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B. & J. Saylor Food Store, 4th and Penn Streets, Reading, PA

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B. & J. Saylor food store, formerly located at 401 Penn Street, once drew customers from near and far for its offerings of fancy fruits, baked goods, and specialty foods. Saylor's blended its own high-grade coffees, which had many devotees. Another attraction was Saylor's peanut butter, made while you watched.

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  • northside4thandpenn.jpg
    North side of 4th and Penn Streets, 1890, showing B. & J. Saylor and Reading Installment Co.

B. & J. Saylor, Inc. was founded in 1866 by Benjamin Saylor and his brother John. Benjamin Saylor was born in Heidelberg Township, Berks County, Pennsylvania, son of John and Catherine (Sheaffer) Saylor. He began his education in the public schools of Heidelberg Township. He was later sent for three years' study to Union Academy at Womelsdorf, and supplemented the excellent education which he received by a great amount of independent reading. Indeed the habit formed at that time of his life continued with him until its close, and he was the possessor of a valuable library containing all the standard literary works besides many of the best modern books.

Upon leaving school he became himself a teacher at the schools of Robesonia, Berks County, and remained thus employed for about two and a half years. He then went to Philadelphia, where he entered the grocery store of his brother, John Saylor, and worked in a clerical capacity there for some ten years. The establishment of John Saylor was for a time located at the corner of Sixteenth and Market streets and later at the corner of Sixteenth and Cherry streets. During these years Benjamin Saylor gained much valuable business experience.

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In the year 1862 he left his brother and volunteered for service in the United States army for three years. He entered the army in the month of August of that year with the commission of second lieutenant in Company C of the One Hundred and Nineteenth Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, which was attached to the Sixth Army Corps. He possessed much military ability, and in a short time was promoted to the rank of first lieutenant in the same company, and one year later became captain of Company H of the same regiment. He continued as an officer of the line in active service for two years and his duties led him through some of the most notable campaigns of the war. He was in action at the storming of Marye's Heights and at the battles of Chancellorsville, Mine Run, Rappahannock Heights, in which about one-third of the brigade under General David Russell was lost; at the great campaign under General Grant, which culminated in the battles of the Wilderness, Spottsylvania and Cold Harbor. He continued in action up to and through the first and second battles of Fredericksburg. His conduct in all these engagements was notable for its gallantry and was particularly distinguished at Cold Harbor, where he lost forty men of his company during the twelve days when they were continuously engaged in fighting day and night. It was at Cold Harbor that Captain Saylor received his commission as commissary of subsistence of the volunteer service of the United States army, in which capacity he served until the surrender of General Lee at Appomattox Court House, April 9, 1864, or practically the close of the war. It is interesting to note in this connection that, as related by Captain Saylor, he was, after the surrender of General Lee, ordered to turn over to the captured Confederate Army about one hundred and twenty head of cattle to feed the starving soldiers. All of Captain Saylor's service was in the army under the command of General Sedgwick, which formed a part of the Sixth Army Corps, and he was finally honorably discharged on September 11, 1865, as brevet major.

After the close of the war, in the autumn of 1866, Mr. Saylor came to Reading, Pennsylvania, and here returned to his old business, but this time for himself. He opened a grocery store in partnership with his brother John, which was located at 14 & 16 North 4th Street. The first store was a comparatively small place, measuring eighteen feet on Fourth Street and twenty-eight feet in depth. The two brothers bought out the former owner, who was William Fisher, and remained in that location for about eleven years, carrying on a highly successful trade.

In the year 1877 they removed to 401 Penn street to the old mansion of Dr. Hiester H. Muhlenberg. Dr. Hiester Muhlenberg, a grandson of former Governor Joseph Hiester, erected the three-story mansion in the 1840s. Dr. Hiester Muhlenberg abandoned the practice of medicine early in his career and sold the property at 401 Penn Street to Fred Close who in turn sold it to Benjamin Saylor in 1877.

The establishment was equipped with coffee roasters, driven by steam and electric motors, and coffee mills and pulverizers. Here you could get freshly roasted coffee that Mr. Saylor blended himself. In May, 1888, John Saylor died and was succeeded by his son, Howard B. Saylor, who had been a clerk in the store from 1876. In 1904, Major Saylor was elected vice-president of the Colonial Trust Company, and in 1907 sold his interest in B. & J. Saylor, being succeeded by John Saylor, son of Benjamin Saylor, and nephew of John Saylor, the original partner.

The B. & J. Saylor store at 401 Penn Street was twice struck by fire: on July 20, 1933, and on November 21, 1935. Saylor's old store, housed in what had been the Dr. Hiester H. Muhlenberg mansion, built in the 1840s, was razed in 1935 and rebuilt.

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  • bjsaylorsinterior.jpg
    Interior of B. & J. Saylor as it appeared after the store building had been replaced following fire in 1935.

After the failure of Reading Steam Heat Company around 1967, which serviced this property, Saylor’s closed the Penn Street store but continued in the wholesale business in a facility in southwest Reading.

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After years of standing vacant, the former Saylor store was razed in June 1980 to make way for the CNA insurance complex erected on the site. CNA would erect a large complex on the western half of the square, supplanting four existing buildings - the former Saylor Store at 401, a state liquor store at 403, a former Acme Market at 405, and a former A & P Market at 425.

On December 1980, construction began on the 260,000-square-foot building at 401 Penn St. The building was dedicated on June 1982.

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In October, 2013, CNA announced that it had donated its office building at 401 Penn Street, to the public charity I-LEAD for the use of its Charter School.

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