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How the Hellers Helped Mold Bethlehem

Although the descendants of patriarch Christopher Heller are most closely associated with the Saucon Valley and its history, they also helped shape the modern Christmas City.

Most local history afficianados know that Hellertown was named for the Christopher Heller family, who emigrated from Germany and arrived in America in 1738. His second and third sons, Simon and Michael, eventually secured much acreage on both sides of the Saucon Creek. Today this land forms a portion of Hellertown and Lower Saucon Township. Much has been written about Simon and Michael, but not about Jacob, Simon's third child. His tale is also remarkable.

Born in 1750, he moved with the family to Plainfield Township in 1764, and eventually Simon transferred all 600 acres there to Jacob. Jacob became proprietor of the Post House along the King's Highway near Wind Gap. Later this hotel became known as the Woodley House.

During the Revolutionary War, Jacob captained a company of Rangers along the frontier. He and wife Susanna had 11 children. Both lie buried at Plainfield Church. At the time of his death his land holdings totaled 902 acres.

William John Heller, one of Simon's great-grandsons, led a very noteworthy life also. Born in the town of Bath, Northampton County, he spent his first 16 years here and then moved to Bethlehem. When he was 17, he was hired by Lehigh Valley Bank and spent 18 years employed by the bank. In 1904, while still a banker, he entered the real estate business with partner, H.A. Foering, headmaster of Bethlehem Preparatory School. During his real estate career and after resigning from the bank, Heller became the leading real estate agent in both Lehigh and Northampton counties.

He became a civic leader and Republican politician, and as a city councilman urged others to consolidate Bethlehem and South Bethlehem, which occurred in 1917. Next, he was in charge of annexing part of Lower Saucon Township to the city. Who was an important factor in the construction of the Minsi Trail Bridge? Why, it was William Heller. While chairman of the Bethlehem Hotel Corporation, Hotel Bethlehem was built at a cost of $1.25 million. By 1926, he had become director of Lehigh Valley National Bank, the Bethlehem Securities Company, the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce and also president of the Melrose Land Company and the Bethlehem Cemetery.

Heller was an active member of the Bethlehem Club, the Rotary Club, Minsi Lodge No. 733, Free and Accepted Masons, Sons of the American Revolution, Northampton County Historical Society and the Moravian Historical Society. Perhaps all his success and activity prevented him from having a family such as his Heller ancestors.

The next time I cross the Minsi Trail Bridge or drive past Hotel Bethlehem I will be reminded of William Heller. As a child in the late 1940s, I was afraid of that bridge due to being able to see through the steel construction and viewing the weak side railings. Often nightmares occurred when the family car was left hanging from the bridge after colliding with the trolley car that crossed it. As an Ursinus College student, during my first summer I was turned down after applying for a job at Hotel Bethlehem and therefore became a volunteer employee at a church camp where I met my first wife, with only three good results—Chris, Lori and Andrew, all parents of my seven beloved grandchildren. Thanks, Mr. Heller and Mr. Heller and Mr. Heller and Mr. Heller, etc. It's a life irony that I am spending my last years in, of all places, Hellertown. Oh well, as the adage goes, "If you can't beat them, join them." As my grandpa offered the New Year's toast, he always said, "Here's to those who wish me well and those that don't can go to Hellertown."

Karen Samuels September 14, 2013 at 02:40 PM
Thank you for this interesting story on the Hellers. I wonder why Simon Heller left Hellertown after he built the gristmill? Perhaps he wanted a larger parcel of land.

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