Berks County Almshouse

The Berks County Almshouse was located just outside of Shillington along route 724 or Philadelphia Avenue. The land on which the Almshouse was built in 1824 was owned by Governor Thomas Mifflin. His actual residence, the location of which has been long debated amongst local historians, was rumored to be one of the buildings on the Almshouse grounds.

Berks County Almshouse
Looking west at route 724/Philadelphia Avenue roughly where the entrance to Shillington Park is today

The Berks County Almshouse opened officially in 1826, when a state law was passed requiring every county in the state of Pennsylvania to have a “poorhouse”. The world alms is defined as giving to others as an act of virtue in the form of charity or donations. This complex was one of the earliest examples of a social welfare system in our modern American society. The destitute, mentally ill, sickly and elderly would be sent here to live. The almshouse did its best to be self-sufficient, with the people inhabiting it performing tasks such as planting and cultivating crops, cooking and maintaining the premises.

The almshouse complex was made up of 6 primary buildings and many other smaller buildings like a chapel, creamery, bakery and slaughterhouse. The entire complex sat on 514 acres of land, 434 of which was for crop cultivation and 5 used for various other food and pleasure gardening. Over the course of the 130 year history the complex included quarters for the financially destitute, hospitals for the sick and elderly, and a mental hospital. All of these branches were segregated into male and female sections, with cohabitation between the sexes never occurring.

Berks County Almshouse
Aerial of the abandoned Almshouse Complex in 1957, shortly before being razed

By the mid-1900s the complex became more focused on elderly care than caring for the poor and mentally ill. The methods they used to deal with the mentally-ill or challenged at the Almshouse (and all establishments like it during the 19th and into the 20th century) were particularly heinous in comparison to today’s standards. For some the almshouse was a blessing, for others it was a prison.

The complex had its own cemetery, called Potter’s Field, which was the burial grounds for those who passed at the Almshouse. When the land was redeveloped in the late 1950s, the unmarked graves and remains of the long forgotten were accidentally unearthed by unknowing construction workers.

In 1952 the outdated Berks County Almshouse buildings were replaced with a new modern elderly living facility in Leesport called Berks Heim. Berks Heim is currently still in operation today as a county-run nursing home, though has had some financial trouble recently and was almost sold. The same year Berks Heim opened the Berks County Almshouse was closed and sold for $425,000 to developer W. Marshall Hughes and Son, Inc. Their plan was to redevelop the land into apartment housing, a shopping strip mall, and the then-new Governor Mifflin High School. The Almshouse complex sat vacant for five years and was demolished in September and October of 1957.

Oct 6th 1957 Reading Eagle

With traces of the old Berks County Almshouse near Shillington still remaining (foreground), workmen proceed with construction of an apartment house in the background. The rubble is all that remained last week of the institution which served Berk’s County’s poor and mentally ill for more than 100 years. It has been replaced by modern Berks Heim in Bern Township.

Today, you can still find some traces of the old Almshouse hanging around the former site. Along route 724 there is a stone wall that wraps from Shillington Church of Christ west and back a private drive behind the Mifflin Park apartments. Also, a stone marker sits along Mifflin Boulevard, right in front of where to old main building sat. The marker has been missing its plaque since sometime in the early 2010s when it mysteriously vanished.

The stone wall – Google Street View
Plaque-less Stone marker on Mifflin Blvd – Google Street View
Left red line – stone wall structure still existing. Right red circle – Location of stone marker

Source: Reading Eagle

Born and raised in Berks, I am fascinated by the style, design & culture of the mid-late 20th century. I started this website to research and build a collection of the places, things and stories I have heard about my entire life. Read more here.

6 Replies to “Berks County Almshouse”

  1. Trying to figure out where this was. Mention of a “shopping strip mall” that was planned. Was it ever constructed, and if so, where is it?

      1. Thanks! Well, that’s what I wondered, and I thought it might be the Shillington Shopping Center, but I couldn’t place it on the map, re: “Philadelphia Avenue” and “Route 724”. I guess I didn’t realize that Route 724 and Lancaster Avenue were one and the same – at least for a stretch.

  2. I just discovered while doing genealogy that my 3x great uncle, Benjamin Anderson was the steward of the Almshouse from 1875 to 1883, so I found this additional information about its history fascinating. Thanks!

  3. My Great-Great Grandfather, Silas W. Fisher was steward of the alms house from at least 1870 to 1875. The 1870 census lists him as the steward there and I have an article from the paper dated May 12 1875 that mentions him. His obituary says he was the steward from 1870 to 1878 but don’t know if that’s accurate.

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