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.
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.