George M. Meiser captures Berks County's history before it disappears

Photo by Donna Rovins George Meiser IX with "The Passing Scene" series, on display at the Historical Society of Berks County.

When George M. Meiser, IX was a young boy growing up in the northwest section of Reading across from Baer Park, he could not have envisioned what his life would become. But as he sat on neighborhood porches listening to stories about the old days, the seeds were sown for Meiser to grow into a custodian of Berks County history.

Meiser, and his wife, Gloria Jean Meiser, have just released “The Passing Scene - Volume 20,” the latest compilation of photos and Berks County history; the 30th anniversary of the series. With this volume, an estimated 7,145 pictures from around the county have been published in 5,452 pages of historical text. Featured in the latest edition are more than 300 photographs taken from Meiser’s collection or sent to him by people who have found photos in private collections or family photo albums.

As a teacher in the Schuylkill Valley School District in 1959, Meiser was unsatisfied with the textbook on local history he was provided, so he set out to create his own. In the years he taught, both in Schuylkill Valley and Wyomissing, Meiser would teach students using materials he had compiled.

Meiser has been compiling photos and information since the 1950s and has gathered more than 30,000 images from around the county. He reminisced about the summer of 1972, when he and Gloria Jean traveled around the county – taking an estimated 5,000 photos.

“I had a big map of every township. I took all the old atlases and I would mark where every forge, furnace mill, general store, all the old school houses - where everything of interest had been,” Meiser said. “Not only did I take pictures of everything I thought might possibly disappear, but I photographed things that I thought were significant. You’d be amazed, just since ‘72, how many of those things no longer survive. Thanks goodness I took them.”

Meiser’s love of history goes back much farther than his teaching days. He said that when he was young – in grade school – he would spend time with older people, including neighbors who would sit on their porches in the evenings.

“I’d walk down the street, and I would sit and talk with some of the ladies and they would talk about the old times,” Meiser said. “Most of my friends when I was a kid were the old ladies who would sit on the porch at night after dinner. I would visit them regularly, and they liked to have someone sit and talk with them, so that we both learned. It was a mutual thing.”

But it was not just the neighborhood ladies with whom Meiser visited.

“I would play pinochle with all these old timers who worked for Reading Iron years ago. It’s funny, I would be sitting there – 11 and 12 with 85 and 90 year-olds playing pinochle,” he laughed. “They had great stories about the canals and the old Reading Iron Works. I liked to hear their stories and recollections.”

Included in the latest volume are car catalogs Meiser described as “rare as hen’s teeth,” including a 1901 Duryea catalog. “They are really, really rare stuff. Not everyone finds it of interest. I put them in simply for the record, because if I don’t do it, nobody else will and that information will disappear,” he said.

As Meiser talked about this latest edition of “The Passing Scene,” he pointed out several rare photos in addition to the car catalogs. One was a picture of something Meiser termed a “major find.” He was going to take an updated photo of a property in Birdsboro along what was the Schuylkill Canal. On the property he found a business office and a toll collector’s office building for the Schuylkill canal, that no-one knew was there. Meiser said it’s the only one that he knows of surviving from the Schuylkill canal.

“When I saw this, my eyes almost fell out of my head,” he said. “Not only does the building stand, but there’s a desk in the back. There’s even a place with pigeon holes that no-one ever pulled out – and that’s probably been there since the 1840s. What a surprise.”

Another rare set of photos was taken in 1900 inside the Gable Iron Mine in Boyertown. There are several photos showing workers inside the mine – photos that would be difficult to take even today.

The first book Meiser published was not part of “The Passing Scene” series, because he thought it would be a one-time thing. People kept asking for more, and Meiser accommodated the requests. Proceeds from that first book and each book since, have gone to the Historical Society of Berks County. Up until 1998, Meiser did his own darkroom developing. He still spends virtually every day at the computer doing research and restoring old photographs.

“When I see something of interest, I’ll make a picture and I’ll put it in a plastic sleeve. And the information I have goes into the back of that sleeve. And then when it comes time to put the books together, I’ll have most of the information with the photograph,” he explained.

When Meiser is putting together a book, much of the summer is dedicated to the effort, with him putting material together and Gloria Jean proofing text and compiling the indices. Are there more books in the future? “It’s my hobby. Not every image is worth publishing, but there is so much good material,” Meiser said.

Asked if he is aware of the importance of his work, Meiser said, “I’m aware that things are being saved that wouldn’t be saved otherwise.”

If you want to purchase the book:

“The Passing Scene – Volume 20” is available at the Historical Society of Berks County, 940 Centre Avenue, Reading. It is also available for online ordering at www.berkshistory.org. The cost of the book is $49 or $57 if it is mailed. For more information, visit the Historical Society’s website, email history@berkshistory.org or call 610-375-4375. Proceeds from the sale of the book benefit the Historical Society of Berks County.

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