My husband and I were born in the very eastern part of Pennsylvania just north of Philadelphia, called the Lehigh Valley. Literally, one can walk from our hometown of Easton, across the bridge over the Delaware River, into New Jersey. I tell the folks in Illinois that I come from the Lehigh Valley and explain that it is made up of Easton, Allentown and Bethlehem and the townships that surround the towns. For my husband and I, there were short periods of time in our early adulthood when we lived elsewhere but both of us, separately, before we were married, moved back to Easton. That’s where our roots were and that’s where our family was.
Seventy years ago, major corporations thrived there. During the Depression, our families lived fairly well because our steel that came out of Bethlehem’s mills was building the Golden Gate bridge; later, our silk mills were creating fabric to make parachutes for the war effort, and our crayons, called Crayola and known all over the world, we’re made here and put food on many a family’s tables. This was solid working class industrial area. More recently, though, Billy Joel was inspired to write a song about this area’s downturn. My friends in Illinois all recognize Allentown from the song about a downtrodden city past its glory days. But driving through now, I’m encouraged about this area again – industries such as health care and technology seem to be burgeoning, the national steel mill is now a major entertainment center that includes a Sands casino and open air venues for concerts all summer long under an umbrella area now called Steel Stacks. Happily, big-city builders who took over the former site of Bethlehem Steel had the grace to tip their hats to honor those who worked there and those who remember the blast furnaces lighting up the night sky in the heyday, who recognize the promise these plants meant to a generation of immigrants from the turn of the twentieth century. Another enormous project which will consist of condominiums, stores, and theaters is underway in Easton, and is called Easton Silk, a bow to those women, including my mother, who toiled in the silk mills three quarters of a century ago.
In 1983, my husband, son and I moved from Easton, Pennsylvania to the western suburbs of Chicago. We moved at the time because my husband was offered an opportunity by an entrepreneur with whom he worked in Easton, and who was now in the Chicago area. We all viewed it as promising especially given the economic conditions at the time in the Valley. At the time we left, the towns that once bustled had grown tired and old and didn’t show signs of ever flourishing again. And really for much of the time that we’ve been coming back, it truly felt that progress was going to elude our hometown forevermore. Businesses closed. Once busy downtown looked like a ghost town. But nevertheless, my son and I drove over the Illinois border thirty three years ago kicking and screaming. It was not a move we wanted to make. We hated leaving our friends and family; I hated leaving my job at the local hospital and my son hated leaving his school. For the first eight years of living in Illinois, when people asked me where I was from, I would tell them, “I live near Chicago, but I’m really from Pennsylvania” because I still didn’t believe that this was a permanent move. I eventually grew to love Chicago and all it has to offer. I enjoyed a wide variety of career opportunities that would likely not have been available to me in the Lehigh Valley at the time. Also the fact that my son went back East to college and law school but returned to Chicago to practice law, marry and rear his family, makes Chicago very much home now.
Last week my husband and I and our son, daughter-in-law and two grandkids went back to have Thanksgiving with my mother-in-law who still lives there and we partook in all the wonderful traditions of the town. We’ve been gone for over 30 years. But for over these three decades, several times a year we come back to this place we once knew so well. We always make sure that we see our friends from grade school, friends from our childhood. What’s that expression: “You can’t make old friends.” These friends are so special because there are so many shared memories among ourselves and about the town.
Each time we come back, especially when the flowers are in bloom and the leaves are on the trees and we drive along the rolling hills and the Pocono Mountains to the north of Easton, I marvel at how beautiful it is. For all the things that Chicago offers, its flatlands cannot compete with that!
The first thing my husband and I did this trip was to go to the State Theater as guests of a relative who is a major benefactor of the theater. The State Theater has been in continuous operation since 1926. It includes a 1500 seat performance hall, a ballroom and a art gallery. In the 1960’s and ’70’s it fell into disrepair and was gradually being dismantled. Those of us who were active in the community thought that allowing this iconic building to be destroyed was a travesty. To prevent its destruction, my husband and I joined the “Save the State” group in 1981 when we still lived in the area. Eventually that group morphed into the Friends of the State who continued on to eventually save the building and restore it to its current grandeur. This beautiful edifice originally served as a vaudeville theater and we knew it as children as a movie theater. Incredibly, last Friday was the first time we have been inside the theater in 30 years! It is magnificently restored and now draws huge audiences and first rate performers such as Tony Bennett, Olivia Newton-John, Johnny Mathis, Brian Wilson and Patti Lupone. It is one of only 100 theaters of its era in the United States to have been restored.
A huge event in our home town is the Easton-Phillipsburg high school football game which is always played on Thanksgiving morning. And by “always” I mean it has been played since 1906, so this year was the 110th playing between this iconic rivalry. My husband, son and grandson went to the game, and my 8-year-old grandson, Luke, was thrilled! It was not so much the rivalry he was excited about since it really has no meaning to him at this point but just going to see his first football game “in person” since the sport is one of his loves right now. And then in the program they had pictures of Easton High School football Hall of Famers and one of my uncles, Salvatore or “Salvy” as we called him, was shown! It was lovely.
As with many Eastern towns, our town has a central town square. Some towns refer to the square as a “rotary.” In our town, ironically, the square is called “The Circle.” In the middle of the Circle, for most of the year, there stands a civil war monument, a 75 foot obelisk topped by a bronze “bugler.” But for holiday season, Easton erects a 106 foot candle over the war monument (sometimes not without some controversy) and has done so since 1951. It is said to be the largest non-wax holiday candle in the country. And every year, on a crisp night immediately after Thanksgiving, the candle is lit throughout the holidays and is then disassembled in early February. For the second time in their lives, my grandchildren were at the candle lighting ceremony this past Saturday. It’s important to us that we share pieces of the life we had here with our next generation.
And those crayons that were once made at Binney and Smith in Easton (maybe still are but I think the company is now called Crayola, Inc.) are the focus of a fantastic children’s museum in the revitalized downtown that our grandchildren love to visit each time they come here, and this trip was no exception. It just thrills us that they will know some of the history of our town, even though right now they are only excited that they can go and “make” crayons, make sculptures in Modeling Madness and, of course, visit the gift shop!
I also loved the fact that during this visit our son seemed to really appreciate the various things abut this area that we love. And the Easton Are High School class of 1986 happened to be having its 30th reunion this weekend. These would have been the friends our son would have graduated with had he not moved to Illinois. He has been in touch with a few friends from the class and stopped into their reunion and had a great time with old friends, just like we did with our friends!
Such a lovely way to kick off the coming season. See you next time……