Retired Berks manufacturing workers inspire poetry book

The author, Jennifer Hetrick, interviews Betty Umberger at the Kutztown Community Library.

They matched pairs of nylon stockings for 20 cents an hour, sewed waistbands into men’s and boys’ underwear or labored for hours stacking bricks in factories in a bygone era when such companies were plentiful in Berks County – once a major industrial center in the United States.

They matched pairs of nylon stockings for 20 cents an hour, sewed waistbands into men’s and boys’ underwear or labored for hours stacking bricks in factories in a bygone era when such companies were plentiful in Berks County – once a major industrial center in the United States.

They worked for manufacturers large and small, global and regional, famous and parochial. Once familiar names that were pillars of the community employing hundreds, sometimes thousands of employees, such as Berkshire Knitting Mills in Wyomissing, Western Electric in Muhlenberg Township and Tung-Sol in Boyertown.

The real stories from more than two dozen former factory workers, many now in their 80s and 90s, are told in a new book of poetry, “The Labors of our Fingertips: Poems from Manufacturing History in Berks County, Volume 2,” (FootHill Publishing), the second in a series by Jennifer Hetrick, a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Boyertown.

In her two volumes, Hetrick creates a kind of documentary history through poetry from interviews she conducted with elderly men and women about what it was like to toil for sometimes 12 hours a day, working with one’s hands, making all manner of products, from caskets to candy bars, batteries to bulletproof vests in plants that largely no longer exist, changed owners and names, or moved off-shore to places such as China and Mexico.

“Anything that could be made probably was made here,” said Sime Bertolet, executive director of the Berks History Center.

While on a couple of newspaper assignments, Hetrick became intrigued with Berks County’s manufacturing history after interviewing an elderly couple who met at the now defunct St. Lawrence Woolen Mill.

The man had worked as a “bobbin boy,” who collected and replaced the bobbins filled with spun cotton or wool, and the woman who became his wife who used to bring her father a hot meal during his lunch break at the mill.

Later, Hetrick attended a poetry reading in Reading by Barbara Presnell, who wrote about a textile mill her father managed in her hometown in North Carolina.

“That made me realize we had a huge resource and history that nobody was capturing in our area, across all different businesses,” said Hetrick, who was editor of the literary and arts journal at Clarion University.

With the help of a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts grant, Hetrick embarked on her literary project by finding and interviewing retired factory workers in retirement communities and through word-of-mouth.

Wendy Solomon

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