Berks County Heritage Center showcases the history of wagon building and canal transport

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If you’ve ever crossed the bridge over Tulpehocken Creek in Gring’s Mill Recreation Area in Spring Township and taken a left to stroll along the Union Canal towpath to the red covered bridge, you’ve passed by the Berks County Heritage Center.

However, have you actually seen the place?

The other way to get to the 50-acre site by car, you must take Red Bridge Road off Route 183 in Bern Township to get to the parking lot.

What will you find there?

Photo submitted

The Berks County Heritage Center is home to the Gruber Wagon Works. (Courtesy picture)

Inside a museum displaying a replica river boat
The interior of the C. Howard Hiester Canal Center at the Berks County Heritage Center in the Canton of Bern. In the foreground is a 1/4 scale replica of a river boat. (Courtesy of Berks County Heritage Center)

“The Berks County Heritage Center is a historic park within the Berks County Department of Parks and Recreation’s park system that includes two museums: the Gruber Wagon Works, a National Historic Landmark, and the C. Howard Hiester Canal Center” , said Daniel Roe, historical. resource supervisor for the department, in an email.

“Through these two museums, the Heritage Center shares Berks County’s transportation history. The Gruber Wagon Works offers a rare example of a family owned and operated rural factory. The Grubers built hay boxes and flatcars for the local and surrounding communities.

The village of Penn Township in Mount Pleasant was home to Gruber Wagon Works until 1976 when it was moved to what would become the Heritage Center due to the construction of Blue Marsh Lake and the dam. The building became a National Historic Landmark in December 1977.

“Tours of the Gruber Wagon Works are offered hourly, with the last tours beginning at 3 p.m.,” Roe said.

Visitors or trail users can stop at any time and pose with the nearly 7-foot tall, brightly colored Distelfink statue created by master sculptor Ramon Lago. The Cuban-born artist lived in Berks County for two decades before moving to Miami, where he died in 2018.

His ashes were scattered at Gring’s Mill, near another of his sculptures, Tully the Turtle.

A de facto logo for many things in Dutch Pennsylvania and a frequent component of barnstar and hex sign, the Distelfink is said to be inspired by the European variety of goldfinch and signifies a wish for good luck.

The Distelfink sculpture, by Ramon Lago, at the Berks County Heritage Center.  (Reading Eagle)

BEN HASTY – READING EAGLE,

The distelfink sculpture, by Ramon Lago, at the Berks County Heritage Center. (Reading Eagle)

“The Heritage Center is home to several historic structures including Wertz Covered Bridge, Melcher Gray Mill, Deppen Cemetery, Bicentennial Eagle Memorial, Fraternal Order of Police Memorial, Doctor’s Grove, the Distelfink Sculpture, an herb garden, Mildred the Houseboat, Epler’s One Room School House, which is maintained/operated by the Friends of Epler’s One Room School House, and many of the buildings in historic farmhouse related to the site’s previous use as a dairy farm, including a dairy, a restored barn that houses the Visitor Center and C. Howard Hiester Canal Center and the original farm house now used as office space in the park,” Roe said.

Roe said visitors should be sure to thoroughly explore everything at the center.

“Whether it’s strolling through the herb garden or listening to the little brown bats that reside in the red covered bridge of Wertz in spring and summer, or simply taking a selfie with the Distelfink sculpture, there is so much to see and learn,” he said.

Roe said he thought Gruber Wagon Works was the most interesting feature of the Berks County Heritage Center.

“The building itself is quite unique, not following any specific design, but rather growing and expanding often for a particular purpose at any given time,” he said.

The building was constructed in 1882 by Franklin H. Gruber and operated, at least to some extent, until 1972.

“The story of the Gruber family and how they have maintained their rail car business and operations for 90 years is remarkable,” Roe said. “That the factory was miraculously preserved, moved and restored with over 19,000 artifacts is a story every Earl of Berks should hear and live.”

Men sitting on wagon frames outside Gruber Wagon Works circa 1910
Workers gather outside the Gruber Wagon Works building in Penn Township circa 1910. (Courtesy Berks County Heritage Center)

If you are going to

What: Berks County Heritage Center

Address: 1102 Red Bridge Road, Reading (Township of Bern)

Hours: Fridays and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 4 p.m.

Admission fee: Gruber Wagon Works & C. Howard Hiester Canal Center tours are $5 for children and students ages 7-18, $7 for adults 19-59, and $6 for seniors 60 and older . Children 6 and under are free. Group rates are available for reservations made in advance.

Call: 610-374-8839

Website: https://www.co.berks.pa.us/dept/parks/pages/heritagecenter.aspx

Cut: About 50 acres

Number of buildings: ten

Picnic areas: Several picnic tables spread over the grounds

Rental spaces: The Heritage Center does not have an official facility which is rented out, however, the park has hosted many groups and events. Contact the park for more information.

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