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.
…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.
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.
Norristown didn’t have a Catholic Church until St. Patrick’s opened in 1834, mainly to serve Norristown’s Irish population. In the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, immigrants from southern and eastern Europe began coming to America, and Norristown became home to hundreds of newly arrived Italians. Although the word “catholic” means universal and Catholic services were conducted in Latin at the time, it was typical for immigrant groups to start their own parishes, staffed by priests from the home country.
Norristown was no different. For many years, Italians celebrated Mass at St. Patrick’s. Eventually, an Italian mission church opened in the basement, led by two Italian priests who preached, heard confessions, and gave spiritual support in Italian. In 1902, a new priest came to Norristown, Father Michael Maggio, who formed a committee, raised funds, and in 1903 built a small church on land acquired from the Good Shepherd Sisters of St. Joseph’s Protectory.
The first Holy Saviour Church, or Sanctissima Salvatore, was barely a full story high. In 1908 it was replaced by a larger, more typical looking church that would accommodate the growing parish. This was largely the work of Father Lambert Travi, Holy Saviour’s second pastor. Father Travi went on a decade later to build the parish’s first school. It in September of 1928 with 500 students. The parish continued to grow, with the school getting up to 800 students. The school was staffed by the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, one to each grade, making for a student-teacher ratio of 100:1!
In 1948, the parish purchased a closed public elementary school, the James A. Welsh School, and moved in for the 1948-1949 school year. In the 1950’s, Holy Saviour’s pastor, the Italian born Father George Delia, expanded the church, doubling its size to hold up 1000 people.
Monsignor Peter J. Cavallucci with the Norristown Exchange Club at Holy Saviour School
The school has been closed, and students from the parish now attend Holy Rosary Regional School in Plymouth. However, Holy Saviour parish is still a vital part of Norristown’s culture, celebrating several feast days a year. The parish also has a mission church, Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the Black Horse section of Plymouth.
Source: Basile, Joseph M. Holy Saviour Parish - Norristown, Pennsylvania: 1903-2003, 2001
In preparation for our upcoming exhibit, Montgomery County Hospitals, we attempted to unravel a mystery regarding General Winfield Scott Hancock. On July 3, 1863, during the third day of the battle of Gettysburg, General Hancock was shot while on his horse. The bullet went through the saddle and lodged in the General’s upper thigh near the groin. Although wood and a nail (from the saddle) were removed from the wound, none of the field doctors could locate the bullet.
General Hancock was eventually sent home to Norristown to recover from his wound. Several doctors tried, unsuccessfully, to remove the bullet. The wound continued to fester, causing many people to fear it would eventually kill the General. In a final attempt to remove the bullet, Dr. Louis W. Read was sent to General Hancock’s home in Norristown in late August 1863.
Bullet removed from Hancock
After examining the wound, Dr. Read realized previous attempts to remove the bullet had failed because General Hancock’s leg was not positioned in the same way he was sitting in the saddle at the time of his injury. Dr. Read instructed General Hancock to position himself similarly to how he was sitting in the saddle when he was injured. This allowed Dr. Read to quickly remove the bullet.
Dr. Louis Read
Here is where historians have been unable to come to a consensus: how exactly did Dr. Read get General Hancock into the proper position to remove the bullet? The most popular theory among historians is General Hancock was instructed to straddle a chair on the dining room table. However, other theories such as being put into a saddle on a saw horse or a barrel also circulate among Civil War buffs. So far, we have been unable to locate a primary source to prove any of these theories.
Dr. Read’s portrait and the bullet he removed from General Hancock will be on display in our upcoming exhibit, Montgomery County Hospitals. There will be an opening celebration tonight, June 27, 2019 from 6PM to 9PM. Tickets are $40 per person. The exhibit will be free and open to the public from July 1, 2019 through March 2020.
Recently, we received a group of unidentified photos at our back door. They were left anonymously, so we don’t know much about them (again, please don’t anonymously leave things at our back door). But three of the photos interested me particularly because summer officially begins this Friday, and they show the classic summertime activity - baseball.
The photos show boys participating in the Atlantic Baseball School, a kids’ program run by Atlantic Refining Company. The boys could be at Roosevelt Field (the other photos are clearly Norristown), but the time was hard for me to pin down. Atlantic Refining was founded after the break-up of Standard Oil in 1911 and headquartered in Philadelphia. It lasted until it merged with Richfield Oil to form ARCO in 1966. The make of truck in the photos suggests it was taken after 1930 or so.
Clothes are often a good way to date photographs, but it’s difficult with children. The boys are not in their Sunday best, and many are wearing the baggy knickers typical for professional players in the first half of the century. Their hair tends to be longer than what I would expect in the 1950’s. There aren’t many crew-cuts.
I decided to look more closely at the truck. I had looked at the photograph several times before I noticed the straw hat sitting on the bumper. This, also dated the picture to before 1950, although the gentleman at the microphone is older, and might not have kept up with the latest fashion. The hat does place the photo in the summertime, but I had already guessed that. Finally, I looked more closely at the license plate, where you can see a small “40” in the upper, left hand corner. Turns out, license plates used to be issued annually and showed they year they were issued. So, the answer had been there all along.
Does anyone remember the Atlantic Baseball School? Atlantic Refining had stations all up and down the East Coast, including this one advertised in the Norristown sesquicentennial book (1962). The company was a long-time sponsor of Major League Baseball in Philly. Perhaps their baseball school was an outgrowth of that involvement.
Rumors of the death of the book have been greatly exaggerated. Hardcover sales are strong and audiobooks are increasing in popularity. People frequently like to share what they're reading and their thoughts about books on Goodreads, Litsy, and LibraryThing. Book clubs abound, and there’s a whole world within a world on Instagram known as “Bookstagram.”
In many ways this is a continuation (though in different form) of previous centuries' literary clubs and societies. As schooling became universal at the end of the 19th century, many people wanted to continue their education into their adult years. This coincided with a time when Americans liked joining clubs, and many of the clubs were based around reading and learning.
The Reading Circle in the early 1960's.
The Norristown Reading Circle was founded in 1910 by six women. The original plan was to read and review popular fiction, but it soon expanded to include history and current events. The meetings were held every other week at a member’s home. The membership was capped at 20. The club got a surprising amount of newspaper coverage.
We have two minute books for the Reading Circle, which was clearly more formal than a modern book club. The minutes from fall of 1923 illustrate how varied the topics were: on September 11 Mrs. Hunsberger talked about her trip to California, on the 25th Mrs. Anders gave an account of the Summer School for Working Girls at Bryn Mawr, on October 9 they discussed a novel called Spinster of This Parish, and on October 25, they all gathered at Mrs. Gotwals house to see her daughter’s wedding gifts.
In the late 19th century, Towamencin had the Kulpsville Literary and Library Association, whose object was “mutual improvement of Self Culture and to become familiar with Literature in general.” The members were all men, apparently young men from the minutes. The society also aimed to start a library. At meetings members practiced spelling and debated topics related to the club (should members be fined for not attending meetings?) or current events (the Civil War comes up a lot in the early years).
"Then spelling was practised a short time with deep interest."
These sorts of organizations were so common that in 1881, the Kulpsville Literary and Library Association merged with the Oxonia Literary Society and the Young Folks Literary Society.
A page from the Kulpsville Literary and Library Association acknowledging the assassination of President Garfield.
We have records of even more, in Gwynedd, Conshohocken, Upper Merion, and a few more in Norristown. These are probably just a sampling. Other societies were perhaps less formal and didn’t keep records, or didn’t last for as many decades as these clubs did. The idea that one can self-educate is inspiring, and the truly social aspects of these clubs seems so much more significant in the age of selfies and 144 character tweets.
Interior of the New York Store
One of most interesting collections we have here at the Historical Society of Montgomery County is the Leonard Friedman Papers, much of which concerns his work on Norristown’s Human Relations Commission.
Leonard Friedman was born in Philadelphia in 1918 and attended the University of Pennsylvania. He served in the army during World War II, then spent fifty years running his family’s business, the New York Store. In the 1970’s he served on Norristown’s Human Relations Commission which was created in 1966 to help the borough cope with racial issues.
His papers have many items relating to race relations in Norristown in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, providing a snapshot of life in Norristown during a turbulent time. One newsletter of the Interfaith Committee for Social Action describes a protest of 150 young black people at Norristown Borough Hall. At that protest Arthur Hall, a young man from Norristown, gave a speech demanding more respectful treatment from local police, questioning the curfew, and for an increase in the number of black police officers.
Arthur Hall from the 1968 Norristown High School Spice yearbook
Another issue Friedman’s papers focus on is fair housing in Norristown. In 1969, borough council passed Ordinance 2065 prohibiting racial discrimination in housing. There’s many newspaper clippings about white sellers refusing offers from black buyers and information for realtors to prevent discrimination in housing.
Pamphlet from the Fair Housing Committee
The Human Relations Commission was also concerned with the Norristown Area School District. Throughout the country at this time, cities tried to desegregate schools through bussing. A newsletter called "News ‘N’ Views" distributed by the school district explains six proposed ideas for achieving racial balance in NASD schools. In addition to that, Mr. Friedman himself wrote a letter to a Harold T. Huber, looking for help in redesigning NASD’s curriculum to include African-American history.
From the records, it looks like Friedman was on the Commission until 1973. There is a Human Relations Commission in Norristown today, but it was started in 2018, according to its website, so I don’t know the fate of the original commission.
If you’re reading this on Thursday, you might be hunkered down inside trying to keep warm. Now, don't worry about that headline, that's not tomorrow's forecast. The average January temperature for Norristown is 41 degrees. The high today was 16. In light of that, I thought these pictures of Ardmore after a 1902 ice storm might be appropriate. Because, it might be cold, but at least we haven’t had an ice storm.
The photos are from the Charles Barker Collection. Barker was a native of Ardmore, and a diligent documenter of its history. The photos are dated February 21 and 22, 1902. I checked the Times-Herald to see what had happened.
The front page had several articles about the storm. Telephone and telegraph wires were downed by the storm as you can see in this picture. In Norristown, trolley service was disrupted but continued to run all day. Trees were badly hurt by the storm and streets were full of broken branches. The newspaper reported that the orchard of Eli Dyson near Trooper was nearly destroyed.
The Keystone Telephone Company reported that 286 of its 500 telephones were working. People bringing their goods to market, like Joseph B. Rogers, a butcher from Jeffersonville, brought an ax with him to chop through the branches on his way into the borough.
The bright light, in all of this was the Historical Society's annual celebration of Washington's Birthday, which was well attended despite the weather.