The Lehigh County Historical Society: Making History Come to Life for the Whole Family

By Angela Bristow

Put down the history books and let history come to life right before your eyes by visiting the Lehigh County Historical Society’s museum sites. “People can see these artifacts and it gives them a connection to the past. They can understand history so much better,” says Jill Youngken, Assistant Director of the Lehigh County Historical Society, headquartered at the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum, Allentown.

One of their current special exhibits, “Trains in the Lehigh Valley,” runs until June 30. It focuses on the Lehigh Valley Railroad and the history of the railroad infrastructure. Children of all ages–and those young at heart—will enjoy the running train layouts, and smaller children will be excited by the three Thomas the Tank Engine models. Young ones can apply their train enthusiasm to crafts centered on Thomas and even make their own railway lantern. The exhibit also features interactive fun where visitors can learn about Morse code, telegraph messages, and signaling using flags and lanterns.

In honor of the Lehigh Valley’s rich heritage in Pennsylvania German crafts, the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum is running a quilt exhibit during the summer that will feature more than 50 quilts and coverlets. “We have these two wonderful people who donated these quilts to us that were made by their grandmothers who lived in this area and were Pennsylvania German. They’ll form the nucleus of this exhibit and have never been shown before,” says Youngken. The Smithsonian wanted to acquire these quilts, which speaks to the quality and historic value of these examples of handcrafts.

A Revolutionary War exhibit scheduled for later this year, will include the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum and Trout Hall. Youngken says, “This area was a major contributor to the War in many ways. People will learn about George Washington, Samuel Adams, and John Adams, among others, and will get a good idea of what went on during the War. We have programming around these exhibits as well.”

Youngken  adds, “All the museum sites are geared toward families. Each one of the sites is like stepping back in time. With each one being furnished, it gives you a wonderful idea of how it was to live back then.”

The Lehigh County Historical Society’s seven museum sites  date from Colonial America through the Industrial Revolution. In addition to the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum there is also Trout Hall, a colonial stone mansion built in 1770 and Allentown’s oldest home. The recently amended Troxell-Steckel Farm Museum in Egypt, built in 1756, features Pennsylvania German hex signs, farming implements, and information on the roles played by  each family member on the farm. The Claussville School, a one-room school built in 1893, with all of its contents intact, is open for tours by appointment. Visitors may also like to explore operating demonstrations at the Haines Mill on the banks of Cedar Creek in Cetronia. The Lockridge Furnace Museum in Alburtis and Saylor Park Cement Kilns in Coplay are strictly outdoor sites set in lovely park-like locations.

The Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum’s ongoing exhibit, “Lehigh Valley History,” encompasses all of the Lehigh Valley, but focuses primarily on Lehigh County. This exhibit is constantly being augmented and items are rotated so that frequent visitors will enjoy returning and discovering new effects. In addition to the permanent exhibits at the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum, there are also rotating exhibits that change every six to nine months or one to three months, centered around a holiday or special event. Presentations or re-enactments provide expanded information, generally on Saturdays, involving the exhibits and other historic features. Visitors can call ahead or visit the website to find out about current programs.

Charles Rhoades Roberts and a group of his contemporaries started the Lehigh County Historical Society by developing a library and archives, gradually adding additional sites and three-dimensional artifacts. The Lehigh County Historical Society moved from the Lehigh County Courthouse to its current location at 432 W. Walnut Street in Allentown in 2005.

Founded in 1904, the Lehigh County Historical Society collects, preserves and houses over three million documents and over 75,000 vintage photographs at the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum. “We’ve been collecting almost since we’ve been founded, so a considerable amount of time. That’s part of our mission, to collect and preserve these items from the whole Lehigh Valley region. We also have over 35,000 historical artifacts that help preserve the history of the Valley,” says Youngken. All of the artifacts, documents and photographs are housed in climate-controlled rooms and are available to individuals conducting research.

The artifacts include textiles such as quilts and coverlets, clothing and band uniforms representing many of the area’s towns, as well as military uniforms that reflect different time periods. Not to be missed are artifacts, photographs and scrapbooks from Hess’s Department Store; diaries, Civil War letters, doctor bags, tin toys, dolls, furniture, Pennsylvania German chests, and items from the estate of Harry C. Trexler.

Admission to the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum and its library, open year-round, is $6 for adults and $3 for children. Visit their website for a coupon worth $1 off admission. Most of the other museum sites are open May through September, Saturdays and Sundays.  Annual memberships are also available.

Editor’s Note: Angela is president of her own freelance writing and proofreading business and has over 15 years of experience with various publications and businesses. She is a native of the Lehigh Valley and enjoys the connection with past generations that antiques provide.

Jill Youngken, Assistant Director
Lehigh County Historical Society
Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum

432 W. Walnut Street
Allentown, PA 18102

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