Arts & Life

A Day in Downtown Lebanon

Written by Christen Croley | Mar 25, 2011 5:59 PM

From the corner of Cumberland and Ninth Streets, the pulse of downtown Lebanon meanders through the maze of one-way avenues and unravels two miles west on the grassy slopes of Union Canal Tunnel Park. A collection of vintage commercial properties and restored houses unfolds around the intersection, obviously the heart of this city. Five minutes in either direction on Route 422, and Lebanon’s grid of industrial parks and stick frame houses disbands into rolling pastures and herds of dairy cows.

Rising up out of the farmlands halfway between Harrisburg and Reading, Lebanon’s mix of vibrancy and colloquial charm inspires more than a craving for sweet bologna.

History

German immigrants first settled in the Lebanon Valley in 1723 and immediately dedicated the fertile fields to dairy and pork farming, an agricultural foundation still evident in Lebanon’s economy. The town prospered throughout the 18th and 19th centuries as the construction of the Dauphin County Turnpike and Union Canal Tunnel centralized Lebanon along major shipping routes between Philadelphia, Reading and Harrisburg.

The Union Canal Tunnel remains an impressive engineering feat. Workers blasted 729 feet through layers of limestone with gunpowder and dynamite for two years until successfully diverting the Quittapahilla Creek from Clarks Run. The canal’s completion in 1829 connected the Susquehanna River just below Middletown to the Delaware River in Philadelphia.

The tunnel ceased operation in 1885 after the Lebanon Valley Railroad absorbed the shipping industry. The canal era’s legacy survives with the Union Canal Tunnel Park, off 25th Street and Union Canal Drive, two miles north of historic downtown.

The Lebanon Farmers Market

The red and orange brick façade of the famed Lebanon Farmers Market climbs into the cityscape three stories above Eighth Street. It’s not a conventional landmark like the Capitol building in Harrisburg or the chocolate factory in Hershey, but in much the same way, the 220-year-old building testifies to the industrious spirit of the city around it.

Long before residents plucked fresh garlic cloves and smoked sausage off merchant tables inside the market house, Lebanon County’s old jail stood on the block-wide plot of land and housed infamous murder defendants, the Blue-Eyed Six. The six men rose to notoriety in 1878 after plotting to murder an Indiantown Gap man and collect on his $8,000 life insurance policy. After a highly publicized trial in 1879, five of the six men were convicted of first-degree murder and hanged in the courtyard of the Lebanon County prison.

The jail burned to the ground shortly after the trial, and in 1892 the city erected the Market House in its place. Local legend persists about sightings of six pairs of blue eyes haunting the mountainside near the crime scene on the outskirts of Green Point, while others still insist their spirits wander the grounds of the farmers’ market.

Nonetheless, tourists and residents alike flock to the rehabbed Market House building Thursday through Sunday in search of locally sourced produce — from asparagus to lettuce to Pink Lady apples and golden pears — available at Alspaugh’s Produce, located just steps inside the Ninth Street entrance. The sprawling stand offers seasonal fruits and vegetables and sells pure Pennsylvania maple syrup and buckwheat honey out of painted jugs.

Candy Rama and its four boisterous employees, one donning a king’s crown, promise all things sweet in a display of chocolates and candies, from the typical Zagnut bars and peanut butter cups to homemade pecan patties and nonpareils.

Sphinx Cuisine rounds out the immense merchant stands in the center of the market house floor. The self-proclaimed “healthy food valley” combines Greek and Mediterranean entrees with unique Egyptian items, including Sphinx pizza and “Drinks of the Nile,” such as guava juice and hibiscus tea.

It’s not all food in the Farmers Market, however. Blue Heron flowers parades a seasonal display of carnations and roses in wooden barrels. Stella Blue sells handcrafted jewelry, purses, scarves, hats and organic body soaps and teas out of its modest stand near the Eighth Street entrance. Some of the more exotic choices include oat straw herbal tea and cinnamon vanilla soap.

Niko’s Restaurant and Lebanon Picture Frame and Fine Art share the third floor of the Market House building. The former opens at 4pm Tuesday through Saturday and offers a swanky execution of traditional American fare. Lebanon Picture Frame and Fine Art showcases local artists in an airy loft-style gallery with exposed ductwork and hardwood floors. The shop also specializes in custom framing and boasts a wide selection of “wearable art” for sale.

Dining and Shopping

An eclectic array of shops and restaurants falls on either side of Cumberland Street as it slices through the heart of downtown.

Queen’s Natural Market near the corner of North Liberty Street serves as a minimart of homeopathic treatments, organic foods, cosmetics and incense. The narrow aisles offer natural cures to such ailments as leg cramps, ear ringing and shingles. Three-inch glass bottles contain doses of elderberry syrup and other equally mythical-sounding medicinal recipes for common cold and flu symptoms.

One block east of Queen’s, the Wertz Candies shop stocks the window displays of its blue and red storefront with the same homemade sweets and popcorn it has for the past 80 years. The landmark candy operation created such chocolate staples as Opera Fudge and Blobs (vanilla or chocolate bars infused with chunks of marshmallow). Wertz’s popularity earned the store a spot on the Discovery Channel show Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe in 2008.

A wooden carving depicting a Native American chief in a white feathered headdress stands guard outside the Wigenroth Pipe Shop. Inside the specialty pipe and cigar store, aficionados can appreciate the impressive collection of “hand-blended” tobaccos and intricate wooden pipes.

The Downtown Lounge prides itself on 32 years of residency in Lebanon’s historic district, and with an atmosphere promising more than the average bar experience, it’s easy to unwind inside the charming brick and wood-adorned pub.

The Timeless Café stands cattycornered from the striking Market House building on Eighth Street. Open Tuesday through Saturday 7:30am-2pm for breakfast, lunch, coffee and drinks, the Timeless Café oozes chic sophistication with finger sandwiches and lace tablecloths.

 

Published in A Day In

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