Reading City Park - Penn's Common (2022)

Film of City Park, Penn’s Common, 1929 showing old bandstand and prison.

Water-Works, Prison, and Fairgrounds

Reading City Park at the head of Penn Street was set apart as early as 1749 by John and Richard Penn as public commons that exists today as Penn’s Common. The site of Penn’s Common (City Park) wasn’t much to be envied in the early to mid-1800s.

Despite the Penns’ wishes that the common remain, in its totality, a place for “public recreation,” a strange deal back in 1800 had turned the 80-acre Penn’s Common land into county ownership. An attorney for a later generation of Penns promoted a deal with the county commissioners whereby the land came under county ownership for the price of $450. Also there was a questionable deal whereby the county in 1839 sold to private owners 35 acres east of 10th street and north of Washington extending 1280 feet.

The county commissioners of Berks – who had complete control of the land from 1800 to 1852 – permitted and abetted three major intrusions: the water-works, the prison grounds, and the fairgrounds.

The first public supply of water delivered in Reading was introduced in 1821 by the Reading Water Company. The water works then consisted of the Hampden Springs, a 2-1/2 inch earthenware pipe leading to a single reservoir which was completed on July 19, 1821. The reservoir contained about 63,000 gallons of water.

In order to store additional quantities of water, a second reservoir was constructed immediately north of the original one, in 1839. This new basin measured 65 by 188 feet and had a depth of nine feet.

In 1848, yet another reservoir was constructed immediately north of the second. Measuring 129 by 248 feet, with a depth of 13 feet, this unit – which remains in use – was built to contain 2.5 million gallons of water.

On December 8, 1853 the reservoir complex in City Park, containing 3 acres and 90 perches, was deeded by the county commissioners of Berks to the Reading Water Company. They, in turn, sold it to the city on April 1, 1865.

During 1872-1873, the middle and old south basin were replaced by one large south basin that, at the time of its completion, held 3,045,000 gallons.

Below: Reservoir – City Park.

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In 1848, the Berks County prison was relocated from the Northeast corner of Fifth and Washington Streets to Penn’s Common.

Commissioners John Sherman, Michael Gery, and Fred Printz engaged John Haviland of Philadelphia, the foremost architect of his day, to design the prison.

Designed to resemble a Norman palace, probably more sandstone was used to build the prison than any other building in Reading. Geologically known as Potsdam white sandstone, the “stone taken from Mt. Penn” has been used in construction of many structures in Reading, including the Berks County Prison in City Park.

Constructed between 1847 and 1848 at the top of Penn Street, the prison was 170 feet in length from tower to tower and 300 feet deep. A central circular stone tower rose 96 feet and two 50-foot high octagonal bastians stood at the front corners. A stone wall 20 feet in height and two feet in thickness surrounded the exercise yard.

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This prison was replaced in 1931 with a new Berks County Prison located in Bern Township. By June 1934 parts of the prison had been torn away. There were still hopes, however, that something could be done with the outer walls, the great tower, and the twin bastions. Regrettably the situation proved hopeless and by 1936 nothing remained.

In 1852, an act of legislature transferred ownership of the commons from the county commissioners to city officials. But it contained a loophole of some sort which permitted the commissioners in 1854 to lease 39 acres of prime commons land for use as fairgrounds.

Between 1854 and 1887 the Reading Fair of the Berks County Agricultural and Horticultural Society was held annually in Penn’s Common on grounds reserved solely for that purpose.

The first Fair held in Penn’s Common occurred in October 1854. Among the initial improvements made to the grounds were the erection of a commodious exhibition hall and the laying out of an oval racetrack, one-third mile around. Over the years buildings were added, some were enlarged, and older ones were moved or removed.

The site consisted of a circular coursing ring 600 feet in circumference, housing for the horses and cattle to be placed on exhibition, a small building for poultry, and a 120 by 44 foot building, named Horticulture Hall, divided into aisles by rows of tables on which the smaller exhibits could be placed.

During the Civil War from 1862 until 1864 the Fairgrounds were taken and held by the United States government for a camp and military hospital. The main exhibition building was used as the hospital.

(Video) City Park and Penns Commons in Reading, PA

Below: Penn’s Common in 1854 showing the 1854-1887 Fairgrounds, the Berks County Prison, and the open Water-Reservoirs, and the Penn’s Common Graveyard. Recently, there have been discussions among local history buffs about the existence of a cemetery in City Park. Indeed, there was such a burial ground that pre-dated construction of the prison in 1847-’48. A vintage article notes that “the little city of the dead” contains burials of prisoners who died while in prison-usually suicides-but earlier the site was something of a potter’s field. It once was surrounded by a stone wall that still existed in 1875. At that time, no tombstones or inscriptions of any kind were observed. The prison dead were marked by “a common stone at the head-end and another at the foot-end.” The east end of Penn’s Common was badly neglected by the time George F. Baer was put in charge of a committee to beautify the entire city park, especially that rough section along Hill Road.

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On October 2, 1865, the Fair was again opened for a three day exposition, the grounds being somewhat extended by moving the northern boundary from Washington to Walnut Street. The following year (1866) the race track was enlarged to a half-mile in circumference, and the grounds extended southward, in order to provide space for side shows and other amusements. In 1872 a grandstand, large enough to accommodate 500 people, was added to the track, and another large building, Machinery Hall, was provided to house farm equipment. In 1873 refreshment stands were installed at various locations in the grounds.

In 1885, Abner Keeley Stauffer (1836-1906) took the lead in transferring the Fairgrounds to the city to be used as a park.

Abner Keeley Stauffer was born and raised in Boyertown, a son of Judge John Stauffer. After studying at Boyertown’s Mount Pleasant Seminary, which his dad helped establish in 1850, he went to Franklin and Marshall College.

After graduation from F&M in 1858 he taught a year at Boyertown and then came to Reading to read law in the office of John S. Richards.

From the time Stauffer began the practice of law in the courts of Berks, in 1861, he was a conspicuous figure in Reading. And despite the large practice that soon was his, he willingly gave his services to the public because of the deep interest he took in the advancement and welfare of his chosen community.

He served as an unpaid councilman for three terms, during which time he took the lead to rid Penn Square of its filthy and unsanitary market sheds and have declared free from toll “the three Reading (covered) Bridges” over the Schuylkill – Poplar Neck, Lancaster (Bingaman Street), and Harrisburg (Penn Street) Bridge.

While these two projects for the civic good were not accomplished without a measure of controversy, they were nothing in comparison to the “public commons issue.” For whatever reason, in 1885 Stauffer again determined to take the lead and bring the matter to a head.

The movement to transfer the property to the city for park purposes was not regarded in an unfavorable light by all members of the agricultural society. Most realized that fairs in the park had been continuing on borrowed time and that it was not a matter of ‘if’ but one of ‘when.’

What the society hoped for was a court decision which would forever settle the question of ownership, as the fairgrounds had, owing to the growth of the city on three sides of it, become of great financial value. There was a serious concern as to whether it was city or county property.

Finally, the matter got into the Berks Court of Common Pleas in the nature of an amicable action, the case being stated as the ‘Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, ex rel. city of Reading, versus commissioners of Berks County.’

Abner K. Stauffer appeared for the city, with George F. Baer as associate counsel.

The case was lost for the city in the local court but was appealed to the Supreme Court which reversed the decision and gave the (fairgrounds) land to the city. (The date of this decree was Nov. 22,1886.)

Justice Gordon rendered the opinion that no such vague designation or use of the ground as ‘the celebrations of the agricultural society,’ specified by the (aforementioned) act of 1852, should be permitted to stand in the way of a great public necessity.

George Baer, in his turn, brought the case before the Supreme Court. Both he and Stauffer refused to accept pay for their services. Councils (Common and Select) and the Board of Trade both passed resolutions thanking Messrs. Stauffer and Baer for their labors in behalf of the city.

After the case in the Supreme Court had been decided, an ordinance was passed by city councils, to which Mayor James R. Kenney affixed his signature on Sept.28, 1887, setting apart ‘the tract of land situated at the head of Penn Street’ as a public common. The ordinance states that the tract “shall hereafter be known and designated by the name of Penn’s Common.”

In 1887 the last fair took place at the Commons. Immediately after the 1887 Fair, the Agricultural Society opened negotiations for a piece of land, twenty-five and a third acres in area, owned by the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and situated just outside the limits of the City at the end of North Eleventh Street.

The image below depicts the lawn tennis courts that stood next to the city greenhouse and the remnants of the Augustus Vollmer vineyards and orchids that once graced the hillside to the right. In 1873, the vineyard was reported as having yielded about three tons. In 1872, Right Rev. Monsignor Bornemann purchased the Augustus Vollmer Estate and in 1873 founded St. Joseph’s Hospital. The roadway that loops around on the left is now Constitution Blvd. It owes its curvaceous course to the fact that it was once a rack track for the first city fairground. The circular coursing ring was 600 feet in circumference.

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Park Beautification

Soon after adoption of the Penn’s Common ordinance, a “park board” was formed and numerous improvements followed. These included removing all traces of the fairgrounds, laying out promenades and boulevards, and constructing ornamental retaining walls and pillars.

In 1888, C. H. Miller, landscape gardener of Philadelphia, developed plans for beautifying Penn’s Commons. The plan called for various trees such as an oriental plane, caroling poplar, sugar maple, white maple, American linden, white birch, yellow birch, European and American larch, red cedar, white pine, Nordman’s silver fir, Norway fir, purple beech, dog wood, magnolias, groups of maples, beeches, oaks, willows, red maple, hemlocks, and dwarf pines. The plan also called for a lily pond and drives from Penn, Washington, 12th and Clymer streets and walks in all directions.

Three large fountains, a “Spring House,” and a bandstand were created for the park during the park beautification project towards the end of the 19th century.

A Deer Fountain once provided filtered ice water to park visitors as its waters, passed though packs of ice between the reservoir and the fountain. It is believed that the fountain was scrapped for metal during WW2.

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In 1891 two large fountains were placed at Hill road and Perkiomen Avenue and 11th and Walnut Streets.

Below: Fountain – 11th and Walnut Streets.

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This fountain located at the Hill Road and Perkiomen Avenue end of Penn’s Common was made by E. G. Smysers’ Sons, at York, Pa. The ground basin was 40 feet in diameter, and the total height of the fountain was 25 feet. The distance to the top of the first basin was 10 feet and from the top of the first to the top of the second 7 1/2 feet. The diameter of the first basin was 10 feet and of the second 7 feet. The figures were of zinc and the fountain of cast-iron. On the base of the fountain were two nymphs (Greek mythology – a minor female nature deity) in deep meditation, with their heads resting on their hands, and gazing intently into the water. Between the upper basins were a number of cherubs (type of spiritual being mentioned in the Hebrew Bible), acting as a support, and on the top a large figure of a nymph, surrounded by spray and pouring water from a vessel. The fountain was removed from City Park around 1915.

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Designs for a “Spring House” and bandstand were executed by local architect Alexander Forbes Smith.

The bandstand (built in 1897) was 27 feet in diameter and stood 23 feet high and stood where the audience now sits facing the present bandshell. A memorial services was held at the bandstand for William McKinley when the President was assassinated in 1901. Local bands used to give concerts there. All over the green lawn were signs that read: “Keep off the Grass.” But when the Ringgold, Philharmonic or Cadet Bands were giving one of the summer evening recitals, the rule was overlooked and happy couples spread blankets on the lawn and lounged there until darkness came and the concert ended.

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At the turn of the 20th Century about 10,000 people would crowd City Park every Sunday during the summer months. The “Spring House” near the present day greenhouse was a favorite spot.

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Reading City Park - Penn's Common (10)

Skating Rinks

By 1900 Penn’s Common was the most popular “place of resort” within the city proper. A Reading Eagle article of Aug. 18, 1901 reported that on a pleasant Sunday evening one might expect to encounter between 5,000 and 10,000 people “at their ease.”

In the American City, published in New York, former City of Reading Superintendent and Engineer Emil L. Nuebling contributed an article in 1912 entitled “Utilization of the Grounds Surrounding the Plants of the Reading Water Works System” that received high praise. The American City, which was a high-class publication, devoted to progressive municipal improvements, featured Mr. Nuebling’s article.

Nuebling wrote:

“One of the distinctive features of the water works system of Reading, Pa., is the beautification of the grounds connected with the different plants of the system and their use for recreation. The grass on the lawns and terraces is all kept well-trimmed throughout the year, and the walks and drives are maintained in excellent condition. The low service distributing reservoirs, called the Penn Street Reservoirs, located within six blocks of the business center of the city, have recently been covered with groined arches of concrete. The area above the covers is being utilized as a rink for roller skating and playground purposes in summer and for ice skating in winter.”

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Reading City Park - Penn's Common (12)

The skating rinks, the first of their kind in this country, were designed by and built under the direct supervision of Emil L. Nuebling, Superintendent and Engineer of the Department of Water, Reading, PA.

During warm weather the rinks were open to the public for roller skating, while during freezing weather they were open for ice skating. They were built over the Penn Street distributing reservoirs, located near 11th and Court Streets. In connection with the filtration of the city’s water supply it was necessary to cover these reservoirs in order to protect the filtered water.

Construction of the skating rinks began in 1909. Each skating rink consisted of a six-inch concrete slab laid on a cinder fill. A six-inch curb around each rink formed a dam for the water and ice during the ice skating season. Under the skating rinks a ground arch construction covered the filtered water reservoirs. The arches were braced to withstand the unbalanced forces brought on them by the movements of the skaters. To avoid crippling the water supply the reservoirs were covered one at a time; the north basin was put out of service first, covered and again put into service before the south reservoir was disturbed. The ground adjoining the reservoirs was laid out with walks and flower beds of unique designs. Along these walks benches were provided.

In the center of each floor was a pavilion, consisting of a roof covering 24 x 66 feet, supported by two rows of posts, five in a row; each post resting over an arch pier. The pavilion floor 18 x 60 feet, was raised 6 inches above the skating floor, and was of concrete. The columns, trusses and braces were steel. The roof was covered with copper tiling.

By the winter of 1910, the skating rinks were the most popular place of amusement for school children. School children from all parts of the city visited the rinks daily. In the afternoon, after school hours, children gathered at the rinks by the hundreds to skate until supper time. Large numbers also enjoyed the sport in the evening until 10 o’clock. There were electric lights on the pavilions and around the rinks, allowing skating in the evenings. Sanitary drinking fountains located at the entrances to the rinks supplied filtered water to the public. During the warm weather the drinking water was ice-cooled.

Landscaping

The grounds surrounding the reservoirs were laid out in walks, lawns and terraces. Numerous shrubbery beds were scattered about the grounds at appropriate places.

A feature of the landscape gardening was the floral decorations consisting of 16 beds of various designs. Among the beds was a floral sun-dial and an American flag. The sun-dial flowers were what are known as Joseph’s Coat. The sun-dial was removed when the reservoir was covered in 1910.

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Reading City Park - Penn's Common (14)

The Reading Bureau of Water building is the centerpiece of the image below. The building still stands, and serves as the headquarters of the Berks County Conservancy. Alongside the Reading Bureau of Water building was a floral flag with appropriately colored hyacinths in spring. In summer the hyacinths were replaced with scarlet sage for the reds; with amaranth for the blues and with what was commonly known as Dusty Miller for the whites.

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The floral flag in City Park along N. 11th street was planted each spring until the site was hidden during World War II by a billboard inscribed with the names of the Reading Soldiers of that period.

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Rose Garden

It’s hard to imagine a rose garden containing 3,000 rose bushes but in 1940 that’s how many rose bushes were planted in the City Park Rose Garden.

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Established in 1897, the original garden was almost due south of St. Joseph’s Hospital. In 1940 Reading’s municipal garden, the oldest in the United States, in the city-owned list, was enlarged to 300 by 250 feet in dimensions, six to eight times as large as the original one. It afforded a space for 3,000 rose bushes, not to mention other plants, shrubbery, and trees.

The north entrance to the original rose-planted tract was widened and 20 species of wild roses, virtually all of them of rare kinds, were planted there. Other roses, climbers, were erected on frames four and one-half to six feet in height, to give their blossoms and color the maximum display effect. These wild roses illustrated to the home gardener not only variations in brilliant coloring, but also the shades of the wild types from the hybrid tea roses. Shrubbery was planted in wide arcs along the edges of the wild rose section.

In general, the design of the old garden was retained. Many tons of good topsoil from the Municipal Airport, collected during grading operations, was spread over the rose beds, to a depth of 18 inches. The soil of City Park, mostly shale, is too poor for good rose growing.

The old garden was the show section of the oval tract. The other section was a variety garden. In the center were lawns, graded and provided with concrete and slat benches for visitors.

At the south end of the tract were 12 beds of Rugosa roses, two varieties to each bed. Outside the Rugosa beds were walks of permanent black top surfacing, sharply edged and graded to match the slope of the grounds. Throughout the garden posts were conveniently placed for pillar roses, heightening the artistic effect and varying the color settings.

Every bed and each type was clearly labeled, thus enabling visitors to identify and to secure for home gardens the plants most admired.

A new driveway through the park, known today as Constitution Way, flanks what was the eastern boundary of the rose garden.

Battleship Maine Anchor

On the evening of February 15, 1898, the battleship Maine exploded suddenly without warning and sank quickly. 267 Americans were killed, including one man from Reading–Frank Anders. It triggered the Spanish-American War.

In 1912, the United States Navy recovered remains, re-floated the Maine, towed it out to open sea, and sank it again. But first they salvaged masts, port holes, and even a fancy Captain’s tea set to send home for memorials and museums across the nation.

Some towns ended up with unusual artifacts from the Maine. Reading received the bow anchor from the battleship. It was installed in Reading’s City Park in 1914.

The main speaker for the dedication ceremony of the battleship “Maine’s” bow anchor in City Park was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

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Iron Water Spring

Around the turn of 20th last century many people would visit City Park because they believed that the spring that spouted forth “iron water” at an outlet adjoining the Lily Pond had healing properties. The water was drunk daily by many persons, including semi-invalids who came to the park for that purpose only. Ailing persons would linger in the park, sometimes for hours. They could be seen sitting on benches in sheltered places in conversational exchanges of symptoms and pains. Their day would end with one final visit to the “iron spring.”

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Bandshell

The historic City Park Fireman’s Memorial Bandshell was constructed during the Great Depression with the aid of federal Public Works Administration (PWA) funds.

The City Park Fireman’s Memorial Bandshell was dedicated on Labor Day in 1939. The Bandshell, located at Hill Road & Constitution Blvd., is home to the Bandshell Concert Series held annually. In 2011 the Bandshell was renovated at a cost of a about one million dollars.

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Monuments

City Park in Reading has more monuments and memorials per acre than any other spot in Berks County.

The statue of Frederick Lauer, located near Perkiomen Avenue, was the first statue erected in Reading.

In 1885, the United States Brewers’ Association hired Henri Stephens to create the Lauer statue, and, with the consent of City Council, placed it in City Park. The physical structure is quite tall, and consists of two parts. The top part of the monument is a life-size likeness of Lauer, cast in bronze. He is portrayed wearing a suit which is covered by a long overcoat. The statue stands on a four-sided cement pedestal, with each side containing a plaque.

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Frederick Lauer was a public-spirited man and labored assiduously for the development and prosperity of Reading. He co-operated heartily in the advancement of the place from a borough into a city in 1847; and under the amended charter of 1864 he represented the Fifth ward in the select council from 1865 to 1871, serving as president of that body in 1867. He was a devoted adherent of the Democratic Party, and active in behalf of its success for many years. He represented the Berks district as a delegate to the National Convention which met at Charleston, S. C., in 1860, and notwithstanding the platform and the defeat of the party nominee for President, when the Civil war broke out, in 1861, he espoused the cause of the Union in a most earnest and patriotic manner. He assisted materially in organizing the Berks County Agricultural Society in 1852, and officiated as president for a number of years; also in projecting the construction of the railroad from Reading to Lancaster and Columbia, serving as a director for twenty years until his decease; and by special appointment of the governor he served for several terms as trustee of the Keystone State Normal School. He gave liberal support to local charities by aiding the Dispensary and the Relief Society.

Mr. Lauer’s great experience and success in the brewing business brought him into national prominence before the brewers of the United States. On November 12, 1862 Fredrick Lauer was elected first president of the United States Brewers Association. The impetus for its founding was provided by the institution of a national excise tax on beer enacted by President Lincoln on August 1, 1862 to pay for the American Civil War.

About April of 2015 vandals stole the four bronze plaques from the monument. The total cost of repairs and restoration of the monument was about $50,000.

In March of 2016 the Brewers Association – the not-for-profit trade association dedicated to small and independent American brewers – donated $25,000 to the City of Reading, PA to restore the vandalized Frederick Lauer monument. The Brewers of Pennsylvania – the state’s official brewer’s guild – led the charge to raise the additional $25,000 to repair the monument.

On May 3, 2016 the restored monument with new plaques was rededicated.

In the statuesque company of Lauer are monuments to Christopher Columbus, often credited with discovering the New World in 1492, and slain President William McKinley.

The 22-foot-tall bronze and granite McKinley monument was commissioned in 1903, two years after McKinley succumbed to an assassin’s bullet. Designed by Danish-born sculptor Edward L.A. Pausch, it was crafted by P.F. Eisenbrown and Sons at a cost of $10,000 and funded with local contributions. Much of the funding came from “penny, nickel, and dime” donations from city schoolchildren.

The McKinley Statue, dedicated in 1905, was the first in Pennsylvania to honor the 25th president.

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The monument to Christopher Columbus was donated to the city by the Italian community in 1925. The statue is on a marble pedestal with four bronze bas relief tablets with scenes from Columbus’s life. On October 11, 1992, dedication ceremonies of the newly restored statue marked the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage.

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The First Defenders Monument was dedicated in the park on July 4, 1901. Berks County had its First Defenders in two wars. When Boston was besieged by the British and the Continental Congress issued a call for troops in 1775, three companies of Penn’s riflemen were summoned because they were such expert shots. One of these came from Berks and was commanded by George Nagle, of Reading. In 1861 Reading sent the Ringgold Artillery of Washington with that famous body of soldiers known as the First Defenders, the men who were the minute men of the Civil War.

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The Volunteer Firemen’s Monument at the head of Penn Street in City Park was erected by P. P. Eisenbrown, Sons & Co. Dedication of the monument took place on Labor Day, September, 2, 1901.

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The monument is 24 feet tall. Inscriptions on the tablets at the base of the monument are:

North side: In recognition of more than 100 years of faithful, unselfish and often heroic service rendered by the volunteer firemen of the city of Reading, Pa. “Greater love has no man than this – that a man lay down his life for his fellow-man.” Erected Sept 2, 1901.

South side: Firemen’s Union, organized 1861; incorporated March 15, 1865. Firemen’s Relief Association, incorporated Feb. 24, 1896. Chief Engineer, George W. Miller; assistants; James B. Gabriel and Henry Redtz.

On the second base, in raised letters appear the names of the companies, the dates of institution and the presidents when appointed on the committee.

The monument also contains the names of the Presidents of local companies at the time of its erection. The data, with the exception of the dates, follow:

Rainbow, Andrew F. Baer; Junior, John H. Ruth; Friendship, John Phillippi; Liberty, Charles Butler; Neversink, Harry Obold; Keystone, Edward Yeager; Washington, Abraham Bowman; Hampden, S. E. Ancona; Marion, George J. Trievel; Riverside, Charles H. Kiesling; Schuylkill, Sherman Hoverter.

Veterans’ Memorial Grove

The Veterans’ Memorial Grove is the site of several annual ceremonies honoring Berks Countians who served, fought and gave the ultimate sacrifice for the nation. A “Freedom Path” walkway is comprised of bricks bearing the names of veterans and active-service members. The walkway follows the existing paths, connecting the specific monuments/memorials, including the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial facing Hill Road, erected in 1988 with the pensive figure of a solitary soldier sitting in the middle of a set of granite steps; the First Defender’s Memorial; the Korean Veterans’ Memorial; the World War II Veterans’ Memorial; the Artillerists’ Memorial; the Submariners’ Memorial; the Desert Storm Veterans’ Memorial and tree; and the Women Veterans’ Memorial. Facing Walnut Street, west of the City Greenhouse, is the Policeman’s Memorial, erected in the early 2000s.

Reading City Park’s Vietnam War Memorial, dedicated to the fallen in Vietnam, seats a statue of a soldier, slumped over and looking down at the steps, beside a plaque listing those from Berks County who lost their lives in Vietnam. This memorial is moving and allows those in the area to pay their respect to those who have given their lives.

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