Collections help recall Shamokin landmarks
SHAMOKIN - The Victoria Theater will be gone 15 years Tuesday, but, like the Fuhrmann and Schmidt Brewery and other landmarks that have disappeared in the Shamokin area, its history has lived on through mementos spared from the landfill.
If you ask someone in Shamokin if they have a piece of "The Vickie," a beer can from the brewery or a photo from Thomas Studio, chances are the answer will be "yes."
Debbie Derck, who has a small piece of marble from the theater, and Rich Zack, who collected a vast amount of F&S memorabilia, are among that group. Like many other people in the community, it's their way of saving a piece of Shamokin's history.
The trapezoid-shaped building was spared no expense when designed by William H. Lee and built in 1917-1918 by L.J. Chamberlain, head of Chamberlain Amusement Enterprises. The 2,500-seat theater opened Jan. 24, 1918, to a sell-out crowd.
At a time when the coal and garment industry were booming, the new theater summed up the state of Shamokin: gold-colored handrails, a mammoth chandelier and a massive blinking sign that hung down one half of the exterior of the building. In later years, the sign was replaced by a bright neon "V," which was placed on top of the marquee. As is sadly the case with many relics, it is unknown what became of the "V," which was taken down before demolition of the building.
Great place to work
The beloved building was approved Sept. 10, 1985, for registration in the National Register of Historic Places. The request for this designation was submitted by the theater's then owner, Karl Bower. He subsequently sold the theater to Jeff Mattox, of Fleetwood. In January 1998, Tom Bush, of New Jersey, bought the theater from Mattox.
Derck, of West Cameron Township, worked at the candy counter inside the theater in early 1990s until the theatre closed, which was demolished by the Rite-Aid Corporation. A parking lot was built at the location to accompany a new store.
"I loved working there, it was awesome," Derck said. "I sold candy and stuff, but then I went in and watched the movies. I met all kinds of people."
Derck recalled one of the funnier memories of the theatre, which involved a young boy who Derck said would always purchase an odd list of snacks: An extra large tub of popcorn with extra butter, two boxes of candy - and then a diet coke.
Derck said the boy was a regular at the theatre, as were several others in the community.
"Regulars were the ones that supported the theater," Derck said.
But even ticket sales from the regulars and from people who attended larger films, like when Batman was released in 1989, was not enough to keep the theater from falling into a state of disrepair.
The theater died despite last-ditch efforts by her admirers, including Derck, to save her. But the once beautiful building had deteriorated to such an extent by the late 1990s that restoration was impossible and public safety concerns necessitated its removal.
"It was a neat place to go. It had the rats and bats," Derck said. "It ripped our hearts out when it was torn down."
Rich Zack never stepped inside the F&S Brewery or drank a beer fresh off the line, but it hasn't affected his strong admiration for collecting items from the former beer company, which was torn down in the 1980s.
Zack's home in Ferndale is filled with hundreds of pieces of F&S products, including metal signs, cardboard advertisements, cans and bottles.
"It started off as a hobby collecting Shamokin items, but I stuck with the beer; that was my favorite," Zack said. "People consider what I have a collection. I consider it a museum."
Rise and fall of F&S
In 1895, Philip Henry Fuhrmann came to Shamokin and purchased Eagle Run Brewery, near Tharptown, from Martin Markle. In 1896, Max Schmidt, born in Schlawe, Prussia (now Germany), moved to Shamokin and formed a partnership with Fuhrmann. They formed the Fuhrmann and Schmidt Brewing Company.
After decades of success, the brewery was sold to Henry F. Ortlieb Brewing Company, a Philadelphia firm, in 1966. F&S was still marketed under the Fuhrmann and Schmidt name, however, the families of Schmidt and Fuhrmann no longer owned the business.
Production in 1966 was 160,000 barrels, a small cry from the millions of barrels some national companies were starting to produce. A lack of technology, the larger advertising campaigns of the bigger breweries and a declining population in the Shamokin area also contributed.
By August 1973, Ortleib had sold the brewery to James D. Verrastro, a Williamsport native who had earned his money in the trucking business. The brewery experienced a huge blow in November 1974 when Verrastro declared voluntary bankruptcy and closed the doors. In the afternoon of Nov. 3, 1975, thousands of spectators watched while firefighters attempted to extinguish a massive arson fire at the brewery.
In the weeks following the fire, several people took advantage of the unsecured property to take boxes and crates that were intended to ship products. As years went by, voided checks, bottle openers and advertisements from the former brewery became display pieces in homes and business throughout the area.
Pieces of Zack's collection were acquired from various sources, including yard sales, auctions and word-of-mouth. His first purchase was a quart bottle from Ebay nearly six years ago.
"I don't know why they do it. I guess they get amazed by it," Zack said of others who collect F&S items. "There's a lot more items out there to find."
Memorabilia can come in all shapes and sizes, but in the case of Thomas Studio, those sizes are 5-by-7 and 8-by-10. Area residents can look at photos of what the Victoria Theatre and F&S Brewery looked like, thanks to the work of Myron Thomas and his son, Paul.
Born Aug. 7, 1851, Myron Thomas was a son of Mr. and Mrs. Amos Thomas, who settled in the community in the early 1800s. During his early life, Thomas became interested in the new method of making a photographic image by chemistry. He was self-taught, gaining his early knowledge from the few text books that were available at the time.
Thomas established his first studio in 1876 on the south side of Sunbury Street between Shamokin and Franklin streets. Photography was crude at that time, but Thomas mastered the technique and began what became a highly-respected and prosperous business. After two years on Sunbury Street, Thomas moved his studio to a location on Independence Street, next to present-day Original Italian Pizza.
He retired in 1929 and sold the business to two of his sons, Ralph and Paul Thomas, who continued to operate the studio at the same location.
Paul Thomas, the youngest of Myron Thomas' five children, was raised in the photography business like his brothers, Ralph, Richard and Clair, and his sister, Lillian. He learned the fundamentals of the photographic business at an early age and served as an aerial commercial and portrait photographer for the family business.
Thomas served as a naval aerial photographer during World War II. He attended various photographic schools while serving in the Navy and upon his honorable discharge in 1945, he joined the New Haven Railroad, where he was in charge of the photography department. When he finished his last assignment, Thomas returned to Shamokin and assumed ownership of the family studio in 1950. He specialized in portrait and commercial photography, continued to run the studio with his sister until his death in 1984.
Joyce Wojciechowski, who had worked full-time at Paul Thomas Studio in various capacities since graduating from Shamokin High School in 1965, took over the business following Thomas' death. Wojciechowshi managed the studio until her death Aug. 2, 1998.
Wojciechowski's death brought an end to the full-time operation of the well-known studio. Bernard "Ben" Wojciechowski, of Tharptown, took over ownership and operation of the historical business in 1998 following the death of his wife.
Until the building was sold in March 2006, Ben was able to maintain the vast collection of nostalgic photographs, negatives and postcards that served as a historical tribute to the once-thriving community and brought back numerous memories for the thousands of people who had their pictures taken at one of the oldest businesses in the area. The studio contained thousands of photos and negatives of various subjects, including weddings, graduations, Edgewood Park and, of course, the F&S Brewery and Victoria Theater.
(Staff writer Mark Gilger contributed to this story.)