SummerFest: Booming Steel Industry Brought Phoenixville To Life

PHILADELPHIA (CBS)–Walk around this borough and you’ll see a lot of historical buildings preserved.

Phoenixville takes great pride in its past and some dedicated people worked hard to save amazing pieces that tell its story.

You want to know Phoenixville?  You want to know Ryan Conroy, president of the Historical Society of the Phoenixville area. His family has been here for 5 generations.

“What a lot of people didn’t know is that Phoenixville wasn’t even named Phoenixville yet,” said Conroy.

It really came to life during the industrial revolution thanks to a booming steel industry. Lewis Wernwag was one of the first investors.

“The name ‘Phoenix Iron Works is something [Wernwag]  named the company because it looked like flames coming out of a furnace. It looked like a phoenix,” said Conroy.

And it inspired the name Phoenixville.

“There was just businesses popping up left and right. And you had a lot of factories being built,” Conroy said.

European immigrants opened factories too, making intricate pottery called Majolica.

By 1850, Phoenixville was on fire.  Their steel was everywhere, including the inside of the Washington Monument.

“They built bridges all over the world,” said Conroy.

At its peak, 3,000 people worked in the steel mills, but the jobs didn’t last.

“In the 1960s and 1970s was really when the company started to go down the tubes,” said Conroy.

The Phoenixville Foundry closed officially in 1987. For years, it sat empty and crumbling.

But Barbara Cohen fell in love with it.

When its owners went bankrupt, community members and business people like Barbara pulled together to save the building and got it in 1998.

“The idea I had for reinventing Phoenixville was to package history,” said Cohen.

It took years and millions of dollars, but they preserved its dramatic interior and Romanesque windows.

Now the Foundry holds an event space — the Schuylkill River Heritage Center — and a repository of  Phoenixville steel history.

Meanwhile, along Bridge Street, Phoenixville has come back to life. The Old Colonial Theater is restored, and small businesses filled the empty storefronts.

“It took a little while but now stuff’s opening left and right. It’s pretty great to see,” Conroy

You might say Phoenixville has risen from the ashes.

MOM AND POP SHOPS PART OF THE CHARM

Part of the charm of Phoenixville is the rows of mom and pop shops you’ll find in the Pennsylvania town.

Lined up and down Bridge Street, people can discover some great little places to shop and taste.

And if you have a sweet tooth, look no further than Bridge Street Chocolates.

It’s owned by Gayle Warner and this shop is a dream come true.

A dream that she fulfilled after the death of her father, he was only 48 years old.

“It made me realize how quickly time passes. Seize the moment cause you don’t have tomorrow you have today,” said Warner.

So after spending decades in a corporate job, at age 47, Gayle decided to become a chocolatier.

“I want to make chocolate, but I want to be a part of a community, I want to serve people,” she said.

You may not realize it, but there’s a science to making marshmallows. You want a creamy, fluffy.

“The trick for us is to not let it cook too long, but just enough because that’s the difference between super spongy marshmallows and creamy fluffy ones,” said Warner.

HITTING THE TRAIL

The Phoenixville community is full of people who love to get out and be active and where better to stretch your legs than the Schuylkill River Trail?

The trail has been a major success and residents are loving it.

The longest section of the trail extends 26 miles from Philadelphia to Phoenixville. It currently goes 63 miles, and will eventually reach upwards of 130 miles to Pottsville in Schyulkill County.

As residents of Phoenixville sing its praises, the trail has seen incredible traffic since its completion in April 2015, with thousands of people per month utilizing its pathways.

But there’s an added benefit.

“From Philadelphia on out, the communities that have really thrived around trails if you first look at Manayunk, Conshohocken, and now Phoenixville, the trail goes in and the development and the economic benefit arises around it,” said Elaine Paul Schaefer, executive director of The Schuylkill River Heritage Area.

That is evident with Scott Tantino’s running store, all kinds of fast. Tantino picked Phoenixville because of its growth potential.

“The trail was a very big deciding factor in our second location here in Phoenixville,” said Tantonio. “We were debating between two locations and once we saw the development plans for the trail, and the timeline they were working on and completing, it was a no brainer.”

THE ICONIC COLONIAL THEATRE

Phoenixville has a lot of history but the Colonial Theatre has its own story.

The landmark’s 15 minutes of fame developed into an iconic moment in film history when Phoenixville was featured in “The Blob”. The theatre became an important place to visit for horror-film fans.

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“Its most famous scene is the run out of a movie theater being attacked by The Blob and that movie theater just happens to the be The Colonial,” said Brendan Carr, marketing director for the Association for the Colonial Theater.

The theater sits right in the middle of downtown Phoenixville. Built in 1903 as an opera house, it’s now owned by a non-profit organization.

“If you walk in there, that’s the way it looked 100 years ago. The lobby is a little different. It has about 658 seats. It’s a wonderful house with great acoustics,” said Mary Foote, executive director for the Association for the Colonial Theatre.

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It also has a place in cinematic history thanks to “The Blob,” which was filmed in the area.

“Since Valley Forge Studios had an actual studio they shot some of the interiors there and then when they needed to go on location they just looked around the surrounding area. They went to Valley Forge Park, the Downingtown Diner and they were looking for a movie theater and the Colonial was the one.”

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Parts of the theater, the projection booth and of course the front marquee are all seen in the film which featured a then-rising star.

“He was actually billed as Steven McQueen and that was the last time that happened. After that he was going to be Steve McQueen.”

On Friday night, the Blobfest kicked off once again with a recreation of that classic scene. The event sold out in 16 minutes.

“The classic horror film community is really rabid and fanatical about that stuff in the best way possible, so yeah they flock to it and each year it gets bigger and bigger, kind of like The Blob,” said Carr.

EVERYONE KNOWS JACK

If you’re in Phoenixville, you man run into a man everyone knows: Jack.

“He walks around sweeping up cleaning keeping our town clean while passing along good info and gossip so if you want to know anything in this town just ask jack ,” said John Sakos, Executive chef at the Great American Pub.

“Jack is Phoenixville. everyone in Phoenixville knows Jack,” said Diane Klein. “He cares about the town. He’s just a kind-hearted person who cares about anybody.”

Jack who moved to Phoenixville in 1967 from Springfield, Delaware County, not only has a beating heart for his community but for its history.

“I love history history is one of my favorite subjects,” he says.

Jack will tell you stories about this town you won’t believe!

“You’ve heard a lot about ghosts how about a ghost buying a hoagie, it’s in the book called “The Ghost of Phoenixville and Valley Forge”.

And some things you just may not know.

“The highest temperature in the state in 1938: 111 degrees in Phoenixville,” said Jack. “The Christian College used to be the Valley Forge Military Hospital. Another thing I remember is Hurricane Agnus in 1972 this place was flooded”

To know where you are you’ve got to know where you come from. Sit down with jack and you’ll learn a lot. As the locals say: “You don’t know Jack, you don’t know jack!”

 

 

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