In the 1880’s, there was only one place to go for dancing instruction in Norristown, Professor J. E. Reilley’s class held weekly at Meeh’s Hall. Professor Reilley held his classes from September to May. At the end of May, the class would perform publicly for their final exam.
Below is an invitation to the 1888 event.
According to an accompanying newspaper article, 32 young ladies and 6 gentleman performed. The ladies are listed each with what they were wearing. Kathie and Emily Preston would blue Canton crepe trimmed with surah and lace while Miss Katie Haines wore pink chaille and garnet velvet. The Preston sisters were later very active members of the Historical Society. Emily would have been about 13 in 1888 and Katherine about 15.
The program was long with several solos and group dances. Miss Alice Edmunds “one of the prettiest girls in the class” performed a scarf dance. Miss Eva McGinnis, dance “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye” while holding a bunch rye. The entire class danced around a maypole.
According to the newspaper, “The affair was a complete success, and Prof. Reilley is to be hearily congratulated for his good fortune with the pupils, and thanked for his painstaking care in their instructions.”
Reilley was born in the US to Irish parents, but I was unable to discover when he first came to Norristown. He continued teaching dancing until he died in Norristown in 1911.
Today, the Montgomery County-Norristown Library consists of the central library in Norristown, four branches, and a bookmobile. Like thousands of libraries across the country, it is a public library, supported by taxes. But this was not the original model of the Norristown Library or the many libraries across the county.
Lending libraries began in the 18th century as private enterprises, more along the lines of a video store (if anyone remembers those). They were funded through the subscriptions of individuals. In 1794, ninety families in the central part of Montgomery County decided to start the Norristown Library Company.
The library had several different homes until 1824 when a building was built by the trustees at a cost of $153.43.
To become a member of the library, a person had to buy a share. In 1912, shares were $5 each. A shareholder still paid $1 per year to borrow books from the library and non-shareholders could borrow books for $2 per year. Browsing was free.
The Historical Society of Montgomery County has many stock certificates from the Norristown Library Company. Most of them were donated by William F. Slingluff in 1930. The library company was still a subscription library at that time, and it looks as though Mr. Slingluff actually transferred the stock to the historical society.
We also have a printed catalogue from 1853, which is also the year the library moved from the small building above, to a new building at DeKalb at Penn Streets.
From looking over the catalogue as well as the bills from Wanamaker’s, it looks like the subscribers read more non-fiction than fiction.
Here’s one of the bills (notice the $2 charge for a copy of Huckleberry Finn).
The Norristown Library Company remained a private subscription library well into the 20th century. However, in 1937, the McCann Library, a public library run by the Norristown School District closed its doors. Many in the community wanted to see the library company become a public library open to all for free. In 1942, with the backing of the borough, the Norristown Library did just that.
This story comes to you from our “Other than that Mrs. Lincoln…” file. Working through some papers belonging to the Rhoads family, I came across a newspaper article from the Atlanta Constitution dated Saturday, November 18, 1922.
The woman pictured below is Mrs. Varnetta Regar. The article describes her as a “former Augusta society girl.” On Christmas Eve, 1917, she eloped with Gordon R. Regar, son of Howard K. Regar, owner of the Rambo and Regar Knitting Mills. She was a freshman in high school in Augusta when their romance began (the 1920 census lists her year of birth as 1901). After a brief honeymoon, they held a “wild” farewell party when Gordon, a second lieutenant in the PA National Guard, sailed for France.
After the war, the two lived at the Regar home in Norristown with Gordon’s parents at 1420 DeKalb Street (just down the road from our headquarters). Varnetta described a raucous life, telling the newspaper that her husband taught her to smoke and drink. The couple fought often, but would make up. Then at a party in Philadelphia, the couple’s argument became physical. Varnetta described the party as “terribly wild…no one thought of drinking anything less potent than whisky and soda or gin fizzes.” Gordon attempted to drive home inebriated, but got lost. The two got into a fist fight, each coming away with a black eye.
The Globe Knitting Mill in Norristown, owned by the Ragar family
At that point, Varnetta returned south, having been assured by Gordon that he would handle the divorce. Boy, did he! He accused Varnetta throwing a knife at him, which she doesn’t deny in the article, but explains that she did when she saw Gordon kiss another girl. So, Varnetta intended to get her divorce annulled and then file for divorce again, citing Gordon’s infidelity as the cause.
I wasn’t able to find out if she ever did get the second divorce, but I do know the couple never reunited, which is probably a good thing. Gordon later married a woman named Helene Collins and moved to southern California. He passed away in 1976. Since the article doesn’t list Varnetta’s maiden name, I wasn’t able to find out what happened her after the divorce.
While this story and its pictures took up much of the front page, a smaller item notes that the Fascists, led by Mussolini, had just taken control of the Italian government.
Mussolini, below the fold
Lately, I’ve been looking through business records collected by the society over the years. In a box labeled “Receipt Books,” I found the treasurer’s book for the Youth Improvement Society. The accounts for the group begin in April of 1839. Membership was one dollar per year and included several young men of Norristown, including (future Civil War general and presidential candidate) Winfield Scott Hancock and his twin brother Hilary.
From the treasurer’s book, we can get a few clues as to what the group did. In September of 1839 the group paid Benjamin Worrell 25 cents “for turning a block for Electro-Magnetic machine.” The following year, the society paid W. S. Hancock for copper, and Alexander Lentz was paid 25 cents for “making a Galvanic Battery.”
Nineteenth-Century Americans loved joining clubs. They also loved listening lectures, and that seems to have been the main purpose of the group. A March, 1841 entry indicated a payment for “Spirits of Wine for lecture.” The topics, based on the items purchased, were most likely of a scientific nature.
An 1840 note on the first page says that the name of group changed in 1840 to the “Cabinet of Natural Science.” I couldn’t find very much on this group, except for a mention in the newspaper from 1837. Perhaps that group died out and this one decided to replace it.
According to Hancock biographer Glenn Tucker wrote in his book Hancock the Superb, that the group fizzled out after Hancock left for West Point in 1840 at the age of 16.
By Michael Green
From the original indictment in HSMC's collection.
The holiday season can be a time of much joy, happiness, and good cheer. It can also be a time of sadness and tragedy. The latter seems to be the case in the matter of Daniel Boyle and Peter Betson of Upper Merion Township. On the evening of Saturday, December 24, 1825, Christmas Eve, Peter Betson lost his life to violent blow inflicted by Daniel Boyle. This citation is according to the Wednesday, December 28, 1825 issue of the Norristown Herald newspaper.
Records discovered in the Historical Society of Montgomery County reveal the actual indictment for murder file with the Montgomery County Court. Both the newspapers article and indictment reveal that the two men were highly intoxicated. Further, they report that Mr. Boyle struck Mr. Betson with a large stick or club over a dispute of some sort. The recorded testimony of witnesses reveals the individuals knew one another locked in a moment of heated argument resulting in a tragic loss of life, much as it happens today some one hundred ninety years later.
A jury of Mr. Boyle’s peers on August 23, 1826 found him not guilty. The verdict is documented in the records of the Montgomery County Clerk of Courts.
As a final post script, during the 1700 and 1800’s the Norristown Jail/Montgomery County Prison house defendants indicted and held on charges such as the foregoing. In 1851, the structure which still stands in Norristown was constructed. It is believed that it stands on the same grounds of the original jail. In September, 1986, the Montgomery County jail was closed in this Norristown location and the new facility was opened. Again, the more things change, the more they remain the same.
I'm taking a break from getting out the winter newsletter to all our members to share this Christmas photo with you.
This is a Christmas interior of the New York Store from around the 1940's. The store was at 16 E. Main Street and sold women's clothing. It was founded in 1923 by Samuel Friedman. and closed in 1991.
Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukah and Happy New Year!