Don Cunningham: Colonial History is Assisting Catasauqua’s Renaissance

By Don Cunningham on June 28, 2019

This column, written by LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on June 26, 2019. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

Reading history puts the present in a new light.

A significant and little-known part of local history connects the Lehigh Valley to America’s founding, and it is helping to breathe life into tiny Catasauqua.

George Taylor, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, left behind two houses here, a small city home on the corner of Fourth and Ferry streets in Easton built in 1757 and his beautiful country home on Lehigh Street, near Race Street, in Catasauqua built in 1768.

Just 56 men signed the declaration in 1776, boldly declaring the American colonies independent from Great Britain. It was an act of high treason against the British crown and intertwined the signers’ personal fate and that of the colonies with the outcome of a war with the world’s leading power.

Only a handful of homes that belonged to signers of the declaration remain, including Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello near Charlottesville, Virginia.

Taylor’s two-story Georgian stone mansion on a hillside that overlooks the Lehigh Canal and River was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1971. The home was adopted and saved by Catasauqua, which treats it as the national treasure it is. It is open to visitation from June to September and is used as a venue for programs on colonial history.

When Taylor built his grand home — then a long horse ride from Easton — Catasauqua did not exist, nor did Lehigh County, which was carved out of Northampton County in 1812. Catasauqua was charted as a borough in 1853.

For decades, Catty, as it’s called here, has been a hardscrabble working class borough of just 1.2 square miles that developed around the anthracite iron industry, playing a role in America’s first industrial revolution.

As with so much of the Lehigh Valley, Catty today is experiencing its own renaissance, and George Taylor is at the heart of it. Brewpubs, coffee houses, dance halls and a mixed-use riverfront development are bringing visitors and residents to this tight-knit community.

Catty’s population has grown by 8% to 6,598 during the last eight years, making it one of 13 Lehigh Valley boroughs that are increasing in population at a time most boroughs across Pennsylvania are in decline.

There’s no clearer sign that a place has turned the corner today than the emergence of a brewpub. The Taylor House Brewing Co., across Lehigh Street from George Taylor’s house, makes beer in a renovated industrial powerhouse. Taylor House is just the latest drinking establishment in a town as rich with bars as churches, including local favorites Fossil’s Last Stand, McCarty’s, Catty Corner and the Blue Monkey.

The Brewing Co.’s logo has a drawing of George Taylor in his colonial finest with a keg under one arm while tippling a mug in the other.

This is millennial catnip: Young people flock to brewpubs like swallows to Capistrano.

Adding to the Catty renaissance, there’s a hipster coffee shop in an old service station on Front Street. Blocker’s Coffee House serves Ethiopian Sidamo and Peruvian beans along with 10 other roasts in a kitschy environment full of artwork and memorabilia from the 20th century. This is not grandpa’s Catasauqua, but there’s a good chance he’s in the photo on the wall of a bunch of tough mugs standing in front of the building when it was a gas station.

Next to Blocker’s is the Gas House Dance Hall, where they teach swing dancing and deliver a weekly lineup of rockabilly bands that travel from New York City and across the East Coast.

Every Friday night from mid-May to mid-September, Catty Park at 501 American St. is home to free outdoor concerts by the region’s top bands. Thousands spread out on the grass and hillside while others tailgate under tents, cooking food and drinking beer.

Blocker’s and the Gas House are owned by Vince Smith, who runs an auto repair shop, Biery’s Port Body Works, out of the back of the building. Biery’s Port is the original name of Catasauqua. Smith also happens to be the president of the Borough Council, a lifelong Catty resident and someone who bleeds Catty blood and buys, renovates and leases out properties to modernize the borough’s appeal.

He drove the borough’s purchase of the former F.L. Smidth cement property along Front Street with a vision to redevelop the waterfront into a residential, commercial and municipal complex called the Iron Works.

Just as Catty’s adopted founding father George Taylor would have hung if the American Revolution had gone the other way, Smith jokes he may suffer a similar fate if his dream fails.

“My goal is for us to have everything we need to sustain us and entertain us right here in Catty,” Smith said. “I love Bethlehem but I shouldn’t have to go there every time I want to get a drink, go out to eat or see a band.”

His stake has long been in the ground in Catty.

And just as people are beginning to discover the rare American treasure of a Founding Father’s home in our midst so, too, they are uncovering a new Catasauqua.

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