Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.
A view of the Midway in the early 20th century. The Great Allentown Fair.

A view of the Midway in the early 20th century. The Great Allentown Fair.

Described as an “enterprising Pennsylvania Dutchman” by Governor Samuel Whitaker Pennypacker, the Honorable Jeremiah Roth (1833–1907) was best known as the father of the Great Allentown Fair. Though he was not a founding member of the fair, “Uncle Jerry,” as most people affectionately called him, worked tirelessly during the 23 years he was at its helm to ensure its success and promote its growth. His dedication to the Lehigh County Agriculture Society and its fair was so apparent that his name at that time became synonymous with the event. His work yielded great results. By the turn of the 20th century, the fair was considered the most successful agricultural festival in the state. In spite of the fact that Roth’s efforts were largely responsible for bringing the fair into its Golden Age and making it what it is today, he is relatively unknown, even in the city of Allentown, Lehigh County, where he lived most of his life. This is ironic because he was eulogized in the Morning Call of January 23, 1907, as “perhaps Allentown’s best known citizen both at home and abroad.” He was not only president of the Lehigh County Agricultural Society for nearly a quarter of a century, but also a state legislator, successful entrepreneur, internationally known cattle and horse breeder, and pioneer in the field of electricity.

Jeremiah Roth was born on May 20, 1833, in Lower Saucon Township, Northampton County. He was the son of Pennsylvania Dutch farmer Jesse Roth and Catharine Gauff and the oldest of four children. Educated in township schools and at Bethlehem High, he was a teacher for three years after he graduated. That pursuit was brief, however, and he began a lifetime career in farming. Roth first worked on his father’s farm in Lower Saucon Township. Eight years later, he married Angelina S. Mink at the Jerusalem Church in Salisbury, and the couple moved into his in-laws’ house where he took over the management of the farm. In 1864 Roth was elected as a justice of the peace, beginning a career in public service. That same year, his daughter Ida was born.

Jeremiah “Uncle Jerry” Roth.

Jeremiah “Uncle Jerry” Roth. Courtesy  Rick R. Roth

When the Roths and Minks moved to Allentown in 1866, the majority of its inhabitants spoke Pennsylvania German. The streets were unpaved and cattle roamed free. The families lived in adjacent houses on Hamilton Street near what was then the edge of town. Though there is no record of what work Jeremiah did during the 10 years between censuses, he had by 1870 increased his estate by 20 times since his marriage, making him a wealthy man. The first listings in the Allentown city directories show him as a drover and cattle broker, so it is possible that he made his fortune selling cattle after the Civil War, when there was a great demand for beef on the East Coast.

On April 1, 1873, Roth made the first of his large land purchases when he bought the property across the street from his home. He then moved his family into a large brick townhouse on the corner. A month later, his first son Oliver was born. Roth remained active in local politics and was elected a member of the Allentown City Council in 1874. In May 1876 his second son Clinton was born. Roth continued as a drover and cattle broker throughout the decade.

In the four years after the financial panic of 1873, Jesse M. Line, another Allentown resident and businessman, was forced to sell off a good deal of the real estate he bought up when his financial endeavors (including the First National Bank of Allentown that he helped to organize) were flourishing. On July 28, 1877, Roth bought one of Line’s estates, a farm of nearly 200 acres. This was to become the famous Allentown Stock Farm. It was located to the northwest of the city in South Whitehall Township and could be reached by what was known both as the Tenth Street Road and Wennersville State Pike. Roth turned this farm into a showcase, remodeling and expanding the house and constructing a variety of outbuildings adapted to stock-raising, including a barn that measured 50 by 208 feet and housed 125 head of cattle and several horses.

On his farm, Roth’s specialty was raising stock, including cattle, horses and Shropshire Down sheep. He became a nationally known breeder of Jersey and Holstein cattle. Jersey was his favorite breed, and he was said to have had one of the finest herds in the state, for which he won many prizes. As a breeder, Roth traveled frequently to other states and occasionally went as far away as Europe to acquire stock. Though he did have cattle sales on the Allentown Stock Farm, he sometimes teamed up with Tilghman S. Cooper to sell stock in Coopersburg, Lehigh County. The Cooper Cattle Sales were famous and brought clients from miles around who came by horse, train, trolley and tally-ho, horse-drawn carriages that transported as many as 30 people at a time. The railroad sidings hosted private train cars of buyers who lived there with their servants during the sales. When Roth and Cooper had separate sales, they ran special trolleys from one farm to another for easy transportation.

Aerial view of the Allentown Fairgrounds in 1901. Author's Collection.

Aerial view of the Allentown Fairgrounds in 1901. Author’s Collection.

One of Roth’s most famous acquisitions was a prize bull named Black Prince of Linden. Black Prince had been bred and raised by Cooper at the Linden Grove Stock Farm in Coopersburg. When the bull was two years old, he was sold to Samuel M. Shoemaker of Baltimore for $15,000 (approximately $300,000 today), which was the largest sum of money anyone had ever paid for a bull up to that point. Roth paid only a tenth of that price when he bought Black Prince two years later.

Though very successful in raising cattle and sheep, Roth was especially well-known for the draft horses he raised and handled. As one of the first people to bring western horses to eastern buyers, he also made trips to the West to acquire horses. He built the Allentown Horse Bazaar, running it for many years and handling thousands of horses while controlling the horse business in the Lehigh Valley. He was also the long-time exclusive supplier of horses for pulling the engines of the New York City Fire Department, as well as many other eastern city fire companies.

In March 1894 Roth began to use electricity to operate the machinery on his stock farm. He got his power from the circuit of the Allentown & Lehigh Traction Company, which made him, according to sources from the era, the first person in the country to use power from a railway circuit and the second person in the United States to use electricity of any sort on a farm, the first residing in Catasauqua, Lehigh County. Roth installed poles and a specifically constructed 3,300-foot wire. This connected to a 15-horsepower direct current motor, located in a building behind the barn, which was used to thresh and grind grain, shell corn, saw wood and pump water. He also used the electricity to illuminate his large barn with incandescent lamps.

In 1884 Roth was elected president of the Lehigh County Agricultural Society and served in that position for the next 23 years until his death. It was through his efforts that the location of the Great Allentown Fair changed in 1889 from the old grounds on Sixth and Liberty Streets to its present, much larger location between Liberty and Chew Streets. The new site was on the western edge of town and was three times larger than the previous site. The new grounds included a grove of trees kept free of concession with seats and fountains to enjoy, plus a band shell where the Allentown Band and other local groups would play. Some of the buildings from the old site, such as Mechanics’ Hall, Floral Hall and the refreshment stand, were moved to the new site and others were constructed there, including the Main Exhibition Building and Agricultural Hall. The latter structure, also known as Horticultural Hall, was built in the shape of a Roman cross with many large windows on all sides. It had 16,000 square feet of space and, according to Greater America of September 1898, “sufficient light, show cases, and other permanent fixtures conveniently arranged for exhibiting needle-work, fine arts, and miscellaneous displays.” The site also included a carriage house, poultry house, stables for sheep, horses and cattle, and nearly 300 box stalls for trotting thoroughbred horses.

Dan Patch, known as the “greatest harness horse in the history of the two-wheel sulky,” raced at the fair in September 1906, shortly after setting his yet unbroken record for the mile. The Great Allentown Fair.

Dan Patch, known as the “greatest harness horse in the history of the two-wheel sulky,” raced at the fair in September 1906, shortly after setting his yet unbroken record for the mile. The Great Allentown Fair.

In the middle of the grounds was its biggest attraction, the half-mile oval racetrack – twice as long as the one on the old site – and a grandstand that seated more than 6,000 people. During the Golden Age of the fair, which occurred after its move to the new site, thousands of people came to watch the harness races. Results were reported in newspapers across the country. Celebrity horses came to race at the fair, including the famous Dan Patch, dubbed the World’s Champion Harness Horse.

Presiding over all this was Jeremiah Roth. During the quarter century that the fair was under his leadership, it grew from receipts of $8,660 to $48,165. Uncle Jerry, standing tall and speaking in a heavy Pennsylvania German accent, opened the fair every year in his top hat and morning coat. He was enough of a celebrity to be featured on a postcard from the fair in his hat and bow tie with Dan Patch. Even 50 years after his death, in his granddaughter’s obituary, he was still referred to as the father of the Great Allentown Fair.

In 1886, at the age of 53, Roth was elected to the Pennsylvania General Assembly on the Democratic ticket as a representative of Lehigh County. He served in 1887–88 and was later reelected for the terms 1891–92, 1899–1900, 1901–2 and 1903–4. While in the legislature, he served on the committees of agriculture, public institutions, coal and iron. He was a staunch supporter of George A. Jenks (1836–1908), the Democratic nominee for the Pennsylvania seat in the U.S. Senate during the historic fight in 1899 against Republican Matthew Quay (1833–1904). Known for his strong personality, Roth was befriended by many members of the legislature, regardless of their party. As stated in the Allentown Morning Call on January 24, 1907, after his death, “While not an orator, Mr. Roth proved himself to be a faithful and painstaking legislator and his wit and cheerful spirit made him a general favorite on the floor of the house.”

Despite his numerous accomplishments, Uncle Jerry’s personal life was often tragic. In 1876, a year that must have been awash with emotion, Jeremiah’s and Angelina’s fathers died within four days of each other. Sometime later that year Angelina moved out with daughter Ida and infant son Clinton. At this point, Roth was 43 and Angelina was 36. They had been married for 18 years. It seems likely that she waited for the death of her father or father-in-law before she felt the freedom to leave her husband. Perhaps she wanted to take all three children with her, but Jeremiah insisted that Oliver remain behind.

As it was, Angelina only moved across the street to the house where she and Roth originally lived when they moved to Allentown. The house was in her father’s name and was deeded to her and her brother upon his death. The Roths never reconciled and continued to live apart for the rest of their lives. Apparently relations between them did not improve and were contentious enough that six years later on September 18, 1882, Angelina had a formal Article of Separation drawn up to define the terms on which they were living. Because she as a woman had no individual rights while she was still married, she would have benefited the most from having this document drawn up. It stated that they were each entitled to their own properties, which they were unable to claim from each other, and that Angelina would be paid an annuity on a quarterly basis from a mortgage on her husband’s Hamilton Street property. Though she was allowed free access to her children in his house, he needed permission to enter hers to see them and even to speak to her. There is no indication what actions on his or her part brought about the need for such particular details in the agreement. Though they were never divorced, Roth left no mention of her in his will.

In 1889, the new grandstand seated 2,500 people and was soon filled with crowds who came to watch the sulky races. The Great Allentown Fair.

In 1889, the new grandstand seated 2,500 people and was soon filled with crowds who came to watch the sulky races. The Great Allentown Fair.

Oliver continued to live and work with his father for most of his short life, except for a few years during his brief marriage. Clinton, on the other hand, remained separate from his father, choosing not to follow in any of his pursuits, with the exception of two years when he worked on the farm.

One tragedy followed another after Angelina’s departure. Their daughter Ida died at 21, leaving behind her husband and two-year-old son. Oliver married in 1893, but his wife died of tuberculosis only eight years afterward. Oliver died of the same disease four years later, leaving a 12-year-old daughter. When Jeremiah died on January 22, 1907, at the age of 74, he had outlived a daughter and son and had been separated from his wife for 21 years.

Throughout his long life, Roth contributed to the growth of Allentown and the Lehigh Valley. His farming made him wealthy and he used it to invest in the city. At the time of his death, he held shares in the Thomas Iron Company, the New Street Bridge Company, the Allentown Steam Heating Company, the Lehigh Valley Transit Company, and the H.F. Schmick New Power Company. He was the director of the Second National Bank for many years and also invested in the Citizens Deposit and Trust Company, the Lehigh Valley Trust and Safe Deposit Company, and the Allentown National Bank. In addition to holding shares in the Lehigh County Agricultural Society, he had stock in the Northampton County Agricultural Society and the Kutztown Fair Association. Though he was not the wealthiest citizen of Allentown at the time, his investments helped Allentown as it grew from a small borough to one of the largest cities in Pennsylvania.

A view of the Midway in the early 20th century.

A view of the Midway in the early 20th century. The Great Allentown Fair.

Except for a short strip of road that bears his surname, there is no memorial to Uncle Jerry in Allentown. His farmhouse remains as a small reminder of the huge farm of which it was a part. Across the valley, however, the Great Allentown Fair continues to flourish every year, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors. Today it is one of the largest fairs in Pennsylvania – a living, breathing, constantly changing memorial to Roth’s dedication, hard work and forward thinking.


The Great Allentown Fair Today

In 2015 the Great Allentown Fair will open for its 163rd year. “It takes dedicated, impassioned individuals to keep an annual event relevant for so long,” according to the fair’s marketing director, Bonnie Brosious. “Like the Allentown Fair founders before him and the organizers since, Jerry Roth was an innovator for his time.”

Agriculture and livestock continue to be the central focus of the fair, with judging contests ranging from canned goods and cake decorating to lambs and market steer. In addition to age-old competitions, quirky newer ones have emerged, such as the Chopped Challenge, Cupcake Wars, the Senior Spelling Bee and the Social Media Contest.

The Great Allentown Fair.

The Midway remains a key draw of the Great Allentown Fair. Courtesy of the Great Allentown Fair.

Nowadays national celebrities are the entertainers. Since the 1950s the grandstand shows have featured such big-name performers as Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians, Roy Rogers, Liberace, Johnny Carson, the Supremes, Johnny Cash, Steve Martin, Rod Stewart, Alabama, Run D.M.C., Metallica, the Backstreet Boys, Kelly Clarkson, Bruno Mars and Pitbull. This year will host, among others, country star Carrie Underwood.

The Lehigh County Agricultural Society continues to maintain and improve the fairgrounds. The Midway, with its rides, remains a key draw for both young and old, with all-day wristbands available for the true die-hards. As popular as its other attractions, the food available for purchase includes such local favorites as funnel cake and cheesesteaks, as well as a wide variety of international foods.

The 2015 fair will be held September 1-7 at the Allentown Fairgrounds. For tickets and information, visit allentownfairpa.org.


Simonee deFuccio, an Amherst College graduate, lives in the farmhouse of the Allentown Stock Farm. She has done extensive research, writing and lecturing on Hon. Jeremiah Roth.