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Nancy Sullivan, Archivist

Thursday, 12 March 2020 19:44

Fourth Liberty Loan

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This morning I came across two photographs of a rally for the Fourth Liberty Loan in Norristown. Described in the Times-Herald as a “monster demonstration,” the parade was to encourage people to buy bonds to help pay for World War I.

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The Fourth Liberty Loan officially got underway on September 28, 1918. The parade took place on the 27th. The large parade included local companies, like Alan Wood Steel, scouts, the Red Cross, veterans, fire companies, marching bands, and even some cowboys from Betzwood Studios.

The man speaking in this picture is Judge William F. Solly, who spoke as a last minute replacement for Henry I. Fox, a local attorney who was ill.

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The United States entered World War I in April of 1917, but it was a year before American troops began traveling to Europe. Propaganda showed the dire possibilities of the war. This small poster is from our collection:

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Liberty Bonds could be purchased in multiple denominations. The government was authorized to issue them through the Second Liberty Load Act of 1917. That act is still the basis for the issue of treasury bonds today. Initially, Americans were slow to buy the bonds, perhaps because it was not a common thing in American life to loan the government money. By the time of the Fourth Liberty Loan, however sales were good. This small notebook from a women’s committee in Lower Gwynedd records the sales.

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The Fourth Liberty Loan would mature in 1938. They were to pay 4.25%, but the government defaulted on the Fourth Liberty Loan, making it the only federal bonds to default. When issued, the bond stated that it would be paid according to the “present value of gold” but in 1933, the US abandoned the gold standard. So the government refused to pay the full value of the bonds.

Thursday, 05 March 2020 21:22

Montgomery County, 1959

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Lee Templeton car dealership in Norristown

 

I started on a new shelf in the stacks this morning and discovered 42 photographs of buildings from all over the south-eastern side of Montgomery County. The large format black and white photographs are mounted on cardboard. With the cardboard backing, most measure 18 by 24 inches.

The cardboard backing is signed by the photographer, Ellis O. Hinsey. A few have a date, 1959. I suspect that they’re all from that year or year before. They might have been mounted on cardboard for an exhibit.

All of the photographs are of buildings and several are of churches and parochial schools.

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St. Gertrude's Parochial School, West Conshohocken

 

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Epiphany of Our Lord (now Holy Rosary), Plymouth

 

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Mother of Divine Providence (now Mother Teresa), King of Prussia

There are also a few businesses.

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Two shops in downtown Norristown

 

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Hale Fire Pump Company, Conshohocken

Ellis O. Hinsey was born in 1902 in Akron, Pa. For his day job, he was an English professor, first at Temple and then at the Pennsylvania Military College, now Widener University. He lived in Wyncote, and according to his obituary in the Glenside News, he was a freelance portrait photographer of 20 years. He died at 58 from complications of lung cancer.

Thursday, 27 February 2020 21:35

Our first wanted poster

We recently acquired this wanted poster from board member Charles Kelly. I can’t be sure because I still haven’t opened every box in our stacks, but so far, it seems this is our first wanted poster.

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Wendell Bowers was a kid with a troubled past. Born in Ambler in 1918, his mother died when he was 14 months old. Although his father was still alive, and he testified at his sentencing to having an aunt in the area, Bowers was sent to live with an unrelated family. He described himself as a child who always got what he wanted. When told “no” he would cry until he got it. He also stole toys and bicycles.

He attended school until the 5th grade. When his foster mother died, he moved back in with his father and stepmother. His misbehavior escalated. He frequently ran away, getting as far as Virginia and Michigan on different occasions. When he once skipped school, his father beat him. Twelve-year-old Bowers then stabbed himself with a knife, leaving the knife in until his father removed it.

He was in and out of reformatories through his teenage years, and it was in the reformatory that he learned housebreaking.

On December 13, 1937, Bowers broke into the Dreshertown home of Mrs. Wilma V. Carpenter, a 38-year-old widow who owned a beauty salon in Germantown. The house was empty when he entered at 4 p.m. He testified that he searched for money but found none. He did find Carpenter’s .38 caliber revolver and drank some of her liquor and read her magazines. A little while later, Carpenter came home with her employee, 22-year-old Mary Griffin. He demanded money from the two women who handed it over. He then decided to tie them up.

He hit Mary Griffin on the head with the gun to knock her out, then told Carpenter to tie her up. While doing this, Carpenter reached for the gun. They struggled and Bowers knocked Carpenter to the floor. As she rose, he shot her twice, killing her.

After, Carpenter assaulted or attempted to assault Mary Griffin. The Times-Herald of February 8, 1938, quoted extensively from Bowers’ testimony, but glosses over the assault, and I will, too. Bowers said that he then dressed Griffin’s wounded head and left the house through the window. He made his way to the train station and bought a ticket to Pittsburgh.

A few days later, Mary Griffin identified Wendell Bowers from her bed at Chestnut Hill Hospital, and a nationwide manhunt began. The local police sent latent fingerprints from the Carpenter home to the FBI, who identified them as Bowers’.

On December 20th, Bowers was picked up in Louisville, KY, for vagrancy and housebreaking. He was using an alias, but his fingerprints identified him as the killer.

Bowers was sent back to Montgomery County to face his trial. Judge Harold Knight was to preside, but Bower surprised everyone by pleading guilty. Judge Knight described Bowers in his diary as a “pasty faced youth.” The court went straight into the sentencing phase. Knight wrote, “The three judges then heard the evidence of one of the most cruel, brutal and unnecessary crimes I have ever heard.”

Bowers testified for some time about his early life and the murder. Knight described Bowers as being “without emotion.” The county’s three president judges went over the evidence on the evening on February 8. On the morning of the 9th, they sentenced Bowers to death. Knight wrote, “He took it calmly and apparently was not as nervous as the judges.”

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The Times-Herald of February 9, 1938 reported that he took the sentence calmly, although it also reported that Bowers did not expect to be executed. He returned to cell number 2 at the county jail, lit a pipe and read a magazine. Wendell Bowers was executed by the electric chair on June 13, 1938.

Thursday, 20 February 2020 20:48

Bridgeport funeral records

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Recently, the Historical Society of Montgomery County received a very interesting donation: 6 ledgers from O’Brien Funeral Home in Bridgeport. The ledgers show a little of the evolution of funeral rites.

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The earliest ledger begins in 1899. We see the cost of the hearse, the burial permit, and the cost of the service. Occasionally, we also see the cause the death, as in this entry.

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As we move into the 20th century, the funeral business becomes more regulated, and the ledgers become forms filled in for each deceased person. They list place of birth, parents’ names, and cause of death, among other things (though not all the fields are always filled in). For our genealogy interested patrons, these records could be very valuable.

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The other half of the form shows the costs of the funeral. You can see that there were many more options, including pall bearers, tent rentals, “aeroplane service,” and telegram charges.

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This listing includes “advertising.” That might include placing a funeral notice, or it might mean the invitations that were common for funerals in the past.

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I researched funeral customsin our library to find out more. Edward Hocker (as “Norris”) wrote two articles on funerals in Montgomery County. In the past, funerals were famous for their feasting and heavy drinking. Needless to say, they were also well attended. He reports on a Pottstown woman who had, by 1909, attended 3,094 funerals. She was 80 years old and had kept a record of each funeral.

He also wrote of the funeral hostlers, usually teenage boys who watched the horses of those attending the service. They were never paid or tipped for their work but were well-fed, and I guess it beat farm chores.

Thursday, 06 February 2020 21:02

Summer class of 1917

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Last week, as I continued working through the oversize shelves at the back of the archives, I came across this interesting photo of Norristown High School’s summer class of 1917. As you can see, many of the students are holding items.

Several are holding straw hats, such as this fellow.

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This young lady, Rachel Bean, is making a statement.

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Only a few of the people in the photo have been identified. This student, holding a Union Jack, is Mabel Blew, whose nickname was “Greenie” according to the June, 1917 issue of Spice. The flag could be a show of support for United States’ new allies in World War I.

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Some of the items I don’t understand. For example, I can’t tell what this student is holding.

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Two women have signs that say “Free Lunch.” There might be a joke that I’m not getting.  Does anyone know what it means?

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While we have other graduation photos in our collection, none feature the objects and signs that this one does. Does anyone remember this as a tradition?

The photo also reminded me of a curious thing about Norristown High School. Each year in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were two classes per year at the school, a summer class and a winter class. This situation lasted until 1932. The winter class began school in January and graduated at the end of January 4 years later. The winter class of 1932 seems to have been the last of its kind, but there’s no mention of it in their yearbook or in the 1933 yearbook. The change seems to coincide with the move to the new A. D. Eisenhower building.

But why the two classes? I haven’t been able to find out. I could speculate that it had to do with students, usually boys, who missed much of the year for agricultural work. As farming retreated from the Norristown area, it would make sense that the two classes would no longer be necessary.

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Finally, in looking around for information on the summer class of 1917, I looked at the commencement issue of Spice. At this time, Spice wasn’t a yearbook, but a monthly magazine produced by students. A reflection by a student notes that the summer class of 1917 started out with 111 students. By graduation, that had reduced to 66. That’s a pretty high attrition rate. No doubt many students had to start working or were unable to keep up their grades.

Thursday, 30 January 2020 19:05

Royersford’s founding document

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In 1879, a small corner of Limerick township broke away to form its own borough. Here is the original map and petition presented to the county proposing the new borough of Royersford.

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Royersford’s development began in 1839, when the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroad first came through. Prior to that, although there was some farming, much of the area was heavily wooded, according to the The Second Hundred Years. The area, which was part of Limerick Township at the time, was already known as Royer’s Ford because it was an easy place to cross the river and the land owners on the Chester County side were named Royer.

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With the railroad came industry. While there were several mills and foundries in the area, stove making soon became the most prominent industry. The Buckwalter Stove Company and the Grander Stove Company shipped their products around the world.

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With industry, the population began to increase. In 1880, one year after incorporation, there were 558 people in Royersford. By 1900, there were 2607. Shops, schools, banks, and a public library were all built or expanded to serve this growing population.

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Today there are about 4700 people in Royersford today.  Although the industry has mostly left, it still has an active main street with shops and restuarants.

 

Thursday, 23 January 2020 21:18

Almanacs! Almanacs! Almanacs!

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Recently, I decided to tackle a part of the stacks that has gone largely untouched in my seven and a half years at the Historical Society – the almanacs. We have hundreds of them from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. These are not the large volumes of facts you might remember from your school library or playing “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” They do not list the monarchs of Britain or world capitals.

These are instead small booklets. They contain the expected information about the phases of the moon, sunrise and sunsets, and the tides. Beyond that they seem to contain whatever the printer felt like adding. Many have household tips, humorous anecdotes, and moral stories.

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We have a mini-almanac published by Franklin. This one contains little extra information and instead left pages blank for notes.

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Many of the almanacs were created for the general public while others had a specific audience in mind. Today, the Farmers’ Almanac is one of the best-known periodicals, and many of these early American almanacs also focus on agriculture.

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But it seems like there was an almanac for everyone:

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My personal favorite is the Piratical & Tragical Almanac. It is not an almanac for pirates, but it fills the gaps between the calendars and the weather predictions with stories of pirates, murders, and stagecoach robberies, complete with woodcut illustrations.

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Given the number of almanacs we have and their condition, they must have been consulted often.

Thursday, 19 December 2019 18:53

Forty-Foot Road

One of the more interesting road names in Montgomery County is Forty-Foot Road. It runs through Towamencin and into Hatfield. According to every source on the subject, the name of the road refers to its width.

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Forty-Foot Road from the 1877 atlas of Montgomery County

However, Edward Hocker points out in one of his articles in the Times-Herald (May 3, 1957) that most roads laid out in the Eighteenth Century were forty feet wide, but farmers were free to use whatever land they could without interfering with the traffic. Perhaps Forty-Foot Road was left wider than other colonial era roads and thus acquired the name.

This map from our collection shows property owners along part of the road in Towamencin as well as Skippack Creek. The area next to the road is marked as “woods.”

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A 1752 map drawn by Christian Lehman

Forty-Foot Road’s moment on the national stage came early in its existence when American troops marched along the road in October, 1777 after the Battle of Germantown. With them was General Francis Nash who had been wounded by a cannonball during the battle. The wounded were placed in houses along the road, perhaps some on the properties seen on this 1752 map. Nash (after whom Nashville, TN is named) and three other officers died of their wounds. They are buried at Towamencin Mennonite Meeting House at the intersection of Forty-Foot Road and Sumneytown Pike.

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Headline from the Times-Herald

In the 1960’s the road was widened. Landowner Clayton C. Moyer took the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to Court and was awarded a payment of $1905. The state appealed and attorney R. Wayne Clemens researched the history of the road and found that before the state widened it to fifty feet, the road had shrunk to thirty-eight feet! The judges agreed with his research and ordered the state to pay Moyer the money immediately.

Thursday, 12 December 2019 19:28

The World's Largest Borough

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Lately, I’ve been working on the oversize items in our collection. The lonely oversize shelves at the back of the closed stacks contain a variety of unwieldy items – framed deeds, panoramic photographs, diplomas, and posters. There are also some oversize publications, like the one I found a couple of weeks ago.

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“Norristown, Pennsylvania – Largest Borough in the World” is a curious document. On the one hand, it seems to be a reflection of “boosterism,” a phenomenon of late 19th and early 20th century America. In towns and cities across the country chambers of commerce and other civic groups promoted their community with the sort of “rah-rah” enthusiasm usually restricted to the high school football field.

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We have several such publications, each touting Norristown’s location, people, and institutions. This one seems particularly aimed at business leaders. It has lots of pictures of Norristown’s businesses, as well as the mansions their owners lived in. There are special sections on Ursinus College and Bridgeport, as well as a detour to Jersey Shore (I suppose to show off possible summer homes).

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There are lots of great pictures that show what Norristown looked like just over a century ago.

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The real mystery behind this item is who produced it? On an inside page we see what looks like a periodical title, “Buyers and traveler's report” along with a date, 1910. But I can’t find any record of a magazine by that name. The Norristown Chamber of Commerce is prominently featured, so my guess is that they are the creators and publishers of the item.

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As for the title, is Norristown the world’s largest borough? I’ve seen this claim in several places, sometimes modified to “the world’s largest independent borough.” A listing of boroughs by population isn’t readily available, and the term means different things in different countries and even within the US (an Alaskan borough is analogous to a county).  We can say that Norristown is a grand borough indeed.

Thursday, 05 December 2019 20:09

A family in Red Hill

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In the northern corner of Montgomery County are three small towns that run together along Route 29 – Red Hill, Pennsburg, and East Greenville. The borough of Red Hill was incorporated in 1902 and today has a population of just under 3000 people.

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Stella Roth is the teacher, Helen Roth is the short, blond girl in the second row

We recently got a collection of family papers from the Roth family of Red Hill, and they give us a picture of a family at the turn of the 20th century, just at the time the borough was incorporated. The collection was maintained by Jane Gately Foster, and donated by her daughter Patricia Sosinski in memory of the descendants of John A. and Catherine Gery Roth.

John A. Roth, a doctor, was the patriarch of the family and Catherine Roth, nee Gery, was the mother and a milliner. There were five children – John W., Helen, Edna Mae, Flora, and Stella. The children are shown here in a portrait they had taken when their mother was in the hospital in 1905.

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Jane Gately Foster was Helen’s daughter, so she is very prominent in the collection. But all the family is included, as well as neighbors and friends.  Jane even identified most of the people on the reverse of the photos.  Edna Mae seemed to share her milliner mother's interest in hats.

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Helen, who eventually married Bill Gately, comes through in the photos as a fun, friendly person. Here she is on an Indian motorcycle.

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And here’s the gang at Atlantic City in the 1920’s.

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Helen is in the center, with various family and friends

The family also has a little bit about the famous Red Hill Band. The band was founded in 1900 (before Red Hill was even incorporated) and is still going. Community bands like this one were very popular in the early 20th century and could be found throughout the county. The Red Hill Band is the only one left in Upper Montgomery County. You can check out their website here.

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