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West Reading, Born for Wyomissing | Berks County Living History Buff

West Reading, Born from Wyomissing | A Berks County Living History Buff Article

Originally published in the December issue of Berks County Living; photos courtesy of the West Reading Community Revitalization Foundation

The Borough of West Reading was not always the cultural epicenter we know it as today. It wasn’t until the population boom in neighboring Wyomissing spilled into the area that it began the transformation into one of the most diverse entertainment districts in Berks.

All Infrastructure, No Frills

The area that would become West Reading was originally settled in 1733. A few small homes were built over time, but the area did not experience any real growth until 1864 when Frederick Frill purchased 116 acres of farmland and laid out the lots in what would become known as the “Frill Plan.” The lots sold quickly and developed into present-day Franklin Street, then Third through Sixth Streets were settled as the population spread west from the city. The first attempt at incorporation failed amidst loud protests but four years later, on March 18, 1907 the borough was officially incorporated.

West Reading’s greatest expansion occurred from 1923 to 1930 as a result of the Wyomissing Development Company’s expansion and beautification efforts. The growing population in the neighboring borough spilled east toward the city and contributed to significant growth of West Reading. The borough grew to become the largest of Berks County’s 30 boroughs by the 1950s.

Collateral Damage

While West Reading was not the direct product of rail development like the City of Reading, the area was still caught in the collateral damage resulting from one of the country’s largest and most destructive railroad strikes. Reading had become the largest anthracite carrier in the world and many of the line’s workers settled west of the city. In 1877, in response to a coordinated 10% pay cut across several major area lines, many West Reading residents went on strike.

The strike spread rapidly, becoming the first nationwide labor action. When news of the riots in Pittsburgh reached Reading, local strikers were sparked into action. A mob crowded the streets near Penn Avenue, and in their fury the group set fire to the Lebanon Valley Railroad Bridge over the Schuylkill River. The bridge – a main artery to Harrisburg – was destroyed.

Love West Reading

In addition to serving as the home for many of the city’s rail workers, West Reading also came to be known for brickmaking. Three yards in the area employed more than 200 people and frame buildings and clay pits largely covered the southern section of the community. The area did not become the cultural center we know it as today until 1998 when a group of elected officials and business owners came together to develop an improvement plan to rescue the area from years of benign neglect.

The plan included an expanded borough hall and a new fire hall in addition to borough-wide equipment and facility updates and beautification efforts. The plan also formed the PA Main Street Program, to deliver management services to local businesses. Since it’s formation the program has improved property values and vacancy rates along Penn Avenue and has presided over 35 new business openings from 1999 to 2007. Today the foundation runs a full schedule of family-friendly events, bringing in thousands of people from all over the county to shop, dine, and love West Reading.

Did You Know?

The Mine Hole An old iron ore mine became a community attraction when a spring broke through the walls and flooded the hole. Residents frequented “Weiser Lake” for many years until it was filled in for development.

527 Penn Avenue The West Reading Hotel was the oldest building in the borough. It closed in 1964 after 145 years. The 3-story hotel was located where Chef Alan’s Bistro sits, and served as a meeting place and social club.

You’re Invited The Reading Hospital’s annual Garden Party has been running for more than 80 years. The event features old-fashioned lawn games that promote wellness and raise money for a variety of medical causes.

Birdsboro: Iron Clad | History Buff

Birdsboro Iron-Clad | History Buff - Originally published in September 2017 issue of Berks County Living

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.

Leesport Borough | History Buff

Leesport Borough History Buff | Originally published in the June 2017 issue of Berks County Living

Originally published in the June 2017 issue of Berks County Living

The small borough of Leesport formed thanks to one local man who recognized opportunity when the railroad came to town. However, unlike many other areas in Berks County that sprang up along the tracks, Leesport experienced a full transportation evolution in its early history.

A Transportation Evolution

The development of Leesport Borough began as early as 1745 when the area was surveyed for a road connecting Reading to Maidencreek. The Centre Turnpike was completed years later, in 1805, linking Reading and Schuylkill County and kick starting the local transportation evolution. Just a few years later, in 1812, the Schuylkill Navigation Company was formed to transport coal, lumber, produce, and other goods out of Schuylkill County via a system of canals along the river. The canals spanned 108 miles beginning in Port Carbon, running through five counties, and ending in Philadelphia.

The Leesport section of the Schuylkill Canal was completed in 1822 and soon a small trading post sprang up along the route – near what is now the intersection of Canal and Shackamaxon – where farmers would go to exchange their produce for other goods. Four locks originally operated in the area, which attracted many other small businesses and residents to the riverbanks. The canal was hugely successful for many years, primarily due to the huge demand for coal generated by the Industrial Revolution. However, the Schuylkill Navigation Company suffered from the opening of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad in 1842. By 1870 the canal was leased to the railroad company, and expansion of the rail lines eventually led to its closure.

Wrong Side of the Tracks

The railroad’s activities created an impetus to lay out a town north of Reading. Samuel Lee recognized the opportunity and purchased a 75-acre tract of land on the east bank of the river with the intention of setting aside lots to build a town. But when the railroad was finally built, the tracks were laid on the west side of the river. The railroad needed a name to put on the station built there, so they borrowed the name from across the water and called it West Leesport. The village that grew around it soon adopted the name. The towns on both sides of the river grew and prospered, but eventually merged in 1954 so the east side could utilize the water system the west side had developed.  Three years later the two sides of the borough formally incorporated together as Leesport.

Famous Farmers

Today the small borough’s real claim to fame is the Leesport Farmer’s Market. It was founded as the Leesport Market and Auction by LeRoy Weist and family in 1947 out of a need for a place to sell livestock. When LeRoy and his wife Mary married they purchased 30 acres of farmland on the north side of Leesport with the intention of building homes. But around the same time the Bernville slaughterhouse stopped taking livestock and the Weists saw the need for a place to sell them. With the help of their family they built a cattle barn and a 4,000-sqaure-foot market building. On opening day – July 9, 1947 – 97 head of cattle were consigned by 25 sellers.

What’s in a Name? Samuel Lee rented warehouse space at the local port along the Schuylkill Canal, which soon came to be known as Lee’s Port. Leesport became the borough’s official name in 1957.

Town Centers? Leesport’s growth was unique in that the center of town shifted with each new mode of transportation. First was the Centre Turnpike stagecoach station, then the lockhouse, the railroad station, and finally Pottstown Pike.

Calling all History Buffs The Leesport Area Historical Society will be presenting on the history of the borough next month! Visit leesporthistory.org or call 610.926.6600 for details.

Keeping the Giving Going

Keeping the Giving Going_originally published in the April 2017 issue of Berks County Living

Originally published in the April 2017 issue of Berks County Living

Together we can. The Bryant Johnson Community Fund is dedicated to that idea; that together the people of the City of Reading can unite to create a better community for future generations.

Finding the Drive

One good deed inspires another. Sam Bryant – a constable in the City of Reading and a Reading High School varsity football coach – was assisting with an athletic department food drive. When the first donation was dropped off, three cans of corn, Bryant made up his mind that he needed to do more to help those in need in his community. “To actually receive food and to know where it was going to go, it was one of the best feelings of my life. There was no way I could not continue to do this.”

In January of 2015 Bryant held his own food drive. He worked with local schools to collect items for families and organizations across the city. After the first event, he teamed up with his cousin Carissa Johnson, and the two formed the community fund. They wanted to be more than just the food drive, so they planned an event for every month of 2016, including what has become the annual Resolution to Fight Hunger food drive in January. Just over a year later, the community fund now has a volunteer board of directors that coordinates efforts across the city.

A City United

Each of the organization’s events is aimed at commanding unity. Bryant recalled growing up when the city was a tight knit community, and is trying to inspire that among residents and businesses again. “Our biggest goal is to get the community out and involved and to know that there are others out there like them who need help.”

In addition to the food drive, they have also organized street and park clean ups, and volunteer opportunities all across Reading. “Anywhere that we can reach people we try to do it. Whether it’s 10 people or 200, we just want to reach them,” Bryant said. They have also established the annual Backpack to Victory drive. In 2016 they supplied bookbags full of supplies to more than 150 children around the city, and threw a back to school party including food, physical activities, and even haircuts courtesy of partnering city businesses. This year they hope to also provide simple health and dental screenings at the event.

Together We Can

Together We Can is a movement created by the fund to instill the core values of community, respect, commitment and accountability in the community’s youth. Bryant’s goal is to be in every city elementary school, working with the future of Reading at a young age. “Hopefully the early message creates a change at the middle and high school levels about how they feel about their community, and themselves and others,” he explained. “We’re trying to make sure our kids have those core values that we feel are lost right now.”

The Bryant Johnson Community Fund lends a hand to, and welcomes support from, residents, businesses and organizations throughout the City of Reading. If you are interested in getting involved please contact Sam Bryant at bryantjohnson.cf@gmail.com or 610.468.1390.

Did You Know

Say Cheese The Resolution to End Hunger drive is held through local elementary schools each year, and the class with the most items in each school gets a pizza party, courtesy of Maria’s Lounge and Restaurant.

The First Dollar The fund’s first donation was from Gwen Didden at Family Promise of Berks County. The money was to open a P.O. Box. Bryant said, “That’s what made it real.”

The Power of Unity Bryant collected 1500 items during his first food drive, but with the backing of Johnson and the rest of the fund, they were able to collect more than 7000 the following year.

 

The Borough of Kutztown | History Buff

The Borough of Kutztown | Berks County Living History Buff_March 2017

Originally published in the March 2017 issue of Berks County Living

In its early days, the history of the hamlet that would become the Borough of Kutztown was tied closely to that of neighboring Maxatawny. But the community at the crossroads of the Great Road and Saucony Creek eventually grew into its own as a thriving farming town, and as a resting place for weary travelers.

A Prosperous Crossing

Although the first pioneers from Philadelphia settled in the area in 1732, it saw little growth until the Great Road, or the Easton Road, was laid in 1755. At first a few homes and hotels sprang up along the road at the crossing of Saucony Creek, but it wasn’t until the road became a vital artery of commerce between Philadelphia and Easton that the small town started to expand.

Swiss emigrant George Kutz recognized the potential of the crossing and purchased 130 acres along the road the year it was laid. By 1779 the town of Maxatawny had been officially laid out. Within a few decades, the area had developed into a bustling township and the village on the Saucony was prospering. Its residents had grown impatient with township government and on March 1, 1815 the Borough of Kutztown was incorporated and named after its first resident.

Growth By Coach & Caboose

Thanks to its situation along the Great Road, the borough’s growth was closely tied to the transportation through it. In its early years, the area benefited immensely from the addition of a stage coach station. The Reading to Philadelphia coach line was established in 1789 and soon service ran from Reading to Easton daily, with an additional line running from Kutztown to Norristown. This provided incentive for the establishment of hotels, taverns, and other businesses dedicated to traveler’s needs.

Growth slowed for several years after coach service ceased in 1859 with the completion of the East Pennsylvania Railroad line from Reading to Allentown. The Auburn Line, meant to run from the main line to Kutztown, was funded in 1857 but a financial crisis halted the project. Residents waited more than ten years for work to resume. In 1868 the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad finally laid 4.5 miles of track from Topton to Kutztown, reconnecting commerce and trade and kick starting expansion. The short line was the most profitable for its length, handling vast amounts of freight and heavy passenger travel.

Fan Fair

They say practice makes perfect, which may be why Kutztown is so well-known for its fairs. As early as the 1830s Kutztown was home to a popular military fair. It was a celebration and reunion of local militia and volunteers, but the massive event began to lose popularity in the late 1860s when brawls became a common occurrence.

In 1870 the Kutztown Agricultural Association gave new life to the fairs. For several years it hosted horse races and an agricultural fair, until the original fairgrounds were sold in 1877 and the event was discontinued. Residents clamored for its return, so in 1905 the Kutztown Fair Association developed the fairgrounds we know today, and constructed fair houses and livestock buildings as well as a new race track. Finally, in 1950 Franklin and Marshall College founded the Kutztown Folk Festival to celebrate Pennsylvania German culture.

 Did You Know?

Taming the Troops The formation of the Kutztown Normal School, present day Kutztown University, had a refining effect on the community that resulted in the end of the brawling battalions and the military fair.

Cultural Beginnings The rolling hills and forested mountains of the valley attracted many German immigrants escaping religious persecution. It was here that they developed the county’s vibrant “Pennsylvania Dutch” community.

Honorable Houseguests It is said that during that Revolutionary War, George and Martha Washington accompanied soldiers camped in Maxatawny, and lodged in the home of local resident Joseph Gross.

Foundation Restoring Hope for Families

Foundation Restoring Hope for Families_originally published in February 2017 issue of Berks County Living
Originally published in the February 2017 issue of Berks County Living

The Restoring Hope Foundation is on a mission to “construct solutions that address unique challenges of deserving people in Berks County.” Thanks to tremendous community support, the organization has helped six local families into the homes they need and deserve.

Extreme Makeover: Berks County Edition

After Hamburg’s Urban family was featured on the television show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition in 2010, a group of people from the Home Builder’s Association formed the Restoring Hope Foundation as a separate charitable organization to keep the good work going on a smaller, more local level.

The entirely volunteer-run foundation makes necessary renovations to the homes of families in need, and typically provides other upgrades in the form of landscaping, redecorating, or new furnishings. Their aim is to help working or retired middle-class people with a special need. Before a family is accepted, their needs and the needs of the home or property are carefully considered. The cost of each build is covered almost entirely by donations from local businesses, families, and individuals.

A “Hand Up, Not a Hand Out”

Restoring Hope’s 2016 build was the most extensive the foundation has ever accomplished. Correspondingly, so was their contributor list – more than 100 businesses donated money, materials or labor, and 43 individuals and 21 students from the Berks and Reading Muhlenberg Career and Technology Centers came together to help the Yarosz family of Shillington. In eight days, Christian Yarosz, a single father of eight, had his entire three-story home renovated including a new roof, windows and flooring, a new heating and cooling system, a fully remodeled kitchen and bath, and new landscaping and home furnishings.

Five other families also have Restoring Hope to thank for a hand up in hard times. In 2011 Steve Eisenhower, who was living with MS and could no longer go up the stairs to his bedroom or bathroom, received an addition to his first floor with handicap-accessible amenities and a ramp to the street. MaryJo VanSant was a single mother living without heat until 2012 when her home was renovated including a new roof and heating system. In 2013 Lisa Pieller, a widow and mother of two, was using an enclosed porch as a living room. She had an addition built, and had her fixer-upper transformed into a beautiful home.

The next year Restoring Hope lent a hand to the Welgo family. Lisa Welgo had won her battle with breast cancer but was still living with cerebral palsy and struggled to get in and out of her car in the winter. They received a new four-car carport in addition to home renovations. Finally, in 2015 the Landis family had their sunroom converted into a permanent room and had new flooring, windows and so much more done throughout their home.

Lend a Hand, Take a Hand

The Restoring Hope Foundation is accepting applications for its 2017 build until February 17. If you are interested in lending hand, the foundation is always accepting donations of any kind. “Donations of materials and labor are always appreciated,” said Diane Salks, “and financial help is definitely wonderful too!” The group also accepts breakfast and lunch for their workers during the build. For applications, information, and photos from past builds visit hbarestoringhope.org.

Did You Know?

Right on Schedule The Eisenhower build in 2011 was done over the course of two weeks. Since then the foundation has fit each build into one week.

Building on a Budget Most of the builds have come in around an $85,000 value. The Yarosz family build last year totaled a whopping $125,000, with 95% of the costs paid for by donations.

A Festival of Trees in Boyertown

A Festival of Trees in Boyertown | Berks County Living December 2016

Originally published in the December 2016 issue of Berks County Living

What better way is there to get into the holiday spirit than to surround yourself with family and friends in the light of a Christmas tree? How about the glow of more than fifty!

Carols, Cookies, and a little Competition

Friday, December 2 marks the 10th anniversary of Boyertown’s annual Festival of Trees. Gather your family and friends and join the community for a little holiday spirit for a good cause. Walk through rows of beautifully decorated trees while listening to the sounds of the season and enjoying warm cider and fresh baked cookies.

No matter your taste, you will find the tree for you. Decorations range from classic to themed, white lights to multi-colored. See a tree you really like? Enter to win it! The festival’s main event is the tree raffle at the end of the night. Raffle tickets can be purchased at the door and the winners will be able to take home the tree of their choice to enjoy or donate it to a local family in need.

Trimming Trees for a Cause

The Festival of Trees is not only a family-friendly holiday tradition; it is also an opportunity to give back. The event is held by Boyertown Area Multi-Service which provides the trees, and each tree is decorated by a sponsor from the community. Local businesses, organizations, churches, families and individuals dedicate time and money to create the array for everyone to enjoy at the festival. All proceeds from the raffle help to fund the Multi-Service’s various outreach and support programs.

The festival started in 2006 on the suggestion of the organization’s board president as a way to raise funds the first year they were in their new building, and it has only grown from there. Last year more than 2,000 people came out to see 51 trees. This year the Multi-Service opened up new event sponsorship opportunities and is hoping for the more successful year yet.

On the Nice List

Boyertown Area Multi-Service has been working to help meet the personal and community needs of people in Southeast Berks and Northern Montgomery Counties for more than 40 years. The organization was founded in 1973 by community leaders and volunteers to provide help for those in need across a 211 square mile service area. They provide services such as case management to individuals and families, Community Food Pantry and Meals on Wheels assistance, energy assistance, and even provide office space for a number of other partner agencies who are working alongside them to help make the community a better place. Their Center at Spring Street is a vibrant center where residents over 55 can socialize and participate in recreational activities and explore new hobbies. The center also prepares a hot, nutritious lunch on site every weekday.

The 10th annual Festival of Trees will be held at The Center at Spring Street, 200 West Spring Street, Boyertown. Doors open at 3pm and winners will be announced at 9pm. If you would like to get involved please contact 610.367.6957.

Did You Know?

All Aboard! The festival is a stop along Boyertown’s Holiday House Tour. Jump on the trolley to tour the town’s most festive homes and businesses.

Fa La La La Favorites The Center’s very own Spring Street Songsters, along with other local talent, will be performing your favorite carols at the event.

Tree Toppers Festival trees range from wacky to elegant. In previous years there has been a Keurig Coffee Tree, a PA Lottery tree, and even a Lego tree!

The Borough of Fleetwood | History Buff

Fleetwood History Buff - Berks County Living, December 2016

Originally published in the December 2016 issue of Berks County Living

It’s hard to imagine that a town that began as a handful of log cabins along an old Indian trail connecting the Oley and Great Valleys would eventually become the home of the world’s most in demand custom-built cars.

Humble Beginnings

The small borough of Fleetwood did not experience the rapid growth that many other areas in Berks County did at first. One of its earliest settlers, Johanis Christian Sleagel, obtained property rights from the Penn brothers in 1738 but the area was not settled until 1800, at which time it consisted of only five log cabins. By 1815 the town had grown to a mere 25 log and stone structures. Coxtown, the area’s original name after the Cox family who occupied one of those first log cabins, was a quiet farming town amidst the booming expansion of cities like Reading. It’s location in the Great Valley, today called East Penn Valley, was not well-suited to trade and industry. That is until the railroad came to town.

Built on the Rails

Fleetwood finally began to industrialize with the introduction of the railroad. The first rails were laid in 1857, and two years later rail traffic opened between Allentown and Reading. Coxtown became a freight depot and traffic in the area began to grow. Less than ten years later Thomas Mellon laid out the official plans for the town and the name was changed to Fleetwood, either after a city in England or after two railroad surveyors – a Mr. Fleet and a Mr. Wood – no one knows for sure. Fleetwood Borough officially incorporated on October 4, 1873.

While Fleetwood’s farming origins remained, industry in the area grew to include grist milling and manufacturing, specifically for farm equipment and parts. Soon other businesses moved into town, including the Fleetwood Silk Company and the Fleetwood Chocolate Company. But this small corner of the world is not known for its farm equipment or candy.

Claim to Fame

Fleetwood is best known as the birthplace of the Cadillac Fleetwood, and before that as the center of the world’s most in-demand custom-built cars. Fleetwood Metal Body Works Co. opened in 1909, and at its height employed more than 400 people in a 60,000 square foot plant, producing 50 to 80 auto bodies per month and grossing $2 to $3 million per year. High-profile customers the likes of President Herbert Hoover, Andrew Carnegie, and the Rockefellers purchased chasses and engines from Packard, Rolls Royce, Mercedes Benz, and Duesenberg, but had the bodies built to order in Fleetwood.

Fleetwood Metal Body Works was the best in the world, and did not go unnoticed. The company was purchased by Fisher Body in 1925, which was in turn bought by General Motors within the year. GM used the company to build its first Cadillacs, beginning with the 1928 LaSalle – the “baby Cadillac.” An expansion of the plant was underway when the Great Depression hit, and by 1931 the entire facility had been consolidated in Detroit. The building was destroyed by fire on December 24, 2005.

Did You Know:

Batter Up! The Cadillac is not the only American tradition to come out of Fleetwood. The seamless baseball was invented by 19th century resident William Melot. His father Amos built the Grand Central Saloon in 1844.

Last Call During Prohibition, the Grand Central Saloon housed the American Store, the company that would later become ACME Supermarkets.

Caw! The area was also once known as Crowtown, a nod to the birds on the sign of the Farmers and Drovers Hotel. Pranksters used to caw loudly outside to wake up the residents.

50 Years of Giving

50-years-of-giving-bcl-article-title-image

Originally published in the November 2016 issue of Berks County Living

Over the last 50 years, It’s a Gift! has transformed from a craft consignment shop to a trendy mid- to high-end gift boutique. Much like the gifts you can purchase inside, the store begs to be unwrapped with is bright red door, blue awnings, and striped curtains. But this store has so much more to offer than first meets the eye.

Berks County’s Best Gift Shop

It’s a Gift! has come a long way since opening its doors in 1966. Originally established as a consignment shop for local crafters, it has been transformed into the “go to” gift store in Berks County. Its reputation as a quality shop for all ages and genders has earned it the title of Preferred Bridal Registry of the Reading Museum and Best of Berks for two years running.

The selection of one-of-a-kind artisan items ranges from home décor to stylish women’s accessories and jewelry, infant wear and children’s toys, delicious treats, and a wonderful bath and body selection. There is no better place to find the perfect holiday, wedding and shower gifts, birthday, anniversary and special occasion items, or a little self-indulgence.

Handpicked for Success

The shop has not always been the artisan boutique that it is today. In fact, for most of its history the sign read Women’s Exchange of Reading, and many shoppers thought it was a secondhand store. Four years ago it was given a “facelift” and started doing business as It’s a Gift!. The new packaging has been a success, the store’s sales have increased nearly 80% since the change.

Along with its new look, the store’s offerings have also been revitalized. While they still strive to showcase local artisans, the women of It’s a Gift! now travel in search of the perfect pieces to line their shelves. “One of our goals is to have a lot of local artisans, but we don’t limit it to that because we want to be extremely unique and different,” explained Sallie Weaver, the organization’s president. They also supplement their offerings with high-end manufactured goods to provide a variety of choices for everyone on your list. Weaver said the store is continuously growing, with so many exciting new offerings being added that the store may one day expand.

More Than Meets the Eye

It’s a Gift! is not only a great place to shop, it’s also a charitable nonprofit organization. Proceeds are donated to a select local charity each year; the current beneficiary is Breast Cancer Support Services of Berks County.

The boutique is a modern iteration of the historic Women’s Exchange. Since 1832 the women’s exchange movement has been one of the country’s oldest continuously operating charity movements, and our local store is a testament to its success. Exchanges were once fashionable shops where women could sell their home-produced merchandise on consignment, and in the 20th century there were more than 200 across the country. Now the store on Penn Avenue is now one of less than 20 remaining.  “By shopping at It’s a Gift! you are also helping to preserve history,” Weaver said. So next time you are looking for that perfect present, shop local and give a gift that gives twice.

Did you know?

Team Effort It’s a Gift! has only one paid employee. The store is run almost entirely by its team of more than 40 volunteers.

Trend Setter Not all exchanges are gift shops, some are antiques shops or team rooms, but a few of the remaining gift shops across the country have also adopted the It’s a Gift! name to revamp their reputations.

Shillington: A Mix of Business & Fun

History Buff: Shillington | Berks County Living | September 2016

Originally published in the September 2016 Issue of Berks County Living

A lot of history can happen in one square mile. It may be a quiet, residential area now, but the Borough of Shillington was once home to a Revolutionary War statesman, one of the county’s oldest watering holes, and even a famous racetrack.

From Homestead to Hometown

The history of Shillington dates all the way back to 1732 when the first land was purchased from William Penn. Ten years later when the first home was built at 16 Philadelphia Avenue, where it still stands today, the area that is now Shillington was mostly wilderness interspersed with a few farms. Among them was Angelica Farm, home to Thomas Mifflin, who would become a Revolutionary War hero, a member of the Constitutional Convention, and a governor. But “Shillingsville” did not come to be until 1860 when Samuel Shilling laid out the first plans for development along Philadelphia Avenue. After nearly 50 years of industry and growth, the borough incorporated as Shillington on August 18, 1908.

Hats Off to Industry

As with many Berks’ towns, it was industry that contributed to the rapid growth of Shillington. Among the first businesses to arrive were the Hemmig Grist Mill, James Trouts’ Quarry, and the Hendel Hat Factory. Shillington became a true factory town with the building of the hat factory in 1878. Business started slow, with only one woman on staff, but by 1928 it grew to 125 people, nearly a quarter of the population at the time. The Early Twenties brought an influx of cigar factories and soon more people were working making cigars than hats. When hosiery mills came to town they quickly grew larger than cigars and hats combined. These factories, along with F.M. Browns, are attributed with the development of Shillington until as recently as 1960, when the borough started to settle into a family town.

What’s in a Name?

Historic Shillington was not all work and no play. One of the first buildings to be built, and one of the county’s oldest taverns, was Three Mile House. The inn was built at 1 Lancaster Avenue, a well-traveled thoroughfare from Reading to Lancaster even in those days. The fun really began when one of the inn’s proprietors and well-known horseman Aaron Einstein, had the Three Mile House racetrack built on the Reading Drive Park property next door in 1868.

The half-mile track stretched from present day Brobst to Waverly Streets, and was equipped with stalls for more than 100 horses and grandstands for spectators. Lit first by gas arc lights and then by electric lamps, the track was the first in the United States to host races at night.  It was a venue for sulky races, but also hosted fox chases, bicycle races, shooting matches, boys’ track relays and carnivals. After Three Mile House burned down in 1909 and the track closed, the Shillington High School athletes came to be called Speedboys, an homage to the speed of the trotters on the former track. Now the area is home to the aptly named Mifflin Mustangs.

Did You Know?

Rabbit, Run John Updike was a Shillington native, born and raised at 117 Philadelphia Avenue. Reading and Shillington were the setting for many of his stories, their names fictionalized as Brewer and Ohlinger.

Community Days The popular carnival is a revival of the old Shillington Days. It was first reintroduced in 1975 to celebrate the nation’s bicentennial.

Burning of the Greens The fire company used to gather old Christmas trees and burn them after dark. The enormous bonfire was a chance for people to gather and socialize.