Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Witchcraft Road?

Where else but Berks County would you find such an interesting collection of names of roads and towns? Just west of Virginville in the northern part of the county, we find a Witchcraft Road which runs northwest toward Windsor Castle off of Virginville Road, through an area that locals refer to as Witches' Dance. There is also a nearby cave that is known as Dragon's Cave. There are lots of caves in this area, including the well-known Crystal Caves that are a popular tourist attraction. Certainly does make one wonder what sort of things happened in the early part of our history in that area to generate these names that have persisted in to our modern age.

Moving a bit further west as we approach the mountains to the northwest, we find the Hex Highway which probably has all sorts of stories in its past as well.

Since both sets of my grandparents lived in Berks County, I heard many stories about the area growing up. Some of my favorite stories, though, were the ghost stories my Dad's mother would tell us when we spent the night at their old farmhouse near Joanna. After dinner, we would go out to the woods and find some nice samples of "spook wood", those wonderful, fungi-covered pieces of wood that glowed softly in the dark, and then we would settle down in the old guest room and wait for Gram to come tell us a story. She would make them up as she went along, bringing in bits and pieces of the local lore in the process. She always had a vivid imagination and could come up with amazing stories to our delight as youngsters.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Stone Willie

The city of Reading in Berks County has always been an interesting town for me. It was the closest major city to the homes of both sets of grandparents, as well as being the home of many of my relatives. So it was not unusual for me to spend time there as a child. It was always easy to tell we were nearing our destination when I could spot the Pagoda up on Mount Penn, and , of course, as a teen, the outlet stores were always a big draw for me when it was time to do some serious clothes shopping.

Reading has it s fair share of strange stories too, including its very own mystery corpse down at Auman's funeral home on Penn St. The story has been covered by a number of writers, including Charles Adams in his book Berks The Bizarre, so I'll keep this short. The basic story is simple - a unknown vagrant was arrested in Reading and died in 1895 while in jail, his body sent to Theo C. Auman, Sr., a local undertaker. Auman was experimenting with a new set of chemicals for embalming and wished to try them on the unclaimed and unidentified body, known generally as James Penn for lack of better identification. Permission was granted and Auman found that his new chemicals worked a bit too well - the body became stone-like and acquired the nickname of Stone Willie. More than a hundred years later, the body, still unclaimed, was still on display at Auman's in a second floor room until fairly recently. Sometime during the past few years, Auman's funeral home in Reading was sold to a new owner, so at this point, I am not sure what the status of Willie is.

Some years ago, at the time of the funeral for my uncle's wife, which was handled by Theo Auman, Jr., I learned from my mother that her brother had been good friends with Teddy Auman, as he was known to my uncle, for many years. No doubt that is why the funeral for Aunt Pat was handled with such attention to detail. Mom always thought Ted to be a bit hard to take, though. As she put it, "When we were kids, Teddy always wanted to play undertaker. It was strange." Or not, if you consider that Ted would have grown up with Stone Willie in the background, in his father's business establishment.