Originally published in the September 2017 issue of Berks County Living
Although Birdsboro would not be officially incorporated for another 110 years, it was already a town of considerable size when Berks County was constituted in 1762. Today it remains one of the largest boroughs in the county, but its early history had a much more iron-clad claim to fame.
A New Kind of Plantation
The area was named for its founder, William Bird, who took warrants for land on Hay Creek as early as 1737 and continued to expand the boundaries of what would become Birdsboro until his death in 1761. Shortly after his arrival, Bird established the New Pine Forge along the Hay Creek near the junction of the Schuylkill River. Over time he built several other forges that would provide pig iron for the Revolutionary Way, armaments for the War of 1812, the plowshares used to settle the Midwest, and the rails that crossed the country.
His son, Marcus Bird, continued his enterprise by building a furnace on the French Creek at Hopewell in 1770. Hopewell Furnace operated from 1771 to 1883 and was the largest producer of iron in America at the time of the Revolutionary War. It, and other “iron plantations,” laid the foundation for the transformation of America into an industrial giant. But iron was a thankless industry and by the time the war had ended Mark Bird was unable to collect from the bankrupt Continental Congress. When resurgent British iron started to flood the market with inexpensive materials Bird and his partners lost everything.
A Town Forged in Steel
In 1788 creditors took ownership of the Bird forges. The enterprise changed hands again when Matthew Brooke, a descendent of the Bird family, purchased all of their lands. The iron works saw rapid development between 1808 and 1816, during which time it remained one of the best-equipped facilities in the country. When Brooke died in 1821 the family business passed to his sons, Edward and George, who organized it into the E&G Brooke Iron Company. Over the years it would become the Birdsboro Iron Foundry, Co., and eventually the Birdsboro Steel Company.
Birdsboro Steel prospered, and as the town’s principle employer for nearly 120 years its influence is what made the growth of the town possible. During World War I the Birdsboro Steel Foundry and Machine Company was added and further expansion during World War II saw the addition of Armorcast. Armorcast was established as a tank plant in 1944, but failure to win a government contract during the war weakened the company. The plant finally closed in 1988 amid rising steel imports and a lengthy strike.
Our Famous Frontiersman
William and Marcus Bird are not the only significant historical figures with roots in the area. Daniel Boone was born in present-day Birdsboro, and his homestead still stands open to the public. While Boone is usually associated with the early history of Kentucky, and for blazing a trail through the Cumberland Gap, he grew up here in the Pennsylvania woodlands. His family left the area in 1759 to settle in North Carolina, where his campaigns in the French and Indian War and his battles with local Indians made him famous.
Did You Know?
All In The Family The Birdsboro Community Memorial Center was originally built by William Bird in 1751. The mansion was remodeled by the citizens of the borough in 1920.
A Revolutionary Leader Mark Bird was among the leaders of the local revolutionary movement, and served on numerous committees preparing for war with England.
Please Sign Here James Wilson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was one of the creditors to take over the Bird forges in 1788.