the labors of our fingertips: poems from manufacturing history in berks county.
this poetry project focuses on the memories and reflections of older seniors who used to work in factories and mills in berks county, pennsylvania many decades ago. it spanned 3 years and resulted in 3 books of poems, including 25 each, from seniors in their 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. a few were 100, too.
leroy fretz from volume two in this project passed away last week at the age of 98.
he worked for glen-gery in the world of brick-making for almost four decades in his younger years; i just happened to use a glen-gery knit beanie on a snowman built with my niece nights earlier (sometimes, you just want to make a snowman in the evening) after having it stored away in a drawer for a year or two.
and on the day when i learned of his passing but before i'd actually heard the news, i'd taken a long walk around wyomissing on my lunch break and discovered a hidden-away driveway with a no trespassing sign. deciduous tree branches probably of a more weedy variety were overgrown on the pavement, and i was tempted to check it out anyway, but in the end, i didn't and moved on in my walk around the borough. but before i moved on, i saw that glen-gery was the business name on the plaque noting not to trespass.
i had not stopped to think of glen-gery for probably months or even a year or more, before this.
—some eerie yet comforting happenings for ties to a man i so enjoyed my brief minutes with in visiting him a few times to document the memories of his job life. and also seeing how much he cherished and savored coloring beautiful images on sheets of paper into his 90s.
the corner shoppe in gilbertsville, montgomery county, a few miles from berks county's southeastern border, began carrying copies of all volumes of the labors of our fingertips: poems from manufacturing history of berks county this summer. it is well-worth visiting and is known for its colorful spinners along the sidewalk up to the front door.
in early april, i ventured to keystone villa at douglassville and hosted a poetry reading from all three volumes of the labors of our fingertips: poems from manufacturing history of berks county in celebrating national poetry month. it's always nice to find out the mills in the histories of residents with their own job-related stories. knitting mills often come up in the sharing of memories. this particular crowd especially enjoyed casket factory stories from boyertown which isn't too far from douglassville.
barb greth invited me to speak and read to the group a few months ago after attending one my poetry reading featuring shirley kohl as a special guest from my second book last year at the muhlenberg community library.
barb kindly assisted with photography, so she's not in the eye-scenes here.
since i began handing out one sample poem (in large font, to boot) for people to follow along with and keep at each of my poetry readings in the past year or two, to help those in the audience absorb the language a little more easily than just hearing the lines, i featured charlotte o. moyer's poem as an introduction. barb and i decided on this in advance since we wanted to have a woman's story as the first focal point during march as women's history month, and while i read many other female-based poems, we mixed in some from men by the end, too, including the one based on john groff's jobs as a resident of earl township, born in 1936. john was a part of a poetry reading at oley valley community library in september of 2016.
below is charlotte's poem from my third and final volume of the labors of our fingertips: poems from manufacturing history of berks county.
charlotte o. moyer, upper bern township | born: 1938
mae fisher nudged me to get a job at glo-ray knitting mills in 1958. i knew mae from church—a friend of my parents. a woman from west lawn drove through south heidelberg, picked up me and mae on the way to robesonia. we’d give her some cash to help her out, thank her for the ride. i remember
children’s sweaters, striped across the chests and arms with dyed red fibers, white ones in between the wide lines. trying to match up the stripes perfectly, linking the arm-parts and what touched the back and belly, seemed like some cruel joke, silly but real stress by day. i checked sleeves first, then sewed
them into their grand finales, finishing off the wait of selvage, the underside of excess where the two faces of material met. i started up the sides, from the bottom of the waist to a loop around the armhole. workers would bring me one heaping pile of sleeves and the main middle halves. you had to be very
exacting with those sleeves because if you stitched too far by a small measure in the intended zone, they’d turn out more than just a bit awkwardly. and nobody wants clumpy-fitting sleeves, nor would those be approved for packaging. merrow manufactured the machine i used. it stitched and cut off any
excess at the same time. every night, i came home, felt fuzzy wads of sweater aftermath in the creases of my neck, elbows, irritating, pesky annoyance to scrunch my nose at once i walked through the door. i extracted them from my skin, pulled off pieces of clammy sweater debris sticking to my
clothing. at a picnic one summer, they had a shaving contest, women taking razorblades to santa claus-like faces of men, done up in cream. they draped long, red fabric over the guys to keep from getting far too messy. i took some of that ruby textile with me—they were going to throw it out, anyway, and
i still have it in a box, to this day. that game of passing a single orange from one person’s neck to another, with the no-hands rule in full use, is in a picture i took that afternoon, a camera often stuffed into my purse, even back then, documenter
of history that i am, knowing simply—stories are everything.
in mid-march, i visited keystone villa at fleetwood and hosted a poetry reading from all three volumes of the labors of our fingertips: poems from manufacturing history of berks county. this served as a part their history program series. the event was coordinated and sponsored in part by the fleetwood public library.
several residents in the audience mentioned that they knew edna machemer from volume one since they worked at diener's underwear mill in leesport with her, too. they remembered her hard work ethic but also great wit and how fun she was to be around. her edna-specific humor is evidenced in her poem, which is above where her name is hyperlinked.
the math of mixing snow-rain as ice meant the original date for a poetry reading at the boyertown area historical society was pushed out to this past wednesday from the previous one. but a nice crowd arrived for it, and thankfully, alice gerhart was able to make it as a special featured guest, even though harold schoenly unfortunately couldn't.
besides talking about alice's short-lived job in a paper mill in west reading where parachutes were made during world war ii, she also told us about her father owning a knitting mill in the city of reading, selling hosiery to businesses in european countries, and being an inventor of an inspecting machine in his industry.
this audience involved some really great curiosities with questions asked, like about any inspirational poets and styles impacting this project's work. while the style of the poems is a blend of many influences and creative utility fleshed out across years of working with words, interviewing, documenting, and translating details onto the page, i did mention a few names of recent poetic appreciation: ted kooser, jim harrison, and nayyirah waheed. and i talked about their lives and approach to writing for a bit, too.
the boyertown area historical society is hosting a poetry reading for the recent release of volume three of the labors of our fingertips: poems from manufacturing history in berks county on wednesday, february *14 at 7 p.m. (recently rescheduled from wednesday, february 7 due to expected winter weather) the poetry reading will also be a final recap of volumes 1, 2, an 3 in this project.
the historical society's programming room at the front of their main building is located along 43 south chestnut street, boyertown, pa 19512. for non-members, the cost of attendance for the event is $5.
special featured guests for the event will be alice gerhart from volume one and harold schoenly from volume three. there's a chance someone from volume two may attend as well, but that can be a surprise for now, since it's in limbo.
here is harold's poem, as a hint of what the night's programming will involve.
harold schoenly, douglass township, montgomery county | born: 1931
after richard yoder checked the documentation to match my workload, i learned 1968’s fatal gunfire of senator robert kennedy led to his body joining a casket i’d made with my own hands. these caskets didn’t sell so often, priced high, not so profitable. i’d started at the casket factory in boyertown
in 1958, remember hearing that these three-inch thick planks as mahogany caskets cost around $5,500, even back then. we called them no. 4900 mahogany. they were heavy—a finished casket might weigh around 300 pounds. i spent 15 years making these caskets, but how long it took to do them well
meant you didn’t make much money per hour. i think i still have my first paystub, $46 typed out across that old piece of paper. my mortgage cost $36.30 a month back then. i’d left the u.s. air force in 1957 after carving out three years serving in germany, glad i knew pennsylvania dutch so i could
understand some of the conversations better. i’d learned intelligence, tested in, signed off with a top secret clearance, but you can’t ask me about that. you can try, but it won’t help you any—history is bound to be hidden sometimes. john brower did help me get into a casket once, closed that
lid down, didn’t lock it shut on its cart. olive johnson walked over to push it to the finishing room. when she went to grab the tag inside, she saw me in it, my eyes open boldly—jumped back, screamed. the lid bounced back down. i built houses around town for a while, some before i quit
in 1973. by 1979, boyertown planing mill company hired me. i did shaper work, a white-knuckled kind of job, especially with fancy stair railings, elegant, but the pressure in getting it right made me think i even left fingerprints in the wood sometimes. a desk at one of the philadelphia television news
stations had known its early changes through my palms. i retired in 1996. my handrail work is still in an 11-story hospital in wilmington, delaware. what comes from trees remembers who touched it, whose eyes know its integrity, how much it misses the memories of its oldest roots.
a total of 41 envelopes are now finally prepped and ready to mail donations of the third volume from this project to libraries and historical societies in berks county.
i am a big advocate of supporting libraries since they are so supportive of me, in a sense, and the community. all of us who love libraries back. i appreciate being able to borrow books, books on CD, music CDs, and DVDs of films. as i get older, libraries become more and more valuable to me. and since the beginning of this project, making my books available to those who can't necessarily afford to buy them or don't feel a need to own copies can still enjoy them—has been a goal.
for anyone who would like to buy copies, other than reaching out to me for an old-fashioned sale, there is the gofundme campaign to donate to with your name, snail-mail address, quantity, and book volume(s) wanted.
last sunday, i hosted one of the last poetry readings for this project besides any which are requested by local organizations (boyertown area historical society reached out afterward and wanted a poetry reading for this work for their february 2018 program–more on that later).
poems from volume three of the labors of our fingertips: poems from manufacturing history of berks county, the final book in this project, were the focus of this particular afternoon at studio b in boyertown.
copies of volume three are now available for purchase for $20 each (including tax) the old-fashioned way by cash or check (email thelaborsofourfingertips at yahoo dot com with your request) or through donating to the gofundme campaign for this project.
only one of four special featured guests were able to attend, tom mauger, but i'm very grateful for that because one is far better than zero, and tom had some good prank-rich stories to share from his old jobs, including ones outside of his poem which is below.
and poetry reading photography was kindly contributed by laura kline.
tom mauger, amity township | born: 1948
too young to get hired by some factories, at 17, i took a truck route delivering bottles of milk, ice cream, eggs, and butter for longacre’s modern dairy, still in washington township today. one of my stops at unicast in boyertown involved
pushing a cart to sell bottles of milk, before they installed a machine to keep it cold, automated for quick grabs. some workers paid in cash right away. others paid their tabs to me weekly. anybody who didn’t pay didn’t get
more milk—the same went for families i delivered to— they didn’t get more milk until they paid up, either. but the trips into unicast led to them hiring me part-time. weight-moving, inspecting, grinding,
and pulling castings out of sand, swatting or sawing off excess molten iron where it first and last entered the cavity opening to meet the pattern. we called that knocking off the gates. i might have done that job
first, before the others. we made trivets for resting hot skillets and casserole dishes, to let them cool, little toy trucks, nutcrackers, even the meowing persuasion of cats crafted in cast-iron. itty bitty-sized cars and
motorcycles were produced, too. charlie miller taught me how to mold, fiery foundry minutes bringing out my sweat. on the hottest days, molders went home early—too hot of weather for pouring. the guys there
called me a blond-headed kraut, combining my german heritage and the hue of my hair. one guy only spoke pennsylvania dutch, so you had to know the dialect, or you couldn’t talk with him about work or anything
else. coal crackers came from up north, carpooling to work with us, maybe from schuylkill county. some men would find an ideal second to drop a lit cigarette butt into a guy’s back pocket as he worked, waiting
for the stench of the smoking to catch up to his nose. even a cut-off pig’s tail made it into some back pockets.
please send your RSVPs to thelaborsofourfingertips at yahoo dot com. invite friends and the famfam, if you like. we'll have some refreshments, too.
the bulk of copies of volume three will be available for purchase by the time this poetry reading rolls on around.
betty seifrit (she wasn't able to attend during a july poetry reading) and tom mauger will be special featured guests from the third and final volume in this project, as will gary and doris williams. the opportunity to ask the poem-sources questions about their lives after their poems are read is the always-there perk of these events so that you can learn more about them through genuine connections in conversation.
here are eye-scenes of them and a teaser poem about one of them, in the order in which they were mentioned above.
gary williams, rockland township | born: 1948
sam hartline told me, you’re a natural at welding, once he
trained me but acted like i hardly needed the lessons. walter
delong had shown me the heat-firing ropes any time a free
minute or two cropped into our shifts at boyertown auto
body works. before sam’s nodding of final approval, i only
assembled the trucks, starting maybe in the late 1960s or
early 1970s. when contracts were slow to absorb inked
signatures in agreement, they laid me off, so reading
truck body hired me to work on dual-wheeled utility
vehicles. they paid more, but my heart functioned its
best back in boyertown. i welded shelves on the trucks,
crafted the sides of those dual-wheels from scratch.
when boyertown auto body works had some openings
again, i returned. in winter, sometimes walter and i
stole a few moments to throw snow into a cardboard
box outside of building 11. we were up on the balcony,
a perfect location for aiming snowballs down at guys
below, a way to add a laugh or two into a morning.
welding—with it, i felt like i accomplished more than
just putting in rivets and screws as an assembler. few
men there could fashion aluminum just right, its soft
and difficult tendencies always swimming easily close
to failure, botched jobs, but the flame, the sparks and
i got along well enough. stainless or galvanized steel,
too. i’m pretty sure i once glimpsed one of our emblems
on a box truck in a dirty harry movie, maybe magnum
force from 1973. to think our work made it to california,
that what we touched traveled so far and made it onto
the big screen—i like that memory, that little reminder,
to know what we did started in a small town, reached
so far beyond pennsylvania, beyond the blasting flashes
of what the steadied control of my arms made happen.
i've been loving the "two bettys walk into a bar" phrasing for the past week or two, although i had to more accurately twist it into a different venue and kind of hangout, a historical society poetry reading.
betty kunkel and betty yeager are these specific betty-types. in my second and third volumes of this poetry project, respectively, with betty kunkel also in betty yeager's poem, i delighted in the minutes of time spent with them during a program where i read their knitting milll job memories out loud for the hamburg area historical society at the hamburg area high school last thursday evening.
and a third betty joined these two in walking into the building, which i loved. "yodeling betty" naftzinger is not in my books and project on manufacturing history of berks county. but i don't know how often you can say you have three bettys walking into a doorway at once. here are the three bettys: naftzinger, kunkel, and yeager.
and the two bettys in my project drove to the wrong entrance of the school, as did i. since they have some struggles walking but do pretty well for their age, i walked back to get my car and acted as their chauffeur before and after the reading. and i loved that.
in the early minutes of the reading, we heard a loud, awkward tech-y sound in the hallway outside of where we were. i said into the microphone that it sounded like an electrical fart. the crowd whirled into a good roar of laughter for a while. i told everyone that poetry builds you to be more in tune with how to describe things you notice in the world.
yeager commented during the reading that she gave brian riegel (he kindly took the photos here) of the
historical society his lunch in his school days when she worked in the
high school cafeteria, but she said he didn't have whiskers below his
chin then. she's pretty good at incidental comedy. this was one of her jobs after her knitting mill days shared with betty kunkel.
and one woman in the audience raised her hand to let me know her mother had been in my first book, irene schappell. at the time, she'd been 98 going on 99. she said irene died a few months ago, at 100. i was so grateful that she spoke out and shared this news. irene struggled with hearing and memory yet had a wonderful and witty personality. here is irene's obituary which i just discovered.
by the end, outside, the moon perched low in the sky, bigger-seeming (it's technically the moon illusion), and it looked like a rounded chunk of muenster cheese. they gazed at it above hamburg's hills a bit before getting into betty yeager's car to head home. i told them that these moments were a poem.
the hamburg area historical society is hosting a poetry reading for the labors of our fingertips: poems from manufacturing history of berks county as a program for its members and the public on thursday, september 7 at 7 p.m. in the community room of hamburg area high school at 701 windsor street, hamburg, pa 19526.
hamburg's own betty kunkel from the second volume of poetry in this project will be the special featured guest for the evening. audience members will have the opportunity to meet betty and ask her questions about her memories in her former knitting mill jobs in hamburg. she is also mentioned in the poem of betty yeager in the upcoming third and final volume of poetry for this project, as a unique tie-in for her across 2016 and 2017 work in this community effort of preserving memories of seniors through interviews and poems crafted from this local history-hugging.
EDIT: on the eve of this event, i just heard word that betty yeager will be at this poetry reading as well and that the two bettys will be carpooling together. so it'll be an even more worthwhile event.
(below is betty kunkel, and pictured second is betty yeager)
here is betty yeager's poem, since betty kunkel will be a part of this poetry reading to share her conversational reflections about her time paralleled with a friend and co-worker of the same first name. (i keep finding myself wanting to say, two bettys walk into a knitting mill...oh spins on jokes.)
betty yeager, hamburg
borough | born: 1933
i picked up my man at the church
picnic. they had put me
in charge of soda bottles at zion moselem lutheran
that warm afternoon, so many lines
of seasoned gravestones
behind us as we shared our smiles
back and forth, savored
sunshine, any sudden breezes from
wind and forest, specific
to the old dirt of earth in richmond township. william
and his friend, john setzler, they
were thirsty. initial flirting
began by the time william took a
sip or a few, maybe a crisp
cola. after we married in 1951 or
1952, he became a truck
driver for burkey underwear
company in hamburg,
making trips to and from their
warehouse down the road.
i had a job there, too, put
binding on the top of the flatlock
seams on the crotch sections of
what men wear under their
slacks or to sleep when our world switches on its
for restful silence. some say, the barn door’s open, a way
to snicker about the region i
sewed. i trimmed the straps off
in this anatomy of the front,
delicately deliberate motions
with my scissors. sometimes we
ventured to the hamburg
diner on state street on a friday
around lunchtime. a creek
runs behind our old mill. it’s still
there. you didn’t have
time to joke on the clock. you had
to get your work done.
another betty—betty kunkel, worked
there, too. i’d seen her
at church in our girlhood days,
always in vibrantly-patterned
dresses, hand-sewn by her mother,
from old feed bags, some
of them flowered, others
checkered. on saturday nights, her
parents took her to zern’s farmers’ market to buy young
plants to raise on their land,
that drive about an hour long.
as a semi-introduction to the weekend, i shared poems from my third and final upcoming book of poems on manufacturing history of berks county at goggleworks in the city of reading at the first thursday poetry event hosted by berks bards, before its community open mic this august.
in 2015 and 2016, berks bards invited me to share poems from volumes one and two of the labors of our fingertips: poems from manufacturing history of berks county. so a third and final time in 2017 for the next and last book in this project made for a nice way to move into august. volume three will be out in late september.
oliver carter joined us as my special guest for the evening. i knew he'd have some great details to share from his jobs from before he retired. he answered the audience's questions about memories in his poem and some outside of it, from the main interview which helped to shape these lines. the poem crafted from his recollections is below, followed by scenes from the community open mic.
oliver carter, shillington borough | born: 1939
as a boy, i’d grown used to that hard hum, the rumbling
resonance of the railroad—in our house near seventh and
cherry streets. once we moved away, i had trouble sleeping
at night, those sounds, that vibrational pulsation missing.
back then, i can remember at least six movie houses along
penn street, one along fifth street in the city of reading,
a whole different spine to the downtown buzz and blur
of life, now history. i cooked meals through szabo food
service, inc. for western electric for a few years. then
two months after my wedding, the military changed
the rules, said married men could forgo the draft. but
they already had me in their ranks—trained in the u.s.
army in fort jackson in georgia. i taught men exactly how
to operate combustion and diesel engines on missile sites
in fort belvoir, virginia, served as second in command
in managing electricity at a power station by north star
bay in thule, greenland. by 1965, i came home, took
a job at polymer plastics, extruded that material. ford
motor company gave us a fairlane model, challenging
us to see what components we could redesign in plastic
for lighter weight in a single car, cheaper cost—bolts,
tubing, gas tanks. i left there for cartech, its buildings
along a bend in the oldest water around, the schuylkill
river. i went from laborer—in the melt shop, hot mills,
rolling mill, annealing—to foreman, then supervisor
of the wire drawing department, after early days spent
extruding coils and rods, not cutting them but reducing
their size by stretching them through a custom die. once
i managed people, decided who would get what job each
day across the latest project, i understood how delicate
and complex it is to attempt to distribute work evenly,
to do a job well without racism dripping through some
complaints, guys taking orders from a man whose skin
isn’t quite like that of their own majority. yet most knew
we were all just working to get through our days, put food
on our tables at home, hoping to have the energy to love
our kids, wives—in between overtime, slumber in blankets.