Berks County has a population of more than 400,000. Reading is the county seat and only city in the county. Around one-fifth of the population live there. The name comes from Berkshire (England), where William Penn died in 1718. Berks County is considered part of Pennsylvania Dutch (which really means German) country. It was German immigrant Conrad Weiser who was instrumental in creating the county out of parts of Chester, Lancaster and Philadelphia counties in 1752.
BERKS COUNTY HERITAGE CENTER
A visit to the Berks County Heritage Center is a journey back through the history of Berks County. It includes Gruber Wagon Works, which is a National Historic Landmark dating back to the late 1800s. There’s also the C. Howard Hiester Canal Center, which documents the golden age of canal transportation, specifically, the contributions that the Union Canal and Schuylkill Navigation System made to Berks County. Many of the artifacts on display there were recovered from 1927 when the Schuylkill Navigation Company closed their Reading headquarters. In the end, C. Howard Heister acquired the largest private collection of 19th century canal memorabilia in the United States, totaling over 1,400 items.
For art lovers, The Distlefink is a representation of German Folk Art. Berks County has a heavy German influence. For those who prefer nature over history, The Union Canal Bicycle and Walking Trail is more than four miles long and winds along the Tulpehocken Creek.
Wertz Bridge (a.k.a. Red Covered Bridge) is the longest single-span covered Bridge in Pennsylvania, spanning over 200 feet across the Tulpehocken Creek. Out of the five covered bridges remaining in Berks County (there used to be 37), the Wertz Bridge is the only one closed to motor vehicles. You’ll have to walk through it to get to the Berks County Heritage Center.
The myotis lucifungus bat species lives inside the bridge in maternity colonies (only mothers and babies). At about 2 inches long with a 10 inch wingspan, these little brown bats can eat as many as 500 insects per hour. Each night they can eat half their body weight in insects. While they are prevalent during the summer, they hibernate in caves from October to April.
Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles
Boyertown is located between Allentown and Reading. From 1872-1990, Boyertown Auto Body Works operated in the building which is now the Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles. Inside you can see a Thomas Edison Industries truck as well as Mister Softee. There’s also a 1921 Sunoco gas station and the classic Reading Diner from 1938. You can go inside the diner and watch the episode of The History Channel’s Mega Movers to see how the diner was relocated. In addition to the main floor there’s a reconstructed blacksmith forge and belt driven machine shop. Inside is a wooden mail wagon from the days when mail took more than a day to get from one county to the next.
CENTRAL PA AFRICAN AMERICAN MUSEUM
Berks County had important stops on the Underground Railroad. The Central PA African American Museum is a former church just east of the center of Reading. There are exhibits on the second floor, which focus on the achievements of African Americans from Berks County as well as the history of the slave trade. However, the most chilling part of the museum is the hole in which the escaped slaves hid. Street parking is easy to find.
Conrad Weiser Homestead
Born in Astaat, Germany in 1696, Conrad Weiser migrated to America with his family in 1710. At age 15, he chose to live among the Mohawk Tribe of the Iroquois. He later served as an interpreter and diplomat in negotiations between the Pennsylvania colony and the Native Americans. His first official role came in 1741, when he was appointed Lancaster County Magistrate. He was an early advocate for the establishment of Berks County and when it was finally established in 1752, he was appointed the first justice of the peace. In 1756, he was appointed Lt. Colonel of the First Pennsylvania Regiment and spent most of the next few years in and around Berks County. His last major act of diplomacy was the negotiation of the Treaty of Easton in 1758. He died at the Weiser Homestead near Womelsdorf on July 13, 1760. The park on which the homestead sits was founded in 1923 and is spread out over 26 acres. There are period buildings an orientation exhibit as well as a Conrad Weiser monument, engraved with a quote by George Washington.
If words like aragonite, anthodite and calcite mean nothing to you, Crystal Cave is a good place to learn about rocks and minerals. Tourists have been visiting Crystal Cave for more than 140 years. The crystal ballroom (like the U2 song) is 125 feet underground and the temperature stays at around 54 degrees all year. Live bands played the ballroom up until prohibition. The first wedding was held there in 1919. In fact, four men were paid $0.25 each to carry a grand piano down into the cave.
Daniel Boone Homestead
The famous frontiersman spent the first 16 years of his life in the Oley Valley of what is now Berks County. The Daniel Boone Homestead interprets the lives of the Boone, DeTurk and Maugridge families. Boone was raised as a Quaker and lived to be 85. The site is comprised of seven period buildings including a blacksmith shop, sawmill and smokehouse. The visitor center has a video on the life of Daniel Boone and the site itself is spread out over 579 acres.
GOGGLEWORKS CENTER FOR THE ARTS
The former safety goggles factory on the corner of Washington and North 2nd Street was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2006. Art galleries, a dance studio, glass blowing facility, ceramic studio and 131-seat film theater are some of the occupants of the 145,000 square feet that is GoggleWorks Center for the Arts.
Although it’s located downtown, there’s ample off-street parking in the back. With constantly changing exhibits and different events every week, there are plenty of reasons to visit on a regular basis. For an in-depth history of the building (and the city of Reading), check out the small but informative Willson History Project, which chronicles the 130 year history of Willson Goggles.
THE MID ATLANTIC AIR MUSEUM
Reading Regional Airport does not offer commercial flights, but they do have The Mid Atlantic Air Museum. Anyone old enough to remember Capital Airlines (1948-1961) or Eastern Airlines (folded in 1991, but recently started offering charter flights from Miami) will enjoy this trip down memory lane. In addition to former commercial aircraft, they also have aging U.S. Navy and Coast Guard planes on display.
PENN AVENUE IN WEST READING
Penn Avenue is Reading’s version of New York City areas like Bedford Ave in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and Vernon Blvd in Long Island City, Queens. It’s a great walking street both during the day and in the evening. Unlike New York, it’s relatively easy to find parking. Dining options include (but are certainly not limited to) A Taste of Crepe, Vietnamese food at Van’s Cafe, Bistro 614 for upscale French, Go Fish for sushi and Aladdin for Mediterranean. There are plenty of charming bakeries as well. Ady Cakes has been featured on The Food Network (Cupcake Wars) and The Well Dressed Cake has French macarons in over a dozen different flavors.
Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center
The Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center is part of Kutztown University’s Pennsylvania German Minor program. They also publish the only international Pennsylvania Dutch language newspaper (Hiwwe wie Driwwe). Inside the library, they have 18th and 19th century immigration records. If you’re looking to find your German ancestors, the library volunteers are happy to help.
The grounds include the kitchen garden designed to teach the history of the Pennsylvania German Kitchen Garden. There is also a one-room school house as well as two restored log homes. Tours are on weekdays only and must be booked in advance.
Locals and tourists alike have been looking down at the city of Reading for more than 100 years thanks to the Reading Pagoda. The winding road leading up to the pagoda is an adventure in itself. When you get to the top, you’ll be looking more than 600 feet down. If you want to get even higher, take the 87 steps to the top of the pagoda. Hanging from the ceiling of the seventh floor is the bell, which was cast in Japan in 1739. It was purchased and shipped via the Suez Canal to New York Harbor in 1906 before being transported to Reading by rail (ever played Monopoly? Take a ride on the Reading Railroad?). Fun fact: the Reading Pagoda is the only one in the world with a fireplace and chimney.
READING PUBLIC MUSEUM
Located inside Museum Park in West Reading, the Reading Public Museum is just south of the Wyomissing Creek. The surrounding area can make you forget that you’re in the fifth largest city in Pennsylvania. In fact, if you continue west (just follow the joggers and cyclers) you will end up in Wyomissing (where Taylor Swift is from). The museum was opened in 1928 and focuses on art and artifacts from around the world as well as Native American and Pennsylvania German culture.
Reading Railroad Heritage Museum
The Reading Railroad Heritage Museum is located in the borough of Hamburg (northern Berks County). It’s an ideal place to stop before going into Reading. For $7, you can get on one of the hourly Yard Tours, where an expert on the Reading Railroad will take you inside a rail car and explain the rise and fall of the Reading Railroad. If you’ve never been to Berks County, but have played Monopoly, you should be familiar with the now-defunct Reading Railroad. There’s also a small museum, with a short video and a few smaller exhibit rooms.
Roadside America is located off I-78 in tiny Shartlesville, PA. How tiny is Shartlesville? Well, it has less than 500 residents! Inside the museum is a panorama of life in rural America. What is so special about this place is that everyone from children to senior citizens can appreciate the detail that went into the construction of this cultural gem. 10,000 miniature hand-made trees, 17,000 board feet of lumber, 21,000 feet of electric wire, 44,000 pounds of stone and more are packed into this display, which is smaller than a high school basketball court.
More than 200 years of history are packed into this exhibit, which is said to be the largest known miniature village in the world. There is something similar in the Queens Museum, but you can’t get as close and it makes you feel small. Looking at this display can give you an idea of what it might have been like for somebody shopping for a 1957 Chevy at Degler Chevrolet in Hamburg. Unlike many other museums, there are no photography restrictions inside.