South Bethlehem's first brewery
In the brief 10 years between 1855 and 1865 when the village of Bethlehem South officially became the Borough of South Bethlehem, many immigrants earned their livelihood as coal miners, or iron and steelworkers. Joseph Rennig was not one of them.
In 1859, Rennig, 59, emigrated from Baden, Germany and arrived in Hanover Township with his wife, Anna Marguerita (Knopf) and their children, Elizabeth, George, Catherine, Charles and Henry. By 1860, Rennig had acquired a parcel of land where Locust (now Taylor Street) ended on the northern slope of South Mountain, just a few yards from a stream of pure mountain spring water. From this water source, Rennig situated a brewery and hotel, "Die Alte Brauerie," the Lehigh Mountain Brewery.
By the early 1860s, Rennig's brewery was frequented by local iron and railroad workers and was popular for its beer garden atmosphere. Not until the middle of that decade did Rennig witness the systematic removal of native trees from the nearby 75-acre parcel owned by a railroad man named Asa Packer.
Native oak and chestnut trees were cut and logged down the mountain and quickly milled into railroad ties. Within the next 40 years, Rennig witnessed nine buildings occupy the Lehigh University's "parkland" campus – Saucon Hall (1865); Packer Hall and the President's House (1868); Linderman Library (1877); Porter's Lodge (1879); the Chemistry Laboratory and the Gymnasium (1883); Packer Memorial Church (1887); and the Physics Laboratory (1892).
Meanwhile, Rennig's Lehigh Mountain Brewery became a local success – Rennig's son Charles opened a bakery and eventually a hotel and saloon on the corner of New and Church (now Morton) streets, and an alley between New and Webster streets was named after Rennig. Meanwhile, thirsty patrons who ventured up the mountain enjoyed freshly brewed beer in the hotel's Trinkhalle, where dining and dancing often spilled outside into the beer garden.
In 1880, while Lehigh Mountain Brewery enjoyed its beer-brewing reputation, it also made the newspapers. Shortly after 11 a.m. April 27, a "quick and sudden" fire flared from a chimney flue and spread to the garret of the hotel. As black smoke billowed atop the mountain, terrified residents sounded firehouse alarms around South Bethlehem.
Reliance, Protection and Nisky Hill firehouses responded with hoses and firefighting apparatus hauled up Locust Street by teams of horses. When they found their hoses useless, firefighters formed a bucket brigade and tapped water from the nearby creek.
After a tall chimney and a portion of an exterior wall were pulled down, the firemen were certain they extinguished the blaze; by early afternoon, they regrouped and collected their buckets. In appreciation for their valor, Rennig rewarded the firemen with mugs of fresh cold beer, sharp cheese, pretzels, pumpernickel and rye bread – hotel foodstuffs unscathed by the fire.
In the 1880s, not only did Rennig's brewery cater to local townsfolk but also to Lehigh's book-weary students. After chapel, prayer and laboratory work, students took a well-worn path from Packer Hall to "Die Alte Brauerie." Surprisingly, Lehigh President Robert Lamberton never showed any objection to this student activity. With only a few pennies left from their allowances, students enjoyed beer and the bohemian atmosphere while conducting meetings in the back rooms.
During the 1884 semester, Lehigh student Richard Harding Davis, his brother Charles and fellow others frequented the brewery, where they attended meetings on Saturday nights. R.H. Davis discussed ways of dramatizing their experiences by acting out farces or musical comedies. As the group munched on sweitzer cheese and mustard chased by mugs of fresh beer, the group unanimously agreed to name their club "The Mustard and Cheese."
A year later, a "Melo-Drama" and "A Romantic Extravaganza" were featured in the large dining hall at the Sun Inn on Main Street. Since Lehigh excluded female students, men performed the female roles. In 2010, the "Mustard and Cheese Drama Society" celebrated its 125th anniversary.
In contrast to the verdant parkland civility of Lehigh University's campus, South Bethlehem was largely a tough, working-class industrial town. What became synonymous with South Bethlehem drinkers that made its way into the twentieth century was the "bar room and saloon brawl" – fistfights usually incited by too many beers.
The Bethlehem Times ran a blurb in the "South Bethlehem News" column in spring of 1892, titled, "A Red Letter Day Indeed." "There was a dance at the Lehigh Mountain Brewery last night. No fight occurred. Said an old habitué [patron], 'It was the first time I ever seen it going off without there being a scrap.'"
In 1893, a depression devastated the country and hurled many into financial ruin, including local commerce, business and Lehigh University. At that time, the Lehigh Mountain Brewery was registered in the name of Christiana, the wife of George Rennig.
In the late 1890s, Lehigh University saw an increase in enrollment but was faced with a housing shortage for its out-of-town students. Students were housed in every available space on campus. They lived in fraternity houses in Fountain Hill or had to endure inflated prices in rooming houses or rented rooms in town.
Christiana Rennig met with a Lehigh University attorney who expressed an interest in acquiring the brewery buildings and property. Once Lehigh owned the buildings, the brewery was razed but the hotel was retained. Lehigh hired architect A.W. Leh to design the interior space – by 1912, the dormitory was completely occupied.
In 1916, Lehigh students petitioned the university to change the name of their dormitory from "Die Alte Brauerie" to Price Hall in honor of Henry R. Price, president of the Board of Trustees – an indication that students preferred academics to alcohol. Now the home of the Sociology and Anthropology departments of Lehigh University, Price Hall has a surviving legacy of being the first brewery established by Joseph and son George Rennig on Taylor Street in South Bethlehem.