Dery of Catasauqua: the rise and fall of the king of silk

Author: , Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published: Sep 12 2011 11:16:13 AM EDT
George Dery

Once upon a time, roughly 100 years ago, Catasauqua was known as the "Borough of Millionaires," and the "Birthplace of America's Industrial Revolution." The town's iron- making Thomas family, who thrived after opening the first commercially successful anthracite coal-powered iron furnace in America on July 4,1840, were known for their handsome Victorian mansions..

But none of those estates could attempt to rival the palatial home of D. George Dery, the king of silk, at 520 5th Street.. From the trainloads of columns of Colorado limestone to the spacious indoor swimming pool, the art gallery of European paintings, sculpture and antiques, and the private rooftop observatory where Dery indulged in his hobby of astronomy, it was like nothing the Lehigh Valley had ever witnessed.

Known in the business press of the day as the largest single private producer of silk in the world, Dery's rise had been swift, the result of hard work, relentless attention to detail, and driving ambition. But if his rise was swift his fall was even swifter, for the tight rope of silk on which Dery walked was a slippery one.

Desiderius George Dery was of Hungarian descent, born in 1867 in the Austrian capital city of Vienna. His last name was originally spelled, "Deri." According to his son-in-law, the late Dr. Carl Strauch, a Lehigh University English professor, his family was Hungarian landed gentry. "They were not in the nobility but just one step below," Strauch recalled.

The nation that Dery grew up in was known as Austria-Hungary, a multi-national empire in central Europe held together largely by its loyalty to the ruling Hapsburg family. Dery picked up his cultural interests and old world manners from Vienna. But for a young man without connections at court, Austria-Hungary was stifling. After obtaining a degree from the Vienna Textile Academy where he learned silk making, he left in 1887 for Paterson, New Jersey, the silk capital of America.

In Paterson Dery quickly became superintendent of a silk mill. Here he met his wife, Helen. Eventually they would have a daughter who was named after her mother. Moving to Catasauqua in 1897, Dery opened his own silk mill. From the start it was very successful and by 1900 was employing over 400 workers.

Dery could have stopped there and made a comfortable living. But he had bigger plans. Fourteen years later he owned 14 silk mills employing over 3,600 workers. Dery's local business operations were centered in the Allentown National Bank building, an ornate Beaux Arts Classical structure. They occupied the entire 7th floor.

Business was only one aspect of Dery's life. He was a reader of great books and had even authored two novels. His papers on astronomy received respectful attention in learned journals. And his art collection was hailed as a fine one by no less a source than the New York Times.

Strauch, who called Dery's taste "sentimental," lamented many years later that his father-in-law, who "could have picked up Impressionists for next to nothing," preferred landscapes, portraits and rural scenes by minor European masters.

World War I was to see an even greater expansion of Dery's business. By 1919 he was to own 42 silk mills and was employing over 10,000 workers up and down the east coast of the United States. When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, he showed his support by buying thousands of dollars worth of war bonds.

For reasons that remain unknown Dery decided in 1920 to attempt to "corner," that is control, the world silk market. He may have felt that with the general turmoil in international business following the end of the World War I that it would be possible.

This required vast amounts of money, even more cash than Dery could command, so he took out loans from a number of silk industry sources.

What Dery had not counted on was the reaction of the Japanese government whose international silk interests were be threatened by his actions. Dumping huge amounts of raw silk on the market, they broke Dery's corner.

Dery's creditors demanded to be paid for the money they had loaned him. He issued bonds to raise it. But in 1922 it was disclosed that the value put on the company's assets, on which the value of the bonds was based, was fraudulent. At night, after the accountants setting the value of Dery assets by counting bales of silk left for the day, Dery company officers would move them back to an uncounted pile. The next day the accountants, unknowingly, would count them over again.

When the creditors discovered this, they went to federal court and had a receivership set up to take over the Dery Company's assets. They also demanded that Dery himself be removed from any role in running the company, which he was.

Dery protested he did not know of the fraud, but was not believed. He emerged from the wreckage in 1923 with only four silk mills. He hung on through the 1920's, but a strike at his mills in 1934 finished him off. His art collection had been auctioned off long before. Dery moved out of his Catasauqua mansion to a much smaller home across the street that he shared with his daughter.

Dery remained something of a local character in Catasauqua, walking about town in formal morning coat and pearl gray pants, his little dachshund "Zig Zag" at his heels. In demand by local women's clubs, he often spoke of life in Vienna and international politics.

In 1942, feeling unwell, the 75-year-old Dery moved into the Bethlehem home of his daughter, who had since married Strauch.

On March 5th of that year Catasauqua's former king of silk passed away following a heart attack with only a small obituary in the local press to mark his passing.