History

Now Very Valuable Site, Land Near Dorney Park, Once County Poor Farm

Published article on May 24, 1992 | by FRANK WHELAN, The Morning Call

The 46 acres in South Whitehall Township that Lehigh County has agreed to sell to Cedar Fair LP, the Ohio company that wants to buy Dorney Park, is possibly the most argued-over piece of ground in local history.
But the property’s past is as interesting as the current dispute.

The land was part of a 254-acre property purchased by Lehigh County in the 19th century for the farm attached to the County Home, also known as the Poor House or the Poor Farm. The predecessor of what today is called Cedarbrook was begun in the 1840s, out of crying need to house the growing population of the poor, aged and insane.

As early as 1831 a group of local citizens petitioned the state Legislature for a Lehigh County poor house. But opposition to paying taxes to support paupers was strong. The measure failed. Many people felt that tending to the poor was the duty of the church, not the state.

But in the 1840s a business depression had overwhelmed the simple charity system of the day. It made the need for the “House of Employment and Support of the Poor of Lehigh County,” as it was called in the old records, all too clear. In a special referendum, the measure to establish a poor house passed with 1,200-vote majority.

A special commission of 28 members was set up by the county commissioners to pick an appropriate site. From all over Lehigh County came offers of land for sale.

On Nov. 18, 1844, the commissioners gathered at Henry Guth’s log tavern in Guthsville. They had to weed through a pile that included 28 possible properties.

For example, Peter Musselman had 130 acres in Upper Macungie Township he thought would be just right. Edward Kern, Owen Kern and Joseph Wittman suggested that the 300 acres they owned jointly in North Whitehall was an ideal spot. Even innkeeper Henry Guth had a little property of 246 acres in South Whitehall that he was willing to part with at $90 an acre.

But the commissioners were quickly impressed with the farms of Solomon, David and Charles Mertz. Solomon and David wanted $10,000 for the grist mill along with $90 an acre for the 94 acres in South Whitehall Township they owned jointly.

Charles Mertz was selling his adjoining 146 acres for $100 an acre. The 1914 Anniversary History of Lehigh County says the property was 106 acres, but the Poor House minute book for the 1840s clearly lists Charles Mertz’s holdings as 146 acres.

The Mertz boys were well known in the county. Their recently deceased father was Gen. Henry Mertz, a militia officer who had served in the War of 1812. He never heard a shot fired in anger; the war was over before the local units got in the fight. But Gen. Mertz, in the words of historian Charles Rhoads Roberts, had a “stately bearing and commanding influence.”

Solomon Mertz had recently married Lucy Ann Butz of Illinois and planned to move to the Midwest. David was a minister, apparently with no interest in farming. The deed for Charles Mertz’s property suggests some financial reverses made it advisable to sell his land.

On Dec. 3, 1844, the commissioners gathered at the Lehigh County Courthouse for a preliminary vote. Henry Guth, John Ritter, the Mertz brothers and William Wenner, a farmer, were the finalists.

The next day the final vote was taken. The Mertzes were the clear winners with 22 of the 28 of the commission members voting in their favor.

Solomon Mertz made $8,400 on his tract and headed west. It’s not known how much David Mertz got. But the brothers did not get the $10,000 they wanted for the grist mill.

Charles Mertz got his $100 an acre, for a total of $14,600. With part of the money, he brought a nearby farm on Cedar Creek. In 1858 Mertz purchased some building lots and laid out what would become the village of Cetronia.

The county purchased an additional tract for the farm in 1857 from Solomon Dorney, a neighboring farmer who would become the founder of Dorney Park, then a park and fish hatchery. This gave the Lehigh County home a 254-acre farm at a total cost of $27,662.

The purpose of the farm was to make the County Home self-supporting. Its directors took the term “house of employment” quite literally. The poor house rules declared, “The men shall be employed in husbandry, gardening, etc., except when weather is too inclement.” Women’s tasks included cooking, carding wool, spinning and taking care of children.

An article on the County Home in the 1990 issue of the Lehigh County Historical Society Proceedings cites old records about the farm’s productivity. By 1852, the pauper workers were turning out 16,446 pounds of beef, 872 pounds of veal and 6,777 pounds of pork. In 1853 the farm produced 70 bushels of turnips, 40 bushels of red beets, 3,600 heads of cabbage, 3-1/2 hogsheads of sauerkraut, 1,050 pounds of lard and 1,715 pounds of butter. Any food that was not used at the County Home was sold to the public.

Life at this institution was a mixture of the bucolic and the dreadful. The old minute book of the home preserved at the Lehigh County Historical Society tells tales worthy of Charles Dickens.

In the 1840s and 50s, those among the poor who broke the rules were threatened with meals of bread and water. The criminally insane were at times chained to the floor.

But records show that the average inhabitant of the poor house did not stay long. Often those without money found a way to leave, either through relatives or by promise of a job.

By the 1930s, Lehigh County had begun to phase out the poor farm. For good or ill, the social welfare system had changed. The poor farm no longer had a place in a modern world.

The county has sold parts of the original poor farm land twice in the past, but it took the proposed sale of Dorney Park in 1992 to bring this obscure piece of property more attention than it has received in almost 150 years.

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