Scholla: Building Towns in Berks

Building Towns in Berks

Most of the older towns of Berks County had their beginnings during the middle of the 18th century. Just as land hunger sometimes grips whole communities and sends land values into a spiral, so there are periods when people want to found towns. This is the account of the efforts to build three towns in Berks.

In 1756, the soldiers stationed at Fort Henry in Bethel Township planned to build a town near the spot where the Seven Star Hotel now stands on Route 83. It was to be known as Snavely, because the building lots were cut out of Hannes Schnabele’s farm. Twenty lots were surveyed and a quit-rent of seven shillings was fixed as the price. In a letter from Colonel Busse of Reading to Conrad Weiser, January, 1757, the information is supplied that the soldiers at another fort planned to lay out a town on Eperecht’s farm. We do not know where that was. Can anyone supply the information?

The third account has to do with the founding of Reading. Conrad Weiser, as one of the commissioners for the town to built on the widow Finney Farm (now Reading), had it as his duty to see to it that purchasers of lots erected houses upon them within the stipulated period of time. His methods were not always tactful but they got results. On March 16, 1752, Richard Peters informed Thomas Penn as follows:

“It is very fortunate that I gave the management of that town (Reading) to Conrad whose imperiousness has been of great service, for they build regularly, or if they don’t, or are in any way abusing, Conrad deals about his blows without any ceremony and down drops the man who dares to resist his ponderous arm. But with all I must say that it is guided by good sense and a necessary fortitude.

Along this line, it is interesting to note one of Weiser’s own statements in which he reveals his methods. Two men, Jacob Heller and Michael Greter, both for lot No. 310 in Reading. “I gave Jacob Heller the return,” says Weiser in a letter to Richard Peters, “and ordered him to go and get a patent or be kicked – which he would (have been), I was then quite out of humor.” Decidedly.

Reading, PA looking over the Lebanon Valley. Source: https://www.crywolfservices.com/readingpa/
Reading, PA looking over the Lebanon Valley. Source: https://www.crywolfservices.com/readingpa/

A Brief History of Berks County, part 1

After 5 1/2 years assisting researchers in the Henry Janssen Library, it is interesting to learn how little people know of their ancestors and the time in which they lived.  The following is a brief history of Berks County, as I have learned it, by answering research request.  All of us at the Henry Janssen Library, have reviewed and interpreted multiple resources to formulate answers to help researchers understand the early history of the county. We are not expert historians writing a thesis, just teachers trying to make connections for people so they understand their family’s history.  I will not be citing those sources, however if you are interested in learning more, please contact me and I can point you to some books that may be of interest.  Many of the early histories are online at https://archive.org/, which is an online book database.  You can view these editions on your kindle, as a pdf, or just on your computer.  If more researchers understood the time their ancestors lived, I truly believe they would have a greater appreciation of their ancestors and realize you do not need to be famous to make history!

Statement: “My ancestor was born in Berks County in 1684.”

Answer:  No, not likely.

Why:  In 1684, the only people in Berks County were the Lenni Lenape, also known as the Delaware Indians. On February 28, 1681, King Charles II granted a land charter to William Penn as a payment for a debt owed to Penn’s father.  We celebrate this transaction every year.  Charter Day, celebrated on March 9 this year, is sponsored by PHMC and is a free event at the Daniel Boone and Conrad Weiser Homesteads.  Pennsylvania turned 333 years old in 2014 and the original charter went on exhibit at Pennsbury Manor.  William Penn instituted the colonial government on March 4, 1681.  In 1682, Penn signed a peace treaty with Tammany, leader of the Delaware tribe, which allowed for the settlement of Philadelphia.  The Philadelphia area was originally the Delaware village of Shackamaxon.  In 1701, Penn issued a Charter, establishing Philadelphia as a city.

While today, Philadelphia encompasses roughly 141.6 square miles, in 1701, it was considerably smaller and surrounded by forests. Eventually, as immigrants began arriving from Germany (mainly), Sweden and beyond, the population pushed out and began exploring the wilderness.  On October 21, 1701, William Penn granted, Swedish Lutheran Minister, Andreas Rudman 10,000 acres along the Manatawny Creek.  This area, as it turns out, was a significant economic center for the Delaware Indians with trails leading to Philadelphia and other parts of Pennsylvania.  The first settlers to reach Berks County established Morlatton Village, now Douglassville in 1716, fifteen years after the land grant.  From Morlatton Village, settlers begin buying up land in the Oley Valley, forming what are now Oley, Earl, Pike, District and Rockland Townships.  In 1723, Conrad Weiser arrived with a group of settlers from the Schoharie Region in New York and started the settlement of what are now Bern and Heidelberg Townships.

Something to remember: Berks County is still Indian Territory and all land belongs to the Delaware.  As more settlers arrive, they start taking more land not covered in the earlier treaties.  In 1737, the Penn Family and the Delaware signed the highly disputed Walking Purchase Treaty.  Because of the Treaty, the Penn’s gained ownership over 1,200,000 acres of land, which encompasses the present-day counties of Bucks, Carbon, Lehigh, Monroe, Northampton, Pike and Schuylkill.  This left Berks County open for settlement.

Your ancestors might have been in Pennsylvania in the late 1600s, but they were not in Berks County.

Coming up…How your ancestors came to Berks County

Image of the Charter to William Penn from the PHMC website:

Susanna Cox

So, a couple years ago, not too long after I arrived in Berks County, I was asked to review a new book on Susanna Cox.  While I had only been in Berks County, probably a year, I had heard all the stories and after reading the book, went to the primary resources, most of which were in the HJL (none of the Collection Names or resources at this facility were properly cited, they actually were not referenced at all…a BIG pet peeve of mine) and knew a good deal about the history.  One does not need to grow up with an area’s history to make an informed decision.  Being an outsider, apparently did not make me a trustworthy source when it came to this review and the author’s took offense.  What interested me most about the book was the discussion on the evolution of criminal investigation, forensic pathology and criminal prosecution and not the Susanna Cox story, which was the same story told to me by researchers, volunteers and Louis Richards, Susanna’s first biographer.  Unfortunately for Susanna, everything mentioned in the book was either too new or came later and was of no help to her case, nor do I think it would have made a difference in the outcome. 

Regardless, the Susanna Cox case has followed me over the past 3 years, and not that I find it overtly fascinating, we just keep finding references to it in little ways.  The following was found by accident.  My assistant Lisa brought a book to my attention, while she was getting ready to relabel and re-shelve it because it had just been re-inventoried.  This Genealogy is full of little “histories” that I hope to blog more about, but for now…here is a new version of the Susanna Cox History. (spellings and grammar are kept to how the original author wrote it…or I tried to.  Grammar was not important in 1886)

1776-1876 Centennial Book of Reminiscences, Traditions, Recollections, Habits, Manners, and Customs, and of what I Know of the Older TImes.  Written Expressly for the Van Reed Family.  J Van Reed, 1876.

pp.118-122 “What I know of Olden Times  Execution of Susanna Cox

     Of what I know, and heard tell of Hanging.  The first case I recollect of, and of which I shall give a condensed account was Susanna Cox.  A girl of 17 years of age who resided for 5 years in the family of Jacob Gehr, a farmer in Oley Township was delivered in the spring of the year 1809 of an illegitimate child, the body of which was found by Mr. Gehr wrapped in an old coat, and concealed in a hole under a closet in a room over the washhouse.  A corners inquest examined the body, and found the under jaw broken, and a piece of twisted tow stuffed in its throat.  The jury had made out that the child was born alive, which the girl however denied, she was tried before Judge Spayed, and convicted of murder in the first degree and sentenced to be HungShe subsequently made a full confession of her guilt.  Her execution took place on the 10 of June the same year 1809.  Never (I am told) such a numerous collection of People took place before.  Every body, it seamed symphacited [sympathized] with the unfortunate girl, and all with one accord, declared that Mr. Gehr should be hung, beside her, for reason to be presumed.

[I should note here that in the Broadsides and the two known histories on Susanna Cox, mentioned a “Mr. M” as the father of Susanna’s child and everyone assumed that Mr. M was a Mertz.  However, in random discussions when reading the latest history, I thought, like most people might today, the only person she would have had constant contact with would be Mr. Gehr.  J. Van Reed is the first account to accuse Susanna’s employer/Master as the child’s father.  I wonder how right he could be?  It is still listed as a Berks Mystery today!]

The Hanging was as aforesaid numerously attended. The taverns where all crowded the preceeding eavning, and all night wagons loaded with people from the country were passing through the streets, some comeing upwards of 70 Miles, (Executions then were yet Public) to see this unfortunate girl terminating her Earthly existance.  The Execution took place on what then was called Gallows-Hill.  from a calculation made by the space taken up by the spectators the number of people present must have been 25,000.  A little after 11 o’clock the mornful prosession moved from the Prisson (which then stood at the NE Corner of Washington and Sixth Streed Reading).  The unfortunate girl with a firm step and a smile on her countenance walked steight up to the awful place of Execution on the Commens at the foot of the hill supported and comforted by two Ministers of the Gospel.  After a small and appropriate Prayer for the wrong she had done had been delivered by her, she then ascended the scoffold and after the death – Warrant had been read to her.  She again most ernestly supplicated for Mercy, and for forgiveness of Sin and transgressions &c and biding a last farewell to all around her in a pitiful and solmen manner after which the cart on which she stood was drawn from under her.  She was lunched into eternity without a struggle.  The greatest decency was ubheld during the whole awful scene, and tears of symphathy were seen flowing very freely from the almost numberless croud of spectators.  It was indeed a day of SORROW from an eye witness. (yet living but guile an old man) to the above execution.  I have repeatitly obtained the following perticulars, the Girl

Susanna Cox

as a good looking girl; with black eyes and hair and red cheeks. She appeared to have manifested a wonderful degree of resignation, in regard of her fate.  On the eavening before the Execution she was visited in Prison by an old lady to whome she showed the Shroud that had been made for her.  The poor girl said “This is too long for me I can’t walk well in it tomorrow.  I beleave I will put a tuck in it.”  Dressed in her garment of death, She walked up Penn Street from the Jail to the hill, behind the cart which contained her coffin and was supported on each side by a clergyman.  The day was very hot and the sun in full meredian, in passing a Pump which stood on Penn Street below Seventh on the site no No 635.  She asked for a drink of water to drink the Sheriff stopped the cart, and brought her a pint measure of fresh water, which she drank.  The Gallows Erected on the side of the Hill at the head of Penn Street which consisted principally of two upright and cross pieces, in the middle of which the rope was tied.  Susanna mounted the cart and when the rope had been adjusted and the cap drawn over her eyes the cart was drivin from under her, and she was Suspended for some 10 minutes.  She contracted her Shoulders and gave signs of life.  The Hangman seeing this, took hold of her feet, and gave her body a jerk, one of her slippers comeing off fell to the ground which created one continuous moan through the croud at the limited time her body was taken down and a couble of physiscians bled her freely and jabbed her all over to restore life if possible but it was found that her neck had been broken by the Hangmans jerk.  The entire concourse of the spectators where effected to tears by the heart = ending specticle Indignation was loudly expressed against the Hangman, Who was a German, and a stranger in the place.  Who was hired by Sheriff Marks to perform the duty of hanging.  Towards Eavning this JACK KELCH came down (Gallowhill now Fifth) Street from the jail and was observed some Bully of the Town who was standing on the S.E corner of Sixth and Penn Street who went across the street to where Jamesons Cloathing Store now is and procured a Cow – Skin caught the hangman and flayed him so desperately that the blood ran down his legs.  Twenty silver 1/2 dollars the blood-money he had obtained for hes serveses as poor Susanna’s Executioner, dropped out of his pocket, which when he had picked up, he made off down Sixth Street as fast as he could, crased [crossed] over the Lancaster Ferry and was never heard off again in this neighborhood.  The body of Poor Susanna was givin to her friends and buried in the vicinity of Hampdon.

Follow-up.  The Susanna Cox story is (or was) taught to every child in school and is reenacted three times a day at the Kutztown Folk Festival.  Her’s is a story that Berks County wants remembered.  Some facts, they choose to forget.  For instance, the rope, made for the hanging, was too short.  So, while everyone remembers that Susanna was standing on the cart that carried her coffin, they forget that she was actually standing on top of her coffin in the cart, so they could get the rope to reach her neck.  Susanna was buried on a farm belonging to her brother-in-law, somewhere around the vicinity of Albright College.  She was in an unmarked grave, because her sister did not want her body disturbed.  It is believed that road crews working in the Hampden Heights area a few years ago, came across an unmarked grave and found the body of a female.  It was removed to a site unknown.  Everyone speculated that it was Susanna.  Susanna Cox goes done in Pennsylvania History as being the last woman hung publicly in the Commonwealth.  Not something I would like to be known for.  Some historians say she didn’t do it, others say she did.  Was Mr. Gehr the father or Mr. Mertz?  And who is Mr. Mertz?  For better or worse, the story of Susanna Cox sparks interest in her story and almost compels you to seek out more information. 

I will share more from J Van Reed’s diary a little later.  It is one of the better “finds” found in the library.  I will also try and gather some information on him as well. 

 

Voted Most Smartest

December is almost over and I am sitting here surrounded by a mound of collections that I would love to finish before January 2nd, but realistically will not have finished until the end of next year.  I am a little nostalgic this year, because of everything that has happened, and because I just finished the most awesome collection that can be found in almost every historical society across the country.  This collection is the most under-utilized and never thought of primary resource.  Do I have your attention yet?  Are you wondering what collection could possibly be THAT interesting?

One of the most interesting primary resources that goes virtually unnoticed are yearbooks.  That’s right….yearbooks.  Now, in Berks County, we have a ton of schools, including the Boy’s High School, Girl’s High School and Standard Evening High School which all became Reading Senior High School.  Some Townships had their own, like Shillington and Sinking Spring, until they merged into Wilson.  Then, like in the case of Oley, after a while started printing separate yearbooks for their Elementary School and Middle School.  These are just a few examples.  I still wonder how they came up with their names like Colophon (Wyomissing High School) and Muhltohi (Muhlenberg Township High School).  Maybe if I had the opportunity to read the inside it would be explained.

PLEASE NOTE:  when requesting yearbooks in the HJL, researchers should request by Township, except for Reading.  We all know the Arxalma is for Reading High School.

Now, why are they over-looked as primary resources?  Go, grab your senior yearbook.  Go ahead.  Open it up.  Now, when your done laughing at your hairstyle, clothes or what your friend wrote over her picture, really take a look.  Yearbooks, especially a full run, whether it’s yours from Kindergarten till graduation, or a 50 year run for a school district are a treasure trove of information.  While they “attempt” to document a school year, they actually chronicle clothing and hair styles, changes in attitudes and societal influences.  Often, they document “current” events for a particular year all under the auspices of “Memories”. Best of all, they have photographs.  So, if you can remember your grandmother’s maiden name and what year she graduated, you can see a picture of her, when she was 16, 17 or 18 and just starting to make her way in the world.

While they are a reminder of your past and 18 years of your life that some people want to forget, or in my case can’t really remember, they document a society.  Currently, my yearbooks are at my parents house in New York.  But I did happen upon one or two while processing for 1995.  I am a graduate of Newfane Senior High, Class of 1995.  In looking through those yearbooks, they reminded me of mine.  Even though there is (what seems like) a gazillion miles distance between Berks County and Newfane, NY, we all had the same hair styles, clothes, and un-stylish glasses.  We all acted the same, thought about the same things; all had the same hopes and dreams that were rudely dashed upon entering college.  We all struck out into this world wanting to contribute and make something of ourselves, just like our parents (Class of 1960-something) and our grandparents (class of 1930-something).  And lets face it…we all thought we had style back then!

So, while your home visiting family this Holiday Season, break out those yearbooks.  Whether they are yours or your parents, take a look.  You might be surprised at what you’ll learn or uncover within those pages that can add to a family discussion, or your research!

From all of us at the Henry Janssen Library have a very MERRY CHRISTMAS, HAPPY HANUKKAH and a very safe and HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Awkward Middle School Years