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Displaying items by tag: Norristown

Thursday, 15 October 2020 19:24

The DeKalb Street Bridge Fire

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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.

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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.

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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  In 1923, a pedestrian had been killed on the bridge, which led to increased concern that the birdge was outdated.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.

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Published in Found in Collection
Thursday, 17 September 2020 20:41

Francisco Espinoza Duenas

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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.

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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.

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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.

Published in Found in Collection
Thursday, 03 September 2020 20:19

The Philadelphia and Western

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

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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.

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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.

Published in Found in Collection
Thursday, 20 August 2020 18:16

Norristown’s Sesquicentennial

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A Celebration Belle bowling

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The Brothers of the Brush

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The big parade

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One of our few color photos of the parade

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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.

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Finally, the sesquincentennial book ends with this disclaimer:

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Published in Found in Collection
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.

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

 

Published in Found in Collection
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?

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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.

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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.

Published in Found in Collection

Since I can't get into our headquarters to write any new blogs, I thought I would share some highlights from the past 6.5 years.  This is a very early one from November, 2013.

 

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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.  

Published in Found in Collection
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.

Published in Found in Collection
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.

Published in Found in Collection
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.

Published in Found in Collection
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