Banner photo of Larry Eugene Meredith, Ronald Tipton and Patrick Flynn, 2017.

The good times are memories
In the drinking of elder men...

-- Larry E.
Time II

Friday, September 30, 2011

From the Top of the Hill...

There are mansions top the hill. This one sits the further up, perhaps not so deservingly so. It was the home of Harry Packer; Judge Harry Eldred Packer more exactly. Harry Packer was the youngest son, the unexpected son, the baby, the only child born when the family was secure in wealth so he was raised without knowing any deprivation or the modest means his older siblings had known.

The obituaries of his day speak highly of him at his death, a man who accomplished so much as a young man, Associate Judge of Carbon County and President of the Lehigh Railroad, as well as Board Member of Lehigh University. All positions he had stepped into after the death of his father as he had stepped into that mansion on the hill his father had built for him. They talk of his long and painful illness, his death from the internal hemorrhage brought about by its complications.

A month before his death, The New York Times reported on his illness, how he was confined to that mansion on the hill and attended by, of all names, Dr. Pepper. Dr. William Pepper, Provost of the University of Pennsylvania assured everyone of the ultimate recovery of the young judge. But at 2:00 AM on the morning of February 2, 1884 Judge Harry Packer packed it in. It was mentioned in the Times that the judge suffered from an affection of the liver. What Harry Parker suffered from were the indulgences and indiscretions he chose to adapt as the spoiled baby of the wealthiest family of Pennsylvania. What he died of, at the age of 34, was cirrhosis of the liver. Harry Packer would have been better off if he had drank Dr.Pepper rather than being examined by him.

The Harry Packer mansion stands today as a bed and breakfast where they hold murder-mystery audience participation plays.

Just a bit down the road from it is the mansion of his father, Asa Packer (pictured left), a rags-to-riches industrialist, who started out building canal boats and ended up a millionaire. Along the way he developed boatyards, construction companies and mining industries, as well as the Lehigh Valley Railroad and Lehigh University.

The Asa Packer Mansion sits high atop his beloved town of Mauch Chunk, now known as Jim Thorpe, PA. He could sit out on the front porch and gaze over much of what he had created, the railroad, the homes of his workers, the town and also the church he faithfully attended, St. Marks Episcopal.

Asa had not come to Mauch Chunk as an Episcopalian. He was a Methodist when he came. He took his family to a church in town and they sat down in a pew to await the service. He was embarrassed when he and his family were told to move because he had sat in a rented pew. He swore he would never go back to such a place of hypocrisy, and he didn't.

The Little Woman and I climbed the multitude of steps and stairs to take the tour of the Asa Packer Mansion. Believe me, their are a lot of steps from the streets of town to the front porch of the mansion. The town is in The Poconos and it snakes through the mountains like a low-lying river. You do a lot of steep walking, as I suppose one should expect when in a burg once known as "The Switzerland of America".

We paused for rest now and agin. I have grown use to scaling mounts from my morning walks through the Piedmonts, but inclines are difficult for the Little Woman, especially since she throw her one knee out of whack trying to keep up with our military trained daughter on a country hike a few months back.

This is the view as you approach the midpoint up the yard of the mansion. The tall pointy building in the center is St. Marks. Some of the brick buildings directly below are part of the Carbon County Courthouse.

The beginning point of the enjoyable tour back into the 19th Century life of the prominent begins on the porch, relaxing in a chair awaiting the guide.

You are led around to the left side and enter the building through Asa's office.

The mansion is not a restoration, but a preservation. What you see is how it was, at least at the time it was willed to Mauch Chunk in 1912 by his daughter Mary Hannah.

The Packers, Asa and his wife, a farmer's daughter named Sarah Minerva Blakslee, had seven children, most of whom died young. Daughters Catherine, Malvina and Gerdrude all died before the age of two. We already saw that Harry Packer, the last born died at age 34. The oldest son, Robert died at 40 or 41. Lucy, the first born was the only child to produce any grandchildren before she also died at age 40 or 41. Mary, who was the third child lived to be 73, the only offspring to live into the 20th Century.

All her siblings having died by 1884 left Mary as the heir to the Mansion and property of Asa. But Mary had a slight problem because of the thinking of the times, which simply put, did not allow a single woman to own property. Miss Packer was not about to let such a silly detail take this mansion away from her. She had a simple solution, she got married to a long time friend, a conductor on her father's railroad named Cummings. This marriage was preceded by one of our nations earliest prenuptial agreements. After a couple years, Cummings went his way with a tidy sum of cash in his pocket and Mary Hannah Packer Cummings sat in her home atop the hill.

Since she produced no children from this arrangement, upon her death her will deeded the Mansion and all its furnishings to the Borough as a memorial to her father's accomplishments. The town accepted the Mansion, but didn't know what to do with it (we all know how ahead-thinking politicians are) and so it sat there gathering dust for forty-two years. In 1954, just before the third wife of Jim Thorpe made her appearance that changed the name of the town, the Bear Mountain Lions Club asked to sponsor the Mansion as a community project and they opened its doors to the public on Memorial Day, 1956. [Gee, the Bear Mountain Lions, all they need is the wolf and they would be Cub Scout ranks. Of course, by 1956 when the Mansion opened as a museum, they were known as the Jim Thorpe Lions Club.]

Although it is a mansion, the rooms had a more homey feel to them than other museums of the rich we've been through. There certainly were many things in the furnishings or the imported wall papers, the chandeliers or the other accouterments that speak of wealth, yes, things people of that era put in their homes as status symbols. Still, for a time the Packers did not employee the staff of servants one would expect those of their financial level to retain. For a long time Sarah Minerva Blakslee Packer did all the cooking herself. She was a farmer's daughter and these type of things were in her blood. When first married the Packers attempted to eek out a living from the soil, but after four years they found themselves as poor as ever and he set out to find employment on coal barges. They were in their fifties when they built the mansion at a cost of $14,000. (Yes, 14 and only three zeros.)

I have not found any unkind word or scandal attached to Asa Packer or his wife. Perhaps his humble beginning reflected throughout his life even after he gained his fortune. At his death his estate was valued at $54,500,000, and remember he died in 1879. Certainly in today's money he would be a billionaire.

Although Asa Packer was a decent man and philanthropist (and Lehigh University charged no tuition the first 26 years of its existence), there were other rich and powerful men in the Carbon County coal towns not so generous to others and those who worked for many of these wealthy barons lived a life far below the top of the hill where the Packer's dwelt.

That is another part of the town of Jim Thorpe we will soon visit.

All photos by the author except:

The two mansion rooms (you are not allowed to photograph inside the house).
The oval photo of Mary Hannah Packer Cummings (from the Asa Packer Mansion Association).
The painting of Asa Packer by DeWitt Clinton Boutelle, 1873.

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