Nancy Sullivan, Archivist
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
…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