Lincoln hotel.
One of the most interesting artifacts of the visit is a surviving dinner menu from the Wyomissing Club banquet which contains a copy of Sousa’s autograph. The menu belonged to Andrew J. Fisher (1899-1963) of Mohnton, the Ringgold Band’s first trombonist. Fisher wrote that “ this is the last autograph that Mr. Sousa gave to anyone. He died about one hour after he obliged me with this signature at the Abraham Lincoln hotel, March, 1932… He was already feeling bad at this time… I played under him for the last note he ever conducted (The Stars & Stripes Forever).”
Interestingly, a Reading Times article published on March 7, 1932 reveals how Fisher learned the news of Sousa’s passing. It explains that “Andrew Fisher, Ringgold Band trombone soloist, had just arrived home in Mohnton from the banquet and turned on the radio…. He settled down to listen to a program of Mexican music when the announcer said ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we are deeply grieved to announce the death of John Philip Sousa, in Reading, PA, just two hours after he attended a banquet in his honor there’.”
It was fortuitous that a trombone player from Mohnton was one of the last people to interact with an American musical icon. It was also fortuitous that Fisher’s daughter, Rachel Herb, donated this unique artifact of her father’s encounter with John Philip Sousa.
Article Researched & Written by Curator Bradley K. Smith
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.
Researched & Written by Curator Bradley K. Smith
Why is this table so special to Berks County’s unique history? The “Stammtisch” was a centerpiece of the “Tafelrunde auf Kuechler’s Roost,” a club of German businessmen who met regularly at Kuechler’s Roost on Mt. Penn. Jacob Kuechler, pictured in the painting hanging above the table, was known as the ‘hermit of the mountain’. He was a spirited character who lived on Mt. Penn on what is now List Road. His “Roost” was one of many stops along the Gravity Railroad where crowds would gather to enjoy delicious fare and libations.
The Originators of the club took an interest in Kuechler’s Roost and organized in 1907. Founding members included Ferdinand Thun, Henry Janssen, Gustav Oberlaender and Robert Carl Rahn. They met every Saturday afternoon for literary sessions followed by supper, sociability, and singing. They gathered in a unique corner room where the chief piece of furniture was a large round table, commonly known in Germany as the “Stammtisch”
The table and chairs were designed and executed by Robert Carl Braun and were produced at Louis Heilbron’s furniture store and factory at 940 Penn Street. The table was saved when the Roost was destroyed by fire on July 4, 1919 and is now on display in the BHC Museum.
During the Victorian Era, it was common for a man to visit his barber for a “wet shave”. To perform a wet shave, the barber placed a round bar of soap into a mug, and then scrubbed that bar with a brush to produce a thick lather. Many barbers kept individualized shaving mugs for their customers, and such mugs became popular gifts for men.
The Berks History Center is home to a collection of 25 shaving mugs which came from the barber shop of Fred Messmer (1880-1959). Messmer was a German immigrant who operated a barber shop on North 11th Street in Reading from about 1900 to 1943. Each mug is decorated and marked with the name of a customer. We are fortunate that this group survives to provide unique insight into a local barber’s clientele.
Researched & Written by Bradley K. Smith