Nancy Sullivan, Archivist
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.
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
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:
Then there’s this:
Sign me up for the chicken barbeque song fest!
Recently, the Historical Society of Montgomery County received a great postcard showing a P&W train crossing the Bridgeport Viaduct over the Schuylkill.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Finally, the sesquincentennial book ends with this disclaimer:
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.
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.
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.
In addition to photographs of several funerals, there are photographs of soldiers before they left for Europe and Liberty Bond drives.
This photograph shows Civil War veterans hailing the new recruits.
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.
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.
With schools closed this spring, many students missed out on their annual science fair. Montgomery County started holding fairs in 1958, one year after the Soviets launched Sputnik. Sponsored by the Montgomery County Science Teachers’ Association, the annual fair includes middle and high schoolers competing for prizes.
We have a few programs from science fairs in the early 1960’s (1962-1965). They show students examining diverse issues in science: biology, engineering, mathematics, chemistry, and physics. The biggest winners received scholarships to local colleges. In these early years, boys and girls were judged separately.
My favorite thing about these programs is the seal for the science fair. It shows what is a perhaps an artificial satellite in the upper left, a Tesla coil on the bottom, and perhaps a moon settlement in the middle.
The Montgomery County Science Teachers’ Association still sponsors an annual fair, now called the Montgomery County Science Research Competition.
This piece is reposted from April 2014.
Currently at the Historical Society, I’m cataloging our collection of several hundred family histories in order to provide better access to our members and patrons. In the course of the project, I noticed something interesting. About twenty family histories were written by the same man, J. Montgomery Seaver.
Seaver’s photograph appears at the beginning of each book, along with a few pictures of illustrious members of the family. These photographs are followed by “The Battle Hymn of the [family name].” The lyrics to each one is a little different.
The main part of the book consists of lists of prominent people with the family name and genealogies that usually link the family to King Edward I of England or William the Conqueror.
In 1930, Seaver was charged with fraud by the Post Office Department. Apparently, he picked 49 common last names (the “best” families, as he called them) and sent post cards to everyone in the phone book with those names. The hardcover, cloth bound books cost $10.00 apiece. Seaver was convicted of fraud, but the judge was lenient. He suggested that if Seaver put his skills and determination to honest work, he could be very successful.
Seavers books are still cited by researchers, but here at HSMC, we’ve decided to put a disclaimer in the books about the suspected fraud.
It looks like Seaver was out to make money, but other frauds are caused by family legends or the hope to inherit a fortune. A famous legend concerns Anneka Jans, an early settler in New Amsterdam rumored to be of royal descent. This article from our archive tells of a family in Lansdale that claimed to be her descendants.
Many people claimed descent from Anneka Jans and sued in the hope of claiming part of a Manhattan real estate fortune. The real Anneka Jans did own about 62 acres of modern Manhattan, but she was not the granddaughter of a Dutch king (the Netherlands didn’t technically have kings in the 17th Century). She was from what is today Norway. A good account of the legend and facts can be found here.
Have you come across any hoaxes or frauds? Have you discovered any family legends that turned out to be false?
Although this prosthesis looks ‘steampunk,’ it dates to around the Civil War. Its owner, Joseph Detweiler Hagey, enlisted as a private in July of 1862 with Company I of the 138th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, under the command of Captain Augustus G. Feather of Norristown. He fought in a long list of battles and skirmishes, such as the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor. At the Battle of Petersburg, Virginia, in 1864, Hagey was wounded in the leg. The injury required his leg to be amputated below the knee.
After he was discharged in June of 1865, he returned to Hatfield and worked as a bootmaker. He became dissatisfied with his government-issued prosthesis, so he decided to make something new and different. His hand-crafted prosthesis is made of wood covered in leather, with metal springs. The foot is made of two separate pieces of wood shaped like a human foot and held together with leather, so that the toe can bend. The bottom of the foot is covered in leather to make for more cushioned walking. The ankle is movable due to the metal springs which attach it to the metal calf. Leather straps act like a garter to hold the prosthetic leg in place around the knee. This fascinating piece of technology is in the collection of the Historical Society.