This article was originally published in the December 2015 issue of Berks County Living.
Berks County still remembers the Berkshire Kitting Mills, but many don’t know that the mills were actually the foundation for the Borough of Wyomissing. The area where many go to “live in a park,” or to find great shopping and dining was actually founded around industry.
The Borough of Wyomissing Industries
The foundations of the Borough of Wyomissing were laid through a series of business transactions. Reading lumber dealer Thomas Merritt purchased 600 acres in the area and worked with the Reading Suburban Real Estate Company, and several other prominent local businessmen, to buy and sell lots in an attempt to expand the city limits westward.
The area was slow to develop, so in 1896 the company offered a prime piece of real estate to Ferdinand Thun and Henry Jannsen to expand their Textile Machine Works facility, hoping that industry would help to spur growth. Thun and Jannsen paid $1 for land along the railroad and built the area’s first factory. In 1899 they opened the Narrow Fabric Company to meet the demanding needs of the Textile Machine Works, and six years later they developed a full-fashioned knitting machine that would change the face of Wyomissing. The Berkshire Knitting Mills opened in 1906 to become the largest full-fashioned hosiery mill in the world.
Live in a Park
As the Wyomissing Industries grew, so did the neighborhood. Thun and Jannsen wanted the area to be beautiful despite being built around a factory complex. They enlisted the expertise of municipal planners and landscape architects to help build a place where residents could “live in a park.” They had more than 2,400 shade trees planted throughout the residential area, and Thun acquired land along the creek, including the Stone House and its 15-acre meadow property, to create a green corridor.
Throughout the 1920s the area’s founding fathers worked with the park association to negotiate several land purchases and swaps to preserve trees and lands, especially along the creek. Thun’s son eventually took over his mission and through his efforts with the Wyomissing Foundation, and gifts from the Thun family, the park system now consists of over 300 acres.
Outlet Capital of the World
By the mid-1960s the Berkshire Knitting Mills were struggling, and sold to Vanity Fair in 1969 for $13.2 million. VF closed down the mills after only one year, and instead opened a factory store to sell some of its lingerie and nightgowns. Shoppers came in such large numbers that the company eventually added more of their own products and brought in Freeman Shoes. Soon dozens of other companies leased spaces to fill up the complex of Berkshire buildings, and more stores opened in old textile and industrial buildings in Reading. The allure of the outlets drew millions of shoppers from Philadelphia and New York, for a short time turning Wyomissing and Reading into the Outlet Capital of the World. When the boom subsided with the proliferation of outlet centers throughout the region the shops in Reading closed, but those in Wyomissing still remain.
Stone Convictions Christian Schmucker, builder of the Stone House, was nearly executed for refusing to serve in the Revolutionary War due to his religious convictions.
Community Chest Ferdinand Thun’s twin sons crafted their own version of Monopoly before it was copywrited by the Parker Brothers. It is said the Community Chest cards were their idea.
Stocking Up At its peak, the Berkshire Knitting Mills produced more than 25 million pairs of women’s stockings per year.