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Asa Packer remembered on anniversary of his death

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    Warren Wilbur, a descendant of Asa Packer, reveals Packer’s walking stick during a 140th anniversary remembrance of Packer’s death on Saturday. Wilbur donated the walking stick to the Asa Packer Mansion. CHRIS REBER/TIMES NEWS

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    Ronald Sheehan, executive director of the Asa Packer Mansion, speaks during a 140th anniversary remembrance of Packer’s death while Packer’s descendants Laura Linderman Barker, Emily Linderman and Lucy Barker look on. CHRIS REBER/TIMES NEWS

Published May 13. 2019 12:34PM

 

Famed industrialist and philanthropist Asa Packer is often depicted carrying one of his trusted walking sticks.

Several paintings and even a statue at Lehigh University show Packer leaned upon a cane.

On Saturday, descendants and local dignitaries gathered at the Asa Packer Mansion Museum in Jim Thorpe to remember the 140th anniversary of Packer’s death. And to mark the occasion, one of his descendants presented the museum with that very walking stick.

Warren Wilbur III, 83, said he gave the piece to the museum because he wanted it to be well-preserved to continue Packer’s legacy.

“This represents America at its best, a small community standing behind the history of the community, and all the wonderful people who volunteer to keep this history alive,” Wilbur said.

Even 140 years after his death, Packer’s mansion reflects the prosperity he achieved as a resident of Jim Thorpe and head of the Lehigh Valley Railroad.

It is owned by the Borough of Jim Thorpe and maintained by the Jim Thorpe Lions Club. And it is painstakingly preserved exactly as it was left upon the death of Packer’s daughter Mary Packer Cummings in 1912, including the crystal chandelier and hand-carved Henkels furniture.

“You can see these things in museums, but nowhere else can you see this quality of living so well-preserved with the original family’s wishes all protected here,” said Charles “Todd” Henkels, a descendant of the family who created the furniture.

Asa Packer rose from humble beginnings to become the wealthiest man in Pennsylvania. He was dedicated to public service, faith and family, celebrating 51 years of marriage with his wife, Sarah.

He was also known for giving away his wealth as much as he was for accumulating it. He founded Lehigh University and a hospital which formed the beginning of today’s St. Luke’s.

That legacy continues to inspire his descendants today. Emily Linderman, Packer’s great-great-great-great-granddaughter, a current student at Lehigh, aspires to go into nonprofit work, which may not be a coincidence based on her heritage.

“I’m really thankful that that might be something that was passed down to me from Asa Packer,” she said.

Asa Packer left no memoirs or famous speeches behind. Ronald Sheehan, executive director of the Asa Packer Mansion, said that makes it even more remarkable that he is still celebrated 140 years after his death. Packer was a spark who helped ignite the Industrial Revolution — by building a railroad which linked the coal fields of the Anthracite Region with the industries of Philadelphia.

“He was just a simple man, but if you look around town, you’ll see he still has something to say with buildings, money and also just the love that we try to give out in memory of him,” said Ava Bretzik, the mansion museum’s director and historian.

Packer was one of the richest men in the country. He served as a Carbon County judge, state legislator and congressman.

However, he yearned for something else, running for governor and president during his life.

So it’s appropriate that over the years his mansion has hosted governors and senators.

Mary Packer Cummings deeded it to the borough of Jim Thorpe in 1912.

“If she hadn’t done this, Mr. Packer, his accomplishments and his contributions to the history of our commonwealth and nation would have been lost forever,” Sheehan said.

The mansion is currently in the midst of a $60,000 painting project as well as $20,000 in carpentry work. All of the work on the mansion is funded through tours of the mansion and donations. Mary Packer Cummings’ bequest included $60,000 to maintain the house and prohibits the sale of any of its artifacts.

The walking stick donated by Warren Wilbur isn’t the first in the collection. The museum also has one of Packer’s walking sticks which is made from the spine of a white-tailed deer.

The new addition dates to 1865 when Packer accepted it during a dinner in his honor in New York. It was passed down to his nephew Elijah Wilbur, and three more generations before it came to Warren Wilbur III.

“It represents more than a cane. It was a symbol of authority and respect, and it’s wonderful to see him holding this stick,” Wilbur said.

As Sheehan read a document commemorating the donation, the blast of a train whistle sounded.

Sheehan, who was overseeing his last remembrance — he is stepping down after 32 years with the mansion museum — pointed out that sound could represent the spirit of Packer looking over the remembrance, and the donation of the walking stick.

“Apparently he approved of the transfer,” Sheehan said.

 

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