I know today is the fifth of July, but where I come from this is basically Independence Week.
The Fourth of July is viewed as the birthday of our country. Actually, July 2 is the date on which the Continental Congress had voted unanimously to declare independence from Great Britain. July 4 was date that the text of the declaration Independence was approved.
I just came back from a visit to Easton, Pennsylvania, my hometown. If you’ve been following my blog for some time you may recall that I wrote about Easton and our holiday traditions last November when I was in Easton for Thanksgiving (HOMECOMING). During this past week’s visit I had more time to look around this town where my father and his 12 siblings were reared and where my parents and I moved to when I was ten years old.
Easton was founded in 1752 by Thomas and John Penn, the sons of William Penn. It is positioned on the Delaware River, or more accurately at the Forks of the Delaware and the Lehigh Rivers. It’s a city about 60 miles north of Philadelphia, where our Founding Fathers wrote and signed the document declaring our independence from Great Britain, and about 40 miles from Valley Forge, the military camp 18 miles northwest of Philadelphia where the American Continental Army spent the winter of 1777-78 during the Revolutionary War . The other night I was watching the nightly news from Philadelphia and the reporter proudly declared that there was no better place to celebrate our country’s independence day than in the area where it started. Although the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, it wasn’t until the Treaty of Paris in 1783 that the War ended and independence was finally won.
I lived in the midst of the history virtually my whole life, but the past few times I’ve been back, I have been especially struck by the fact that I pretty much ignored it while I lived there.
George Taylor, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, lived there in this house on Ferry and Fourth Streets, a home that I passed without acknowledgement many times in my youth. Easton was one of three cities in which the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence was held on July 8 1776.
In July 1779, General John Sullivan began the southern leg of the one of the largest offensive campaigns in the Revolutionary War that came to be known as Sullivan’s March, which essentially passed through the bottom of the hill I lived on.
Easton’s is the first flag to use the stars and stripes and the red, white and blue colors, even before the flag made by Betsy Ross. It flies proudly today on the light standards throughout downtown Easton.
Since 1752 the town centre square, which we call the Circle, has been the site of the oldest continuously operating open-air farmer’s market in the United States. So presumably during the Revolution, this market was available to locals, selling their wares. Now every Saturday, the Circle is filled with vendors selling locally grown produce, honey, art, and meats. In addition to the farmer’s market, the alleys are filled with local artisans selling jewelry and artwork. A new Public Market boasts a wide range of merchants selling gourmet vinegars and oils, cheeses, wood work, chocolates, a creperie, a sandwich shop along with seating so that shoppers can grab a bite to eat.
The same city that welcomed representatives of the Continental Congress 241 Julys ago is now in the midst of a resurgence as not only an historic capitol but as a restaurant and artisan capitol as well – happily one that is not trading its heritage for glossy glitz. Restaurants and brew pubs have been springing up around the city but they are, by and large, not occupying new structures. Many of the new proprietors are honoring and repurposing the old buildings with the skill and attention to detail that they deserve and the restoration results are spectacular!
As an example, one needs to look no further than the new life of the city’s Penn Building, an 1860 structure. Two years ago, the landlord of the building won the Easton’s Mayor’s Historic Restoration Award for tackling and excelling at the job of restoring the building’s rear apartments. Once finished with that, he turned to the front facade of the building which presented the challenge that the right side of the building dated to the 1860s and the left half was from the 1930s. The owner wanted the entire facade to be 1860s. No architectural plans existed from which to work so the plans were sketched out as the building progressed by a masters-degreed architect and the owners general contracting company, both having expertise in historic restoration. Eleven hundred days of days of work later, the painstaking restoration is complete with a stunning result. Now the home of a new microbrewery pub, it’s one of the first buildings you see as you cross the bridge from New Jersey into Pennsylvania. Another historic building dates back to 1810. It too is now a local craft beer emporium as well as a farm to table restaurant. The new owners have left the first floor barroom relatively untouched from the 1920s. Beautiful 1920’s vintage tin ceilings were repaired and painted. The original milk glass lighting fixtures and terrazzo floors needed only minor repairs and clean up. I can attest that the outside of the building looks exactly as I remember when I used to pass by as a teenager.
The downtown is a juxtaposition of the very old, newly restored buildings and brand new structures created when building from scratch was the only viable option. But it’s a downtown that I can still easily walk through with an old familiarity from my childhood.
This Sunday, July 9, Easton will hold its 41st Heritage Day. Because of its historic significance in this country’s birth, a celebration is held each year around the date of the first reading of the Declaration . At noon on July 8, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was read on the steps of the old courthouse in Easton’s Centre Square. A reenactment of that event and a festival organized around it first occurred during the Bicentennial Celebration in 1976. From that year on, Heritage Day has been celebrated as Easton’s own Independence Day celebration.
Until next time!