Academic journal article The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association, Inc.

Brownstone Revisited: The Hummelstown Brownstone Industry

Academic journal article The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association, Inc.

Brownstone Revisited: The Hummelstown Brownstone Industry

Article excerpt


The availability and abundance of building material has alys been one of the determining factors for permanent tlement and development of a region. When stone outcroppings, abundant woodland, clay pits, and iron ore deposits were close at hand, carpenters, masons, and metal workers could ply their skills building hamlets, towns, and cities. Fortunately, America was blessed with natural resources, and among these was brownstone. Indeed, as a building material brownstone became so popular in the latter half of the nineteenth century that these years are sometimes referred to as the "Brownstone Age of the Victorian Era."

The post-Civil War years ,saw a boom in urban development, and the budding field of architecture was producing men to meet those needs. The atelier of Richard Morris Hunt became influential, and the work of Henry Hobson Richardson, Louis Sullivan, and Frank Furness dominated the cities in which they practiced their craft while their influence spread throughout the country becoming a major source of inspiration for local architects. Whether the structure was Greek revival, Romanesque, eclectic, collegiate Gothic, beaux arts, or Tudor, one thing was evident-brownstone filled the need for all (Figure 1).

The September 2002 issue of The Chronicle (vol. 55, no. 3) featured a superb article by Alison Guinness describing the brownstone quarries of Portland, Connecticut, and their contribution to the American building arts. Indeed, these pits were, without a doubt, the largest single supplier of brownstone in the United States during the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. However, brownstone quarries at East Longmeadow, Massachusetts; Medina, New York; Newark, New Jersey; Hummelstown, Pennsylvania; and the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior were but a few of a plethora of similar endeavors making notable contributions to the industry as well. The pits at Hummelstown became Pennsylvania's premiere brownstone operation and the only one well known outside the Commonwealth.


The Great Valley stretches in a vast arc across the southeastern section of Pennsylvania. Bounded on the north by the Blue Mountain and to the south by the South Mountain, it is trisected by the Delaware, Schuylkill, and Susquehanna Rivers dividing it into the Lehigh, Lebanon, and Cumberland Valleys. At the western end of the Lebanon Valley, ten miles east of the city of Harrisburg, is the small town of Hummelstown, which became the site of one of the outstanding brownstone industries in the United States.

German settlers in the area first recognized the value of this stone as a building material. Arriving in the United States about 1765, Peter Berst Sr. migrated to Derry Township and eventually purchased from agents of the Penn Family three tracts of land, two of which he later gave to his sons, John Sr. and Peter Jr. John Sr.'s 106-acre tract was registered as Rapho in 1808, and Peter Jr.'s 44-acre tract was Peterton. In 1826 John's son, John Jr., patented a 171-acre tract adjacent to Rapho, which he called Petersburg. It would be Rapho and Petersburg that eventually became the site of the present quarries. On Rapho, John Sr. erected a handsome brownstone house in 1800 and behind it a barn with a brownstone foundation (Figure 2). The family cemetery adjacent to the township road was surrounded by a brownstone wall with the majority of the headstones fashioned from brownstone, many dating from the mid- to late-eighteenth century.

The Berst Family continued to farm the land and quarry stone for their own purposes as well as for sale, but the transition from farming to brownstone occurred in 1863 when Daniel Wilt and Henry Brown of Harrisburg contracted to lease from David Berst, son of John Jr., a plot containing three acres and 145 perches "for the purpose of quarrying stone."1 The lease was binding for a ten-year period with the provision that if the quarrying proved to be successful the lease would be extended indefinitely. …

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