The promise is in the people -- 350,000 of them, give or take, any one of whom might turn out to be the next Frank Buchman or Constantine Hering, the next David Thomas or Anna Mae Hays.
The paradox is in the landscapes, from city alleys of impoverished homes to country roads traversing vistas so beautiful they make the heart ache. A traveler in Lowhill Township at sunset in autumn will spy church steeples peeking out from among flame-crowned trees and feel stirrings of eternity. The same traveler risks a pang of despair in some of the cramped and faded precincts of Allentown, a city trying to reinvent itself.
Lehigh County is 349 square miles, eight boroughs, 15 townships, one city and a portion of another. A river runs through it. It is home to covered bridges of surpassing quaintness and massive warehouses of no quaintness at all. It has an amusement park of great renown and a popular baseball stadium and will, in time, have a professional hockey arena, too.
When it was carved out of Northampton County in 1812, it had fewer than 20,000 residents and was largely farmland and forest. Sizable portions of it remain so, but no one can call Lehigh a rural county -- just a county with rural portions. After all, the county seat, Allentown, is Pennsylvania's third-largest city.
But none of that sets Lehigh apart from lots of other counties. To get a real sense of what makes it special, you have to look back. This county has been home to innovators and eccentrics, industrialists and artists, globe trotters and publishers and musicians and scientists. It is perfectly fair to say the world would not be what it is today if not for the genius and labor of its people.
One thinks immediately of the Pennsylvania Germans, that sturdy stock whose accents, both literal and cultural, abound in the county today. The first settlers of the kind, arriving in the 17th and 18th centuries, were farmers, industrious and independent. Those traits have passed down pretty well intact to people today who happily call themselves Dutch (a variation on "Deutsch") and revel in a culture that gave us Groundhog Day and shoofly pie.
But in terms of Lehigh County's importance to our national narrative, top honors go to a Welsh immigrant, David Thomas, who devised a method of smelting anthracite and iron ore to produce anthracite iron. Lured across the Atlantic to Catasauqua in 1839 by the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, Thomas built the first commercially successful iron furnace, made a fortune and became a great philanthropist.
"He transformed the world," said Joseph Garrera, executive director of the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum. "The Industrial Revolution started right here because of David Thomas."
Other luminaries dot the pages of the county's history.
Largely forgotten today -- though extraordinarily famous in his time -- is Frank Buchman, born in 1878 in Pennsburg. At 16, Buchman moved to Allentown, graduated from Muhlenberg College and was ordained a Lutheran minister in 1902.
Buchman promoted Christian ideals by forming student societies at prominent schools. The most famous of these developed at Britain's Oxford University and became known as the Oxford Group. This grew into a worldwide spiritual movement called Moral Re-Armament, which persisted through the century and was reorganized 11 years ago as Initiatives of Change.
Moral Re-Armament wasn't quite the Moral Majority, but it preached the pursuit of success through straight-and-narrow, Scripture-based living.
Buchman was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in the 1950s. When he died in 1961, hundreds of international dignitaries attended his funeral. He is buried in Allentown's Fairview Cemetery.
But he had detractors as well as admirers. Critics painted the Oxford Group as an oddball sect for the wealthy and well-known -- think Scientology, with its celebrity adherents -- but the movement bore some lasting fruit. The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous credited the success of its higher-power program to ideas adapted from the Oxford Group.
Another famous-then-forgotten countian is Constantine Hering. The German immigrant, born in 1800, was a pioneer in homeopathy, a field of alternative medicine in which patients are given diluted substances that in stronger doses cause symptoms of the disease being treated. Practitioners say the method stimulates the body to heal itself.
Hering was an early debunker of homeopathy, which had been developed by his countryman, Samuel Hahnemann, around the turn of the 19th century. Hering's change of heart came when he was healed of an infected wound by homeopathic treatment.
Emigrating to America in 1833, he settled in Allentown and established the nation's first homeopathic hospital, called the Allentown Academy. It was a precursor to Hahnemann Hospital in Philadelphia, which was founded in 1885 and thrives today as Hahnemann University Hospital.
The county has produced many other achievers of note whose accomplishments hardly need to be recounted in detail here.
George Taylor, an ironmaster who lived in Easton and Catasauqua, signed the Declaration of Independence. Gen. Harry Trexler, an industrialist and conservationist born in 1854, helped preserve the American buffalo by establishing a game preserve. He also made sure big portions of the county were set aside as parks and left a financial trust that continues to fund civic and charitable causes.
Lee Iacocca, born in Allentown to Italian immigrants, did for Chrysler what Trexler did for the buffalo. As chairman, he saved the car company from extinction and became a national celebrity in the process -- the quintessential American businessman who came from humble beginnings and thrived on the virtues of leadership and decisiveness.
J.I. Rodale was one of the founding fathers of the organic farming and healthy living movements in America. In 1930 he started Emmaus-based Rodale Inc., which has grown into the world's leading health and wellness company.
Other county personalities aren't as well known or remembered, but ought to be.
Anna Mae Hays was born in Buffalo in 1920 but ended up in Allentown with her Salvation Army parents and attended the Allentown General Hospital School of Nursing. She graduated in 1941 and, the following year, enlisted in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps.
She spent World War II in India, saw service during the Korean War and rose through the ranks until -- on June 11, 1970 -- she became the first woman promoted to the rank of general in the Army.
Elsie Singmaster, born in Schuylkill Haven in 1879, spent portions of her childhood in Macungie and Allentown. A sort of distaff John O'Hara, she was a chronicler of small-town Pennsylvania life, with stories and novels notable for their portrayal of the Pennsylvania Dutch.
Unlike O'Hara, a Pottsville native who often wrote of drunks, lechers and social climbers, Singmaster was keen on Victorian values of faith and family. Both writers, sadly, have largely faded from the literary firmament.
You may not know the name Robert F. Hunsicker, but you surely know his product. In 1936, he began marketing dog food he made in the bathtub in his Allentown home. He called the company Allen Products and the dog food "Alpo."
So there you have it. Lehigh County has a place in history as secure as any. Not that its history is entirely auspicious. After all, the ancestors of the brown marmorated stink bugs that have been spreading through the nation for the past decade or so are believed to have disembarked in Allentown from an overseas shipment.
In the main, though, Lehigh County -- its people, places and past -- is a place worthy of study and acclaim.
You can start at the heritage museum, which houses Brig. Gen. Hays' uniform, Hering's diploma and other papers, several of Singmaster's books and untold other treasures.
But don't stop there. Head into that paradoxical landscape and take a close-up look. See the covered bridges, one-room schoolhouses, cemeteries, churches.
Go to Jasper Park in Upper Milford Township, where Lenape Indians for centuries quarried jasper for tools and weapons. Visit Coplay and see the castle-like arrangement of cement kilns in Saylor Park. Explore the ruins of the iron furnace complex at Lock Ridge Park in Alburtis.
By virtue of their age, these are haunting places. But they aren't the remnants of a lost past. They are the foundation blocks of a living present.
Here's to another 200 years, and many more.