Nancy Sullivan, Archivist
On July 14, 1931, a storm hit central Montgomery County, dropping so much rain that several local creeks flooded, causing $1,000,000 in damage according the Times-Herald (that’s not adjusted for inflation).
One of the hardest hit sections of the borough was Elmwood Park, where the miniature golf course was destroyed. At the zoo, two volunteers watched as the flood waters rose toward the cages. They called the assistant borough engineer, Samuel Hart, around 10pm. He ordered them to open the cages. The Times Herald reported that the white tail deer ran off, but that many of the animals could not escape the rushing water. The monkeys, bears, and opossum survived. Even more troubling perhaps, was the reported alligator sightings in flooded areas of the park (they were later recovered).
The Times-Herald's building flooded, but it still managed to put out an edition for July 15th. Several families were left homeless by the storm and sheltered at city hall.
Two days after the flood, Norristown had as much trouble with gawkers as it did with debris. Thousands came to view the flood damage, especially in Elmwood Park, as you can see in the photographs. Police had to be sent out to the direct traffic.
From the Times-Herald, June 5, 1972
On June 5, 1972, the Roofers Local Union No. 30 bussed hundreds of members to a construction site in Upper Merion, but they weren’t there to work. They had come to protest the construction of the Valley Forge Plaza.
The picketers carried signs declaring that the contractor paid non-union workers substandard wages. The equipment and construction trailers were firebombed, causing $300,000 to $400,000 in damage. When the fire department arrived on the scene, state police blocked them from getting to the fire because the picketers had been pelting the police with rocks. When more state police were called in from Reading, the fire trucks were allowed to come on to the site. The construction company knew the protest was coming, and there were no workers at the site that day. Despite the large police presence, no one was arrested at the scene.
From the Times-Herald, June 6, 1972
The developer, J. Leon Altemose, was running an open shop, hiring non-union laborers. Altemose, a native of East Norriton and graduate of Norristown High School and Penn State, had started in construction building homes. Altemose always claimed that he was not against unions, but insisted that workers should have the right to work without being a union member. He later claimed to have offered the union 50% of the jobs on the project.
From the Times-Herald, June 22, 1972
When a Montgomery County judge barred picketing at all Altemose construction sites, they picketed the company’s headquarters. One hundred twenty-five picketers were fined. In response, the local building trades staged a march on June 22, 1972 from Plymouth Meeting Mall to the courthouse.
Photographs from our collection show a piece of the troubled time in the county. Notes on the back say that they date to the trial (16 were convicted, 11 went to jail), but those notes were made by a volunteer here at the Historical Society and seem to be a guess. The newspaper coverage of the trail (which lasted for four month in 1974) doesn’t mention a strong police presence at all.
It’s possible that they are from the labor parade on June 22. The Times-Herald described state police standing shoulder to shoulder along route. Of course, the pictures don’t show any marchers, so this might be incorrect. The parade attracted about 20,000 workers despite tropical storm Agnes hitting the area the same day, leading to widespread flooding.
According to a Philadelphia Magazine article from 2008, the building unions in the Philadelphia suburbs never recovered from the Altemose firebombing. Altemose died in 2008.
"J. Leon Altemose, controversial contractor, dies at 68" The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 6, 2008
Upper Merion Township The First 300 Years by J. Michael Morrisson, Francis X. Luther, and Marianne J. Hooper, King of Prussia Historical Society, 2013
…except Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post.” Groucho Marx says that line in the Marx Brothers’ first talking picture, The Coconuts. He was referring to Liberty Magazine – a Weekly for Everybody was a general interest magazine that existed from 1924 to 1950.
Like its main competitors mentioned by Groucho, Liberty featured colorful illustrated covers, articles on national issues, opinion pieces, and fiction by well-known authors.
We don’t have any issues of Liberty in our collection, but it was popular in Norristown. Liberty produced a book about Norristown, with pictures and quotes from prominent local citizens expressing their admiration for the magazine. It's called Stop off at...Norristown.
I’m not sure what the purpose of the book was. I talked to our own magazine expert (and Board of Trustees president), Ed Zeigler, who suggested it was a bonus given out to subscribers. It could have been an attempt to increase circulation.
The book itself is undated but it references a 1936 estimate for population and makes no mention of World War II, so I would guess it was produced between 1936 and 1941. In 1941, it was discovered that the magazine’s publisher, Bernarr McFadden, had been inflating the circulation numbers so he could charge advertisers more. Kimberly-Clark, (the paper company) took over and put John Cuneo in charge of the magazine. A year later, the cover price of Liberty went from five cents to ten cents (following the lead of The Saturday Evening Post), and circulation dropped.
Perhaps the book was a reaction to one of those events. No information with the book indicates how it came to be in our collection. I think that, for now at least, the purpose of the book will remain a mystery.
This morning I got an email from the Academy of Natural Sciences about Sasha Siemel, a big game hunter who lived in Montgomery County for much of his life. I had never heard of him, so I set out to discover more.
Well, it was easy. He has his own Wikipedia page, which we all know means he was SOMEBODY. He was born in Riga, Latvia and came to the United States in 1907 at the age of 17. After only two years, this restless guy went down to Argentina where he worked in a print shop for several years, before moving on to Brazil in 1914. There he worked at the diamond mine camps in Mato Grosso as a mechanic. There a native Brazilian taught him how to hunt for jaguars using only a seven-foot spear.
Sasha had found his life’s calling. He worked for the local ranchers clearing the area of jaguars. He was quoted in the Times-Herald, “I hunt the tiger only on or near ranches, where he is a nuisance – never in his habitat. He has a purpose there.”
The rest of the world soon heard of his adventures. In 1929, author Julian Duguid hired Siemel as a guide on a trip across Pantanal (a huge tropical wetland). Duguid later wrote a book about the trip, Green Hell, and later a biography of Siemel, Tiger Man. Siemel took to writing himself, penning articles for outdoor magazines (including National Geographic). In 1930 he took part in a University of Pennsylvania expedition to Brazil.
Siemel is on the right
While on a lecture tour in 1937, he met Edith Bray in Philadelphia. The two eventually married and began their family in the Brazilian jungle. Around the time he met Edith, Sasha appeared in a movie serial called Jungle Menace as a character named “Tiger Van Dorn.”
In 1947, the couple moved to Pennsylvania, buying an 18th century farmhouse in Marlborough Township in 1947. In the comfort of home, Siemel wrote his autobiography, Tigero. The book was to be made into a movie, with John Wayne and Ave Gardner and shot on location, but it fell through (that story is told in a documentary called Tigero: A Film That Was Never Made). The Siemels brought not only their three children who had been born in Brazil, but many of animals, too, including an anaconda.
In 1963, Siemel bought the old Perkiomen Rolling Mills building in Perkiomenville and opened a museum for his various collections and hunting trophies. A researcher visiting the Historical Society this morning remembered the museum well. Ardythe (Hersh) Musselman grew up in Marlborough Township and went to school with Sasha Siemel, Jr. She remembers Sasha, Sr. coming to school with a large reel of film of one of his Brazilian adventures. She also remembered the disturbing noises made by the family’s peacocks.
Sasha Siemel died in 1970 at the age of 80. His obituary claims he killed 300 jaguars. The museum and gift shop closed soon after. The mill was later purchased by someone who sought to turn it into a home, but the building caught fire in 1993 and, while it’s still standing, it was rendered uninhabitable. It can still be seen at the junction of Gravel Pike and Upper Ridge Road in Perkiomenville.
On Thanksgiving Day in 1950, just as families in Lower Providence were sitting down together to enjoy the holiday, a huge explosion occurred. Three thousand feet of a natural gas pipeline that ran from Texas to New York were destroyed in the blast. The Times-Herald reported the explosion on the day after (November 24) and quoted the superintendent of Fish Constructors, Inc., who was working on the pipeline at the time. He said he had “no idea” of the cause.
Although fire officials said anyone close to the blast would have been killed, no one was there because of the holiday. Two old buildings on the former Wetherill estate, then the Philadelphia Protectory for Boys (and now St. Gabrial’s Hall) caught fire and were destroyed. Nearby cornfields were scorched.
The boys at the Protectory were playing a football game only half a mile away. When they heard the blast, both players and spectators ran. Some boys were found miles away, according to the newspaper account.
The men who owned the property, brothers Joseph and Edwin Camiel were both knocked down by the explosion. The line was own by Transcontinental Gas Pipe Lines of Houston.
The paper describes the scenes “The huge mains, made of five-sixteenths of an inch in thickness, were scattered over farmlands in the vicinity of the line.”
The Protectory can be seen in the background
Earlier today I was scanning some photographs and came across a folder of photos of the Horhsam Fire Company. Along with the photos, I found a brief history of the fire company.
It seems the company was founded after the barn of the Quaker Meetinghouse burned down in 1913. Up until that time, Horsham didn’t have a fire company at all, so people began to talk about starting one.
According to our account, provided by Leroy Forker, when people were discussing the possibility at O. P. Smith's general store, Benjamin Parke claimed that neither he nor Leroy Forker would live to see a fire company in the community. It’s not clear if this was expressing opposition to the fire company or a disbelief that the people of Horsham could organize something. Forker, however, thought differently. He worked making deliveries for the general store, and when he went out that day, he talked about the issue at every house he stopped at. Jay Magargee gave him $10 towards the establishment of the company.
The 1914 groundbreaking for the new fire house
Later, according the Horsham Fire Company’s website, O. P. Smith donated the land for the fire house, which was built in 1914. According to a 1959 article by Edward Hocker, Midvale Steel Company of Philadelphia donated a steel locomotive tire to be struck with a hammer to alert the volunteers. This was apparently common for communities that couldn't afford a bell. Hatboro's fire company donated the group's first pumper.
Early headquarters of the Horsham Fire Company
The first truck was a second hand Oldsmobile, according to The Second Hundred Years.
Early fire trucks in 1967 parade
Readers of a certain age no doubt remember The Saturday Evening Post. Even readers born after the Post’s heyday, are probably familiar with some of its familiar Normal Rockwell covers. But, did you know of Montgomery County’s connection to the iconic American weekly?
Published in Philadelphia, The Saturday Evening Post goes all the way back to 1821, but it rose to prominence in the twentieth century under the direction of Charles Horace Lorimer. Lorimer lived in Wyncote, part of Cheltenham township. Much of his estate is now occupied by Ancillae Assumpta Academy.
Lorimer was also the author of the book Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son. While it’s not widely known today, it was a best-seller in the early twentieth century.
Cover from Letters from a Self-Made Merchant, from our collection
Lorimer left the Post in 1936, in part, according to the Saturday Evening Post Society’s website, because he felt out of touch with New Deal era America. The cover in our collection dates to 1949, when Ben Higgs was editor.
It shows a well-known corner of Montgomery County – Skippack Pike and 202 in Whitpain. Men run to the engin of the Center Square Fire Company on one side of the street and the recently closed Reed’s Store appears on the other side. The note for this cover claims that the artist, Stevan Dohanos, was looking to capture a small town fire company. It goes on to say, “Incidentally, four Post artists, long fascinated by that Center Square department store, have tried to figure out a theme for coverizing it, and failed.”
The Post continued to be an influential magazine into the 1960’s when competition from television led to the decline of print media. The Post’s parent company lost a major libel suit and the magazine stopped printing in 1969. Since then, it has been revived, most recently by the non-profit Saturday Evening Post Society.
Our hardworking trustee and volunteer, Ed Ziegler found a great map of the early days of Norristown this morning.
The map was made in 1926 by Simon Cameron Corson, a man who knew Norristown inside and out. He was born in 1863 and attended Treemount Seminary (along with nearly every other male Norristonian of note). He trained as a civil engineer, and worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad for several years. He was one of the many engineers sent to rebuild the railroad after the Johnstown Flood. Ten years later, he was elected Borough Engineer in Norristown. In that position he improved the borough’s streets, storm drains, and designed Elmwood Park. After 33 years, he left that position to be the administrator of the park, a position he held until a few months before his death at the age of 85 in 1948.
According to his obituary, “it was an undisputed fact that he was the best informed of historical facts in Norristown.”
We have many of Corson’s drawings in our collection, and a few of them are of early Norristown. This one is interesting for several reasons. First, he added color, which just makes the map beautiful. Then there are the little details he added.
Here is William Smith’s house. Smith was the first provost of the College of Philadelphia (it would later merge with the University of the State of Pennsylvania forming the University of Pennsylvania). His house, as you can see, was located on Barbadoes Island. Although he was appointed by Benjamin Franklin, they were polar opposites politically. The map declares Smith a Tory. His biography on the University of Pennsylvania’s website suggests a more complicated story. Smith argued for the rights of the colonists but spoke out against revolution.
The map also shows a small Lenni Lenape village labeled “Turtle Munsey Delaware Tribes.” Munsee was one of the languages spoken by the Lenni Lenapi (or Delaware), and Turtle was one of the three clans of the tribe.
Finally, there’s a little bit of downtown. The only labeled intersection in this part of the map is Egypt (Main) and Cherry Alley (presumably Cherry St.), so we have a good idea of where this is today. The Norrington Inn is identified and dated to 1690. It's interesting to see what in in Norristown a few decades before the borough incorporated in 1812.
Since it's the dog days of summer, I thought we could revisit one of our earliest blogs. Ok, I'm super busy and our curator in on vacation, so we're running a repeat.
In 1875, Blasius Pistorius, a German priest on a visit to his brother in Norristown, was arrested for the murder of Isaac Jaquette. The trial caused great excitement in the county and was prominently featured in local newspapers. The Historical Society of Montgomery County holds the complete transcripts of Pistorius’s two trials. His trial was the first in the county to use a court stenographer.
The dispute between the two men involved Jaquette allowing his cattle to graze on Pistorius’s brother’s land (John Pistorius was also tried for murder, but he was not present at the time of the shooting and so was acquitted). On July 24, 1875, when a boy working for Jaquette, Henry Muloch, allowed the cattle to cross over to the Pistorius farm, Blasius Pistorius came out with a pistol and threatened to shoot the cattle if they were not removed. Muloch ran for Jaquette, who picked up two stones and threatened Pistorius with them. The two men exchanged some more threats before Jaquette lunged for the pistol. The pistol fired, killing Jacquette.
Pistorius’s lawyers argued that their client acted in self-defense and that Jaquette chose to undertake the risk of the gun firing when he attempted to take it from Pistorius. Nevertheless, the priest was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to death. Since he was a subject of the German Empire, the German consulate stepped in, and his sentenced was change to life imprisonment. Pistorius died in Eastern State Penitentiary in 1888.
A few months ago, we received a small collection of letters from a woman named Barbara Cook. The letters had been found together in the Morris house in Adrmore. Two of the letters were very old and are now among the oldest documents at the Historical Society of Montgomery County.
They both date to 1683. One was written by Phineas Pemberton to Phoebe Pemberton and the other was from Ralph Pemberton to Phoebe Pemberton. I used the book Colonial Families of Philadelphia by John W. Jordan to learn more about the family.
Ralph and Phineas were father and son, and they came to North America together, along with Phineas’ wife Phoebe (nee Harrison). In their native Lancashire, Jordan tells us, the Pemberton’s were a prominent family in the parish of Wigan.
Ralph's letter to Phoebe
The third letter was a letter written to Phineas and Phoebe’s grandson, James Pemberton, author of a booklet defending pacificism called "An Apology for the People called Quakers." James lived in Philadelphia and was an organizer and later president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. James and his older brother, Israel Pemberton, Jr. were opposed to armed confrontation with the British. In 1777, both were banished to Virginia. His third wife, also named Phoebe, was left to take care of their property “The Plantation” (The land later became the US Naval Asylum in Philadelphia).
John Fothergill by Gilbert Stuart, author of the letter?
The letter in our collection was written to James during the revolution by John Fothergill of London. There was a prominent Quaker named John Fothergill in London at the time. He was a physician and botanist, but there is no saying if it is the same man. In the letter, he exhorted James to keep his mind on what really mattered:
"Your part is a clear one. Be quiet, mind your own proper business. If your kingdom is not of this world, mind that only which we look for, and are taught by the highest authority to seek."
Later he repeats the same idea:
"Be quiet, and mind your own business, promote every good work – show yourselves subject to that invisible overruling providence…"
James and Israel stayed in Virginia for eight months before returning to Philadelphia.
The final item donated with the letters was an account of Morris family during the American Revolution. The account is undated, but probably from the nineteenth century. A little more digging through Jordan, and I found that James’ daughter with his second wife (Sarah), Mary Smith Pemberton married Anthony Morris. The Morrises were also Quakers, but during the Revolution several members fought aginst the British. So, through the connection of Mary and Anthony Morris, the papers came to be in Ardmore. They were apparently forgotten for many years, and we are very happy Ms. Cook saved them and brought them to us.