Bethlehem Press

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Diehl's Harness Factory, taken in 1915 by the G. A. Conradi Studio of Bethlehem. Diehl's Harness Factory, taken in 1915 by the G. A. Conradi Studio of Bethlehem.
Diehl's harness factory Diehl's harness factory

Diehl's harness factory

Wednesday, September 5, 2012 by The Press in Local News

The photograph accompanying this column was taken on March 22, 1915, in front of 33 West Broad St. It shows the Diehl Saddler Factory and on the right a sliver of the Lorenz Theatre and a young boy holding a wheel. The pile of bricks out front and the boarded-up windows indicate the building was under construction. The Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority demolished these buildings for redevelopment in the 1970s. However, the site sat empty for several years. It eventually became a Park & Shop until the Liberty Center was built on the site in 2001.

It can be difficult to research an old photograph of an ordinary street scene, but with census reports and city directories we can learn a little about the people and their use of the buildings. By 1893, Richard J. Diehl had set up his harness factory in the three-story building pictured below. He was one of five harness makers in Bethlehem at the time.

Richard's parents, Benjamin and Judith Diehl, owned a farm in Lowhill, Lehigh County. His father also was the local post rider. As Richard had 15 siblings, it was unlikely he would be able to support himself working on the family farm. He apprenticed as a saddler until his early 20s at his uncle Thomas Diehl's saddle shop on Main Street, Bethlehem. Next Richard worked as a saddler in Lyons Station, Berks County, where he met his wife, Emeline Bachman. Emeline was also from a large farming family.

Their plan to set up their own store in Bethlehem would place them far from farm life and into a bustling city. They lived around the corner from the shop on New Street and had a son, Willis, in 1875, then a daughter, Mary, in 1880. Willis worked alongside his father, first as a saddler then as a clerk. Mary married Thomas Leopold Weir, who was one of five boarders in 1910 residing in the Diehl home. He worked as a machinist for Bethlehem Steel. The couple had two daughters.

Initially the harness business was a lucrative business for the Diehls. Harnesses have been made for more than 6,000 years and each harness is designed for the specific job a horse will do. Bethlehem had three harness makers working in the village as early as 1759.

Harnesses, an arrangement of leather straps, usually fall into three main categories. A horse wearing a ridge type collar harness could do the work of 50 men on a farm field. The breast collar harness, which rests above the horse's shoulders, is used with lightweight carriages. The full collar is generally used with heavier carriages and wagons.

In the 1920s, the demand for harnesses dwindled when Model T cars became wildly popular. Almost everyone could afford the average price of $300. Richard sold his business equipment and stock to George J. Guth and Harry S. Guth in 1923. Their business was known as Guths Luggage and Leather Goods. Willis converted the family Broad Street property into an apartment house called "Diehl Apartments" and lived there until his death in 1959. Richard and Emeline both passed away in 1931. Grave markers for the entire family can be found in the Nisky Hill Cemetery.

The sliver of the Lorenz Theatre we see in the photograph may have been the reason the photographer was taking pictures of the spot. The theater had just opened in 1915 to bring popular silent movies to town. An Estey Opus 1407 organ was installed in the new theater at a cost of $3,000. The theater offered one screen and 1,100 seats. The patrons usually left through the emergency exit doors to Guetter's Alley. Teenagers were known to hang around the exits waiting for the doors to open at the end of a show. Unbeknownst to the theater manager, they would then slip inside for the next show.

Although the theater was plain and small, unlike the Boyd Theater a block away, there was enough room for the Torpey's Lorenz Orchestra to play the classics. The theater's name was changed to the Nile in 1925. The movie advertised on the sign, "Man From The Sea" was a short film starring Kempton Greene and Earl Metcalfe and released in 1914.