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‘Crime buster’ mayor honored from Bethlehem’s bawdy days

Decades before Musikfest and Christkindlmarkt, Bethlehem’s reputation for recreation was bawdy.Known as New York City’s weekend playground during Prohibition, Bethlehem was abuzz with speakeasies, brothels and gambling dens. Police turned a blind eye and the mayor seemed, at best, indifferent.That changed after a cop was murdered: Prominent businessmen convinced Robert Pfeifle, an amateur boxer turned successful contractor, to run for mayor.Sitting around his modest dining room table in south Bethlehem, Pfeifle hatched a plan that, within six months of taking office, shut down disorderly houses, destroyed moonshine stills and cleared the city of “narcotics nests” with the help of the Secret Service, according to published reports.“He was very much involved in cleaning up the city’s reputation and was known as a crime buster,” Mayor Robert Donchez said. “We thought it was a very nice gesture to honor Mayor Pfeifle, the city’s longest-serving mayor.”Pfeifle, mayor from 1930-1950, was honored Wednesday with a bronze plaque at the city’s Greenway rails-to-trails park, near where his home once stood at 424 Webster St. Others at the dedication ceremony were former mayors Ken Smith and Don Cunningham, state Reps. Jeanne McNeill and Steve Samuelson, and Pfeifle’s grandson-in-law, Richard Stiles.This is a portrait of Robert Pfeifle, Bethlehem mayor from 1930-50, that is displayed at Bethlehem City Hall. (HARRY FISHER / THE MORNING CALL/)Stiles had been working for decades to honor Pfeifle. Stiles first tried to get a Pennsylvania marker to honor him, but couldn’t show statewide significance beyond Bethlehem. So Stiles offered to foot the bill himself and donate the plaque to the city.“He was a charismatic person. He could do all kinds of things by getting other people involved in helping,” said Stiles, who began courting Pfeifle’s granddaughter June upon returning from World War II. “He was really good at that.”Pfeifle was born at a crossroads of Almont, Bucks County, in 1880. He dropped out of school at age 12 and became a messenger boy. He first learned to become a blacksmith at his parents’ urging, but later was lured by the carpentry trade. He landed in Bethlehem and grew a successful contractor’s business as he began courting a girl who lived behind the East Fifth Street home where he was a boarder, Stiles said.He married that girl, Gertrude Heller, in 1905 and she had a son and three daughters. Pfeifle likely built hundreds of homes across the city, as well as community landmarks such as a Moravian church. He became president of the Bethlehem National Bank and got into local politics, first as a South Bethlehem burgess, and eventually as a city councilman. He was sworn in as the city’s third mayor in 1930 and elected four more times. He also became the first chairman of the Bethlehem Housing Authority when it formed in 1938, serving until his death in 1958.Stiles recalls Pfeifle as a 5-foot-7, 165-pound tough guy with a heart of gold. With a boxing gym in his basement, Pfeifle was easy to imagine as the fierce mayor who ran racketeers out of town. Yet, on his doorstep, Pfeifle often wore a smile as he greeted neighbors who needed help getting a job or even a pair of shoes. He would give them a handwritten note to present to a merchant or businessman who could help. And he kept a notebook with the names of everyone whom he helped.A farm boy with a thick Pennsylvania Dutch accent who always dressed in a plain shirt and tie, Pfeifle lacked the social graces that would allow him to move easily among the circles of the wealthy Bethlehem Steel executives, Stiles said. But he was respected in the Bethlehem business community, even landing a spot in “Men of Bethlehem,” a 1918 reference publication meant to honor “prominent” leaders who had helped the boroughs consolidate into the City of Bethlehem that year.Many times, Stiles would watch Pfeifle hold court with community leaders around his dining room table, where they would often be greeted by his talking parrot.After Prohibition, Pfeifle also led the city through the Great Depression. With the help of local utility companies, he helped entice a New York candymaker, Just Born, to bid at auction for a property in Bethlehem. He offered financial incentives and help relocating, and promoted the city’s labor force, railroad and trolley access to the plant.He went to Washington, D.C., to lobby for Works Progress Administration projects, landing a project that paved the way for Illicks Mill Park. And he helped brand Bethlehem Christmas City USA, as shimmering lights decorated the downtowns and a star was placed atop South Mountain during his administration.Meanwhile, his personal finances took a dip when people started pulling their money out of his bank during the Depression, Stiles said. Pfeifle mortgaged everything he owned to cover their withdrawals and never recovered financially, according to Stiles.But it’s the personal stories of how Pfeifle enriched lives of residents that resonate with Stiles. Stiles relayed one story about Pfeifle being approached by a Bethlehem Steel worker’s wife complaining that her husband never had any money for food. The mayor found out the steelworker cashed his check at a bar, and then drank away the money. The next payday, Pfeifle sent two police officers to escort the steelworker to a bank to cash the check, and then home to deliver the money to his wife.
Source: Morningcall

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