United States of Berks: How North Heidelberg, Oley and Ontelaunee townships got their names
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Courtesy of George M. Meiser IX | The Forge School, shown in 1911, was converted to a residence along Charming Forge Road near Rider Road in North Heidelberg Township. It appears in Volume 2 of "The Passing Scene" by George M. Meiser IX and Gloria Jean Meiser.
North Heidelberg Township
North Heidelberg Township population: 1,214 (2010 U.S. Census Bureau)
Municipal building address: 928 Charming Forge Road, Robesonia, PA 19551
Size: 13.464 square miles (2018 U.S. Census Bureau statistics)
School district: Conrad Weiser, www.conradweiser.org
Incorporation date: 1845
Places of interest: North Heidelberg Church, which was built in 1846
Did you know: During World War II, an observation tower was erected in the township from which spotters searched the skies for enemy planes.
Editor's note: The story below originally appeared in the Reading Eagle on May 20, 2002, as part of a special series on the county's 250th anniversary.
For over 100 years, Heidelberg Township stood undivided. Then, in the mid-19th century, it gave up land for the formation of three townships.
In an attempt to shrink Heidelberg to a manageable size, Lower Heidelberg was formed in 1842. And although Marion Township was split from Heidelberg just two years later, the inhabitants of Heidelberg still considered their municipality too large and in the fall of that year — 1844 — they were already considering another division. The concerns were common during that era: elections and roads. And, as was also common, there were those who opposed the division that would form North Heidelberg Township. But they numbered just 13 and North Heidelberg was incorporated in 1845.
The new township's main industry was agriculture, but Tulpehocken Creek was a good source of water power, and several sawmills and gristmills — and liquor distilleries of various sizes — went into operation.
One-room schoolhouses were in use as early as 1745. Many are still standing.
By the late 1800s, North Heidelberg contained just two post offices, Krick's Mill and North Heidelberg. The latter operated in combination with a tavern and the township's only store.
The geography of North Heidelberg continued unchanged until the 1970s when a portion was included in the Blue Marsh Lake project.
The main pursuit of North Heidelberg's residents hasn't changed. The township remains predominantly agricultural with plans in place to preserve several thousand acres for that use.
Courtesy of George M. Meiser IX | Historian Dr. Arthur Dundore Graeff pumps water outside of his North Heidelberg Township home, known as Dundore Hall. Graeff edited the Historical Review of Berks County from 1962 until his death on March 28, 1969. The photo appears in Volume 2 of "The Passing Scene" by George M. Meiser IX and Gloria Jean Meiser.
North Heidelberg timeline
1744: A log house is built by a settlement of Moravians for use as a house of worship.
1800: Approximate date that the inn that would become known as Kalbach's opens.
1830: The Moravian settlement contracts as families begin moving west.
1835: Approximate date when Lutheran and Reformed congregations are organized.
1839-1851: Eleven new townships are erected in Berks County. Three come from Heidelberg Township.
1842: Heidelberg Township is divided for the first time to form Lower Heidelberg Township.
1844: Another chunk of Heidelberg is taken this time to form Marion Township. Residents want their municipality to be even smaller and press for the formation of yet another township out of Heidelberg.
1845: North Heidelberg Township is incorporated.
1851: A stand opens in connection with the only store in North Heidelberg.
1864: North Heidelberg post office — the township's first — is established.
1865: Krick's Mill post office is established.
1962: Responding to a study commissioned as a result of floods in1955, Congress authorizes construction of Blue Marsh Lake.
1963: North Heidelberg votes on the proposed merger that would create Conrad Weiser school district after having voted against the move the previous year.
1965: The township is the last in the county to use paper ballots in elections.
1974: Construction of Blue Marsh Lake begins.
1977: A headless corpse is found in a wooded area of the township.
1979: The township solicitor suggests that supervisors have roads still in use in the Blue Marsh Dam area barricaded where bridges have been removed to prevent vehicles from plunging into Tulpehocken Creek.
1979: Blue Marsh Lake opens to the public.
1980: North Heidelberg rejects a plan to share with Jefferson Township the cost of installing a streetlight along the Bernville Road at the road from Bernville to Robesonia. Jefferson officials had reasoned North Heidelberg residents were the most frequent users of the road; North Heidelberg officials said they didn't want to pay for something outside their township.
Update to 2002 information: The body found in 1977 was identified as Thomas Morgan, 19, of Reading. Four men were charged in his death and three were convicted.
Main Street in Oley Township.
Oley Township population: 3,620 (2010 U.S. Census Bureau)
Municipal building address: 1 Rose Virginia Road, Oley, PA 19547
Size: 23.878 square miles (2018 U.S. Census Bureau statistics)
School district: Oley Valley School District
Incorporation date: 1740
Places of interest: Pleasantville Covered Bridge, Griesemer's Mill Covered Bridge
Did you know: Oley is a derivation of the American Indian name for the region, Olink, which means kettle.
Editor's note: The stories below, written by staff members, originally appeared in the Reading Eagle on May 27, 2002, as part of a special series on the county's 250th anniversary.
Oley Township — one of the most historically significant areas in Berks County — was originally the largest part of what was known as the Manatawny section of Penn's woods.
One of the first settlers was John Keim, who bought a tract of land in 1698 near Manatawny Creek and settled there in 1706.
In 1720, area residents petitioned to create a new township, but it was not until 1740 that the court confirmed the order. Over the years, parts of Oley were taken to form Earl, District, Rockland and Pike townships.
Farming was the main occupation of the early settlers, but several paper mills, woolen factories and oil mills operated on water power from Manatawny, Monocacy, Furnace and Little Manatawny creeks.
Iron ore of good quality was taken out of the Kemp farm and there were a number of limestone quarries in the township.
The township was also the home of the Oley Academy, an institution of higher learning, which opened in 1857 and closed in 1905.
The college was equipped with choice philosophical apparatus, a large collection of geological and botanical specimens and a library of about 500 volumes of standard and reference books.
The village of Oley is the hub of the township. Other villages are Griesemersville, Pleasantville and Oley Furnace.
The township was also known for its furnaces. Oley's first furnace — Shearwell Furnace — was built by Diedrich Walker on land granted to him in 1744; the Oley Furnace was built along Furnace Creek in 1772. Both operated until 1873.
Oley Township was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in the early 1980s.
Cervin Robinson - Historic American Buildings Survey | This 1958 photograph of the historic Kaufman house in Oley Township shows the east elevation with the spring house on the left and ancillary house on the right.
The infamous Susanna Cox
Oley Township was the site of one of the most infamous and morbid murders in Berks County history.
It happened almost 200 years ago, but the story has been told many times and even re-enacted at fairs.
People still discuss how servant girl Susanna Cox murdered her newborn and how she was later hanged for her crime.
The Historical Society of Berks County gave this account:
Cox was a serving girl in the Geehr household, which was located close to the Oley Turnpike near the Exeter Township line.
Although she was not smart, she had a strong body and a friendly disposition.
Unbeknownst to everybody else, Cox, 24, became pregnant, and gave birth in her living quarters on Feb. 14, 1809.
All the Geehr family knew was that Cox was indisposed with some unknown ailment.
Three days later, Jacob Geehr, owner of the house, went to an outbuilding near the house and found a package wrapped in an old blanket. Inside the package he found the dead body of the infant.
Geehr questioned Cox about the body, and she said the baby was her's, but that it had been born dead.
Further investigation proved that the baby had been strangled. Cox was arrested and taken to Reading for trial, which began April 7.
She was found guilty of willful and premeditated murder and was sentenced to death. She was to be hanged in public June 10 on the Commons, which is now known as City Park.
When the verdict was announced, Cox wept convulsively, maintaining her innocence.
Cox was an object of great public sympathy because she was going to die for a crime to which she did not confess.
Cox's last day was warm. A little after 11 a.m., Cox stood upon her coffin, which had been placed across a platform. The executioner covered her head and adjusted the noose around her neck.
Some believed that the executioner jerked Cox's ankles to hasten her death. Others thought the man was adjusting Cox's shoes, which were about to fall off her feet.
Either way, the executioner was beaten by Andrew McCoy, one of the town's fighters of the day.
9/11/13 - photo courtesy of the Oley Valley Community Fair - The 1972 Oley Fair, Henry Gruber judges the beef cattle being shown by Carl Rabenold and Peter Levan.
Oley Township Timeline
1712: The name of Oley is used for the first time when a grant of land is made to Isaac DeTurk.
1720: A petition for the erection of Oley Township is presented to the court in Philadelphia. The petition, signed by 31 men, is delayed for unknown reasons.
1735: A petition is presented in Philadelphia court to extend the Tulpehocken Road from the Schuylkill River east to Oley, where it would connect with a road to Philadelphia. The route was laid out and the Oley Turnpike was established.
1740: The petition for incorporation, now signed by 54 men, is renewed. The township is established.
1850-1872: The township leases the Moravian schoolhouse for public school purposes and pays $4 a year in rent.
1852: The Pleasantville covered bridge is built. It is one of the few covered bridges still standing in Berks County.
1857: Oley Academy opens with 40 students. Jacob J. Mayor is the principal.
1874: The Oley Academy enters a new period of prosperity after a financial reversal; a boarding home (dormitory) is opened and the school acquires scientific equipment and many books.
1885: The first class of the revitalized Oley Academy— 12 students that completed courses in English and the ancient and modern classics — graduates.
1905: The Oley Academy closes and the building becomes part of the Oley Fire Company.
1940s: The Oley Valley Community Fair begins. The event originates in the Oley High School building and surrounding grounds but expands to the firemen's park. A permanent building for the fair was later erected.
1960: The Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry orders an Oley Township migrant camp closed because of unsanitary conditions and lack of a state license. Thirty-one people are forced out by the order.
1961: The township has a budget of $29,488 with tax rates at 6 mills on real estate, $5 per capita and a $5 residence tax.
1969: The Oley municipal building at the end of Rose Virginia Road off Route 73 is completed. Constructions cost: about $59,542.
2002: Oley Township has a budget of $1,476,120 with real-estate taxes at 0.32 mills.
A view of the nearly completed Lake Ontelaunee dam and bridge on July 9, 1935. The present-day Route 73 takes drivers over the bridge.
Ontelaunee Township population: 1,646 (2010 U.S. Census Bureau)
Municipal building address: 35 Ontelaunee Drive, Reading, PA 19605
Size: 8.67 square miles (2018 U.S. Census Bureau statistics)
School district: Schuylkill Valley School District
Incorporation date: 1849
Places of interest: Lake Ontelaunee, Leesport Farmers Market, Parvin Homestead
Did you know: Thousands of people visited Whander Field — intended to be the airport to serve the City of Reading — in Ontelaunee Township, during the 1930s to watch airplane stunt shows and parachute jumps. The air field remained in operation until about 1940. The Parvin homestead at Route 61 and Snyder Road in the Berkley section is the oldest building in the township.
Reading Eagle | Work on the Ontelaunee Energy Center plant continues on September 5, 2001. This view is from the rear of the plant.
Editor's note: The story below, written by staff members, originally appeared in the Reading Eagle on June 3, 2002, as part of a special series on the county's 250th anniversary.
When the Quakers settled the upper eastern portion of Berks County that would sprout nine townships it was known as the Ontelaunee section, named after the stream that extends diagonally through the region.
Ontelaunee is an American Indian name, meaning “maiden creek.” When the Friends referred to the creek, and then named the township founded in 1746 after it, they chose the English translation.
Old records say they “ignored the beautiful and expressive name "Ontelaunee.'”
That would be rectified years later, but still, it wasn't the residents' first choice.
When a request to create a new township out of Maidencreek was presented in 1849, the petitioners suggested “Schuylkill Township” as a name. The court approved the petition, but not the name, substituting instead, “Antalawny,” a spelling that had been in use by some in deeds and church records.
Throughout its history, Ontelaunee Township has had a number of key transportation routes. The Centre Turnpike, now called Pottsville Pike, or Route 61; and Kutztown Road, now Allentown Pike, or Route 222, run through the township.
Three branches of the old Reading Co. and the Schuylkill Division of the old Pennsylvania Railroad pass through the township.
And the Schuylkill Canal was once a busy carrier of bulky cargo. Samuel Lee established a port on the canal in the township and his settlement became known as Lee's Port (today the borough of Leesport).
The township had a variety of industries in its early days that relied upon water power provided by Maiden Creek and benefited from available shipping facilities. There were many types of mills, a paper-manufacturing plant, a rye whiskey distillery and a tannery that processed 25 oak-tanned hides a week.
There were also several big quarrying operations. The biggest enterprise in the 19th century, however, was the Leesport Furnace, which operated from 1853 well into the 20th century.
Ontelaunee Township has the distinction of being host to the wastewater treatment and water filtration facilities for the city of Reading and Maidencreek Township.
The city of Reading established a pumping station in Ontelaunee along Maidencreek in Berkley in 1899.
The vast Lake Ontelaunee project was established in the 1930s to serve as the main reservoir for the city. Today, the lake, which is partially in Maidencreek Township, is the principal water supply for the city and several surrounding communities.
Over the last several years, the Route 61 corridor has attracted a number of large enterprises that are changing the complexion of the area:
• Ames Distribution Center anchors a growing industrial-commercial area that includes Berks Products, Pohl Corp. and Penske.
• An electric generating plant is being constructed along Route 61 in the southeast portion of the township.
• All of the facilities of the Schuylkill Valley School District are located within the township.
Updates to 2002 information: The Ames Distribution Center is now Ashley Furniture Industries. Ontelaunee Energy Center went online in 2002.
Reading Eagle | Jason Shellenhamer, a senior anthropology major at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster county, digs inside an archeological grid Oct. 10, 2000, that shows a suspected slave tunnel and pipe, later installed through the tunnel, at the Hirneisen residence in Ontelaunee Township.
Parvin Homestead, oldest building
In 1729, a Quaker gentleman named Francis Parvin obtained a 500-acre grant from William and Thomas Penn along Willow Creek, and built a log house in what would later be known as Berkley.
He was a tanner and a currier and he operated a gristmill on the property. In 1758, Parvin's son, also named Francis, built a stone house that stands today on the property along Route 61 at Snyder Road in Ontelaunee Township.
A century later, historians believe, the Parvin estate provided refuge to escaped slaves.
With its easy access to the Schuylkill River via Willow Creek, the property would have been an ideal stop along the Underground Railroad, a system set up to help fugitive slaves escape to free states and Canada during the 1850s and 1860s.
During the mid-19th century, the Parvins employed freed slaves who lived on the property — a good cover for escaped slaves.
Three years ago, the current owners of the Parvin estate, Kenneth and Dorothy Hirneisen, discovered the opening of a tunnel in the cellar they believe was part of a slave escape route.
They also discovered a tunnel entrance in the cold cellar, which they suspect ran under Snyder Road to their barn.
An archeological dig supervised by a Franklin and Marshall College anthropology student Jason Shellenhamer uncovered evidence of a tunnel running from the cold cellar to the barn.
Artifacts including blue-glass beads — commonly worn as jewelry by black slaves — further supported the theory that the cold cellar was at one time inhabited by black slaves.