The Charles E. Brake Co. closed up shop in 2012, but a gallery highlights the firm’s ‘Construction of an American Dream’
By Mike Lewis
ST. THOMAS, Pa. — Harold Brake’s office is decorated with mementos and plaques, certificates and newspaper clippings.
But the artifacts he’d really like you to see are in a museum of sorts. The display features a video, photos, artifacts and a timeline that preserves the history of the Charles E. Brake Co. and the family behind the firm.
The display is called “Gallery 88” because the Charles E. Brake Co. was in business for 88 years, contributing to projects large and small, from the Evergreen Chapel at Camp David to multimillion-dollar medical, commercial and residential developments in the Crossroads Business Journal region.
“It feels good just to have the place available,” Harold Brake said of the exhibit, which is open by appointment. “Ten years from now, nobody will know anything about this stuff if I don’t do something with it.”
What Brake did, with some professional help, was preserve important bits of the company his father started and display them, museum-style, along the timeline in the former company headquarters at 6450 Lincoln Way West in St. Thomas, Pa. Eventually he hopes to pass it all along to a historical society.
‘He and I worked together’
Charles E. Brake was born in 1902. He bought a Ford Model T truck in 1924 and began operating as a one-truck company. He was involved in working with the Civilian Conservation Corps at Caledonia State Park in eastern Franklin County, Pa., and on projects like the Blue Mountain Tunnel on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. He also helped with the initial construction work at the Letterkenny Army Depot north of Chambersburg, Pa., in 1941.
Harold Brake was born in 1936. In 1954, after graduating from Mercersburg Academy, he had his sights set on attending Penn State University.
But at about that time, Charles became ill.
“There was nobody to run the business,” Harold said. So he stepped in and followed his father into the family firm.
“He and I worked together for 30 years,” Harold said.
Harold’s son, Randall, also became involved in the business.
“He and I operated the business for another 30 years,” Harold said.
Along the way, the Brakes found success in their personal and professional lives.
“Over the years I was able to work for a couple of presidents, mainly Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, doing work up at Camp David,” Harold Brake said when asked to mention a highlight.
The company also worked for some of the area’s major businesses, from Fairchild Aircraft to Callas Contractors Inc., to mention two.
“We had about 150 employees at peak,” Harold Brake said.
Harold Brake also found success in other venues.
He won a radio frequency in Chicago and sold that license at a profit, which helped finance some other ventures.
In 1990, he saw there was a shortage of concrete in the area when he was building his new home. He launched Brake Concrete. But a competitor took notice.
“They bought my five trucks before I ever poured any concrete in them,” he said.
He also wound up in banking. He served a stint as president of the Chambersburg Area Development Commission. And he served on numerous other boards and commissions.
A Chambersburg Public Opinion article of Sept. 8, 1987, included him in a list of the 12 most influential people in Franklin County, Pa. Also on that list was David G. Sciamanna, who was the Greater Chambersburg Chamber of Commerce executive director at the time. In the article, Sciamanna called Harold “a risk taker” and “a visionary kind of guy.”
But the family encountered tragedy along the way as well.
One tragedy hit in 1984, when Charles E. Brake died.
Another struck in 1999, when Harold and Dolores Brake’s daughter died of pancreatic cancer. The family resolved to keep her memory alive and established the Rhonda Brake Schreiner Women’s Center at Summit Health, which opened in January 2001.
The women’s center is just one of many community-minded projects the family embraced. Gallery 88 documents those, including contributions to Penn State University.
‘I didn’t want to work forever’
Eventually Harold, Randall and thee of Harold’s four grandsons would be involved in the business.
By 2012, however, the company, and the family, was struggling.
“It wasn’t working,” Harold Brake said. “At that time I was in my 70s, and I didn’t want to work forever.”
They closed the business and sold the equipment.
As it turned out, ending the business meant a new beginning for the family, Brake said.
“I would say now we’re closer than we’ve ever been. … It is much better to have the family back intact,” Harold Brake said.
But he still likes to know what’s going on.
“I drive around and look at construction projects,” he said with a smile.
He uses a walker to get around these days. He said it’s “a heck of a lot better than the alternative.”
“I never really thought about being 83 years old. That seemed so far in the distance,” he said. “So now I’m here, and I’m trying to make the best of it.”