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.