In the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania, best known for Allentown, I randomly picked a town for lunch on the way to the Poconos. By pure chance, I ended up in charming, historic Easton with an old Carnegie-supported library.
If you haven’t heard Billy Joel’s hit song Allentown recently, here’s a link to the official music video saved to my YouTube channel. Allentown is just 17 miles from Easton. Why not enjoy some background music as you read along? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BHnJp0oyOxs&list=PLCnA1rOzV1fWpCa5dEIpDygO3zfx1XNzP
The Lehigh Valley, in the eastern part of Pennsylvania, is south of the Poconos, across the Delaware River and west from New Jersey, and north of Philadelphia. The picturesque valley teems with rolling hills, rivers, and American history.
Easton and the county of Northampton are located where the Delaware and Lehigh Rivers meet. The practical Lenape Native Americans called this place Lechanwitauk or The Place at the Forks.
As a result of the Walking Purchase and Survey from the Delaware Native Americans, Thomas Penn set aside a thousand-acres for the town and county in 1736. Thomas Penn was the son of Pennsylvania’s namesake William Penn.
The names Easton and Northampton came from Thomas Penn’s recently wed British wife, Juliana Fermor, the daughter of a British Earl. Her childhood home, the manor house Easton Neston, was located in Northamptonshire, England. So, it’s not hard to figure out the mysterious names!
Europeans didn’t waste much time and settled here three years later, and in 1752, the town of Easton was on the map. Thomas and Juliana Penn didn’t live here and later returned to England, where he died in 1776. The Revolutionary War affected the Penn family’s holdings in the USA.
The oldest building in town, the 1753 Bachmann Tavern, was the residence of George Taylor, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. George Washington and Ben Franklin visited the tavern, and it multi-tasked as the courtroom before the courthouse was built in 1765. A beer might help with those feather pens!
The First Reformed Church, a German Lutheran denomination, was organized in 1745. In 1776, the church building existed and a year later, an important Indian Treaty was signed here. Later, it served as a hospital for the Revolutionary War Battles of Brooklyn and Brandywine, and George Washington came by to visit the wounded.
The Great Square has been the site of the oldest, continuously operated outdoor Farmers Market since 1791. The current monument for the Civil War was dedicated in 1900. Annually, a 100-foot Peace Candle is lit from Thanksgiving weekend through January. The 75-foot-tall obelisk is called The Bugler. Check out the statue at the top to see him in action.
Here’s another historical claim to fame. Easton was one of only three sites with a reading of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Not everyone could read back in those days, so reading it aloud was important. Every July, a special Heritage Day is celebrated here. Can you guess the other two places with public readings? If you said, NYC or DC try again. The answer will be provided later.
At the time of my visit in July, but not on Heritage Day, Easton was busy returning to life despite the coronavirus. A block of Northampton Street, the main street leading to Centre Square, was barricaded for safely spaced outdoor restaurant dining. A corona-correct survival party atmosphere greeted us for our first outdoor café lunch since March. And yes, it’s Centre, not Center. After all, this is a pre-Revolutionary War English colony town.
Recently, the Easton Area Public Library had reopened to mask-wearing patrons. Feeling so lucky, I made a brief visit inside the library. The inside area, open to visitors, was renovated and modern, and some patrons were already enjoying their library.
In 1811, Easton’s first library was by subscription, requiring $5 to join. During and after the Civil War, the library adapted in the face of economic challenges. Later, the women of Lehigh Valley banded together to found the Easton Library Association. Their mission was to create a free public library for those who could not afford an annual library subscription.
The current library building, from 1920, was supported by Andrew Carnegie’s build-a-library program. Carnegie also helped finance a 1913 addition, and in 1968 another renovation took place.
The site was formerly the German Reformed Lutheran Church’s burial ground. Two old gravesites still remain on the property, but I didn’t see any ghost tours mentioned on the website. Perhaps the ghosts are well-behaved and busy reading library books!
The town has other historic homes and a designated walking tour to show off their grand buildings. An impressive high renaissance French chateau-style mansion was owned by Herman Simon, a wealthy silk manufacturer in the early 1900s. The opulent digs now provide a home for a deserving humanitarian cause, The Third Street Alliance for Women & Children.
A Delaware River Boat Captain named Jacob Nicholas built his home here in about 1750. He carried goods between Easton and Philadelphia, but it wasn’t easy. He sailed or drifted downriver to Philadelphia. But for the return trip, long wooden poles were used to “pole” the boat back to Easton. His home “the Little Stone House,” restored with period furnishings, was open for tours before the pandemic.
For those of you who made it to the end or are curious about the two cities with a public reading of the Declaration of Independence, here’s the solution. If you guessed Philadelphia, PA and Trenton, NJ, you get two gold stars! And if you are ever in Allentown, Easton is only 17 miles away, or 77 miles from my new hometown of Philly.
Karen Stensgaard is a novelist with her two novels, AQUAVIT and BLUENESS, available online. Despite having her wings clipped by COVID-19, she is still exploring her home state of Pennsylvania and its libraries, which sometimes feels like her country.