The year 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Berks County Historic Preservation Trust, which has recognized some of the most important Americana buildings entrusted to them in our American Civilization. This local movement added numerous historic buildings, now preserved by the National Trust of the United States.
Long known for writing about superb examples of American architecture, Dr. Alfred L. Shoemaker had been running tours of Berks County’s historic Oley Valley Americana homes since he founded the Kutztown Folk Festival in 1950, writing about its English Georgian mansions and primitive PA German farmsteads in his academic quarterly magazine, Pennsylvania Folklife for a number of years.
Many historians wondered why these classic American homes were not listed on the National Register of American homes. But these national architectural treasures were not in danger until the Mid-Atlantic megalopolis threatened them in the commercial decades of 1960 and 1970, being located between the urban centers of Allentown and Reading. Thus, Theresa Beard, who lived on the beautiful George Boone homestead, considered it about time these Oley Valley architectural treasures should be protected by the Preservation Trust movement to be saved for American civilization.
Begun by Theresa Beard and Dr. Arthur D. Graeff in April of 1964, this grass roots movement was organized by citizens who cherished our unique regional Americana architecture, such as the 1783 Georgian David Hottenstein Mansion, east of Kutztown, and the frontier PA German farmsteads in the historic Oley Valley. Hence, these intelligent and cultured citizens met with other local Berks County citizens to see if there was enough local interest to form an official Preservation Trust group to become the Historic Preservation Trust of Berks County.
Recognizing the need to preserve historic farmland as well as the number of classic architectural homes and buildings located there, several citizens in the Oley Valley and Berks County were enthusiastic about joining Theresa Beard’s native love for our country, which was already well documented in several local magazines as well as the Historical Review of Berks County. But one of the first folklorist-historians to back Mrs. Beard’s enthusiasm for a local Preservation Trust movement was Dr. Arthur D. Graeff, the former president of the PA German Society who was familiar with the native pioneers of the Oley Valley and Berks County, in general.
A newspaper columnist who wrote on the PA Deitsch people of Berks County, Arthur D. Graeff was widely known for his dedication for preserving our local ethnicity and architecture. In particular Mrs. Beard was interested in the Swedish culture of the lower Oley Valley where she had discovered the amazing Mouns Jones house which was dated 1716 and was one of the historic structures along the Schuylkill River, near Douglassville.
Few residents of Berks County knew our earliest pioneers were Swedes, long before William Penn became our English Proprietor of Pennsylvania. Dr. Donald Shelley, the retired head of the nation’s Henry Ford Museum, gave his moral support and architectural expertise, and was welcomed by Mrs. Beard to join this Berks County Trust group, since he also lived in the Oley Valley, along with a number of well respected citizens who lived in Berks County.
In a commercial age when the pastoral countryside of the Oley Valley was threatened by ultra-modern development in the l960s, no one knew how long it would take until Reading and Allentown’s urbanization would engulf these historic lands and buildings which had survived from Colonial America, built by immigrant families. One such farm site, the Isaac DeTurk farm, dating from 1712 had an unusually rare stone cabin, roofed in local native clay tile which had become a folk symbol, representing the French and German descendants of the original immigrants, worthy of being put on the National Register of Americana buildings listed by the United States Department of The Interior.
Thus, when other local citizens were asked to help form a Historic Berks County Preservation Trust, they did not hesitate to join Mrs. Beard and Dr. & Mrs. Graeff to form the non-profit educational objectives of the Berks County Trust.
Being the Director of the Social Studies Department for the Oley Valley High School in those days, I also was in charge of running a “Senior Seminar” class in the auditorium in the l960s. I asked my personal friend, Mrs. Beard, to present a program in which she could outline the vast cultural importance of our valley to American Civilization, providing slides of our native building and their importance to our United States heritage. She did this, enlisting the youth of Oley Valley High School to become part of the Trust Projects, encouraging public support from them and their parents which was overwhelmingly received by the community.
One of the first high school student activities undertaken by the Berks Trust was the excavation of the historic John and Deborah DeTurk stone cabin dating back to 1767, an educational project done by Oley Valley seniors. It entailed the removal of mud and refuse deposited along its walls from the Manatawny Creek which flowed alongside it.
This was one of several community projects in which the town’s youth became aware of our Americana expertise in frontier living.
Of all the instrumental leaders of the Berks County Preservation Trust, it was Mrs. Theresa Beard that stands out the most in my lifetime. She was a very persistent educated historian whose true love of l8th century America has led to the greatness that is told in all the buildings saved and preserved by the Berks County Historic Preservation Trust. A dedicated citizen who believed in the multi-national origin of the United States immigrants, who with their blood, sweat and tears created an American utopian society, she was a tireless individual spending hours of her time that others may appreciate the creativity of those who came before us.
Richard H. Shaner is director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.