Log House circa 1792 with its pre-1840 timber frame addition.
History of Lower Macungie Township
Before European settlement, the area that now includes Lower Macungie Township was inhabited by people who called themselves the Lenni Lenape. They hunted here, and are known to have had a few small seasonal villages and jasper workshops close to streams and springs. Jasper from their quarries outside present-day Macungie and Vera Cruz was traded far and wide across North America.
Lower Macungie Township was settled in the early eighteenth century by German immigrant farmers who found the rich, fertile soil and amply watered land to their liking. They remained, caring for their farms, raising large families and eventually becoming prosperous. The massive bank barns and impressive stone farmhouses that can still be found throughout the township are their legacy to us.
Today Lower Macungie is noted for its comfortable housing developments. It has become one of the most desirable parts of the Lehigh Valley for many families, who have chosen to live here because of the township’s attractive landscape, acres of open space, and excellent schools.
Macungie Township was formed in 1743, when Lehigh County was still part of Bucks County. It comprised the area of present Upper and Lower Macungie townships, including the boroughs of Macungie and Alburtis. The population then was 650 persons. Northampton County was created in 1752; Lehigh County was separated from it in 1812. The population of Macungie Township in 1810 was 2,420. On May 5, 1832, Lehigh County approved a petition to divide Macungie Township into two, making Upper and Lower Macungie the first new townships to be created in Lehigh County. Lower Macungie is 22.46 square miles in size.
The population in the 1840 census was 2,156. By 1890 it had reached a nineteenth-century peak of 3,657, then began a decline until 1960, when it rose to 3,859. It has increased dramatically in each decade since then, climbing to 8,814 in 1970, 12,958 in 1980, 16,000 in 1990, and 19,220 in 2000. In 2009 the population is estimated to be close to 30,000.
The name “Macungie” is derived from a Native American word meaning bear swamp, or place where bears feed. The early Pennsylvania German settlers took land that had been hunting grounds for the Lenni Lenape, adopting the Lenape name for the area. They cleared the scrub and forests, planted crops, raised livestock, and continually expanded their holdings. Most of what they produced fed their families and their hired and indentured servants, but some crops were grown for their cash value. Eventually they raised enough money to buy land warrants in Philadelphia from the proprietors, William Penn’s heirs.
Early King’s Highways, in reality no more than trails suitable in good weather for wagons, were laid north-south and east-west through the area in the mid-eighteenth century. These were used both by new settlers arriving and by wagon trains of farmers traveling to market in Philadelphia to sell their crops for cash. Route 100 and Hamilton Boulevard through Lower Macungie still follow basically the same routes as when they were laid out in 1735 and 1753.
For generations, the way of life changed little. Life centered on the family, the farm, and the church. Lutheran and Reformed churches were established soon after the first farmsteads. German was the predominant language of the farming community, specifically a dialect from the Palatinate region of Germany, with High German used in church.
General mixed farming was the occupation of most of the residents of Lower Macungie Township until the twentieth century. Cattle, poultry, pigs and various grains, primarily corn, rye, oats and wheat, were raised on all farms. The first generations of farmsteaders also raised sheep and grew flax for clothing and household textiles.
During the twentieth century, some specialization began when potatoes became a very important crop throughout Lehigh County, and hogs began to be raised in huge numbers by individual township farmers and at company farms along Mertztown Road for the A&B (Arbogast and Bastian) company in Allentown. Large dairying concerns included Timothy Gehman’s, just west of Macungie where Mack Trucks is today, Hess-Lehigh Farms, which had five farms in the Cedar Crest Boulevard-Lower Macungie Road area including the one where Camp Olympic is, and Kidd Brothers on Spring Creek Road, which was the last to operate. William S. Weaver grew peaches and apples in large orchards close to Orchard Road.
In recent years the township’s Board of Commissioners has been able to preserve several farms and has purchased outright the Kratzer Farm, Camp Olympic (formerly part of the Hess-Lehigh Farms) and a large tract of farmland along Sauerkraut Lane that was one of the parts of the township settled earliest.
The first of many water-powered grist mills in Lower Macungie that served the needs of farmers were built in the mid-eighteenth century. Most of them were along the Little Lehigh Creek and required dams across the creek to direct water into long headraces. In the last decades of the nineteenth century some millers installed water turbines or steam engines for power. Grinding stones gave way to rollers, which made a finer wheat flour, in many mills. Cornmeal, a popular product for home consumption, continued to be ground in stones. Some mills remained in business as suppliers of feed blends for chickens and cattle after they were no longer used to grind grains. Many of the mills in Lower Macungie are still standing, some converted into residences.
Laudenslager’s Mill: The 1831 grist mill most recently known as Laudenslager’s Mill, circa 1975. On Mill Race Road.
Formal schooling was pursued by very few boys beyond the ability to read, write, do numerical calculations, and speak sufficient English to conduct business. Those who wanted further educations had to get it elsewhere. Girls attended school only until they had learned the rudiments of writing and reading, an important ability so they could read the Bible to their children. All schooling was of secondary importance to the work of the family — daily and seasonal farm chores came first.
Lower Macungie’s landowners did not accept the provisions of Pennsylvania’s controversial 1835 Free School Act until 1849. Opposition was strong, largely due to fear that the German language would be displaced. By 1854 there were fourteen schoolhouses in the township, and an average of four months of schooling. Attendance was often erratic. By 1884, there were 22 schoolhouses, scattered throughout the township so no child would have to walk very far to school. A good relationship among the directors of the Township School District, parents, and teachers did much to improve attendance before the passage in 1895 of the state’s compulsory attendance law, which required children to go to school from the age of 8 to 13. It was not until 1911 that teaching in the Pennsylvania German dialect was prohibited, although many children entering school until the 1940s, and some even later, spoke the dialect as their first language.
One-room and two-room schoolhouses were replaced in 1951 with the Lower Macungie Township School on Lower Macungie Road at Krocks Road. For the first time each grade had its own classroom and teacher. Many students were transported by bus to the new school.
Most of the one- and two-room schoolhouses still standing in Lower Macungie date from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. They have been converted into homes and offices.
The East Penn Union School District was created in 1952 because of the necessity to build a new high school to serve the region. Previously, those township students who wished to continue their education beyond Eighth Grade had attended high school in Allentown or Emmaus. Their tuition was paid by the township school district. In 1966, the word “Union” was dropped from the district’s name.
Rapid changes took place in rural Lower Macungie starting in the early 1960s, as large tracts of farmland were subdivided into residential neighborhoods. Wescosville Elementary School was opened in 1966 to accommodate the increasing number of children, and in 1970 Shoemaker School was opened. Eyer Junior High opened in 1974, Lower Macungie Middle School in 1998.
In the mid-nineteenth century the Lehigh Valley became one of Pennsylvania’s leading producers of cast iron and iron products. Most of the farmers in Lower Macungie took advantage of the need for iron ore. On the neat, hundred-acre farms that had been the sustenance of the population for so long, ore pits began to appear, and washeries were built to clean the limonite ore of its clay.
Ore was hauled from the mines to furnaces in Macungie, Alburtis and Emmaus, and to loading wharves along Indian Creek Road from which it was transported on the East Pennsylvania Railroad. This railroad line is now operated by Norfolk Southern.
Small densely wooded areas often mark the site of a former iron mine. Some mine holes and several limestone quarries are filled with water. Large surface clay deposits are common throughout the area; these were the settling ponds of the numerous washeries.
The Lock Ridge Iron Company, now within the borough of Alburtis, was originally in Lower Macungie Township. Construction of one furnace began in 1867; a second was built in 1868. Merchant pig iron was produced here by one of the Lehigh Valley’s dominant pig-iron producers, the Thomas Iron Company, until late 1921. Lehigh County maintains the remains of the furnace as one of its industrial heritage sites.
Lockridge Furnace circa 1900. One of the two furnace stacks can be seen. The men are standing on a pile of iron ore in the stockyard.
Rock crushers were erected at the massive slag dumps and much of the crushed slag was used as sub-base for the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in the mid-1950s. Slag from the Macungie Furnace, which had been stored west of Brookside Road at Indian Creek Road, was used for the macadam base Brookside Road when the state widened the road.
Roads and Trolleys
Where there is an old inn there was an early road. In Lower Macungie Hunan Springs, formerly the Wescosville Hotel, was along the King’s Highway that went from Easton to Reading, and the Buckeye Tavern, formerly the East Macungie Hotel, was on a well-traveled road that connected the Route 100 highway with the Easton to Reading highway. Other early township roads were little more than narrow dirt tracks connecting farms and villages.
Many were not named until well into the twentieth century, when Lehigh County appointed a commission to name roads. Sauerkraut Lane is so-called because there was an old farmhouse in the section between Brookside Road and Willow Lane where large quantities of sauerkraut was made every year, and a wide area in that vicinity reportedly smelled of sauerkraut. Some names of roads reflect past activities. For example, there had been a creamery at Creamery Road; orchards at Orchard Road; a mill at Mill Creek Road; iron mines along Minesite Road, and a community with the same name.
The section of the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike through Lower Macungie was built in 1955. The road, connecting Scranton with Philadelphia, was begun in 1954 and completed in 1957.
When trolley lines were extended to Lower Macungie, they did not create “trolley suburbs” such as those found on the edges of cities. They served existing communities. Both the Allentown and Reading Traction Company and the Lehigh Valley Transit Company built lines through Lower Macungie in the late 1890s. The Allentown and Reading Traction Co. went from Allentown to Dorney Park to the County Home at Cedarbrook before reaching Wescosville. From there it continued to East Texas to Trexlertown to Kutztown, where riders had to switch to a wide-gauge line to go on to Reading. Service as far as East Texas ended in 1934.
The Lehigh Valley Transit Co. was the region’s major trolley system. Its tracks from Emmaus were extended through Lower Macungie, past the East Macungie Hotel, in 1899, and ended at a hotel at the far end of Main Street in Macungie, near the railroad tracks. The Emmaus to Macungie extension ceased operating in 1929.
For generations most residents of Lower Macungie Township lived on a farm. There were a few concentrations of population where schools, stores, hotels and later automobile service stations were located. The largest of these villages was Wescosville. Others were East Texas, East Macungie, Weilersville and Hensingersville. Wescosville had a number of small businesses, and a major printing business developed in East Texas after the 1940s. The most industrialized communities in the township were Alburtis and Lock Ridge, which had iron furnaces and textile mills. They became the Borough of Alburtis in 1913.
The rural aspect of the township changed permanently when housing subdivisions began to sprout new homes in the early 1960s. Ancient Oak, Shepherd Hills and Ancient Oak West were the first of many large new housing developments. High taxes on farmland and the decision in the late 1960s by the Lehigh County Commissioners to place a sewer interceptor along the Little Lehigh Creek, which flows through the center of Lower Macungie Township, precipitated the sale of many farms by retiring farmers to developers and speculators. By 2000, homebuilding had consumed 3,788 acres of land. In 2005 this had increased to 4,475 acres, and in 2007 homes occupied 4,633 acres.
Industrial and commercial development, and new road extensions, have taken place along with residential growth. Large warehouses have been constructed on many acres of prime farmland, but as of 2018 no new proposals for warehouses will be allowed.
Until 2007, Lower Macungie was a Pennsylvania Township of the Second Class, and governed by a three-member Board of Supervisors who were elected for staggered six-year terms. Traditionally, the supervisors did little more than ensure that the township’s roads were maintained in good condition. As state regulations changed and as development increased, the position evolved into a complex one requiring a working knowledge of land use, planning, road building, state and federal regulations, finances, and many other areas. Townships, including Lower Macungie, increasingly relied on professionals to advise the board.
With increases in the population during the 1970s, township officials introduced services that had not been needed before. Among these were sanitary sewers, public water, widened roads, traffic lights, parks for youth sports and general recreation, and a few historic preservation efforts. Zoning and land development ordinances and building codes were enacted, and fees for services such as street lights and trash collection.
In 2007, voters decided that Lower Macungie should become a Township of the First Class. From January 2008 to December 2009 a court-appointed board of five commissioners governed the township. The first elections for Township Commissioners was held in November 2009, when three citizens were elected to four-year terms and two residents were elected to two-year terms.
The township offices on Indian Creek Road were moved in 1991 to their present location on Brookside Road, after the Board of Supervisors purchased the former clubhouse of Brookside Country Club and renovated the interior to serve as offices and meeting rooms. The acquisition gave township residents a municipal swimming pool in addition to significantly greater office space. In 2001, the Township Community Center and Library opened its doors to all township residents.
In 2017, the township provided a space for the Lower Macungie Township Historical Society to create a history museum in the lower portion of the small Camp Olympic barn. Information about the museum, upcoming events, and our local history is available at: http://www.LMTHistory.org.
Some of the information in this brief history of Lower Macungie Township can be read in more detail in A History of Lower Macungie Township (1976; second edition 1996), which can be found in the Lower Macungie Library. It may be purchased at the library and the township offices, and at historical society events.
Bartholomew Center for the Preservation of Lower Macungie Township History
The Bartholomew History Museum is located on the lower level of the Camp Olympic Barn, 3120 South Cedar Crest Blvd. Emmaus, PA 18049. It is open Sundays 1-4 p.m.