The Early History of Boyertown
Boyertown’s prosperous beginnings started long before its incorporation in 1866. As German immigrants established themselves in the Oley Valley, English settlers, particularly Thomas Rutter and the Potts family, were drawn to the land of the Lenape people due to the rich concentration of iron ore below it’s surface. Through the 18th century, the tract of land boomed into Colebrookdale Township, including prosperous iron mines, the Colebrookdale Furnace (the first pig-iron producing furnace of Pennsylvania) and the ironmaster’s home – Popodickon Mansion – named for the native chief. Furnaces, forges, bloomeries and mills dotted the landscape of Berks County providing rails, stoves, tools and machinery, axels, tire rims and beyond. The Colebrookdale Furnace has a PA Historic Marker on South Reading Avenue, near Farmington Avenue.
The closure of the Colebrookdale Furnace rerouted the original major crossroads- leading from Kutztown to Philadelphia and from Allentown to Pottstown - to the Mennonite Meeting house (the site of Truist Bank today), the heart of town. It was here, at the turn of the century, that the Boyer family began to harness the other three corners of the crossroads adjacent the Meeting house- building stores, hotels, and managing the post office. Local farmers could come to church, socialize, and buy supplies, while visitors could arrive by stagecoach to frequent the hotels and taverns. Stand at the corner of Philadelphia and Reading Avenues and experience ‘Boyer’s Corner’. The buildings of the Boyertown Inn, the Medicine Shoppe, and Building a Better Boyertown’s office all once belonged to ‘Danny Boyer’!
1 East Philadelphia Avenue
Magnetite in the Boyertown Area mining district was of particular interest to scientist Thomas Edison, who experimented with more efficient and cost-effective methods of extracting the ore in the late 1800’s. Though Edison’s Bechtelsville Mill experiment only lasted 2 years, his work is a testament to the area’s ‘magnetism’. Iron Mining in Boyertown is a permanent exhibit at the Boyertown Area Historical Society.
Waves of Progress
Mining and manufacturing continued to grow throughout the 19th century and beyond the Civil War. In 1865 the Colebrookdale Railroad was incorporated, and began service in September of 1869 from the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad line at Pottstown through Pine Forge, Colebrookdale, and Boyertown to Barto. Fare was only 30 cents! The rail spur connected Boyertown to major cities faster than ever before. Even as the iron industry began to wane, the cigar, carriage and casket industries were able to provide the jobs and production to keep the town moving. Take a ride on the Colebrookdale Railroad in beautifully restored cars resembling the height of turn-of-the-century luxury. The Colebrookdale hosts many seasonal experiences such as Santa Claus and Easter Bunny trains, cocktail hours and more.
Industrial prosperity inspired the need for additional transportation other than the majestic railroad. Carriages and wagons proliferated, carrying goods from the farms, mines, and more. Jeremiah Sweinhart established his own Carriage Factory in Boyertown in 1872, installed across the alley behind his home, which still stands as part of the Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles. This company changed hands quite a bit before becoming the Boyertown Auto Body Works in 1926 which produced commercial and government truck bodies until 1990. During WWII the company gained the interest of the government- providing the United States Marine Corps with ambulances and trailers that earned the company the Army-Navy E Award for their outstanding production. This led to postwar success building bodies for the postal service, military, and other government agencies. Visit the Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles today to see the carriages and buggies produced right in the building where they stand, the first truck body the Carriage Works created in 1914, the family favorite 1958 Mister Softee ice cream truck, Battronic electric trucks, as well as many other Pennsylvania made bicycles, cars, and even buildings such as a 1921 Sunoco gas station or the 1938 restored Fegely’s Diner, which once stood in nearby Reading.
Carriages on display in the factory building where they were manufactured - Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles
In the winter of 1893, difficulty in obtaining coffins enticed the beginnings of the Boyertown Burial Casket Company. Though a gloomy necessity, the manufacture of caskets became a boon of Boyertown for decades, with the company closing its doors in 1988. The company was the second largest of its kind in the world, and had crafted caskets for Robert F. Kennedy, Liberace, Marilyn Monroe, and Harry Houdini. Even royalty had been attracted to the quality. A solid bronze casket had shipped off to China for Chinese President Sun Yat Sen in 1925. Portuguese Princess Alphonse of Braganza visited just 4 years prior in 1921 to oversee the creation of her late husband’s silver and bronze casket – her time spent outside of the factory’s working hours including helping out around the Union House where she stayed – known as the Boyertown Inn today. You can visit the historical marker of the factory today, but the buildings were razed after the closure. The Boyertown Burial Casket Company is a permanent exhibit at the Boyertown Area Historical Society.
Aerial view of the Boyertown Burial Casket Company
Town in Tragedy
On the evening of January 13, 1908, nearly over 300 people crowded to the Rhoads Opera House to see the performance of ‘The Scottish Reformation’. During intermission the projectionist provided a “magic lantern” slide presentation. The projector apparatus used gas canisters, which emitted a hissing noise that startled the audience. In an effort to understand the source of the commotion, actors pulled aside a curtain on stage which tipped a kerosene lantern and ignited the curtain. The theatre was in a frenzy and the narrow walkways, inward opening doors, unmarked fire escapes with over three feet high windowsills and locked windows, along with the sheer amount of people, prevented many from evacuating the blaze. 171 people lost their lives, and their legacy lives on in many ways. You can visit the building that once held the Opera House, there is a dedication plaque on the wall, and our favorite used bookstore, The Book Nook resides on the first floor. You can also pay respects at the Tomb of the Unidentified in Fairview Cemetery – the Historical Society hosts an annual wreath laying.
This incident was the catalyst that pushed the PA Legislature into passing new fire safety standards for doors, landings, lighting and curtains, fire extinguishers, aisles and marked exits. All doors are now required to open outward and remain unlocked. Governor Edwin Stewart signed PA’s first fire law on May 3rd, 1909. This legislation served as a model for other states creating fire standards in public buildings. The Rhoads Opera House Fire is a permanent exhibit at the Boyertown Area Historical Society.
Perhaps Boyertown’s most noteworthy individual, General Carl A Spaatz, was born here in 1891 to father Charles Spaatz, the editor and publisher of the Boyertown Democrat (which would become the Boyertown Times). Gen. Spaatz acted as a major component in the designation of the Air Force as a separate service from the US Army, played a large role in ending WWII and was appointed Chief of Staff of the Air Force in 1947 by President Truman. You can visit The General Carl A Spaatz National USAAF Museum to learn all about his life and military career, as well as ‘Fly the Mission’ in their interactive WWII experiences! General Carl Spaatz is also a permanent exhibit at the Boyertown Area Historical Society.
General Carl Spaatz present at the signing of Surrender of Germany,
Reims, France 1945
Question Mark Air Refueling Endurance Flight
Photos provided courtesy of the Boyertown Area Historical Society