Paving the Way for Women, Up & Down Duryea Drive: Rhea Duryea

Rhea Duryea, BHC Museum Collection

When I began my “career” as a docent at the Berks History Center, I learned about a young woman named Rhea Duryea. She was pictured in the museum’s Transportation Room. If you’ve been there, you know there is a Conestoga Wagon, a Horse Car, and a Duryea Phaeton car. When I was searching for a woman from Reading to portray in the DAR’s Famous Ladies’ Tea, I decided to find out more about Rhea. She was born in 1885 in Peoria, Illinois, but moved to Reading when she was 14 years old because her father, Charles, brought his Duryea Power Company to Reading. From 1900-1911, automobiles were manufactured here. Rhea was the oldest of the four children who lived first on Spruce Street and later moved to Douglass Street. Charles encouraged Rhea and her sister, Grace, to be involved in whatever interested them, not in just what was expected of a woman of the 1900s. Rhea grew up learning all about motors and bicycles and cars and how they ran!

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She is probably best known for being her father’s test car driver–at age 15! In 1901, when she had mastered the skill of successfully cranking the drive shaft, she was often seen driving her dad’s three or four wheeled vehicles toward Mt. Penn. At Mt. Penn she would then drive the car up Mt. Penn Boulevard (now known as Duryea Drive) and back down again. Her dad would not agree to sell a car unless the car could be successfully driven up and down the hilly and winding road now known as  Duryea Drive. Not many women drove cars (or were thought of as being physically able to) because of several reasons: it was difficult to crank the drive shaft, which could take  two minutes or more of strenuous cranking; there was no steering wheel, you had to steer by using a perpendicular tiller located between the two front seats; with one hand, you had to steer, set the clutch, and throttle the motor! Make sure you check out the Duryea vehicle in the  BHC Museum Transportation Room. You could sit on either side of the tiller in the front and of course there were no speed limits or rules. Her biggest problem on the road were the horses, that would balk and refuse to move when she was near them in a car!

Rhea Duryea on a Duryea automobile. BHC Museum Collection. 

Rhea was unafraid to try things that were not the “norm” for a woman of that time. She graduated from  Ursinus College in 1908, where she sang, acted in plays and was the manager of the women’s basketball team. She became a teacher and author of several books about genealogy. Rhea was a woman of many firsts: the first baby to be carried to the top of the Washington Monument; the first teenaged girl to drive a car; the first woman named to the Ursinus Board of Directors. She served in that capacity from 1926-1969! I could not find out much information about Rhea after she left Reading and got her degree. I know she married, rather late in life, to a man from Philadelphia, whose last name was Johnson. As far as I could find out, she had no children. I even had to ask an Ursinus alumnus to help me find out anything about her later life. I do think that Rhea was a woman of many interests and dreams. She helped pave the way for women to step out of their comfort zones and experience new opportunities that previously had been unheard of for a woman.

Hallie Vaughan is a Women’s History enthusiast, instructor and reinactor and longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center. As a guest blogger Hallie will focus on Women’s History in Berks County. 


Mystery Woman of the Week #3

I was the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court. I was appointed by President Reagan in 1981. Who am I?

Answer to Mystery Woman #2

Wilma Rudolph


A Woman with Wings: Frances Dean Wilcox Nolde


Nolde Forest. Photo: A Hike Through Nolde Forest by Susan Charkes

If you have lived in Berks County for most of your life, like I have, you have probably been to Nolde Forest, on route 625, in Cumru Township. It is a State Park where you can enjoy hiking, birdwatching, and taking photos of beautiful trees and animals. A few years ago, I was there and heard about Frances Nolde, one of Hans Nolde’s three wives. What I found out was that she was an awesome woman who followed her dream and made her dream her career and life.

Frances was born in Deposit, NY, in 1902. Kind of a strange name for a town, but people there probably think Bird-In-Hand and Sinking Spring are odd names, too! Originally her home town was named Deanville after her family but over time the commercial effort of bringing logs down from Canada created the wish for a new name: Deposit.

As a child and teenager she loved music and drama and had a dream of being an opera singer. When she was 16, her parents sent her to the Oberlin Conservatory to study music. While she was there, she was told her voice wasn’t strong enough to sing opera. She had taken piano lessons for years so she turned her attention to piano. She received her BS and BA degrees in music from Syracuse University, where she met and fell in love with Carlton Brown, who became a well-known screen writer in Hollywood. They married and had one daughter, Sally. But they soon divorced. She and Sally moved to NYC where she decided to follow her musical and stage career dreams. She loved the glamour of New York and was told she looked like Marlene Dietrich, but her acting career was short lived. She was offered a part in a radio soap opera, which she took, and played a major role as Gloria Gay!

Nolde Mansion. Photo: Christine Mitchell,

A friend introduced her to hosiery manufacturer, Hans Nolde in the late 20s. She said he was charming and handsome and before she knew it, she was married and living in the Nolde Mansion in Reading, PA! Frances and Hans had two children, a son, Chris and a daughter, Frances. Along with Hans’s 4 children from his first marriage and Sally – that made 7 kids at the mansion! She loved the children and all their activities, and of course, the parties.

She was a board member of the Jr. League of Reading and she directed and founded the New School, a country day school at the bottom of Mt. Penn, which later moved to the Sheerlund Forest area. She always felt that education was the keystone to life. She made sure all 7 kids went to good schools and colleges.

During the 20s and 30s she was very happy with her life until she fell in love and was consumed by flying! Hans encouraged her to learn to fly, which may have been his biggest mistake! She loved flying, caught on quickly and before long was heading daily to the airport. At one time, she had amassed the highest number of solo flying hours of all women pilots in the United States.

Kenney, Clayton, and United States. Office of Civilian Defense. Civil Air Patrol. Eyes of the home skies.. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1943. Web. 08 Mar 2018

When the U.S. entered WWII, she wanted to help with the war efforts, so she joined the Civil Air Patrol (CAP). The CAP combined her love of flying with her love of country. Her job with the CAP was to ferry cargo and personnel around the US. This would free up the male pilots for combat in Europe. Frances was named commander of the Reading Station, and as Lieutenant, she flew her own Fairchild on many of the flights. Sometimes she worked 7 days a week, flying and keeping the logs, records and ledger books up to date. In the year between 1944 and 1945, her station logged 295 flights out of Reading with a total of 480 hours of flying time. The delivery of supplies helped to speed the war effort throughout the states. After WWII she remained active with the group and attained the rank of full Colonel, which was the highest rank a woman could achieve. She had logged 4500 hours flying for the CAP and was the first National Director of Women in Aviation for the CAP.

Frances Nolde from the Reading Eagle, May 29, 1949

She continued flying and in 1948, won the inaugural All Women’s Transcontinental Air Race–Powder Puff Derby– from LA to Miami. In 1949, she became the first woman to sit on the Reading Airport Commission and worked to have the airport named for General Carl A. Spatz of Boyertown, the first national director of the US Air Force Academy. In 1950, her hometown of Deposit, NY dedicated their air show to her and renamed their airport in her honor.

In 1952 Hans and Frances divorced and she went to Washington, DC, where she lived the remainder of her life. She had a phenomenal career working for the U.S. Department of Commerce as the Director of General Aviation in the Defense Air Transportation Administration. She logged over 10,000 hours as a commercial pilot and received too many awards to mention here. One of her favorite organizations was the Ninety-Nines. This was begun by the first group of female pilots. When the pilots could not agree on a name for the group, Amelia Earhart suggested that the group be called the Twenty-Six for the number of female pilots present at the meeting. The organization grew in numbers: The 26, then the 43, then the 87. Finally they stopped at 99! The group was formed to coordinate the interests and efforts of women in the aviation industry. They did everything from running Powder Puff Derbies to helping women become pilots and mechanics. They are still active and have chapters all across American grew to international status.

Francis passed away in 1995 at age 93. Chris and Frances (daughter) are still living. She made amazing contributions to our aviation history and yet, not a lot of people are aware of her accomplishments.

Hallie Vaughan is a Women’s History enthusiast, instructor and reinactor and longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center. As a guest blogger Hallie will focus on Women’s History in Berks County. 


Mystery Woman of the Week #2

I was the first woman to win 3 Gold Medals in an Olympics, in 1960, in track and field. I had polio, as a child, and most people thought I would never walk again, let alone run.

Mystery Woman of the Week #1  

Answer:   Elizabeth Blackwell


Reading: The Town of Widow Finney

During the month of March (National Women’s History Month) I will be posting a blog on some of the women of Berks County. I hope I will be choosing some women that will be interesting to you and you may find them as amazing as I do. Also, I will include a Mystery Woman of the Week for you to read and test your knowledge.


Have you ever eaten at The Speckled Hen? For the longest time, historians thought that this log cabin had been the home of Sarah Finney, better known as Widow Finney. Later it was determined that the original Finney home was where Judy’s on Cherry is located today.

Sarah was born about 1685 in Philadelphia, to what we might call “well-to-do” parents. She married Joseph Finney and the two of them decided to make a life of their own as homesteaders near the ford in the Schuylkill River along what was called the Perkiomen Path. They had two sons, Sam and John and two daughters, Rebecca and Anne. Joseph planned a plantation with fruit trees and for two years, Joseph and Sarah and their sons and daughters worked tirelessly to clear the land, and make a home for the Finney family. Unfortunately, Joseph died in 1734 only a few years after making their homestead. Not long after that, Sam and John died also.

Making a life in the wilderness was no easy task! So Sarah was left along the frontier, with her two daughters. Her family wanted her to come back to Philadelphia and live there with them. Whether she was stubborn or determined, I’m not sure, but she decided to stay at their homestead. She couldn’t bear the thought of leaving the land they had worked so hard to settle. Her home became a haven and rest stop for travelers, hunters, trappers and Native Americans as they walked or rode along the Perkiomen Path. Sarah always had fresh bread, soup or stew on the hearth for those who stopped in. And, oh yes, her pies were made with the fresh fruit from the orchard! Occasionally, a traveler might spend the night.

Her homestead was so well-liked that the area which today is Reading, was once known as The Town of Widow Finney! For more than ten years Sarah welcomed and chatted with Conrad Weiser, Mordecai Lincoln, Joseph Hiester and the Lenni Lenape Indians. She said she got along better with the Lenni Lenapes than she did with Thomas and Richard Penn and Thomas Lawrence! She felt that they represented land hungry businessmen! They owned the property adjacent to hers, and had mapped out a city plan and they were after her prime property. Sarah died in December of 1743 and the deed to the property went to Rebecca. Through the use of clever land agents and surveyors, the Penns were able to recover the prominent site from the widow’s heirs and build their town at the best location. And, the rest, so they say, is history!


Mystery Woman of the Week (Watch for the answer in my next blog)

I was the first female doctor in the US, graduating from Geneva College in 1847, even though my acceptance there was considered to be a joke!


Hallie Vaughan is a Women’s History enthusiast, instructor and reinactor and longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center. As a guest blogger Hallie will focus on Women’s History in Berks County. 


Welcome Women’s History Guest Blogger: Hallie Vaughn

Just in time for Women’s History Month, the Berks History Center welcomes Women’s History enthusiast, Hallie Vaughan as a guest blogger on the BHC blog. In addition to being a longtime member, volunteer and presenter at the Berks History Center, Hallie will be contributing to the Berks History Center’s blog for Women’s History Month. 

Hallie Vaughan dressed as a “Hello Girl,” a WWI servicewoman phone operator in the BHC World War I & Berks exhibit.

My interest in Women’s History began in the 80s while I was teaching 4th grade in the Muhlenberg School District. It has probably always been part of my background, because I remember questioning, when I was a little girl, why girls were unable to participate in everything or play everything that boys were. But during my teaching career, I was looking for stories to enhance and interest students’ independent reading. Especially during what seemed like the long haul between New Years and spring break.

I heard about the movement to get women written back into history and March being National Women’s History Month. I went to the school and community libraries and took out biographies of some famous women. At first, I was unfamiliar with many of the women who I was reading about. The more I read, the more I was amazed at the accomplishments of American women, who most people, myself included, knew nothing about! I began to make copies of short stories, collect posters and make creative activities about these women to use in my classroom.

Throughout March, I would host a” Mystery Woman of the Day” contest where I posted a question each day like: “I was the first female doctor in America, graduating in 1847. Who am I?” I found a website sponsored by the National Women’s History Project, where I bought stickers, bookmarks, pencils, etc., for daily prizes. The school librarian and I worked with the students to write skits about famous American women and present the skits to the other 4th graders.

Each year teachers and other people began to give me posters or news articles or suggestions about an American woman to include in my activities. When I switched to teaching 3rd grade, I just continued with the women’s history events in March. Even now that I’ve been retired over 10 years, the 3rd grade teachers at the Muhlenberg Elementary Center still invite me to present a program to their current students.

After retiring, I began presenting programs to community groups, retirees, schools and basically, anyone who has an interest in women’s history! About a year or two after I retired in 2004, Sally Reading, invited me to begin teaching women’s history courses for Alvernia’s Seniors College. This is something I love doing and has become part of my fall activities. I have taught Women of the Revolution, Women of the Civil War, Suffering’ Suffragists, Berks County Women, Pennsylvania Women, Who Knew It was Women Who Could Make That Happen (Inventors), Explorers, Women of the Military, Ministry and Athletics, and more!

The amazing thing to me is how much I learn by teaching these classes. Another important piece of my background is the DAR-Daughters of the American Revolution. This group traces its ancestry back to someone who fought in or participated in the Revolutionary War.

In the 90s I had the opportunity to travel to Windsor, CT, where my Revolutionary War ancestor lived and fought with the Green Mountain Boys under Ethan Allen. My mother was also involved in DAR and she’s the one who got me interested in this great organization. I have served as Historian, Chaplain, Vice-Regent and Regent of our Berks County Chapter. Eleven years ago we started an event called the Famous Ladies’ Tea to fund our DAR Good Citizens Scholarship. This event is still going strong and I have portrayed a different American woman each of the years.

I want to thank the Berks History Center for inviting me to present the Second Saturday program on March 10, 2018 about America’s First Soldiers – The Hello Girls, and write a blog about some awesome American women, from near and far. I look forward to your responses!


Julia Nagel Shanaman Elmer: A Berks County Musician

Julia Shanaman_LC01_Box1_Folder1_Item9

Julia Nagel Shanaman Elmer (1900-1986) was a Berks County woman of many talents. Many may not know her by name, but her legacy carries inspiration far beyond what anyone would expect from a small town music teacher. Julia Nagel Shanaman started the Shanaman Studio of Music in Reading, Pa around 1924 after receiving her teacher’s diploma. In 1927 she received her diploma in music theory and in 1929 she received her Piano Soloist Diploma. She later attended the Philadelphia Music Academy, receiving her Artist Diploma in 1935, in addition to gracefully achieving her Bachelors in Music in 1937 just after her marriage to Jasper Elmer in 1936.

Music Theory Diploma 1927

Despite adopting a new surname, Julia kept moving above and beyond in the music world. She was a skilled pianist and music teacher. She received her Graduate Certificate in Piano from Ornstein School of Music in Philadelphia in 1951, and served with them for the next five years. Afterwards she served the Combs College of Music for the next ten years.  Elmer became involved with the Community School of Music and the Arts in Reading as a piano and theory instructor in 1966, overlapping with her time serviced to the Music Club of Reading as their president for two consecutive terms. In addition to all of her glowing achievements, Julia was elected to the American College Musicians Hall of Fame in 1968.

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Her legacy as a profound musical educator and instrumentalist was honored with the establishment of the Julia N. Shanaman Elmer Piano Scholarship in 1987 by the Music Club of Reading, just after her passing. She was a marvelous teacher, musician and friend who had an unsurpassable enthusiasm for her craft. Her legacy lives on through her only son, Cedric Nagel Elmer, whose donation of concert recordings, programs and photographs to the Berks History Center has made all of this information and acknowledgement possible for the late and great Julia Nagel Shanaman Elmer.

Researched & Written by Mackenzie Tansey


Can History Go A Day Without A Woman?

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Can you really imagine A Day Without A Woman? Historically speaking, women have always been essential to our nation’s security and economic well-being. After the United States entered World War II in 1941, the Coast Guard formed a Women’s Reserve, better known as SPAR. Created to relieve men of office work so that they could go overseas to fight, most of the jobs were clerical in nature.

Mildred Hiller Snyder, a Kutztown graduate and teacher at Reading Schools, served our country in SPAR as a Specialist, Petty Officer of the First Class. From 1944 to 1946, she worked in collaboration with the FBI in processing fingerprints at her office in Philadelphia. These artifacts, articles of Snyder’s time in the military, are now on display in Berks History Center’s Museum for Women’s History Month.

Snyder’s contributions are just one local example of how our national history has been shaped by women. Yesterday’s International Women’s Day Strike is another. Today women continue to make their mark, as they always have, in the books of American history.  How do your daily activities contribute to history-in-the-making?

Women’s History Exhibit Items Curated & Researched by Erin Benz