Lebanon County was formed in 1813 out of portions of Dauphin and Lancaster counties and was named for the central township. Like many Germansettled districts, its founders chose a name associated with the Holy Lands for the principal city. Geographically it is a continuation of Berks County as it is framed on the north by the Blue Mountain and on the south by the South Mountain. Culturally and visually it is an extension of the Kittatinny Valley that comprises the core of Berks County and shares with it the polychromy of brown buildings to the southeast (Cornwall), light-hued limestone buildings in the center (Millbach, Mount Pleasant), darker buildings to the north, and brick in the industrial area. Also like Berks County, it was settled in the great wave of German migration and the most obvious settlement patterns are the German farmsteads with their immense barns and silos regularly spaced across the landscape interspersed with small trading villages.
The German migration is evident in the place names of the Kittatinny Valley with a mix of surnames, biblical names, and German places. English (Cornwall) and Scots names (Campbelltown) are found mainly along the mountain edges and the later routes of the railroads. With few large creeks to power industry and a location in the less commercially developed zone between the state capital on the Susquehanna River and the industrial centers of Lancaster and Reading, Lebanon County has retained the architecture of its agricultural heritage to an astonishing extent. In large measure this was a by-product of two forces, the German settlers, many Amish and Mennonite, and their religious beliefs that have kept them, like their more tourist-afflicted counterparts in Lancaster County, on the land and avoiding modern technology with a road system that linked earlier county seats—the Lancaster Pike to Lancaster and the Germantown and Ridge pikes to Reading. Hence, principal roads pass through corners of Lebanon County but do not connect to its principal towns. Tellingly, the county's defining architecture and town planning are from the early German period and two settlements, Millbach and Schaefferstown, convey with astonishing intensity the continuing force of German building forms in the New World. These towns and Lebanon city share a cluster of similar late-eighteenth-century Lutheran churches that were each updated a century later with comparable windows and woodwork. They attest to an underlying regional cohesiveness.
Despite its generally agricultural character, Lebanon County was affected by the vast railroad-born tide of the industrial age. With iron ore, timber, and lime in close proximity, Cornwall became an important iron-manufacturing center. Its miners’ village ( LE4) and massive ironmaster's house ( LE3) are typical of similar operations across southeast Pennsylvania, recalling the Welsh landscape depicted in John Ford's film How Green Was My Valley (1941). Also typical is the contrast between the miners’ village and the sophistication of the owners’ houses. Despite being a part of the industrial world and connected to the wider region by the railroads, the surrounding hilly and agricultural terrain sets these places apart and limits their regional impact. This region has remained rooted in the hierarchical culture of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century plantations and looks backward as much as forward.
Cornwall has added importance as the base of operations of the Coleman family, owners of the Cornwall Iron Works, who were the county's principal architectural patrons. In both their home center in Cornwall and their business center in Lebanon, they commissioned important architects from across the northeastern United States: for their domestic buildings, G. W. and W. D. Hewitt and W. Bleddyn Powell (see LE3), and McKim, Mead and White ( LE6); for churches, John McArthur Jr. ( LE5) and Henry M. Congdon ( LE11); and for railroad stations, again the Hewitt brothers ( LE9). The Colemans were as significant an aesthetic force in the county as were the Brooke family in Berks County and the Lukens/Huston family in Chester County. Iron is clearly the story of architectural patronage before the Civil War and, with railroads, continued as an important force until the end of the nineteenth century. The northern tier of the county remains largely agricultural with the notable exception of the twentieth-century military base at Fort Indiantown Gap that straddles one of the principal cuts in the Blue Mountain.
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