Discovering Phoenixville, Pennsylvania
Phoenixville, a borough of 17,000, located about 25 miles northwest of Philadelphia, sits along the Schuylkill River, between the French and Pickering Creeks. In the early twentieth century, the city supported a bustling manufacturing complex, including steel and iron works. The town assumed the name of their major employer, the Phoenix Iron Works. According to the Firebird Festival Website:
In 1813, Lewis Wernwag, the owner of the first iron company, was looking at his furnaces one evening from a nearby hillside and saw a Phoenix in the flames. This vision inspired him to rename his company Phoenix Works. When the community that grew up around the iron works became incorporated in 1849 the name Phoenixville was a natural choice for the new borough.
From this story, arises the Firebird Festival, which has become an annual tradition. The original firebird myth dates back to the Egyptian and Greek cultures. Greek legend recounts the story of the Phoenix: a magnificent bird, which lived for a thousand years, built a pyre, only to be consumed by its flames but then reborn from the ashes. That’s a dramatic story, for sure, and I have to give the citizens of Phoenixville credit for reenacting the myth. The effort brings community members together to build the structure, plan the parades and manage the logistics of such an endeavor.
Not unlike the myth, Phoenixville had to resurrect and remake itself when all the mills closed. Economic stagnation pulled the town down into a decline. In recent years, however, the city has undergone a rebirth with new shops, restaurants and clubs lining the main street. The Old Foundry Building, 120 years old, now houses the Schuylkill River Heritage Center, and the Phoenix Village Art Center occupies a storefront on Bridge Street.
Phoenixville embraces their mythological heritage. Colorful murals of the Phoenix greet visitors driving through Bridge Street.
Behind the interpretive center, the Schuylkill River Trail winds along the bank of the river. The trail begins in Philadelphia and ends in Pottsville. The path leads under Bridge Street, the arching curves framing the surrounding landscape.
I walked back into town and stopped in several of the shops. Along the way, the Kingsessing Morris Men performed a unique stick dance under the marquee of the Colonial Theatre, once a vaudeville house built back in 1903. The K-Mens’ costumes included a top hat with spiky feathers and shaggy bits of colored cloth draped down the front of their coats. The energetic dance, with accordion accompaniment, looked like so much fun to perform with their skip, hop and hit!
From the parking lot, I boarded a toasty warm school bus for transportation to Friendship Field. White tents surrounded the giant bird and offered gourmet food, local crafts and music. Fire eaters amazed the crowd with their breath acting as torches, shooting flames six feet into the air. Performers looped hoops, staffs and fans around their bodies, flames spinning out from all directions. The parade entered into the center ring led by torch bearers, drummers and dancers as giant bird puppets waved their wings over the crowd.
Finally came the moment went the torch lighted the inside of the Firebird, making “a fire in the belly” transform from metaphor to reality. The crowd cheered as the bird ignited and flames spread, while cascading orange sparks flew into the night sky–truly a spectacular recreation of the legendary Phoenix consumed by fire. Next year the community will resurrect the wooden bird once again, completing the myth cycle.
For another very dramatic effect: mute the sound on the video, then slide the audio clip below to 111 to start, begin video and audio together. Stravinky’s Finale to the Firebird Suite will play to the end as you watch the video!
Special thanks and appreciation–to friends, Joe and Dan, for their participation, and to all those on the Firebird committees–for making this event possible!