In the period before the rise of the Ford Model T and the birth of General Motors, Detroit was not the center of automobile manufacturing in the United States. In fact, the early manufactures of the automobile and, for that matter, motorcycles were widely distributed throughout the northeast, mid-Atlantic and Midwest, but there was a noticeable concentration in the southeast portion of the of the state of Pennsylvania.
These Pennsylvania pioneer automobile and motorcycle manufacturers are the focus of the Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles.
The community of Boyertown is 35 miles northwest of Philadelphia and just 23 miles from Allentown. The museum owes its location and its existence to the Boyertown Auto Body Works. Boyertown Body, as the company was widely known, traced its origins to the carriage building business of Jeremiah Sweinhart in 1872. Sweinhart’s original carriage manufacturing building is preserved and incorporated into the complex of buildings that make up the museum.
The carriage company would evolve over the years from producing horse-drawn carriages and sleighs to horse-drawn commercial vehicles and eventually motorized commercial vehicles alongside horse-drawn ones.
In 1926, Frank Hafer of Reading and two partners purchased controlling interest in the carriage firm and set about reorganizing it as the Boyertown Auto Body Works to produce commercial truck bodies. The firm quickly found a niche in the design and manufacturing of small commercial vehicles such as neighborhood delivery trucks.
In 1933 and 1934, with the Depression raging, Hafer’s partners opted to cash out their shares and Hafer, along with his son, Paul, purchased the shares, giving them complete control of the company.
The company’s fortunes changed radically with the onset of World War II and contracts to manufacture truck bodies for the military. The factory grew and so did the number of employees. The growth did not stop with the cessation of the war, either. The demand for trucks in the booming post-war economy was huge and contracts for delivery vehicles for the Post Office, Civil Defense, bookmobiles, ice cream vending trucks and even early motorhomes kept the factory humming well into the early 1970s.
In 1965 the company established the Boyertown Auto Body Works Collection of Historic Vehicles of Berks County. The museum would highlight the long history of carriage and vehicle manufacturing in the region.
In 1968, the Hafer Foundation was established by the family to oversee the operation and maintenance of the museum with the shortened name of the Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles.
Paul Hafer retired as the company president in 1978 and subsequently sold the controlling interest to outsiders that same year. Sales declined rapidly in the 1980s as delivery trucks fell out of favor. A leveraged buyout of the company in 1988 spelled the end of the firm as the debt overwhelmed the tanking sales.
After retirement, Hafer turned his attention to his vast collection of carriages, trucks, cars, motorcycles and bicycles in the museum building. He continued to acquire vehicles into this century and stayed active with the museum until his passing.
The museum, now on its own as an independent institution, has executive director Deborah JH Bertolet and curator Kendra Cook running the day-to-day operations. They have taken steps to make their facilities more inviting and the displays more interesting as they seek to appeal to the general public.
The museum has a diverse selection of the products that came from both the carriage company and the Boyertown Auto Body company but the other products from southeastern Pennsylvania make the place special. An entire display area is just for the products of the Duryea company of Reading.
The Duryea brothers are generally credited with being the first automobile manufacturers in the United States in Massachusetts, selling the first cars in 1895. When the brothers parted ways, Charles Duryea set up shop in Reading in 1900 and produced cars until as late as 1917. The museum display has cars from the Brother’s original factory and from Reading, PA.
The last Duryea product was the GEM, a three-wheeled lightweight vehicle that was a cross between motorcycle and car. The one on display in the museum is part of a current feature exhibit: Lightweights: Cycle and Light Cars. The exhibit shows four “cyclecars” from the pre-1920 era.
Other cars and motorcycles from southeast Pennsylvania on display include Biddle, Daniels, S.G.V., Acme, Merkel and more. Vintage bicycles, motorcycles, and many horse drawn vehicles including sleighs, fill out the museum and provide plenty to marvel over. With only two-thirds of the collection on display at any given time and an increased effort to do rotating displays, it is a bet you can visit the museum year after year and see something new each time.
The now-restored blacksmith shop from the original carriage factory is housed in the museum complex along with a completely restored vintage dining car and full 1920s vintage gas station. Blacksmith demonstrations can be seen live, check the museum calendar for times.
Photos by Jed Rapoport