Nancy Sullivan, Archivist
This had been a day of big news, very big news. When I turned on the radio this morning instead of the usual program, we hear that allied troops had landed in France from 4000 ships and thousands of other small craft protected by 11000 airplanes. This was it, the suspense was over, the invasion was on. Little news has come through as yet except that it is known that we have established beach heads and that the operation is proceeding according to plan. All day services were held in the churches every hour and the stores in Norristown closed at noon. There was no exaltation, no jubilation but a grim purposeful spirit seemed to pervade all. We know the price of victory will be high, but we know there will be victory. After opening court in my room this morning I asked all to remain standing and say a silent prayer for the allied soldiers fighting in Europe. I then put in a busy day, dispatching nine cases – two by trial and seven by pleas. But the big news was not over. When I reached home, I found that Buddy was back in the US in South Carolina and will probably be sent to Atlantic City. Then there were letters, one from Harold Jr. telling us that his destroyer was one of three sent against eight Japanese subs. He has certainly seen some sharp action for he said he lived a year in a week. But he is all right and that is what counts. Also had letters from Beu and Jules. Beu is having some trouble with his knee and Jules expects to be moved again. Yes, this had been a day of big news.
From the 1944 diary of Judge Harold G. Knight. Spelling and punctuation have been corrected.
As May draws to a close, I was reminded of something I came across a couple of months ago, an invitation to the second annual “Maying” at Augustus Lutheran Church. The invitation is from 1850, by which time Augustus Lutheran was already over 100 years old.
The church is located in Trappe and sometimes is called the “Old Trappe Church”. Settlement in Trappe goes back to 1717. A Lutheran congregation was organized in 1729 by John Caspar Stoever, Jr. who held services in a borrowed barn. Stoever was not actually an ordained minister. After he moved west, various self-made ministers passed through the area until the community joined with other Lutherans in Falkner Swamp and Philadelphia and contacted the church in Germany to send them an ordained minister.
Once Muhlenberg arrived, the congregation eagerly started building in 1743. The church was finished in 1745 and named after Muhlenberg’s mentor, August Franke. Since Muhlenberg was the first regularly ordained Lutheran minister in the future United States, Augustus Lutheran is considered the “Shrine of Lutheranism” in the U.S.
The congregation also built the first school house in the area in 1743. Rev. Muhlenberg was the first teacher. The church would build two more school houses, the last being a stone one. In 1846, that building was leased to Upper Providence Township and became the town’s first public school. It is probably this building referred to on the invitation. It was torn down just a year later.
Recreation of the schoolhouse based on the memories of a former student and the remaining foundations.
From a 1931 booklet on Augustus Lutheran Church by Rev. W. O. Fegley.
A new brick church was built in 1852, but the original was kept. It is the oldest unaltered Lutheran Church in the U.S., and the congregation occasionally still uses it for services. In fact, this Sunday’s (June 2) service will be held in the original church.
We have many publications produced by the church, but none of them make reference to an annual “May Day Ramble.” Perhaps the tradition didn’t catch on.
I came across an interesting old document last week, a news magazine produced by eighth graders at a local junior high school. The magazine was created simply with paper and pencil and bound together by string. The somewhat damaged cover gives the title “Cultur[al] Works” and declares it the March issue (complete with lion and lamb).
There are three sections, one on world news, a literary section with poems and stories, and a final section on style. No year is listed on the cover, but heavy coverage of the Roosevelts suggests a 1933 date. The kids also covered fashion, a California earthquake, and wrote biographies of several historic figures such as Franz Liszt and Robert Lewis Stevenson.
Betty Bean, editor of "Cultural Works" and Jeanette Poser, a contributor, from their 1937 NHS yearbook
Each article has a by-line, but the school isn’t mentioned. I did some math and some poking around and found most of the students mentioned in Norristown High School’s 1937 yearbook. So they could have been at Rittenhouse or Stewart Junior High Schools.
Overall, the magazine is a nice production. It’s the sort of thing that often doesn’t survive, usually getting thrown away by parents or simply falling apart. The pencil is very faded on some pages, and we can assume the paper you see above was originally white. The inclusion of newspaper clippings would have only accelerated the deterioration (newsprint is very acidic).
Teaching students about media continues to be part of the curriculum in the Norristown Area School District. Just last week our own Barry Rauhauser was interviewed at Norristown High School for the Hank Cisco show. You can check it out on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-BoXADgxX-M.
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.
It might be hard to imagine now, but the sale and consumption of alcohol were once hotly debated issues in Montgomery County.
With its large German population, the county was home to many breweries, Adam Scheidt perhaps being the best known. However, it was also home to many temperance societies, both local ones and nationally affiliated groups like the Sons of Temperance and Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.
The Temperance movement is an interesting one that combined several aspects of nineteenth-century America – clubs, “do-gooding,” political engagement, and crusading zeal. First, I think a quick explanation of the name of the movement is necessary. “Temperance” is a synonym for moderation, and in the earliest years of the movement (1820’s – 1830’s), it mainly focused on discouraging the consumption of hard liquor and drunkenness.
By the end of the 1830’s the goal the movement had changed, and many members of temperance societies pledged to abstain from alcohol totally (with a capital “T” written next to their names). After the Civil War, what had been something of a fringe cause became a mass movement that used preaching to discourage the public from drinking and lobbying the government for more stringent laws on the sale of alcohol or for outright prohibition.
The Norristown branch of the Sons of Temperance was founded in 1845, just three years after the original chapter was founded in New York. Moses Auge was one of the founding members, and he donated some of the group’s early papers to the Historical Society in 1887. (If anyone is interested, that makes them one of our earliest donations, number 108, to be exact.) The Sons of Temperance was like many other fraternal groups popular at the time. There was a secret initiation and death benefits for members.
We also have the papers of the Law License League of Norristown, a group that lobbied the county to enforce standing laws regarding the sale of alcohol, which they believed would reduce the number of public houses in the borough.
The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (which still exists) was also present throughout the county. They sponsored speakers and meetings. In our collection, we have a 1916 publication listing the names of people who signed petitions for liquor licenses for various Norristown establishments.
All of these groups promoted total abstinence from alcohol, but for some people, that didn’t go far enough. One of Montgomery County’s most progressive reformers was Dr. Hiram Corson. He often made public speeches in favor of temperance, but he was not a member of the Sons of Temperance. In his diary of 1847, he wrote of his opposition to the Sons of Temperance “on account of their allowing Root Beer, pop, &c.” I guess cold water was good enough for him.
Cover of an adveritsement for the Schuylkill Valley Lines
In 1950, boys from around the world came to Valley Forge for the second Boy Scout Jamboree. Today, the Jamboree is held every few years, but they got off to a slow start. The first Jamboree was scheduled to take place in Washington, D. C. in 1935, but had to be cancelled because of a polio outbreak. It was eventually held in 1937. The next one wasn’t held in 1950, due in part to World War II.
With such a long hiatus, the 1950 Jamboree was a big deal. It was covered extensively in the Times-Herald and the Philadelphia papers. The papers estimated that 47,000 scouts from around the world came, creating what the Times-Herald called “the largest tent city in [the] nation’s history.” Philadelphia Suburban Water Supply provided 800,000 gallons of water each day. The Jamboree had its own telephone system with three 80 line switchboards. They handled 8,000 calls per day. The Times-Herald also reported that it was expected that the scouts would consume 40,000 eggs, 409,000 gallons of milk, and 5,000 gallons of ice cream. The Mrs. Smith’s Pie Company of Pottstown made 250,000 pies for the event (they were all apple). A camp hospital was manned by the 49th Evacuation Unit, Army Reserve Unit. While they mostly treated blisters, upset stomachs, and heat exhaustion, they also performed an emergency appendectomy on a 13 year-old from Jacksonville, FL.
Photo from the National Park Service
President Truman opened the event on the night of June 30, with a speech about international cooperation in the midst of an international crisis. Five days earlier, North Korean troops had crossed the 38th parallel. Truman told the boys, “When you work and live together, and exchange ideas around the campfire, you get to know what the other fellow is like. That is the first step toward settling world problems in a spirit of give and take, instead of fighting about them.” He encouraged the scouts to travel abroad to learn about other counties.
On July 4th, General Eisenhower addressed the Jamboree and set off the fireworks. In his speech, Eisenhower addressed the need to support South Korea “by whatever means are necessary.”
Thirty-seven Alaskan scouts were quoted as being in favor of statehood for their home. It also says they were not prepared for the summer heat in the lower 48. The boys from Maine feasted on lobsters sent from home one night while everyone else had “mulligan stew.” A boy from New Mexico tried to swap his pet snake, but got no takers. Horned toads (which are really lizards that look like toads) were popular though. The Philadelphia Zoo took in several because their new owners didn’t know what to feed them. It also received calls from three mothers who were frightened when their children found stray lizards in the backyard (Times-Herald, August 3, 1950)
Nineteen nations sent troops as well. The papers reported that the British scouts played cricket and brought 12 pounds of tea. Badrudan Morani of Bombay (now Mumbai), India traveled the farthest to be there. There was even a contingent of sons of delegates to the United Nations who had their own troop based in Jamaica, Queens, with members from nine different countries. They flew the UN flag over their tent.
May of 1896 witnessed one of the worst tornado outbreaks in American history. It lasted about two weeks and spawned tornados all over the south and Midwest, including three F5 tornados (the more severe category). On the final day of the outbreak, an F3 tornado touched down in Jarrettown then cut a path 35 miles east into New Jersey.
A photo of Judge Knight with his parents from about 1919
I hadn’t heard about this tornado until one of our volunteers, Rita Thomas, told me about some newspaper clippings she had found in Judge Harold Knight’s diary of 1956. I was excited to learn more, but disappointed to see that our collection of the Ambler Gazette on microfilm starts in 1898. Luckily, you can find the paper from 1896 on PA Power Library through the Wissahickon Valley Public Library. The Weekly Herald of Norristown covered it, too, but the Gazette had this sketch of Alexander Knight’s house, one of the oldest in the borough of Ambler.
Here’s a photo from our own collection of the house taken in 1971. Alexander Knight was Judge Harold Knight’s father, and this was his home as well.
The Gazette article focused on the damage from the storm. Two men were killed inside the carriage barn of the Jarrettown Hotel when a wall collapsed. They were Winfield Ensley and Alfred Moffit. Several others were injured. The Jarrettown Public School was badly damaged as was the Jarrrettown United Methodist Church. Both of those buildings had to be rebuilt.
The Weekly Herald of June 1st, focused on the sightseeing, claiming “Effects of the Cyclone Must be Seen to Be Appreciated.” The article estimated that 4,000 people had already come to see the damage which included several collapsed barns and many uprooted trees.
At 8am on the morning of September 11, 1952, a man knocked on the back door of the Hill family’s home on Joshua Road. Mrs. Elizabeth Hill answered the door. The man there asked if her husband was home. When she said he was not, the man waved to his two companions who appeared from around the corner of the house brandishing shotguns. The men entered the house and told Mrs. Hill and her three sons that they would be safe as long as they were quiet. It was the beginning of a 19 hour ordeal for the Hill family.
Brothers Joseph and Ballard Nolen of Kentucky and Elmer Schuer of Illinois had escaped from Lewisberg Federal Penitentiary two days earlier by sawing through their cell bars and descending a 30 foot wall with towels knotted together. They were all in prison for bank robbery. They stole a car and kidnapped a local man, who later jumped out of the car. The men made their way to West Reading where they smashed the window of a sporting goods shop and stole four shotguns and two rifles.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania State Police, with the help of the FBI, set up roadblocks all over southeastern PA. To evade detection, the men decided to lay low in the comfortable home of the Hill family in Whitemarsh..
The Nolens and Schuer listened to the radio, played cards, and ate the family’s food. In the afternoon, the Hills' two teenage daughters returned from their day at Norristown High School, and Mr. James Hill returned from his management job at Dexdale Hosiery in Lansdale. The Times-Herald reported that Mrs. Hill answered the phone several times over the course of the day with one of the convicts listening on an extension.
In press coverage, the Hills insisted that the three men were always polite and didn’t harm anyone in the family. As evening fell, the men told the family to sleep together in one room and helped move mattresses for the kids. They told the Hills that they expected to leave late that night and warned them not to call the police until 8 am. The fugitives threated to return and kill Mr. Hill if they didn’t wait.
At 3:30 am the Nolens and Schuer left the house, stealing some of Mr. Hill’s suits and the family car, a Pontiac. The Hills waited until 8 am, then contacted the police. Investigators descended on their house. The convicts meanwhile, drove back west and held up a diner in Hamburg. After that the trail went cold.
The police got calls from local places like Norristown and Conshohocken and as far away as Iowa. A milkman in Wilmington, DE claimed the three convicts had robbed him, but later retracted the story. A week later, they learned that men had meant to head for Scranton but took a wrong turn and found themselves heading to New York City.
Once in New York, the men robbed a gun store and a bank in the Bronx then rented an apartment on Kelly St. They stayed there until they met a woman named Mayola Jones and moved into her place on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. That’s where the NYPD found them on September 21st. There was a shoot-out in which both Nolen brothers were killed, and Detective Phillip LaMonica was shot three times in the chest. He later died at the hospital. Elmer Schuer survived and was eventually sentenced to 80 years to life in prison, according to the “FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin” from 1957.
But that’s not the whole story.
Promotional photo from the play
Parts of this story might seem familiar, especially if you like classic movies. In 1954, Joseph Hayes wrote a novelized version of the events in Whitemarsh called The Desperate Hours. The following year it was turned into a Broadway play (also written by Hayes) starring a young Paul Newman as one of the convicts and Karl Malden as “Mr. Hillard”. The novel and play both took place in suburban Indianapolis, and the convicts are much more violent than the Hills reported. In the play they even murder an unlucky garbage collector who came to the door. The play won the Tonys for Best Play and Best Director (Robert Montgomery). Also in 1955, William Wyler directed a film version of play, which starred Humphrey Bogart in Newman’s role and Fredic March as the father.
But that’s not whole story either.
In 1955, Life Magazine ran a featured article on the play. The reporters took the cast to the home in Whitemarsh where it had all happened. Hills no longer lived in the house. Soon after the events in 1952, they moved to Connecticut and tried hard to avoid any publicity. The Life article (we have a copy here at the Historical Society) never made the distinction between the fictionalized events of the play and real events that happened to the Hills. Mrs. Hill, according to an article in the New Yorker, was particularly upset by the article and the renewed media attention from the play. The Hills sued Time, Inc., the publisher of Life Magazine, under New York State’s privacy law.
Image from the Richard Nixon Foundation
The case dragged on for many years, with the Hills winning in the New York Court of Appeals in 1962. Time, Inc. appealed to the Supreme Court. In 1966, former vice-president Richard Nixon (who had his own problems with the press) argued on behalf of the Hill family. The court ruled 5-4 in favor of Time, Inc. because the reporting had not been proved reckless or willfully inaccurate. It was the only case Nixon ever argued before the Supreme Court.
Special thanks to Kristina Piscitelli whose research through the Times Hearld was instrumental in writing this piece.
Recently, George Detwiler, member and volunteer here at the Historical Society of Montgomery County, donated a collection of photographs of the River Crest Preventorium. This facility was an offshoot of the Kensington Dispensary for the treatment of tuberculosis located in Mont Clare, Upper Providence. The Kensington Dispensary was founded by St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Germantown to treat the high rate of tuberculosis in Kensington’s immigrant community. The Mont Clare location was meant to provide a country retreat for children who had been exposed to tuberculosis, but did not have an active form of the disease.
According to the minutes of the Fourth Biennal Convention of the United Lutheran Church in America, in 1923 The Preventorium had space for 39 children. The demand was such that the children had be limited to only a two stay, and the report calls for an expansion of the facility. The minutes describe the method used at the preventorium as “Fresh air, sunshine, nourishing food, supervised play, exercise and rest….Another definite aim is to assist the child’s mental, moral and spiritual development.”
Along with the photographs, George donated a program for the 1929 dedication of a new administration building at River Crest and new dormitories for 100 children.
By the middle of the 20th century, tuberculosis was no longer the crisis it had decades earlier, and the Kensington Dispensary shifted focus to serving intellectually disabled adults and children, and River Crest became a residence and summer camp for those children.
In 1969, the organization changed its name to KenCrest. Today, the River Crest Preventorium is the RiverCrest Golf Club.
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.