Time Travel to Biehl’s Electronics by Jay Zane
Driving south on Centre Street in Pottsville towards Mount Carbon, catty-corner from the Centre Street Hardware Store, I spotted Kelly Printing in the glare of my headlights. I was listening to a tune from the Beatles White album on my cassette player, “Can You Take Me Back” and the magic began to work. No, I no longer saw the Kelly building. I was going back in time. The building was not even the old Pottsville Job Center. It was now the headquarters of one of Pottsville’s most successful businessmen. I was back in 1947. World War II had ended and optimism was coming back to America. The baby boom was just starting and I wasn’t even born yet. The building at 500 South Centre Street that of Biehl’s Electronics, owned by local entrepreneur Gordon Morgan Biehl.
As a teenager Gordon began working for his father, George M. Biehl (who was the son of a Berks County wagon maker) at the small family store at 204 South Centre Street, that became incorporated in 1926 as Biehl’s, Inc. It sold accessories, tires and parts for the growing automobile market. A new building was erected at 500 South Centre Street to handle the volume on the land that once stood the home of well-known geologist, engineer and coal baron, Peter W. Sheafer. George Biehl purchased the Sheafer property in 1922. I would have enjoyed going back further in time to meet Peter and his wife, Harriet Whitcomb Sheafer, but that Paul McCartney tune on the White Album was much too short; I could only get back to the late 1940s.
By 1935 management of the Biehl business was turned over to his son Gordon who developed it into a business nationally known in the auto and radio trade fields. With over 500 Philco radios distributed weekly in his territory by 1936 Biehl focused primarily on that endeavor and in 1936, the auto parts business was sold to a Reading company. Besides Philco, Biehl also became the distributor for Bendix radios for the entire states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. Bendix was just starting to manufacture radios and phonographs for the general public, after having produced radios for the military. It was a perfect fit for Mr. Biehl as Bendix also produced car radios. The Biehl radio and electronics business was expansive and covered the Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, Harrisburg and Philadelphia areas. Soon he became the largest wholesale distributor of radios in eastern Pennsylvania with over 118 salespersons working for him. His wholesale business ventures also distributed Kelvinator refrigerators, Westinghouse cleaners and other appliances.
I ejected my cassette and turned on the radio and dialed 1450 to WPAM – Pottsville’s first full-time radio station – that just took to the airwaves in 1946. What a coincidence for me as Biehl’s Electronics had a contest on air offering a Bendix table model radio to a lucky person who answers the phone within 30 seconds with the slogan of the day. Unfortunately for me I was in my Ford Pinto and the station certainly would not have my cell phone number. Even if it did, I wouldn’t know the slogan of the day.
Gordon Biehl died in April 1977 and reportedly had become a financial success, even becoming the chairman of the board at the Miners National Bank for several years. His only child was reported by the Pottsville Republican in its September 19, 1992 edition to be the heir to the family multi-million-dollar fortune, but the son did not carry on the business. The son, who died in 2013, left the bulk of his estate to create the “Biehl Family Educational Trust” which distributes or will distribute yearly scholarships to qualified graduates of Pottsville and Nativity enrolled primarily in Vo-Tech post-secondary education. The son’s gravestone erected in Baber Cemetery prior to his death memorializes his contribution to the community.
I turned the radio off as no one answered the phone in time to win the Bendix. I inserted the White Album once again and pressed the fast-forward button to Lennon’s “Happiness is a Warm Gun” and headed home back in the year 2019. You know, the album just celebrated its 50th anniversary last November.
“I know nobody can do me no harm,
Because, happiness is a warm gun, mama
Happiness is a warm gun, yes it is…”