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WFMZ Channel 69 News: History’s Headlines: The Goundie House

October 15th, 2019 |

Written by Frank Whelan for WFMZ

Bethlehem’s Goundie House almost didn’t make it. Built in 1810 by brewer John Sebastian Gundt, later Goundie, it was almost certainly the first brick residence in the city, a fine example of the Federalist style. A third floor was added later in the 19th century. After Goundie’s death in 1852 the house was, among other things: a doctor’s office, a sewing machine shop and a photographer’s studio. Finally, in 1968, its owner decided something more modern was wanted. So, he hired a crew to tear it down. But he had not counted on the determination of two Bethlehem women, Christine Sims, wife of Ivor D. Sims, executive vice president of Bethlehem Steel, and her friend Frances Martin, wife of Bethlehem Steel CEO Edmund Martin. This is how Sims later described that day:

“I was walking down Main Street and I saw these two great big trucks with booms attached. I ran across the street, up the steps, and put my arms out. I said, ‘What are you going to do?’ They said, ‘We are going to bring it down.’ I said, ‘I won’t move.’”

Soon she was joined by Martin, and together they sat down. A crowd gathered. Someone called the police. The owner was called. Perhaps realizing that it was not wise to challenge the wives of major Bethlehem Steel executives, he had the good sense to cancel the demolition. That year Historic Bethlehem purchased the Goundie House for $22,000. Today it has been restored and is used for historic tours and other events.

Looking back, it is quite possible that Goundie would have enjoyed the ruckus that was raised to save his house. While not a violent man by any matter or means, he was a determined one. Although Bethlehem authorities were sometimes shocked at his boldness and outspokenness, they usually after some struggle let him have his way. But old ways die hard, especially in a conservative environment like that of early 19th century Bethlehem.

It was mid-morning of Friday, July 23, 1802 when the melodious sound of trombones, trumpets and French horns could be heard over the roofs of Moravian Bethlehem. As they echoed from the top floor of the Single Brethren’s House, residents of the town knew that they could signal only one thing, the arrival of new craftsmen to the city. Later that day the keeper of Bethlehem’s community diary would take up his pen and add the names and occupations of the four new arrivals. They included a plate maker, a tanner and a stocking knitter, But, at the head of the list was a brewer, noted as “Sebast. Gund from Neuwid.” It would be March 18th 1833, by special act of the Pennsylvania State legislature that his last name and that of his sons, George Henry, Benjamin and John George would be changed to Goundie.

John Sebastian Goundie, as we will call him from this point on, was at the head of the list probably because he was a brewer. This was a very important and respected in German cultures. The Palatinate German town of Oftersheim, Baden where Goundie was born on November 27, 1773 was a part of the Holy Roman Empire. A feudal relic founded in 800 AD, riven by religious wars and invasions, the only reason it lasted was no one could think of what could replace it without starting another war. In 1648, following the bloody religious strife known as the Thirty Years War, the solution that was agreed to was that there would only be three churches tolerated: Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed. Whatever the ruler of your region’s religion was, that was your religion. In the 18th century French philosopher Voltaire noted, it was “neither Holy nor Roman nor an Empire.” It was an understandably a deeply traditional place. And one thing it took very seriously was the making of beer. A series of edicts issued over the centuries set standards of the quality of water and other ingredients. And the Moravians that came to America took this heritage with them.

Goundie was born into the Reformed Church. In 1795 the 22 year -old moved into the town of Neuweid and became a Moravian. Created as a haven for religious dissenters, it drew ambitious, skilled crafts people from across the empire. A Moravian school there was probably the place that trained Goundie in the brewer’s art. When Goundie got to Bethlehem he was not planning to stay. He had an agreement to be the brew master at Salem, the Moravian community in North Carolina. He left Bethlehem on September 26, 1802 but by May 31, 1803 he was back. Why Goundie did not stay in Salem is unknown. Some sources claim he did not like the site chosen for the brewery. Or maybe he just felt more comfortable up north. Whatever the reason, that June, after talking things over with Bishop Loskiel, he was named Bethlehem’s brew master. He quickly went to work.

Goundie began his task by requesting a certain field to grow barley. This field happened to be the place used to graze cows to supply milk for the community. This was the apparently the first time Goundie confronted the elders of the community and they were not pleased. Eventually they gave in but were not happy that even before he brewed any beer Goundie was making “requests.” The diary writer, perhaps speaking for the leadership as well as himself, wrote tersely, “We will wait and see whether he will stay more than 1 year.”

Talking back to the leadership would never have been tolerated in the 18th century Bethlehem. But by 1803 they recognized they were in a bind. Since the American Revolution young people in the community had grown less and less tolerant of the old rules. Bethlehem was no longer the quiet frontier missionary outpost it had been. More and more its small business community members were coming to identify with the non-Moravian world around them. At the same time church leaders in Herrnhut wanted them to keep the lid on the community and gave the local leaders little leeway.

Goundie took over the brewery and, as the leadership had hoped, began to revive it. A problem that the leadership had was the decline of interest in beer drinking by the young and increased use of whiskey. Goundie improved the quality of the beer. Rather than leaving town as had once been predicted, by 1812 the leadership praised his skills and product as better than that from Philadelphia’s brewers.

Goundie also had a private life. In 1804 he married widow Cornelia Elizabeth Andreas from one of the leading families in Bethlehem. And the birth of several children made the need to build a home important. In 1808 he made a request to the community leadership, offering to pay 700 pounds over the course of a year for it. But cautious as ever they would not move until they had followed the tradition of casting a lot. When they did so, and the lot went against him, the minutes of the meeting at which the decision was announced noted Goundie had to be “calmed down.” Shortly thereafter he announced he was going to train someone else to run the brewery and relocate to the Moravian community at Lititz. Not only did that not happen but by 1810 a map of Bethlehem showed Goundie’s house. How this change came about is unknown. Perhaps, rather than split the community, they reached some sort of private arrangement. Whatever it was it worked.

In 1819 Goundie must have set local gossips tongues wagging again by bringing over from Europe a young Moravian woman, Sister Anna Mollinger Von Zeyst, and her two relatives. Mollinger was to act, he said, as a domestic servant, aka a maid, in his home. “What would her role be?” the perplexed leadership wondered. As she could not possibly live in the Single Sisters House, who would be responsible for her? It was, the meeting minutes, noted “ a very special and new case.” Goundie responded quickly. He would be responsible for her good behavior. Her relatives would not be staying in Bethlehem and would leave as soon they found suitable employment elsewhere. As Goundie’s personal morals and standing in the community were above reproach, it seems to have ended the official part of the controversy, but probably not the gossip.

From 1812 to 1820 Goundie continued to make improvements to the brewery, almost all of which were largely agreed to without objection. But to judge from the record he gradually withdrew from the role of brew master, giving it up entirely by 1830. The arrival of the Lehigh Canal in 1827 brought big changes to Bethlehem and Goundie. Commerce flowed into the city. Goundie worked closely with the prominent Rice family in the ”privatization” of the communal industries of Bethlehem. But while Goundie was cautious, the Rices speculated wildly in timber and saw-mills, destroying the forests. Like many people of the day, they saw only the upside of the new, free enterprise system. Having grown up in semi-communal society, they didn’t realize speculation had consequences.

With the Bank Panic of 1837 and the floods of 1841, the Rices were devastated and took what remained of the old Bethlehem’s resources with them. By the late 1840s the old leadership of Bethlehem had folded and church leaders in Germany could offer no aid. Outside investors arrived to purchase community lands. Although Goundie, aided by his son George Henry, a successful merchant, survived the crash he was troubled by physical ills associated with aging. Finally, on April 3, 1852, he died after a long illness at the age of 78. His wife followed a year later.

His son George Henry, a loyal Democrat, had by then embarked on a diplomatic career that took him to Switzerland over the next 25 years with assignments as consul in Basle and Zurich. When the revolutions in Germany collapsed in 1848, George Henry aided many refugees seeking a haven in the New World. Perhaps George Henry’s oddest assignment came in 1854 when, on a request from Secretary of War and future Confederate President Jefferson Davis, he went searching for and found a cannon in Basle that had apparently been given by Washington to a French regiment for their role at the battle of Yorktown. According to one source, Davis, an admirer of Napoleon, hoped to use it to curry favor with the then-new regime in France headed by Napoleon’s nephew, emperor Napoleon III, and to symbolize the historic links between the two nations. If Davis ever got the cannon and used it for that purpose is not known.

In the 1860s George Henry returned to Bethlehem and served a term in the state legislature. He is also said to have given, on July 4, 1869 the name Calypso Island to a well-known pleasure ground in Bethlehem. While making plans to retire to Switzerland, George Henry died in 1877. But thanks to two determined women the Goundie legacy lives on in the house his father built.


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