Nancy Sullivan, Archivist
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This young lady, Rachel Bean, is making a statement.
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.
Some of the items I don’t understand. For example, I can’t tell what this student is holding.
Two women have signs that say “Free Lunch.” There might be a joke that I’m not getting. Does anyone know what it means?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We have a mini-almanac published by Franklin. This one contains little extra information and instead left pages blank for notes.
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.
But it seems like there was an almanac for everyone:
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.
Given the number of almanacs we have and their condition, they must have been consulted often.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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).
There are lots of great pictures that show what Norristown looked like just over a century ago.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Helen, who eventually married Bill Gately, comes through in the photos as a fun, friendly person. Here she is on an Indian motorcycle.
And here’s the gang at Atlantic City in the 1920’s.
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.
My mission of processing and describing our archives has finally brought me to our oversized materials. Stacked on long flat shelves at the back of the lower stacks, these items are often in old and sometimes broken frames. There are all sorts of items – certificates, diplomas, maps, and posters. Today, I wanted to take a look at three similar items I’ve found.
This lithograph for Company I of the 93rd Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers was done after the war. Enlisted men are named along with a remark on their discharge or if they died or were transferred. In the bottom corners, the poster shows the battles that the unit took part in. Spaces for small photographs are on the poster, but our example doesn’t include any.
Lithography is a form of printing invented in 1796. An image is first drawn with oil on stone (metal plates are used now). Then lithographers use acid to etch the sections of the stone not covered by the oil. The oil is wiped clean, but enough remains to repel the water that’s applied in the next step. The water sticks to the etched sections of the stone and repels the oil based paint used to create the final image that is printed on to paper.
This next lithograph was in honor of the 175th Regiment, PA Vols. Made in 1863 by Schroeder and Sanders, it has less information since the war was still ongoing. There are open spaces at the bottom corners for information to be filled in. It features the battle between the Monitor and Merrimack on the lower right.
Originally lithographs were black and white, and chromolithography was developed in the 1830’s. Each color was on a separate stone so the paper had to be printed on several times. This allowed printers to mass produce these posters while changing the details of each regiment and company.
Our best preserved lithograph is also the oldest. Produced in 1862, the same year the regiment mustered, this poster honors the 138th Regiment, PA Vols. This lithograph, which features images of Fort Sumter and the Battle of Bull Run, was created by Currier and Ives in New York. It has three photographs of Company C’s captain and lieutenants. There’s an oval at the bottom for another photograph. Since this was produced at the beginning of the war, it was presumably owned by a soldier’s family. The empty oval might be for the family to put a photograph of their loved one in.
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