- Associated Press - Saturday, July 2, 2016

COLLEGEVILLE, Pa. (AP) - Wander into the basement of the Perkiomen Township municipal building, and you feel an air of nostalgia for a time gone by, thanks in large part to the work of Bob Albright.

The township opened an area history museum recently inside its space at 1 Trappe Road, where among the artifacts on display are 13 large wooden model buildings on loan from Schwenksville Borough depicting some of the old structures from Perkiomen and Schwenksville’s past. All of the hand-made recreations, 32 in total, were painstakingly built with intricate detail by Albright over the course of several decades.

What started as a hobby making large bird houses quickly became a love letter to the town he’s known ever since he was a boy.

Prisoner of war

Born Jan. 12, 1925, Albright was raised in Schwenksville and attended the Miller School growing up. He never got to attend a high school graduation ceremony though because he was already in the Army by 1943 fighting in Europe during World War II.

Albright spent the last three months of the war as a prisoner of war, after being captured when his unit was surrounded by the Germans in the Alsace Lorraine territory, he said.

“When I was captured there were just about 100 of us,” he said. “We were surrounded for almost a week. We didn’t have anything. And the only water we had was the snow. The winters were terrible there. But we made it.”

He was moved to three different POW camps including ones in the German cities of Limberg and Fallingbostel. Thousands of other Polish, Russian, British and American soldiers were separated into different compounds within the camps, he said. The Germans put them to work mostly planting trees, moving ammunition and working on the roads among other hard labor jobs. Albright lost 50 pounds as a prisoner before he was liberated.

The POWs were transported by rail in a 40&8, a train car that could hold 40 men or eight horses, he explained.

“They were bombed all the time. And especially on the trains,” Albright remembered. “And to this day, I’ll never forget our planes coming over, and the English, to bomb us. They’d get so close to us and they’d see a Red Cross on the roofs. But the one time they didn’t and whoever it was, bombed our train. The last car got hit.”

The trains moved slowly. Sometimes days would go by before it would move. Albright admitted he was terrified the next bombing would be his last.

“Every time a plane would come over we could see the engineer on the train trying to get the train stopped and I can see him, we only had slits to look through in the 40&8 car, I can still see the engineer running,” he said. “He stopped the train and he run and let us out. And we were expecting to be bombed but we weren’t at the time. That happened more than once.”

Building a home

With the terrors of war behind him, Albright went to work for PECO, or PE as he calls it, as a lineman, foreman and later a supervisor. He married his wife Dorris, who turns 91 this month, on June 1, 1946.

The couple had an apartment over Dorris’ parents home in Lansdale, where their first daughter Barbara was born. Dorris’ father later bought a farm in Colmar and the couple lived on the second floor.

“(Bob) worked at PE all day and came home tired during the summer,” Dorris said giggling. “My dad he was out in the fields and (he’d say) come on Bob come on out here. He worked ‘til about 8, 9 o’clock. He’d come in and say ‘We’re getting out of here. We gotta move.’”

The couple bought a home in Perkiomen Township with no bathroom, no heater and no running water.

“My dad was a builder so there was a porch across the whole house and we said ‘Oh, we’ll just go across’” Dorris said. “He said ‘Dorris, you don’t want to do that.’ He said ‘push the house out and you’ll have more room in the house.’ So consequently, we had to put in a big living room and a big bedroom and all the other stuff and we added to it over the years.”

Among those additions was another baby girl, Katherine.

The couple have been together happily for seven decades. They have four grandsons and six great-grandchildren. They currently live along the 700 block of North Limerick Road in Schwenksville.

“We’ve been so thankful for the wonderful years,” she said.

Rebuilding history

When Albright retired from PE in 1983, he still enjoyed working with his hands. Inside his workshop attached to his house you’d find him wood working, welding and forging tinware and other metals. By the early ‘90s he started making birdhouses. Over time he said he tried to make them stand out by modeling them after old buildings he’d remember seeing as a boy. Eventually he dropped the birdhouses angle altogether and focused solely on recreating the old buildings from the past as a hobby.

“I just got the idea that ‘Hey, I never see any of these around,’” he said. “And I’m going to make a model of it.”

He’d take pictures of the actual structure he wanted to model if he could or find an archive picture if the building was already demolished. He’d have the photos enlarged and put them on a display card to use as reference while he worked.

Albright used scrap materials from his shop to create the models. If something didn’t fit on one model, he could use it on another. “Anything that I had,” he said. “Everybody and their brother brought pieces of wood and they’d drop them off all over the place. I’d say ‘I can use that, I can use that.’ Now I’m having a rough time getting rid of some of this stuff.”

He used oil and water-based paints, usually whatever was available, once the models were assembled.

“I had all kinds of paint people got rid of,” he said. “Any kind. What you see there is the paint that people threw away.”

“That and the stores had leftover paint that was on sale,” Dorris added.

He’d often work on several models simultaneously, so it usually took at least two months to finish one.

His favorite piece is the Miller School because it took the longest to build, was put together in seven pieces and was almost too large to handle.

“Yet it turned out pretty good,” he admitted.

Once finished, the models would sit and collect sawdust and dirt in his workshop. Soon he’d created so many models he began to run out of room. He started giving them to neighbors as gifts before turning to Schwenksville Borough to see if it would take them off his hands for free. A total of 32 models ended up in the basement of Borough Hall.

“It kind of burned me up,” Albright said. “They didn’t do anything. There was no dehumidifier. And it was damp and dark and dank in there. I was afraid they’d all fall apart.” The borough eventually installed a dehumidifier in the basement and a heater to protect the models, he said.

Albright finished his last model in the late 2000s and no longer works in his shop, but says he’s proud of his accomplishment. His work has already captured the imagination of many. One person in particular was Richard Kratz.

History on display

It didn’t take long before Kratz, vice chairman of the Perkiomen Township Board of Supervisors, learned about the models stored in the basement at Borough Hall.

“We heard they were there and went snooping around,” he said.

The township had already planned to open a museum in the basement of the municipal building and asked if the borough would loan it a few of the models to display that related to its history.

“We’re looking at our past, our history,” Kratz said. “Schwenksville was part of Perkiomen Township until 1903 and we asked if they were interested in joining us.”

The new museum has only officially been open for a few weeks, but word is starting to get out about the treasures inside. The room features old enlarged postcards from the area, as well as collections of old newspaper articles and maps. History buffs are sure to go wild.

The museum is sure to fill up with more artifacts as time goes by and Kratz says he has no idea where it will lead. He can see a day when the museum outgrows its space but not any time soon. For now he’s content to just stop down and take a journey in the township’s past.

“Just amazing the stuff in here,” Kratz said. “I could come in here for hours . Hopefully more people will be interested in it and maybe bring some more stuff in.”

When he looks at the 13 models on display, Kratz says he’s still pleasantly surprised by Albright’s work.

“This little guy made these things,” he exclaimed. “If I wouldn’t have known him I’d say there’s no way. Somebody else did this. But they’re amazing. What else can I say? They’re amazing.”

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Online:

http://bit.ly/29hu7gu

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Information from: The Mercury, http://www.pottsmerc.com

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