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History's Headlines: Allentown's adventuresome history

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: May 09 2014 03:53:09 PM CDT
Updated On: May 12 2014 06:38:31 PM CDT

History's Headlines: An Allentown Adventure

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

As Janice Altieri recalls it, her first Allentown history lessons came from the lips of her father.

“I would say tell me a story,” the Allentown public school teacher recalls. Her father, age 92, who grew up on Fifth Street in the city, would then begin on any number of topics of the city’s history and his own history. “He told me about how they used to pick dandelions and sell them and how they all used to get time off from school to go to the Allentown Fair.”

But the ones that impressed her the most were about the horses. “He told me that when he was a boy, the city was full of horse drawn wagons that carried everything: ice, coal, milk. I found it fascinating to think about.”

As she grew older and was teaching she remembered those stories. And as she told them to the third graders in her class they seemed fascinated. “Many of them didn’t even know Allentown was on a river,” she says. “When I told them, of course the first question they asked was, ‘can we swim in it?’”

It was this concept of history as a story, and how it seemed to grab her students, that led Altieri to write  “An Allentown Adventure,” a contemporary local history of the city for students as seen through the eyes of a 21st century boy.

The book costs $15 and is available at the Allentown School District Foundation and the Lehigh County Historical Society’s Heritage Museum. Other possible venues like the Allentown Art Museum and City Hall are under discussion.  

Altieri recalls it was Renee Mosser, currently vice principal at Jefferson School and formerly the related arts coordinator, who brought the book to the Allentown School District Foundation. Mosser had been on Allentown’s 250th anniversary committee and made the suggestion for a book to Barry Halper, one of the foundations founders. “That is how the foundation’s path merged with mine,” she says.    

Funded by the Donley Foundation, the Allentown School District Foundation and the Junior League of the Lehigh Valley, with photos by Steve Wolfe Photography (along with historical illustrations), it offers young people of today a chance to better relate to the city’s past.

Altieri feels that Allentown students are not aware of local history for a variety of reasons. Many of them are from far corners of the world. They grew up in families that have often known dislocation and want. And even those from secure economic backgrounds are so distracted with all the video gizmos of our time that getting them to take an interest in the old stories of the past is difficult.

What might be called the “history crisis” in America is not confined to children. Many schools have virtually abolished social studies from their schools. Museums and historic sites find it more and more difficult to attract adults and children.

And year after year, knowledge of history tests shows dismal scores. Students at some of America’s leading universities do not know that Japan and Germany were our enemies and not our allies in World War II. They also think General Grant led the Confederate Army in the Civil War, or can’t name more than three or four U.S. presidents.

Altieri is more than aware of these larger questions. But her task was to try and teach some stories that children would better relate to. The boy used in the story is given the name Xavier. He is depicted as a bright, curious child, but like most of his generation, far more interested in video games than books.

It is Xavier’s mother who attempts to get the boy out of his lethargy. She starts not by taking him to a book but going online. From there it is a trip back and forth from the city’s modern history sites to those who lived here in the past. Although it is a work of fiction, it is one that Altieri believes the students can relate to. “They can live through the stories that Xavier’s mother tells them,” she says.

Going to the library, they start with locating Pennsylvania and Allentown on a map. Altieri knows that many third graders really do not have a concept of direction and firmly believes that by giving them one it helps them when history stories are explained to them.

Then what follows is an imaginary trip back in the past. Xavier’s mother explains to him about the Lenni Lenape Indians, who first used what is now Allentown as a hunting ground. “Their clothes and shoes were made from animal skins,” Xavier notes, and “they made beads from shells and porcupine quills.”

Altieri notes that when she used to tell the stories to her class, William Penn was the most popular figure. “When I explained to them how much he was trusted by the Indians and was a Quaker who believed all men were equal, including kings, Penn immediately was their favorite.” William Allen, Allentown’s founder, who was so tall (6’9") he was nicknamed the Great Giant, is also a hit. Xavier’s mother reminds him that Allen was as tall as basketball star Labron James.

Among the other stories of Allentown’s history that Xavier and his mother discuss are the city’s square street grid, the hiding of the Liberty Bell in Zion’s Church during the British occupation of Philadelphia in 1777-78, and how industrialist General Harry C. Trexler made his contribution of parks to the community.

“An Allentown Adventure” is far from a complete history of the city and it is not intended to be. But even those who know its past may learn something by taking a look. In the continuing struggle to preserve the city’s history for future generations, it is an important contribution.