Found in Collection

Found in Collection (167)

Thursday, 21 December 2017 19:39

Merry Christmas!

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As the Historical Society closes for Christmas and New Year’s, I thought I’d share some Christmas cards from our collection.  These cards from the Preston Family Papers.  Mary Krause Preston was an early trustee of the Historical Society of Montgomery County.  Her daughters, Emily and Katharine, continued the family’s involvement.  Katharine was a trustee for over 30 years while Emily served as librarian for ten years until her death in 1942.  They are frequently noted in our records as “The Misses Preston.”

The tag above includes a handwritten Christmas message.  The picture also appears to be hand drawn, perhaps by Katharine.  A remembrance of Katharine printed in the Bulletin after her death in 1952 says, “Her finest effort and greatest joy… was in the painting of small watercolors.”

This card was sent out by the United States Naval Academy.


The Preston sisters lived their entire lives in Norristown.  Their house stood where the annex to the Montgomery County Courthouse now stands.  They were educated at the sort of private girls’ school, Miss Hayman’s, that abounded in the 19th century.  Upon Katharine’s death, many antiques, books, and other items were donated to the Historical Society.

This final card was issued by the People’s Bank of Norristown.  It’s a small envelope, perhaps meant to hold cash.


Everyone at the Historical Society of Montgomery County wishes a merry Christmas and happy new year to all our members!

Wednesday, 13 December 2017 21:51

Rev. Mentzer and Baptists in Montgomery County

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Montgomery County is home to people of various religious faiths. Interestingly, when we research our genealogy, researching specific religions can uncover new insights to our ancestor’s lives. A recent accession is a perfect example for how religion can help us research our family history.

We recently acquired this beautiful, pastel photograph of Rev. William Harrison Mentzer (1844-1921) and his wife Alzina Jenkins (1867-1952). On its own, this photograph does not reveal much information about Rev. Mentzer and Alzina. However, knowing Rev. Mentzer served in various Baptist churches in Montgomery County helped us uncover more information about his life.


So what do we know about Montgomery County Baptists? According to Rev. David Spencer, the first known Baptists arrived in the area in the late 17th century.[1] Many of these original Baptists can trace their roots to Wales.[2] As the religion gained attention, many Quaker families converted to the Baptist religion. This was a result of a theological divide within the Quaker church around 1691.[3] However, although Baptism predates the founding of Montgomery County, the majority of Baptist churches in the area were not founded until the 19th century.[4] This surge in construction of Baptist churches coincided with Rev. Mentzer’s ministries.

Thanks to an autobiography printed on April 14 1921 in the Lansdale Reporter, we were able to learn more about Rev. Mentzer. He was born in Chambersburg, PA on January 25, 1844. As a child, he was raised as a Lutheran. However, when he moved to Bells Mills, he began attending the Logans Valley Baptist Church. On January 29, 1865, he officially became a baptized Baptist. Shortly after his baptism, Mentzer join the Union Army and served until the end of the war in April 1865.

After the Civil War, Mentzer decided to attend the University at Lewisburg (present day Bucknell) and later Crozer Theological Seminary to become a Reverend. Over the course of 47 years, Rev. Mentzer served Baptist Churches throughout Montgomery County and Eastern Pennsylvania. Rev. Mentzer served in these Montgomery County towns: Lansdale, North Wales, Royersford, and Ambler.

[1] Rev. David Spencer, Early Baptists of Philadelphia, Philadelphia: William Syckelmoore, 1877, 18

[2] Ibid.

[3] Spencer, Early Baptists of Philadelphia, 1691, 27.

[4] Clifton S. Hunsicker, Montgomery County Pennsylvania: A History Vol. I, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, INC, NY 1923, 123.

Thursday, 07 December 2017 21:07

The Montgomery County Almshouse

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Upper Providence029

The Almshouse at the turn of the century

The Montgomery County Almshouse originally began serving the poor of the county in 1808.  It had been built on 265 acres that the county purchased from Abraham Gotwalt in Upper Providence Township (the county would later add an additional 31 acres to the property).

Upper Providence030

A view of the river

The first steward was Jacob Barr and his wife served as matron.  They earned $400 per year.  Over the 19th century, fire struck the almshouse three times, destroying most of the records of the early decades.  We do know that the number of people coming to the almshouse was increasing because the county approved the building of a new facility in 1870.  That building was completed just before the original building was completely destroyed by fire in 1872.


Undated inmate register

The Historical Society records for the almshouse begin in 1873.  Our archives has 3 registers that end in 1913 and three inmate record books that cover the years 1913 to the 1930’s. 

People who came to the almshouse were not simply housed.  They were expected to work either on the farm or in the residence.  Male and female inmates were separated, though Edward Hocker tells of a love triangle between a female inmate and a gardener employed by the home.  The steward tried to split them up, but the inmate climbed out the window one night, met up with the gardener and ran off to be married in Norristown (Times-Herald, Oct. 2, 1942).

cash book

List of purchases from a 1902 cash book

Children who were born at the almshouse were only allowed to stay until they were old enough to be indentured to local families.  By 1882, however, the state passed a law, allowing children between 2 and 16 only 60 days in the almshouse.  This was to save the expense of running a school.  The Children’s Aid Society of Montgomery County soon took responsibility for the children.

In the late 19th century, the position of steward was used as a political reward, and easy going stewards allowed tramps to wander over from Chester county for a hot meal and good night’s sleep.  The county comptroller put an end to that practice.  One of those tramps later became famous as a folk artist.  He repaid the almshouse with a painting.


The almhouse painted by inmate Charles Hoffman in the 1870's.


Over the years, many changes came to the almshouse.  The small infirmary was replaced by a hospital building in 1900, that in turn was replaced in 1941.  In 1952, the “County Home” as it was then called, was renamed The Charles Johnson Home, and then it became the Montgomery County Geriatric and Rehabilitation Center in 1972, reflecting a change in the institution’s focus.

Source: Lichtenwalner, Muriel N., 175th anniversary of Montgomery County Geriatric and Rehabilitation Center; progress through caring (1983)

Thursday, 30 November 2017 21:24

Dogs and Taxes

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Earlier this week I came across a small collection of papers concerning a local dog tax.  The papers span several decades and list Norristown dog owners and their assessments.


Today in Montgomery County, dogs are licensed by the county for a nominal fee.  In the 19th century, we found two reasons for the dog tax.

In a 1955 article “Tax Experiments Make a Bewildering Record,” Norris (aka Edward Hocker) writes about how a national economic crisis, generally called the Panic of 1837, led Pennsylvania and several other states to repudiate their debts and suspend interest payments.  In an effort to shore up the state coffers, the legislature sought new taxes.   According to Hocker, the state taxed gold watches, pleasure carriages, stocks, cattle, and eventually, dogs.

Now, Hocker may not have seen our tax records, which show dogs being taxed as early as 1834.  It could also be the tax was actually started in response to an earlier recession.  In any case the tax seems to have expired and restarted.  Our collection has assessments for the years 1834 – 1836, 1838, 1852, 1854, 1862, and 1867.

Our records suggest a different reason for the tax on dogs, as shown by this 1829 petition of citizens from several townships, and is couched in patriotic language of developing the United States’ developing wool industry.  The tax on dogs in this case, would create a fund to compensate the owners of sheep who were attacked by dogs. 


Whatever the reason, the tax records show some interesting things.  Most of the people assessed have dogs, that is, males.  Only a few, ahem, female dogs are listed.  One wonders how the species survived.  The tax on dogs in this 1867 list was 75 cents, while females were taxed a full dollar, so that might explain the difference. 

In this list, you can see the Bank of Montgomery County had two dogs, perhaps as guard dogs. 


Here, you can see the name of General Winfield Scott Hancock’s father, B. F. Hancock, who owned one dog.


Wednesday, 15 November 2017 21:28

Commemorating the First Passenger Steamboat

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During our inventory project, we uncovered a small, decorative tile. At first glance, this tile may not appear to have much connection to Montgomery County history. However, upon closer inspection of the detailed artwork, we realized the steamboat depicted on the tile was inspired by the first passenger steamboat used in the United States.


Made in Doylestown, PA, this decorative tile was inspired by John Fitch’s steamboat. In 1785, Fitch, who suffered from rheumatism, began designing a steam engine to make it easier for people to travel.[1] Once he realized a steam engine had already been invented in England, Fitch sought to improve his engine and attach it to passenger boats.[2] Despite difficulty acquiring investors, Fitch managed to build his steamboat and test it on the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers.

Fitch Steamboat

On August 22, 1787, Fitch demonstrated his invention to members of the Constitutional Convention on the Delaware River between Philadelphia and Trenton.[3] Although many people were impressed by the steamboat, Fitch continued to struggle with finding investors. Fitch’s steamboat carried passengers between Philadelphia and Trenton until 1791. Unable to compete financially with stagecoaches, Fitch was forced to end his passenger steamboat service.[4] In 1798, Fitch died in Bardstown at the age of 55. Although Fitch failed to maintain a passenger steamboat enterprise, his work set the stage for Robert Fulton to further improve the steamboat design in 1807.[5]

[1] “The Legacy of John Fitch,” Historic Craven Hall & The John Fitch Steamboat Museum,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

Thursday, 09 November 2017 21:05


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Sometimes, I venture out into the world and meet new people, not very often, but it happens.  Inevitably, someone asks what I do.  The conversation goes like this:

“What do you do?”

“I’m an archivist.”

“Oh, an architect!”

“No, an archivist.  It’s like a librarian but with unpublished papers instead of books.”

“Oh, you mean an arCHIVist.”

[Suppressing a sigh] “Sure.”

Then my new friend says how interesting it must be and ask what I’m working on, and lately, I’ve been working on records from turnpike companies.  This gets more questions, and many people are surprised to learn that many roads were built by private companies.  They were toll roads, operated privately, and usually ran as corporations with stock holders and dividends. 


The earliest turnpike to come through Montgomery County was the first in Pennsylvania.  It was built in 1792 and ran from Philadelphia to Lancaster, passing through four miles of Lower Merion along the way.  Germantown Pike was built by the Germantown and Perkiomen Turnpike Company, beginning in 1801.

According to Frederick C. Swinehart’s article “The Turnpikes of Pennsylvania” (HSMC Bulletin, V. IX, April, 1955), by 1821 there were 146 turnpikes authorized in Pennsylvania.  Not all of them would be built, however.  It was not uncommon for the companies to fail to sell all their stock.

minute book

The Historical Society has records from several of the turnpike companies, including the Norristown, Bridgeport and King of Prussia Turnpike Road Company, now DeKalb Pike.  Originally chartered in 1848, construction began in 1853.  Shares in the company were sold for $10 apiece.  Investors didn’t see a dividend until 1885.  Soon after that, the road was “freed,” meaning it was transferred to public ownership (the company received $11,000 in this case) and tolls were no longer collected.

We also have records for the Plymouth and Upper Dublin Turnpike (Butler Pike).  Started in 1853, it wasn’t until 1857 that the company was ready to collect tolls.  Charles Dewees was paid $5 a month and use of a house and two acres for manning the tollgate at Broad Axe.


A toll house on York Road in Cheltenham

When automobiles began appearing on the roads, some of the turnpike companies decided to take advantage of what was then a luxury only the very rich could afford.  The Chestnut Hill and Springhouse Turnpike (now Bethlehem Pike) raised the toll from 1 or 2 cents a mile to 25 cents a mile.  When the Springhouse and Sumneytown Turnpike did the same, drivers in Norristown went to court.  The company settled outside of court.  Rates were lowered to 2 cents a mile for a 1 seat car and 3 cents for a two seat car.


The tolls on the Springhouse and Hilltown Turnpike in 1917

Cars brought new problems as well.  In 1913, an automobile accident on the Springhouse and Hilltown Turnpike caused headaches for the company.  Soon after the accident, correspondence of the board of managers begins to question if the company could be maintained much longer.  It was freed in 1921.


The last privately held turnpike on our county was the Springhouse and Penllyn Turnpike.  It was freed in 1923.

Thursday, 02 November 2017 20:32

The Village of Three Tuns

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3 tuns

Located at the corner of Butler Pike and Norristown Road, the village of Three Tuns in Upper Dublin township derives its name from a tavern built at that intersection.  The tavern, built in the mid-eighteenth century by Jacob Timanus, had three wine casks (also called “tuns”) on its sign.  In 1803, John Collom began operating the Three Tuns Inn at the same location.


The inn was the center of public life in the village for many decades.  Various meetings, including the first meeting of the Association for the Recovery of Stolen Horses, Detention of Horse Thieves, and Obtaining Other Stolen Property, were held there, as were the earliest court sessions in the township.  The inn burned down in 1948.


Clement Jones built his store in 1834 across the street from the Three Tuns Inn,.  It also served as the village’s post office, and it was the first home of the Union Library of Upper Dublin until the library moved into Ambler in 1888.  This building was demolished in 1907 when Wilmer Atkinson bought the property for his new mansion.  Atkinson was the publisher of the Farm Journal.



A humorous pair of portraits of Wilmer Atkinson from a booklet celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Farm Journal

Atkinson had been raised in Three Tuns and returned to the area after the success of the Farm Journal.  He allowed the public free access to his large property and built a new post office for the community.  He also bought the gained control of the corporation that owned and ran Butler Pike, and, according to Edward Hocker, was known to hand out boxes of strawberries at the toll gate.  He died in 1920.



Thursday, 26 October 2017 19:55

The Bubbling Springs of Spring Mill

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Spring Mill Copy

There is one corner of Whitemarsh Township known as Spring Mill.  Until perhaps the middle of the nineteenth century it was the populous village in Whitemarsh and the township’s industrial center.  Situated along the Schuylkill, the village was once home to numerous mills and furnaces.  Much of its early success can be traced back to the spring that gave the village its name.

The earliest mill in the area was built right next to the bubbling springs around 1690.  James K. Helms reported in his “Historical Notes” article of July 4, 1927, that George Washington bought flour and corn from this mill.  At the end of the nineteenth century, the first water main was built over the springs, by Charles Hamilton to supply his paper company and some private homes with water.


The springs bubble up from underground streams in two spots in the shallow lagoon they form.  Helms writes, “Both of these bubble up in a curious manner, spreading a number of continually forming and dissolving rings over the surface.”  Helms estimated that they released 4.5 million gallons a day with enough force to throw up small stones and bits of flint.


The underground waterways appear in some of the stories of Charles Heber Clark, resident of nearly Conshochocken.  In one story locals repeatedly try to bury a coffin that falls into the subterranean streams and washes in the river every time.

The old mill was still operating in 1927 when James K. Helms wrote his article about it.  He mentions several times how old it looked.  It finally burned down in 1967 and the stone foundation as demolished soon after.  The miller’s house still stands, however, and it is on the National Register of Historic Places.  The springs are still there, too, according to Philip and Sharon Welsh's book Conshohocken in Vintage Postcards.  Located off of Barren Hill Road, the springs are overgrown and no longer visible from the road.

Thursday, 19 October 2017 19:56

Two explosions in Conshohocken

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In the nineteenth century the Montgomery county towns along the Schuylkill were busy industrial centers.  These mills provided good jobs for many, but they also meant that Montgomery County had its share of industrial accidents.

On February 3, 1873, at about a quarter past four in the afternoon, a boiler at the John Wood & Bros. foundry and rolling mill exploded, killing a total of fourteen people, including 2 boys who were working at the Albion Printworks, across the canal 150 feet away from the boiler’s original position.  

An engineer named W. Barnet Le Van wrote up an explanation of the event for the Journal of the Franklin Institute in 1873.  He explains that the boys were working in the kier (a vat in which cloth is bleached).  The friction of the 5,500 pound boiler hitting the kier caused the cloth inside to ignite.

boiler FI

The county convened a jury to investigate the accident and determined that the explosion was caused by the age of the boiler (it had been in operation for 20 years).  Le Van argued that the flues were too small for the amount of pressure the boiler was running, 85 pounds per inch.  He also argues that in inexpensive hydraulic test would prevent future accidents.


Records of the incident were donated to the Historical Society of Montgomery County by William A. Cooper in 1950.  These records include medical bills for the injured and funeral bills for the dead.


Bill for room and board for one of the injured men.


Doctor's bill from the accident.


Funeral bill labeled "McNulty," presumably for James McNulty, one of the boys killed.

Long time residents of the county will of course remember another explostion in the area, the 1971 gas explosion that happened in West Conshohocken on the night of January 27.  That explosion happened on a residential street, and 15 homes were destroyed by the explosion and the resulting fire.  Four people died in the tragedy.  Volunteer fire fighter Joseph W. Powers was struck by debris.  He was only 19 years old when he died. 

WC explosion


Two children, Michelle Pruitt (7) and Michael Pruitt (14) were originally declared missing.  Police searched block by block with a public address system, but by the next day both their bodies had been recovered.  Their grandfather, Calbert Rupp died as a result of the wounds he received in the fire.

We don't have any primary sources for the 1971 explosion; it's probably too recent history for people to think of donating it to us.  Do you remember that night?


Wednesday, 11 October 2017 20:12

Science or Fiction?

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Experimentation with medical devices to cure ailments is common among every culture throughout much of human history. Even today it is nearly impossible to turn on the television or log onto the internet without seeing an advertisement for a new cure for a common ailment. However, as many of us know, some of these medical devices do not cure the ailments described in their advertisements.

At HSMC, we have a collection of medical devices that were used in Montgomery County. One of these devices is an example of a medical device that did not cure the ailments described in advertisements. Dr. Young’s rectal dilators were advertised as a permanent relief of piles, constipation, nervousness, dyspepsia, sick headache, neuralgia, rheumatism, insomnia, asthma, indigestion, eczema, and all diseases caused by sluggish circulation, malnutrition, defective elimination and the abuse of cathartic drugs. It was even claimed that these dilators could be a cure for insanity.[1]

rectal dilators

Made by F.E. Young & Co., these dilators were used by many Americans around the turn of the 20th century. In 1940, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York seized a shipment of these dilators, claiming they were misbranded. This lead to many legal cases, including one in Philadelphia, which revealed the dilators did not have any proven scientific cure for every ailment they claimed to fix.[2] The FDA eventually labeled the product to be hazardous to a person’s health if it was used as frequently as the company advised its customers.

rectal dilator advertizement

[1] Editorial Comments. The New Way. Medical News. Philadelphia: Henry C. Lea's Son & Company. April 29, 1893. p. 471.

[2] U.S. National Library of Medicine, “335. Misbranding of Dr. Young's Rectal Dilators and Dr. Young's Piloment. U. S. v. 67 Sets of Dr. Young's Rectal Dilators and 83 Packages of Dr. Young's Piloment. Default decrees of condemnation and destruction.”
March 1942,

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