Berks County Heritage Center

sculpture of the DistelfinkFor many years, the Berks County Heritage Center has served as a resource for the county’s extensive cultural history. If you’re visiting the Reading, PA area between May and October and are interested in the culture and history of the Pennsylvania Dutch, you’ll be able to enjoy the Center’s many workshops and interpretive programs that are suitable for all ages.

The Center is located along the Tulpehocken Creek west of Reading at 1102 Red Bridge Rd., Reading PA 19605. The hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10:00am to 4:00pm, and Sunday 12:00 to 5:00pm, as well as summer holidays. The Heritage Center also hosts the annual Heritage Festival in October and other events. The complex encompasses a variety of interesting things to see. 

Der Distelfink

One of the first things to greet you near the parking lot of the Heritage Center is the popular and colorful sculpture of the Distelfink, a fixture here since 1985.

Settlers from the Rhine region of Germany, known as the Pennsylvania Dutch, brought their old world customs and folk art traditions with them when they came to Pennsylvania over 300 years ago. Those traditions included the colorful geometric patterns, called Hex signs, with which they decorated their barns.

Other decorative arts were also incorporated in their furniture, stoneware and in Fraktur (folk art) drawings with hearts, flowers, fruit, animals, and a highly stylized bird known as a “distelfink.” The mystical bird and floral designs also graced birth and marriage certificates and family bibles.

The distelfink (or dischdelfink) is thought to have been inspired by the thistle-eating goldfinch. The stylized bird is displayed to bring good luck and happiness to the household. You will often see the distelfink as a part of folk art designs that include Trinity tulips, which represent faith, hope and charity, and sometimes with a scalloped border, which is said to represent smooth sailing.

The distelfink at the Berks County Heritage Center was restored and repainted in 2006 to bring back its bold, bright hues that represent the colorful heritage of the Pennsylvania Germans.

Wertz’s Red Bridge 

As you enter the Heritage Center, the walkway you are passing through is actually the Red Bridge, or Wertz’s Covered Bridge, the longest single span covered bridge in Pennsylvania, which stretches 220 feet across Tulpehocken Creek.

Built in 1867, it’s one of only five surviving covered bridges in Berks County. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was completely restored in 1984.

Gruber Wagon Works

The Gruber Wagon Works, also located on the grounds of the Heritage Center, is a wonderful example of rural manufacturing. Built in 1882 by Franklin H. Gruber, the wagon works grew from a one-man operation to a full-fledged business that employed 20 craftsmen who built farm-use wagons using a mass-production system.

Each part of the job was done in a separate room of the three-level frame “factory.” The first floor housed a bench shop for crafting wagon wheels, a wood shop for making wood parts, and a blacksmith shop where wheels were “tired” and wagons were “ironed.”

The second floor contained small machine tools, a paint shop where the decorative scrollwork and striping were applied, and areas for wagon construction. The third floor was for storage of materials. There was even a hand or horse-operated elevator between the first and second floors of the building which was large enough for a long wagon.

Gruber Wagon Works closed in 1971. It was designated a National Historic Landmark to memorialize its historic significance as a bygone American industry. It was relocated here by the Army Corps of Engineers during the 1970s from its original location near Mt. Pleasant.

Berks County Heritage Center

If you happen to be in Reading between April 29 and October 29 take a trip to the Berks County Heritage Center. Experience the property’s 200-year history when it was a working farm. There are biking and walking trails, a picnic pavilion, and badminton courts at Berks County Heritage Center, so there are plenty of things to see and do to fill up your day.