Nancy Sullivan, Archivist

Nancy Sullivan, Archivist

Thursday, 22 October 2020 19:54

Boehm’s Church

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While wandering around the upper stacks looking for my next project, I came across an old Bible with a tag that claimed it was once owned by John Philip Boehm, founder of Boehm’s Church in Blue Bell.

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Title page from the Bible

This massive book was published in Nuremberg in 1733. The Bible has many illustrations and additional material. Like most of the 18th and 19th century German Bibles in our collection, this one was translated by Martin Luther, and it includes an illustration of Luther and a biography. There are also brief biographies of the rulers of Saxony, the German state that protected Luther from the Holy Roman Emperor starting with Friedrich III or Wise. There is also an index of names and a chronology of events in the Bible.


An illustraion of Friedrich III



Martin Luther

The man who owned the Bible, John Philip Boehm, was born in 1683 in the town of Hochstadt (now part of the city of Maintel) in Germany. His father was a minister in the Reformed Church (the Reformed churches followed the teachings of John Calvin). The young John Philip Boehm was an innkeeper and later a teacher at Reformed schools in Worms and Lambsheim. In 1720 he emigrated to Pennsylvania where he became a farmer. One of our books on Boehm says that he left because he was persecuted by Catholics, but the much more detailed book Life and Letters of the Reverend John Philip Boehm, says there was a dispute in Lambsheim over the use of land by ministers and schoolteachers, and that the Catholic schoolmaster joined Boehm in protesting the town’s policy.

Really, we don’t know exactly why Boehm left Germany, but in 1720 he begins to appear in Pennsylvania records. At that time, the German population of Pennsylvania was increasing, but there were no Reformed ministers in the area. Some joined other churches or worshipped with Quakers, but when the well-educated Boehm arrived, his neighbors asked him to serve as their minister. Boehm demurred because he wasn’t ordained, but after five years of asking, he gave in and began preaching in three places: Skippack, Faulkner Swamp, and Whitemarsh.

This led to problems a couple of years later when a Reformed minister arrived from Europe and ordered Boehm to end his ministry. In response, Boehm and his supporters contacted the Dutch Reformed Church in New York. The New York ministers forwarded his request for ordination their leaders in Amsterdam, who recognized Boehm’s ministry and gave permission to the New York ministers to ordain him.


From the book Life and Letters of the Reverend John Philip Boehm

Boehm was actually the founder of several congregations in southeastern PA, and the one known as Boehm’s Church (pronouned "beems") was his last. According to the church’s website, as Boehm got older, traveling to all the different churches became more tiring. In 1847, a small stone church was built near his farm in Whitpain.


The church as rebuilt in 1818; the spire was added in 1870

Boehm's Church, now a United Church of Christ, continues his ministry to this day.


Hinke, Rev. William J., Life and Letters of the Reverend John Philip Boehm (Philadelphia: Publication and Sunday School Board of the Reformed Church in the United States, 1916)

Thursday, 15 October 2020 19:24

The DeKalb Street Bridge Fire

bridge fire

At 3:40 pm on April 14, 1924, flames appeared near the middle of the DeKalb Street Bridge. In ten minutes the entire length of the bridge was alight. Although fire companies from both Norristown and Bridgeport responded quickly to the alarm, there was nothing they could do to save the bridge. At 4:05, the first span fell and more soon followed.

Originally built in 1830 by a joint stock company, the bridge was taken over by the county in 1884 and made a free bridge.

This photograph of the destroyed bridge is from a collection recently donated by Luther Kolarik.


Besides cutting off traffic between Norristown and Bridgeport, phone service between the two boroughs was also suspended for two days.

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Authorities originally believed the fire was arson because it spread so rapidly and burned so fiercely. But decades of oil and gasoline dripping from passing vehicles had soaked into the wood. Once the fire started it was impossible to stop and the fire companies focused on keeping the fire from spreading.

A temporary bridge was opened a few months later. Shown here in a photograph from Kolarik collection and below that is the blueprint for the same bridge.



This drawing of a proposed concrete bridge appeared in the Times Herald just a day after the fire.  People had been calling for the old wooden bridge to be replaced for sometime.  In 1923, a pedestrian had been killed on the bridge, which led to increased concern that the birdge was outdated.

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But, it was a few years before the new bridge reopened.  These blueprints from our collection are dated 1926.

DeKalb St. Bridge

Thursday, 08 October 2020 18:25

Col. William Allebaugh


Members of the Historical Society of Montgomery County may already be familiar with our county’s record in the Civil War: Generals Hancock and Hartranft, Col. Bolton who famously coughed up a bullet years after the war, and nurse Anna Morris Holstein. But, you might not be familiar with Col. William Allebaugh.

Allebaugh was born in Bucks County and came to Norristown as a young man where he worked as a tailor. He was involved in one of the “National Artillery” companies in Norristown that was commanded by Col. John F. Hartraft. When war broke out the unit signed up for three months. For this initial enlistment, Allebaugh was captain of Company A.

He did not see action during those first three months, being stationed in Havre de Grace, MD, but upon re-enlistment for 3 years he was made captain of Company C of the 51st Pennsylvania Volunteers. He fought at Roanoke Island, Second Bull Run, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. After a brief furlough at the end of his three years, Allebaugh re-enlisted, and the regiment was sent to Virginia for Grant’s push on Richmond.

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Photo of the monument to the 51st PA at Antietam, from the National Park Service

At the Battle of Spottsylvania in May of 1864, company C had the honor of carrying the regimental colors. They stationed in open ground and overwhelmed by the Confederates who captured the colors. In an attempt to recapture them, Allebaugh was surrounded and forced to surrender.

Here, the story gets a little murky. In the obituary that appeared in the Herald and Free Press, it claims he was held in Richmond, then transferred to the notorious Andersonville prisoner of war camp in Georgia. He escaped with three others and reached Sherman’s lines on the march from Atlanta to the Sea. That took place from November 15, 1864 to December 21, 1864, meaning that Allebaugh was held prisoner for about 6 months.


Andersonville prison camp, HSMC 1952.10201

However, the very same issue of the newspaper has a somewhat different story. Under the headline “The Story of his Adventures while a Prisoner in the Hands of the Rebels as Told by Himself,” this article says Allebaugh and two others escaped while marching through Augusta, Georgia, an area settled by Pennsylvania Germans before the war. However, there was no way to get them out of the area, and the men re-surrendered to the Rebels. They were taken to Andersonville. Again, Allebaugh escaped with two men from the 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry, but they were recaptured two weeks later.


As the Confederacy collapsed, the prisoners were transferred for Charleston and then Columbia, South Carolina. Just before Columbia fell, the prisoners were loaded onto a train that moved so slowly Allebaugh and some other prisoners cut a hole in the floor and dropped through. He arrived back at Columbia just as the rebels were fleeing the city and Sherman’s men were entering. That puts Allebaugh reaching Union lines in February, 1865 (the city surrendered on February 17).

Upon rejoining the 51st at Alexandria, he was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and later breveted a colonel. He returned to Norristown after the war, and served two terms as burgess. He died at the age of 55 of erysipelas, a skin infection now curable with antibiotics. The battle flag of the 51st was carried at his funeral which was attended by many surviving members of the regiment. He left a wife and several children, but his wife Mary passed away about one week after him. They are both buried in Montgomery Cemetery.

Thursday, 17 September 2020 20:41

Francisco Espinoza Duenas


Among our recent acquisitions was a collection of slides, photographs and papers of the Peruvian artist Francisco Espinoza Duenas. He might be best known to our readers as the artist who painted the cafeteria mural at Norristown High School.

Espinoza Duenas was born in Lima, Peru in 1926. He studied at the National School of Fine Arts there, graduating with First Honors. In 1955, he travelled to Spain on a scholarship to the Institute of Hispanic Culture at the San Fernando Superior School of Fine Arts in Madrid. He went on to work and study in France for several years, followed by a few years in Cuba before heading back to Madrid.

In 1984, he first came to America, and he stayed in the Philadelphia area for about 5 years. During this time he painted murals at several schools in addition to Norristown High School as well as public buildings such as Norristown’s Human Resources Building and the International House in Philadelphia.


International House mural

Teaching art was also important to Espinoza Duenas, and he conducted programs at the Alternate School in Cherry Hill, the Elizabeth Haddon School in Haddonfield, and with the Delaware County Girl Scouts. He was an artist-in-residence in Delaware County, painting a large 16x8 foot mural at the Redwood Community Playhouse.


The Redwood Playhouse mural

In Norristown, he also worked with local Cuban refugees to paint a mural in the basement of the Central Presbyterian Church on W. Main St. As with students, he often turned painting into a communal activity.

Before returning to Spain in 1989 to live, he was very involved with Mosaico Atlantico, an artistic commemoration of Columbus’s first sailing to the Americas. He still lives in Spain today.

Unfortunately, the collection donated to us by a former student of his did not include any photographs of the mural in the Norristown High School cafeteria. If anyone out there has one, we’d love a copy.

Thursday, 10 September 2020 18:39

Montgomery County Agricultural Extension

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Recently we received a large collection of materials related to the Knapp family of historic Knapp Farm in Montgomeryville. Among them were several newsletters from the Montgomery County Agricultural Extension.

Agricultural extension programs originated with the Smith-Lever Act in 1914 which established extension programs connected to the land grant universities. The purpose of the program is to encourage farmers to learn the latest agricultural techniques. Here in Pennsylvania, the county agricultural extensions are part of Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

The papers from the Knapp family show the extension’s many areas of the concern: Flower clubs, 4-H, animal husbandry, home economics, and, yes, farming.

4-H Clubs predate the Smith-Lever Act by 12 years, but the club’s mission of teaching new agricultural techniques fit so well with the goals of the act, that the act supported them. From our collection, we can see that the Montgomery County Extension also supported a Home Beautification Club and a Flower Club.

In January, 1942, the Home Economics Extension sent out a newsletter, titled “The Rural Women and the National Defense.” In addition to vague advice like, “Keep on with your homemaking job, but DO IT BETTER than you ever have before,” the newsletter announces four new programs to help homemakers:

How Well Do You Know Your Meats?

Vegetables for Health

Left Overs

Facts About Bread

The Extension also provided guides to buying and caring for clothes as well as recipes. 

This undated program shows the variety of demonstrations and classes held by the extension:

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Then there’s this:

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Sign me up for the chicken barbeque song fest!

Thursday, 03 September 2020 20:19

The Philadelphia and Western


Recently, the Historical Society of Montgomery County received a great postcard showing a P&W train crossing the Bridgeport Viaduct over the Schuylkill.

time table

The Philadelphia and Western Railroad was a commuter railroad started in 1902 (as the Philadelphia and Western Railway). It was originally planned to connect to the Western Maryland Railroad at York, but those plans fell through. Trains began running in 1907, and the Norristown line opened in 1912.

Photo081 watermark

The trestle bridge of the P&W was a landmark in Norristown for many years. Sometimes called the “clock bridge,” it was an easy to find place to meet up with people. However, the decline of railroads and trolleys, in the wake of the post-war car boom, led to buses replacing Norristown’s trolleys in 1951. The bridge over Main Street was torn down in 1955.

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The bridge in the postcard is still in use, however. In 1954, the company was sold to the Philadelphia Suburban Transportation Company, and it became known as the Red Arrow Line. Eventually, it became part of SEPTA’s Norristown High Speed Line.

Thursday, 20 August 2020 18:16

Norristown’s Sesquicentennial


Lately, I’ve been scanning a large collection of photographs of Norristown’s Sesquicentennial celebration held in May of 1962. The celebration lasted a full week and seemed to bring out everyone in Norristown and the surrounding communities.


The events kicked off with local businesses offering “old fashioned bargains.” There were dances, fashion shows, a carnival, fireworks, and concerts.  Every night at 8:30, “The Norristown Story” was presented at Roosevelt Field. The sesquicentennial book lists the scenes in this dramatic reenactment of Norristown’s past, but if one of the three people reading this happens to have a copy of the script, I’d love to have it in our collection.



Two images from "The Norristown Story"

The culmination of all the excitement was the parade on May 12th. For the parade women were organized into several groups of “Celebration Belles” while men were “Brothers of the Brush.” The chapters marched dressed in 19th century clothes.


A Celebration Belle bowling


The Brothers of the Brush


The big parade



One of our few color photos of the parade



One of the most lasting items from the sesquicentennial are the wooden nickels which were produced in the hundreds, if not thousands. We have many in our collection, and I suspect there are more hanging around basements and attics.

Wooden nickel


Finally, the sesquincentennial book ends with this disclaimer:


Thursday, 13 August 2020 17:11

Camp Delmont


A lot kids of missing summer camp this year, so I thought this week, I’d highlight one of Montgomery County’s oldest summer camps: Camp Delmont.


The Council Lodge

Camp Delmont was founded by the Delmont Council of the Boy Scouts of America in 1916 (it later changed its name to the Valley Forge Council.) It is located in Marlborough Township on the banks of the Unami Creek.


A 1921 brochure for the camp touts instruction in classic Boy Scout skills such as knot tying and nature study. There was also twice daily swimming in the swimming hole.


From these postcards and the brochures in our collection, the accommodations were primitive, but only cost $7 per week. Scouts were instructed to bring their scout uniforms, two heavy blankets, poncho, underwear, woolen shirt and sweater, an extra pair of shoes, pajamas, two large towels, and a bathing suit.


Open-air bunkhouses


In 1996 the Valley Forge Council merged with the Philadelphia Council creating the Cradle of Liberty Council. The Philadelphia Council had run an adjacent camp, Camp Hart. The two camps merged are now known as the Musser Scout Reservation. The camp’s 1200 acres are permanently protected by the Scouts, the Montgomery County Lands Trust, the National Lands Trust, and Montgomery County.

Thursday, 30 July 2020 19:31

Norristown in World War I

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A couple of weeks ago, one of our regular researchers asked me about some photographs he once saw here of funerals for service men killed in World War I. I’ve been through most of our photographs, but I wasn’t aware of the photos he was talking about. Since he was interested in WWI, I pulled down a large book we have titled Roster of Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines from Norristown, Pa., in US Service, World War, 1917-1919. And…surprise! There were the photos.

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In addition to photographs of several funerals, there are photographs of soldiers before they left for Europe and Liberty Bond drives.

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This photograph shows Civil War veterans hailing the new recruits.

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After a few pages of photos, the book becomes a record of the all the men from Norristown who served in the war. There’s no indication of who produced the book. The rosters look as though each man signed his own name. It also lists the dates of their service and the branch they served in.


This invaluable record was donated to the Historical Society by B. Frank Stritzinger in 1929.


Thursday, 16 July 2020 15:55

"Hill-Billies" at the Norris Theater

This week we received two items that had me nostalgic for … February. They were handbills for local theaters. Remember theater? Remember going out and doing things?


The first handbill is from about 1931, when the Norris Theater was less than a year old and showed both live vaudeville acts and movies. Both shows illustrate trends in American entertainment in the early 1930’s. The first is hillbilly music, a phrase coined in the 1920’s for what we now might call bluegrass, folk, or Americana. Groups like the Blue Ridge Ramblers toured the country on the vaudeville circuit and recorded 78rpm records. They played traditional songs like “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” and “Golden Slippers.” Radio shows also featured groups like this, as the advertisement points out at the bottom, “You’ve heard these Hill-Billies on the air – now see and hear them in person.”

The show is combined with the movie, Svengali, starring Hollywood megastar John Barrymore. Svengali was a horror movie about a singing teacher who hypnotizes a tone deaf milkmaid (people’s idea of “scary” has changed). Horror was a popular genre in the early sound days of film. Universal Studio’s monster movies are probably the best remembered examples. Svengali was released in May of 1931.


The other handbill is from 10 years later and features Norristown’s three theaters: the Norris, the Grand, and the Garrick. The three theaters were all owned by the same family so they advertised together. The Norris still seems to be the premier theater, showing the biggest movies, in this case A Yank in the RAF with Tyrone Power and Nothing but the Truth with Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard. The other two theaters show “B” movies, like The Smiling Ghost, an example of the horror comedies popular in the 1940’s.

Hopefully we’ll all be back in theaters someday soon whether it’s for a movie or clog dancers or whatever “Spark Plug – the 16 year old boy wonder” is. If you’re curious to hear what the Ramblers sounded like, you can hear some of their songs here.

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