As May draws to a close, I was reminded of something I came across a couple of months ago, an invitation to the second annual “Maying” at Augustus Lutheran Church. The invitation is from 1850, by which time Augustus Lutheran was already over 100 years old.
The church is located in Trappe and sometimes is called the “Old Trappe Church”. Settlement in Trappe goes back to 1717. A Lutheran congregation was organized in 1729 by John Caspar Stoever, Jr. who held services in a borrowed barn. Stoever was not actually an ordained minister. After he moved west, various self-made ministers passed through the area until the community joined with other Lutherans in Falkner Swamp and Philadelphia and contacted the church in Germany to send them an ordained minister.
Once Muhlenberg arrived, the congregation eagerly started building in 1743. The church was finished in 1745 and named after Muhlenberg’s mentor, August Franke. Since Muhlenberg was the first regularly ordained Lutheran minister in the future United States, Augustus Lutheran is considered the “Shrine of Lutheranism” in the U.S.
The congregation also built the first school house in the area in 1743. Rev. Muhlenberg was the first teacher. The church would build two more school houses, the last being a stone one. In 1846, that building was leased to Upper Providence Township and became the town’s first public school. It is probably this building referred to on the invitation. It was torn down just a year later.
Recreation of the schoolhouse based on the memories of a former student and the remaining foundations.
From a 1931 booklet on Augustus Lutheran Church by Rev. W. O. Fegley.
A new brick church was built in 1852, but the original was kept. It is the oldest unaltered Lutheran Church in the U.S., and the congregation occasionally still uses it for services. In fact, this Sunday’s (June 2) service will be held in the original church.
We have many publications produced by the church, but none of them make reference to an annual “May Day Ramble.” Perhaps the tradition didn’t catch on.
Recently, George Detwiler, member and volunteer here at the Historical Society of Montgomery County, donated a collection of photographs of the River Crest Preventorium. This facility was an offshoot of the Kensington Dispensary for the treatment of tuberculosis located in Mont Clare, Upper Dublin. The Kensington Dispensary was founded by St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Germantown to treat the high rate of tuberculosis in Kensington’s immigrant community. The Mont Clare location was meant to provide a country retreat for children who had been exposed to tuberculosis, but did not have an active form of the disease.
According to the minutes of the Fourth Biennal Convention of the United Lutheran Church in America, in 1923 The Preventorium had space for 39 children. The demand was such that the children had be limited to only a two stay, and the report calls for an expansion of the facility. The minutes describe the method used at the preventorium as “Fresh air, sunshine, nourishing food, supervised play, exercise and rest….Another definite aim is to assist the child’s mental, moral and spiritual development.”
Along with the photographs, George donated a program for the 1929 dedication of a new administration building at River Crest and new dormitories for 100 children.
By the middle of the 20th century, tuberculosis was no longer the crisis it had decades earlier, and the Kensington Dispensary shifted focus to serving intellectually disabled adults and children, and River Crest became a residence and summer camp for those children.
In 1969, the organization changed its name to KenCrest. Today, the River Crest Preventorium is the RiverCrest Golf Club.
I thought it would be nice to close out the year with some charitable giving. This week, I discovered a large ledger that recorded the accounts of the Bringhurst Fund in Upper Providence. The first pages of the ledger contained a copy of the will of Wright Bringhurst, the founder of the fund.
Mr. Bringhurst was the heir to his father Israel’s general store in Trappe and many acres of land in Schuylkill County, and he was a good steward of them. When the Reading Railroad built tracks in Schuylkill County, Bringhurst made quite a bit from the sale of the land. He also served in the Pennsylvania legislature. When he died a bachelor in 1876, his will distributed some of the money to his sisters and their children, but over half of the money was donated to the boroughs of Norristown and Pottstown and the township of Upper Providence to create low cost housing for the poor. According to Edward Hocker, in his 1959 article “Gifts for the Public Good Made in Many Pottstown Wills,” (Times-Herald, Dec. 30, 1959), Bringhurst wanted the fund to build the houses in order to provide work, and then rent the houses to the "deserving poor" at below market rates.
Bringhurst’s generosity made news at the time of his death. I found an unattributed article in an old scrapbook that reprints almost the entire will. It also points out that Bringhurst had not been known to be particularly charitable during his life.
The amount left to start the fund was just over $100,000. The will directed that it be divided among the three communities in proportion to their population. Also, the Orphan’s Court would appoint three trustees to oversee the fund.
Houses were built in Mont Clare, Collegeville, and Trappe. In Norristown, 28 houses were built on Chain, Marshall, Corson, Powell, and Elm Streets. Renters were charged a small amount rent. That money was then redistributed to the poor as coal, shoes, or medicine, or re-invested in the fund. I found this information in an article published in our own Bulletin, “A Few Facts in Connection with the Bringhurst Family of Trappe, Pennsyvlania” published in October of 1940. That’s the most recent information I could find on the Bringhurst bequest.
Our own records of the trustees for the Upper Providence portion end in 1926. There are plenty of pages left in the book, and the final entry gives no indication that the fund was running out. I was unable to find the exact location of any of the houses or what happened to the money. Did it run out? Was it absorbed into another program? If anyone has any information, please let me know.
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).
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).
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)