Divergent Departures – Company A and Company I Leave for the Great War in August 1917

 

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The story of Company A and Company I of Reading, Pennsylvania is a story that can easily become confused. Company I was organized in Reading in June of 1898 during the Spanish-American War.

During the Mexican Border crisis in 1916, the United States was tasked with capturing or killing Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa after he attacked the border town of Columbus, New Mexico. Company I was part of the 117,000 National Guardsmen that were stationed along the Mexican–U.S. border. It was during this exercise that the Zimmerman telegram was intercepted. The interception alerted the U.S. government that Germany had encouraged Mexico to enter WWI on the side of the Central Powers, which eventually led the United States to enter the war against Germany.

Company A was part of the 4th Pennsylvania Infantry division, which had its roots in Company I. After being detached from the 4th Pennsylvania Infantry, Company I remained intact and established a machine gun company for the First Composite National Guard. Both Companies were stationed at the Armory on 325 Walnut St.

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Reading Times announcing the transfer of Captains Kestner & Miller

In an effort to make commanding officers strangers to the men they led, Captain Edward V. Kestner (originally Company A) and Captain Charles L. Miller (originally Company I) were ordered to exchange commands of their companies. Company A was to leave first, embarking on a journey to Camp Hancock in Augusta, Georgia to prepare the camp for the rest of the regiment. Company I was next to leave with its destination Mineola on Long Island, the mobilization point for 26 states that would compose the division heading to France.

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Company A left Reading on August 20th 1917 to the grandest show of patriotism Reading had ever seen. A crowd estimated at 40,000 people lined the parade route as an escort marched from the Chamber of Commerce to the Armory, to meet the departing soldiers.  The escort consisted of mounted policemen, Mayor Filbert, City Councilmen,  The Rotary Club, the Chamber of Commerce, members of the Reading Orioles and their visiting Orioles from Buffalo NY, the citizens patriotic committee and the Ringgold Band. Once they made their way to the Armory, the crowd was joined by Company I, who acted as escort for the departing Company A. The parade route ran up Walnut Street to 4th Street, down 4th Street to Penn Street, up Penn Street to 6th Street, and finally out 6th Street to the Outer Station. Thousands of American flags waved. Just about everyone had a flag to show their support.

The parade was met by the Reading Firefighters with all their apparatus on Penn Street. Once the parade emerged on Penn, the firemen sounded their sirens and rang their bells to the roaring cheers of the crowd. The square was a massive blanket of cheering with the farewell salute continuing until the parade left the square and made its way north on 6th Street. As a permanent daily reminder of the departure of Reading’s first troops for service in the war, an immense 24 foot flag was hung in the main dining room of the Mansion House on this day.  Mansion House manager, Anson Christ said, “The flag will stay there until the boys come back home again for we know they will uphold the flag wherever they may be and we will be proud of them and thinking of them every day they are absent from Reading.” The raising of the flag in such a position followed a precedent at the Mansion House that dates back to the Civil War when a similar gesture was made in honor of the First Defenders in 1861.

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Once at the Outer Station, the crowd from the parade swelled to the point where the station was overrun with a sea of humanity. The overflow crowd climbed roofs and boxcars to get their last glimpse of Company A. Officials kept the platform clear as the soldiers broke rank to spend their last minutes in town with loved ones. The scene as reported in the Reading Eagle was touching: mothers warmly embracing their sons as their fathers stood trying to conceal the pride that swelled inside them. Sweethearts smiling through tears as they took leave of their lover soldiers, pressing keepsakes into their hands to remind them that someone was home waiting for them. The train left the Outer Station at 4:15pm and headed to Augusta, Georgia.

Following the grand send off for Company A, Captain Kestner and Company I departed Reading on August 251917 in total obscurity. The time of departure was never officially made public and the newspapers asked citizens to refrain from coming to see the soldiers depart. The company did not depart from the Outer Station as Company A did. They left on four Philadelphia & Reading Railroad cars that were located close to the Armory on North 3rd Street. The soldiers of Company I did not know what specific time they were leaving until Captain Kestner informed them at noon to say their goodbyes to their parents and loved ones. The company would leave Reading by 2:30pm. At the designated time, the company was called to order for final inspection by Captain Kestner. Then they marched out in rows of four, taking a short hike to the waiting rail cars on North 3rd street.  By the time the afternoon Reading Eagle was delivered, the soldiers of Company I were headed on their 8 hour journey to Mineola, NY.

Article written & researched by Richard Polityka

Richard Polityka is a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center and project leader of the Berks History Center’s World War I project that commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Great War. 

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Summer in Berks: Andalusia Hall & Park

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Andalusia Hall & Park started as a farmhouse owned by the Maderia Family. Around 1865 they converted their home to a summer boarding house. Its location across from Charles Evans Cemetery, along what is now Centre Avenue, made it easily accessible for locals and visitors. Later owners converted it to a public house and park. One owner, Julius Hertwig, built a 2,000 seat bandshell in the lower area of the property. The Ringgold Band alternated with other local artists to play two to three concerts per week. There were also facilities for banquets and theatrical performances. In 1891, James H. Sternbergh purchased the property and tore down the Hall and park facilities to built his mansion, which is now the Stirling Guest Hotel at Robeson St. and Centre Ave.
 
(From the BHC Library’s Photograph Collection)

Sousa’s Signature: A Legend’s Final Note in Reading, PA

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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.

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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

A Sign of the Times: Uncovering More Berks County History

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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.

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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

Rulers of the Roost: Reading’s Most Prominent Social Club

 

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Photograph of the Stammtisch located on the Second Floor of the Berks History Center Museum

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.

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The 2nd Kuechler’s Roost – Postcard from the BHC Research Library Postcard Collection

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”

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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.

History in a Shaving Mug: More than Barbershop Banter

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Although this photograph does not capture the barbers of the Victorian Era, this Babershop Quartet, the “Original Four Quartet,” does depict the longstanding tradition of the “wet shave” and shaving mug. (From the Photograph Collection of the Berks History Center Research Library, Penn Wheelman Folder)

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.

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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