The historic almshouse wall that stands along Philadelphia Avenue in Cumru Township, near Shillington, has recently undergone partial repairs after sustaining damage from multiple vehicle accidents over the past year. The wall holds great significance as it is the last remaining remnant of the Berks County Almshouse, which served as a refuge for individuals facing poverty, homelessness, alcoholism, and mental health issues for over a century.
Charles J. Adams III, a renowned author and retired radio personality, along with a group of local history enthusiasts, visited the site earlier this year to assess the damage. Recognizing the historical importance of the wall, they have been advocating for its repair and preservation. Susan Atkins Weiser, president of the Berks History Center’s board of trustees and a founder of the Gov. Mifflin Area History Facebook page, expressed gratitude for the support of the community in saving the wall.
The Berks County Almshouse once occupied 514 acres of farmland in Cumru Township, which is now the location of Gov. Mifflin High School. Established in 1825 and in operation until 1951, the facility provided food, shelter, and occupation to individuals in need. Often referred to as “the poorhouse,” the complex consisted of dormitories and various agricultural buildings, including a creamery. When it closed, remaining residents were transferred to the newly built Berks Heim in Bern Township. Unfortunately, in 1957, most of the buildings were demolished, leaving only the wall as a tangible reminder of the almshouse’s existence.
The almshouse and its surrounding landscape have been depicted in folk-art paintings by resident artists from the 19th century like Charles C. Hofmann, Louis Mader, and John Rasmussen. Rasmussen, a German immigrant, was one of the most prolific painters associated with the almshouse. In 1880, he created a well-known painting showing the wall, which can be viewed in the Janssen Library at the Berks History Center. Rasmussen’s artwork, along with other related pieces, can be found in museums and private collections throughout the country.
The significance of the almshouse and the wall extends beyond its historical context. Weiser, who has personal ties to the area’s history, shared that her great-great grandfather spent his last months in the almshouse before passing away. Many others who support the repair of the wall have similar connections, having grown up in Shillington or Cumru Township. Fond childhood memories of exploring the abandoned buildings on the property were recounted, emphasizing the deep-rooted connection felt by the community.
The almshouse also held a special place in the heart of acclaimed author John Updike. Growing up nearby in the 1930s and 1940s, Updike’s fascination with the almshouse led him to write his first novel, “The Poorhouse Fair,” which was published in 1959. The novel uses the almshouse as a metaphor, demonstrating its lasting impact on Updike’s creative endeavors. Adams, a volunteer docent at the John Updike Childhood Home, envisions utilizing the wall as a backdrop for literary events centered around Updike’s work and its local connection.
Despite the efforts made so far, the repair of the damaged section of the wall is still pending. The property where the wall stands is under the control of the Mifflin Park Condominium Association, and the repairs have been delayed due to the inadequate insurance coverage of the driver responsible for the damage. In the meantime, the association’s landscaper has installed protective boulders and conducted some stabilization work to prevent further deterioration. Nevertheless, the group of historians and advocates remains dedicated to ensuring the complete repair of the almshouse wall.
In conclusion, the almshouse wall on Philadelphia Avenue in Cumru Township holds significant historical value as the last remaining remnant of the Berks County Almshouse. After enduring damage from vehicle accidents, partial repairs have been made, but further restoration is necessary. The wall serves as a symbol of the almshouse’s role in supporting vulnerable individuals in the community and has captured the imagination of artists like John Rasmussen and John Updike. Efforts by a group of local historians and community members aim to preserve this local historic artifact for future generations to appreciate and understand their shared history.