Attendees take a ‘Step Back in Time' at Berks Heritage Center

Item photo by Mary Himmelberger Kerry Williard stands in character aside of his Civil War Hospital and Medicine Display; Williard is a Surgeon with the 53rd PA Voluntary Infantry, Company C.

Several hundred people explored early American life at Berks County’s annual “Step Back in Time” Day on Sunday, July 27 at the county’s heritage center property in Bern Township. Sunny skies and heat accompanied attendees as they strolled the grounds – with humidity that made many attendees all the more appreciative of those wearing the layered and hot authentic 19th century costumes for the sake of history. Spectators experienced a taste of the Civil War and 19th century life. The juxtaposition of both American and local perspectives painted a vivid picture of culture compared to life as we experience it today.

The Civil War encampment was the popular stop of the day. 4th Texas Company B, the Confederates, and the 2nd PA Reserves, part of the Union – demonstrated both camp life as well as musket firing. A feature of this encampment was the Civil War Field Hospital & Medicine Display with Kerry Williard.

Williard was eager to share his knowledge of 19th century medical habits, equipment, and pharmaceuticals. He teaches by showing, holding up a tool whereby a lever would release blades that created several incisions at once to allow for bloodletting – a 19th century belief in balancing the “humors” to cure illness. He explained the different kinds of cuts made with a variety of instruments that evolved out of practicality, and made sure to clarify that biting a bullet was not a common practice – a good surgeon knew that it was a choking hazard. Instead, chloroform and ether were available as an anesthetics. And a surgeon’s success was oft attributed to his personal touches on common pharmaceutical concoctions. A surgeon with the 53rd PA Voluntary Infantry, Company C – he shared that he participates in character in encampments and regional events regularly, and has even played roles in cinematic war portrayals: like Gettysburg and Gods and Generals.

Across the field from the encampment, one could learn about cricket - the precursor to baseball. Tom Melville, a national specialist in cricket and its historical context, explained that the biggest difference between baseball and cricket is that there are no strike outs and no foul zones. One team bats and scores runs; the other “bowls” and works the outfield, and there are two targets called “wickets” – which you want to knock down. Many attendees experienced the sport hands on for the first time, despite it being one of the most popular sports worldwide today.

Dozens of other hands-on activities and demonstrations occurred throughout the day. Visitors could take seconds, minutes, or hours at any station dependent on their interests. All exhibits and historical volunteers offered quick tidbits to take with you in passing. As you walked by the ice cream making booth, you learned that it takes about 30 minutes to hand turn ice cream – a shocking fact to the kid that was tired after turning it for 30 seconds!

Families took part in dipping candles, and kids tried their hands at some old fashioned games. Volunteers demonstrated quilting, rug hooking, needlework, and flax scotching as well as colonial fly fishing. All was a reminder that everything in the 1800s took hard work – even a simple lifestyle.

Dancers and music from the colonial and Civil War era graced the afternoon with an aura of authenticity. Children also had an opportunity to create three different crafts from the 1800s: yarn dolls, bean bags, and paper fans. Young girls could learn that the fan was not only a practical accessory to a lady’s night out, but it was a way to “secretly” and nonverbally talk to men depending on how they moved the fan across their cheeks, eyes, and lips.

Tours were available throughout the day – for the property and buildings that comprise the Berks County Heritage Center: including the Grist Mill, Gruber Wagon Works, and the Hiester Canal Center.

Also open for viewing was the Mildred Houseboat. Originally built in the late 1800’s to haul coal, it historically could be found at the end of S. 6th Street in Reading. A Reading grocer, Arthur McCarter, transformed it into a houseboat in 1912. The boat was purchased by C. Howard Hiester and used as his summer home. It was acquired in 1976 as part of the Berks County Heritage Center. Volunteers and Canal Historians, Nancy Bossler and Vernie Noecker, sat on its porch welcoming visitors aboard on Sunday to its latest historical purpose: an educational tool to teach and preserve history.

“Step Back in Time” was one of three weekend activities along the Route 183 corridor in Bern Township, promoted as “Take a Ride Back in Time on Route 183: Play Ball, Fly High, Live History.” Berkshire Baseball/Big Vision hosted an authentic vintage baseball tournament at the Youth Recreation Facility along County Welfare Road. The Reading Air Fest was held at the airport featuring vintage aircraft, aerobatics, and entertainment.