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[Note: Although nominally about Thomas Birkbeck, this bio also contains informaton about others in the family.]
The life and history of Thomas Birkbeck are very closely connected with the historical development of the town of Freeland and vicinity. He is a son of Joseph and Elizabeth (Johnstone) Birkbeck, the former born in Westmoreland, England, May 2, 1802, the latter being also a native of England, born February 12, 1804, at Buck Hill, Stainmoor; they were married in 1826, at Brough's Church, England. In 1834 they landed in New York City, whence they immediately proceeded to Minersville, Schuylkill county, this State, where Mr. Birkbeck secured employment in the mines.
After remaining there about two years, they came to Hazleton, where in 1838 he sunk the first slope for Ario Pardee. In 1840 he bought of Edward Lynch a tract of four hundred acres of land in Denison township, which later became part of Foster township and is now the site of Freeland borough. There he constructed a rude log-house. He then returned with his family to his new purchase, a vast and uncultivated wilderness, which possessed all the characteristics of a pioneer farm. This house was the only one within a radius of five miles, with the single exception of that of Korcker, which was situated two miles to the northeast. Here the family spent their winters in lumbering, manufacturing handmade shingles, and cutting down and clearing the forest, and in summer time they cultivated the small patches of land thus cleared. The shingles were carted to Conyngham, and there exchanged for the necessaries of life, as at this time no cash was paid in such transactions.
In 1844 Mr. Birbeck sold fifty acres from his four-hundred-acre lot, to one Aaron Howey. Then closely following Mr. Howey came many other settlers, who in time converted the dense forests into fertile farming land. A short time afterward the coal fields were developed in the neighborhood, and the great influx of population necessitated a new arrangement. Mr. Birkbeck accordingly surveyed a large portion of his real estate possessions into town lots, and sold them to the newcomers. This constituted the first move in the laying out of South Heberton and Freeland.
Mr. Birkbeck was a man well-versed in the anthracite coal strata in this locatlity, and was the first to prove coal at Highland and Upper Lehigh. He built many roads, and was at all times the leading character in the development of the new country. The family experienced all the trials of a pioneer life which the novelist describes. A story is told of how, during one of those early days in the wilderness, Mrs. Birkbeck killed a full-grown buck deer, with no weapon but an axe. In the Birkbeck family there were twelve children, viz.: John, born September 5, 1827, died in infancy; Joseph N., born July 28, 1829, now residing in Wilkes-Barre; Matthew, born June 28, 1829 (deceased); Jane, born October 31, 1832 (deceased); John (second), born April 26, 1834 (deceased); Matthew (second), born January 7, 1836 (deceased); Jane, born October 6, 1836, wife of William Johnston, of Freeland, Pa.; Betsey, born May 14, 1840 (deceased); William, born October 26, 1841; Mary E., born January 25, 1844 (deceased); Thomas, born June 6, 1846 (subject of this sketch); Agnes, born August 4, 1848 (deceased), and Anna Victoria, born May 12, 1850 (deceased). Joseph Birkbeck died April 19, 1872, Mrs. Birkbeck surviving until May 31, 1887.
Thomas Birkbeck was born in the old log house, which was situated about four blocks northwest of his present handsome and cosy residence. During his early boyhood days he attended school at Eckley, during the winter months, and worked at home in the summer. When he was about ten years of age the coal mines were opened at Eckley, and there he engaged in picking slate at twenty-five cents per day. In 1859 he left the mines and entered the employ of Frank Person, a drover of Troy, Pa., and worked for him, driving cattle, for two years. he then worked with his brother, who wa a butcher at Eckley. Here he learned the trade and remained until June, 1863, when he enlisted in Company G, One Hundred and Ninety-seventh Pennsylvania Volunteers, serving until the close of the war. After his return home Mr. Birkbeck worked at blacksmithing a short time at Foundryville, when he went to Audenried and worked as a butcher for Herman Hamburger. In 1866 he engaged in the butchering business for himself, at South Heberton, where he remained one year, when he removed his business to Upper Lehigh, following it there just twenty-one years.
In 1886 he removed to Freeland; followed droving a short time, and then engaged in the hardware business, which he still continues. He is also largely interested in real estate in the locality, owning over forty properties in this section. He is also interested in several cottages at the celebrated summer resort, at Wildwood, N.J. He was one of the promoters of the Citizens' Bank of Freeland, also of the Freeland Water Works, being at present a heavy stockholder in both these institutions; he is also interested in many local enterprises. Mr. Birkbeck was married November 1, 1866, to Miss Margaret Sneddon, of Audenried. They have seven children, viz.: Joseph, William, Thomas, Lillie May, Jessie, Margaret and Daisy.-- From Bradsby, H. C., editor. History of Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, with Biographical Selections. Chicago, S. B. Nelson & Co., 1893.
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