Alburtis

By M. Minti Ray

A drive through the Borough of Alburtis tells a visual story of the area’s rich history and economic significance in the growth of the Lehigh Valley. Railroad tracks and remnants of iron production facilities speak to the area’s rapid industrial development, while the expansive park and unique local businesses present its modern charm and economic viability. Located southwest of Allentown and Emmaus, Alburtis is home to 2,336 residents who uphold an unwavering civic commitment to honoring the heritage of the area.

In the mid 19th century, Alburtis remained underdeveloped with a sprinkling of farms owned primarily by German immigrants. Joseph Rothenberger was one of the first residents, followed by John Blank, who in 1847 built the area’s first hotel. In 1959, necessitated by the construction of a new local railroad station of the East Pennsylvania Branch of the Philadelphia and Reading Railway, the name of the area was selected in honor of Edward K. Alburtis, a civil engineer with the railroad who spent a great deal of time in the area. Facilitated by the new railroad station, developmental activity flourished with the establishment of new businesses, a post office, and a local extension of the Catasauqua and Fogelsville Railroad.

Then in the 1860s, the Thomas Iron Company, a major Lehigh Valley based iron producer, identified the area as the ideal location for additional smelting operations because of its proximity to coal and iron ore mines and access to a strong rail transportation network. The company purchased an 88 acre land parcel which it later resold to the Lockridge Iron Company under whose ownership two blast furnaces were erected. Shortly thereafter, the Thomas Iron Company acquired the Lockridge Iron Company and continued to build out the manufacturing and support infrastructure including residences for the superintendent and workers, as well as a land and monetary donation for a local church and cemetery. This industrial complex and residential area adjacent to Alburtis was known as Lockridge. Local economic and civic development in both areas continued over the next few decades with the creation of a silk mill, shoe factory, multiple grocery and general stores, retail stores, saloon and restaurant, and new school building. In the spring of 1913, the two villages became incorporated as the Borough of Alburtis.

The growth and success of the Thomas Iron Company and Alburtis continued until the end of World War I when iron prices began to significantly decrease and domestic production levels declined due to lower pricing from international competitors. The furnaces were shut down and sold in 1920 to William B. Butz and Sons, a company that sold the manufacturing byproducts and scraps. Other local companies also faced fiscal pressure in the wake of the Great Depression, and many were forced into bankruptcy. During the remainder of the 20th century, Alburtis slowly transitioned into a primarily residential area with a small, but vibrant local business community.

In 2005, Alburtis became part of the Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce’s Borough Revitalization program. Funded through the state’s Main Street Program and other grants, the revitalization efforts have been focused on promoting the area and redesigning local infrastructure. Recent projects include new street signs, historical site markers, gateway signage, light pole banners, landscaping, and building façade improvements. The program is also assisting the Borough in its campaign to obtain historic district designation. As the revitalization efforts continue, local residents are also preparing for the upcoming centennial celebration in 2013 to celebrate the area’s history, development, and contemporary significance.

As explained by Mary Himmelberger, the Chamber’s Borough Business Revitalization Coordinator, “Alburtis speaks for itself. You simply need to drive through the town to fall in love with it. The charm is very inherent. The Borough’s rich history is the driving force behind our revitalization efforts.” A visit to the area easily lends credibility to this statement and makes for an enriching and enjoyable experience.

SEE & DO

Upon the close of the Thomas Iron Company furnaces in the 1920s, the extensive complex lay idle for decades. Local resident Jean Stoneback interested Lehigh County commissioners in purchasing the property and preserving it as a County Park. The result of her efforts was the creation of Lockridge Park and Lockridge Furnace Museum which opened to the public in 1976. Administered and interpreted by the Lehigh County Historical Society, the museum is dedicated to the anthracite iron industry. Visitors can not only tour the furnace rooms and engine house, but also view the local infrastructure related to iron production including the foreman’s office, superintendent’s home, workers’ houses, the company funded church, and the railroad tracks that originally deposited raw materials for the iron production process. The museum is open May through September on weekends from 1 to 4 pm. Guided, private tours such as school field trips can be organized, as well. The surrounding 59.2 acres of land comprise Lockridge Park where visitors can enjoy hiking, bicycling, and fishing in Swabia Creek. The park also includes a picnic pavilion with a fireplace, baseball field, and extensive path system. Crowds flock to the park each year in early April to view the annual blossom of the bluebell flowers that illuminate the open fields with vibrant hues of purple and blue. 525 Franklin Street, Park – 610.871.0281, Museum – 610.435.1074, lehighcounty.org.

Peg McCormack’s Folkwerks Studio provides the opportunity to learn styles and techniques from locally and internationally renowned artists. Originally an art gallery and antique store, the shop will complete its transition into a studio dedicated to teaching this month. A pastel workshop will be given by David Garrison and Cecile Houle on April 16th and 17th. Bill Wentz, a local artist with over 30 years of teaching experience, will be instructing a 10-week watercolor workshop beginning on April 19th. Classes will run through June 21st, and tuition is $220 per session. McCormack, an acclaimed chalkware sculptor herself, will continue to provide a selection of artwork including paintings, sculpture, and pottery. A limited offering of antiques such as china, lamps, and prints will also be available in the month of April as the studio conversion is completed. 121 South Main Street, 610.965.1432, folkwerks.com.

Sprawling across hundreds of acres of serene countryside in Alburtis is Skyline Stables, the largest, full service equine facility in the tri-state area. Previously in the boating industry, Don Treat founded the stables 18 years ago in an effort to segue into a more family oriented business. The facility includes horses and ponies for sale, over 100 acres of trails, and a heated lounge with a view of the indoor arena. Skyline Stables also offers full care boarding, affordable leasing programs, lessons, trail rides, summer camps, and scout badge programs. The expansive tack store is truly a one stop shop for all horse related needs including clothing, boots, helmets, hardware, saddles, and feed, as well as novelty gifts such as books, posters, and collectible Breyer horses. 10 Stone Avenue, 610.682.2001, skylinestables.com.

SHOP

Drawing from her background in art education, fabric design, and framing, Susan Hercek opened The Old Vic Art Gallery and Frame Shop in 2001. Housed in a traditional Victorian home, the gallery features original paintings and signed, numbered prints by local artists including Bill Wentz, Len Hillegass, and Tom Lessel, as well as internationally exhibited artists such as Colini, the late, surrealist painter. A recent addition to the collection includes a series of antique celestial maps from the 18th century. In contrast to the typical austere backdrop of most gallery spaces, Hercek has created a warm, inviting setting with rich red walls, fine furniture, antique wooden floors, and traditional architectural details. The shop also offers comprehensive custom framing services coupled with guidance on how to display artwork in your own home. 131 South Main Street, 610.967.6618.

Originally in the chimney cleaning services industry, Kevin Oldt founded KC Stoves and Fireplaces to meet his clients’ needs for a high quality provider of both hearth products and services. In business since 1988, the store sells and services a wide range of wood, gas, pellet, coal and oil stoves and fireplaces. The store’s extensive showroom includes over 70 units, 50 of which are operational, from a wide range of manufacturers to match a diverse set of functional needs and decorative tastes. The store also offers bagged pellets and coal, as well as grills and awnings during the summer season. Retaining his founding commitment to excellence and quality, Oldt maintains a direct staff of highly skilled, certified technicians and sales personnel to assist with selection, installation, and servicing needs. 120 North Main Street, 610.966.3556, kcstovesandfireplaces.com.

Since 1965, Canns-Bilco has been providing outdoor power equipment including tractors, backhoes, lawn mowers, chainsaws, trimmers, shredders, and snow blowers to customers in the Lehigh Valley and beyond. Owned and operated by Roger Cann Senior and Junior, the store offers products and parts from a vast array of high quality brands such as Honda, Snapper, Kubota, Kohler, Yamaha, and Tecumseh. The store also services all power equipment makes and models and can arrange for easy pick-up and delivery. In contrast to large national retailers, Canns-Bilco offers extensive customer service including answering support questions, providing financing, delivering products and spare parts, and performing warranty-related servicing. 125 East Penn Avenue, 610.820.0222/800.811.0285, canns-bilco.com.

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