Nancy Sullivan, Archivist

Thursday, 29 March 2018 19:11

Montgomery County Airfields

Last week, I thought I’d visit Toys R Us for perhaps the last time. The sale was a bit of a dud, but it was nice to walk around one more time. I went to the Montgomeryville store, which is in a shopping center called Airport Square. It sounded to me like there might be a story there.

Thaddeus Lowe

Montgomery county’s history with flight begins before Wright brothers. Thaddeus S. C. Lowe was the man in command of the Union Army’s balloon corps. Lowe lived in Norristown for a time after the war.


Perhaps Montgomery County’s best-known air field is the Naval Reserve Air Station at Willow Grove. The field was first developed for air use by Pitcairn Aircraft Inc. Harold Pitcairn was a native of Bryn Athyn, and the company’s first airfield was in Bryn Athyn, and in 1926, it was the largest airfield in the eastern US. In the 1920’s it hosted several air shows with famous pilots performing stunts. The Willow Grove field was originally one of its flying schools. In 1928, the company began to produce autogiros and the company changed its name to the Autogiro Corp. An autogiro (or autogyro) if you haven’t seen one lately, looks like a small airplane and helicopter had a baby.

1280px Pitcairn Autogiro NASA GPN 2000 001990

Pitcairn sold the field in 1942 to the Navy which wanted the field because of the war. The adjoining manufacturing plant was sold to Firestone during the war as well.


The Pottstown Municipal Airport was sold to the borough by its founder, John J. Basco in 1948. The purchase was controversial within a few years. A 1953 newspaper article describes the airport as a money pit, with few of the dreams of cargo flights and local businesses using it having been realized. The article predicts that the borough would soon close the airport. However, it is still in use and still owned by Pottstown.

But what about Airport Square? There was indeed a Montgomeryville Airport there. It was founded during the war and over the decades it was known by several different names, including the 309 Airport and Gloster Field. It closed in the late 1970’s.

But, that small airport was not Montgomeryville’s only piece of aviation history. A 1923 article in a newspaper called The Review and Reporter, tells of a German immigrant and inventor named Maxilmillian Pupe who was starting an aircraft factory in near Montgomeryville. The company was called the Universal Flying Corporation and was funded primarily with German money. The paper says that this was “to avoid possible confiscation for reparations.” However, in 1923, it was still against conditions of the Paris peace settlement for German companies to manufacture airplanes.

Unfortunately, I could find nothing else on the Universal Flying Corporation or Maximillian Pupe so I can’t say if this attempt to run around the Versailles treaty worked or not, but I’m guessing not.

Thursday, 22 March 2018 17:56

The Rittenhouse Farm

rittenhouse protrait

Over the last few years, we’ve written several pieces on David Rittenhouse, the colonial American polymath and first director of the US Mint. If you missed them, here’s an article on Rittenhouse’s surveyor’s level, and here’s one on his life and whether or not he was evil (anybody else happy Timeless is back on NBC?)

Well, last week I came across about three dozen photographs of the Rittenhouse farm. The farm was located in what is now East Norriton. These photographs date to 1922 when Herbert T. Ballad, founder and owner of the Ballard Knitting Company in Norristown renovated the farmhouse.


The front of the farmhouse before the renovations

The work on the farmhouse was extensive.  Ballard added a new wing, redirected the driveway and a small stream.  The original barn was demolished and the stones were reused in the renovations of the house.


The barn before it was demolished


The barn after demolition

Here workers dig a trench to drain the cellar and for phone and electrical lines.


A note on the back of this photo says that the springhouse was used until 1928, when a well was drilled. This was promtped by H. T. Ballard's hospitalization with a fever. His son, H. T. Ballard, Jr., suspected typhoid fever and had the water tested. The results came back that it was not fit for human consumption.


This photo shows a boxwood bush that was supposedly one of four such bushes given to Rittenhouse by Marie Antoinette. The queen was an amateur astronomer and admirer of Rittenhouse. She gave the bushes to Benjamin Franklin during his time in Paris to deliver to Rittenhouse.

The house was originally built in 1749 by Matthias and Elizabeth Rittenhouse, David’s parents. Ballard purchased the property in December, 1921, from Herman D. Weidenbaugh who had owned the farm since 1904.


I love this picture because it gives an idea of what the surrounding area looked like at the time.  The whole project went from April to September 1922.  H. T. Ballard moved to Florida upon his retirement in 1935, but his son continued to live in the house with his family until 1944. The building is now part of the Valley Forge Medical Center.

Thursday, 08 March 2018 21:44

Professor J. E. Reilley


In the 1880’s, there was only one place to go for dancing instruction in Norristown, Professor J. E. Reilley’s class held weekly at Meeh’s Hall. Professor Reilley held his classes from September to May. At the end of May, the class would perform publicly for their final exam.

Below is an invitation to the 1888 event.


According to an accompanying newspaper article, 32 young ladies and 6 gentleman performed. The ladies are listed each with what they were wearing. Kathie and Emily Preston would blue Canton crepe trimmed with surah and lace while Miss Katie Haines wore pink chaille and garnet velvet.  The Preston sisters were later very active members of the Historical Society. Emily would have been about 13 in 1888 and Katherine about 15.

The program was long with several solos and group dances. Miss Alice Edmunds “one of the prettiest girls in the class” performed a scarf dance. Miss Eva McGinnis, dance “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye” while holding a bunch rye. The entire class danced around a maypole.

According to the newspaper, “The affair was a complete success, and Prof. Reilley is to be hearily congratulated for his good fortune with the pupils, and thanked for his painstaking care in their instructions.”

Reilley was born in the US to Irish parents, but I was unable to discover when he first came to Norristown. He continued teaching dancing until he died in Norristown in 1911.

Thursday, 01 March 2018 20:57

Industries and business in 1891


Recently we received an interesting new accession, a business directory for Montgomery and Bucks counties from 1891. Need a stove in Bridgeport? A house painted in Ardmore? What about a plumber in Jenkintown? This fine book provides a lengthy description of each business. The business listings also have many illustrations of equipment.




This image appears by a description for Alfred S. Kohl, a plumber in Jenkintown. The book describes how he won a medal from the Franklin Institute for his exhibitions there. The accompanying image appears to be a “necessary.” The piece also notes that Kohl is a gentleman of “high repute and standing in the social scale.”

In Ardmore, we find Franklin Spohn, who is listed as a purveyor of table delicacies. The description lists “oysters, poultry, game, fruits – both foreign and domestic, fresh and salt fish, meats of every description, green groceries, etc.” In addition, Mr. Spohn is noted as a “man of high social standing and extraordinary business capacity.”

Souderton has some of the more interesting listings including William Souder who made rims and spokes, and H. S. Souder a seller of cigars and packing boxes. Charles H. Schantz was an artistic coach and carriage painter with a “fine reputation.” Need a buttonhole? Look no further than S. D. Yocum. He and his two employees make machine buttonholes on the New Singer Machine. Finally, there is M. S. Stover, the town’s “tonsorial artist” (a barber who specializes in shaving). The book says,

“His tonsorial department is neatly arranged and contains two finely upholstered, comfortable chairs, while cigars, chewing and smoking tobacco, cigarettes, pipes, canes, etc., are kept in this establishment for the convenience of the costumers.”

For dining, A. R. News kept an “eating saloon” in Lansdale serving “fried, stewed and raw oysters, fish cakes, oyster pie and a variety of tempting articles of food.”

Several woman run businesses appear throughout the book, including the Zeigler Hotel in Harleysville, run by Mrs. C. Zeigler and Mrs. M. D. Jenkins, a dressmaker in Bridgeport.

Certain businesses appear in almost every town that have now all but disappeared: harness makers, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, and coal dealers. Other companies were rare even then like the Montgomery Web Company which made elastic and non-elastic web for men’s suspenders. There’s one bicycle seller, who also sold typewriters in Rosemont.


My favorite of all is A. J. Reading, V. S. (I hope the V. S. stands for “veterinary science”) dealer in tonic vermifuge, a worm destroyer for horses. He offers samples for sixty cents.  I'm happy to say no images accompanied that article.

Thursday, 22 February 2018 21:40

Norristown Public Library

Today, the Montgomery County-Norristown Library consists of the central library in Norristown, four branches, and a bookmobile.  Like thousands of libraries across the country, it is a public library, supported by taxes.  But this was not the original model of the Norristown Library or the many libraries across the county.

Lending libraries began in the 18th century as private enterprises, more along the lines of a video store (if anyone remembers those).  They were funded through the subscriptions of individuals.  In 1794, ninety families in the central part of Montgomery County decided to start the Norristown Library Company. 

Nor lib

The library had several different homes until 1824 when a building was built by the trustees at a cost of $153.43. 

To become a member of the library, a person had to buy a share.  In 1912, shares were $5 each.  A shareholder still paid $1 per year to borrow books from the library and non-shareholders could borrow books for $2 per year.  Browsing was free.

lib stock

The Historical Society of Montgomery County has many stock certificates from the Norristown Library Company.  Most of them were donated by William F. Slingluff in 1930.  The library company was still a subscription library at that time, and it looks as though Mr. Slingluff actually transferred the stock to the historical society.

We also have a printed catalogue from 1853, which is also the year the library moved from the small building above, to a new building at DeKalb at Penn Streets.


From looking over the catalogue as well as the bills from Wanamaker’s, it looks like the subscribers read more non-fiction than fiction.

Here’s one of the bills (notice the $2 charge for a copy of Huckleberry Finn).

book bill

The Norristown Library Company remained a private subscription library well into the 20th century.  However, in 1937, the McCann Library, a public library run by the Norristown School District closed its doors.  Many in the community wanted to see the library company become a public library open to all for free.  In 1942, with the backing of the borough, the Norristown Library did just that. 

Thursday, 01 February 2018 20:32

The Academy Acorn


Recently I was looking through a very old box labeled “Schools.”  I found some very old items relating several now defunct schools in Montgomery County, including the North Wales Academy and Business School.  There was a catalogue for the school for the 1884-1885 school year.  There were also several copies of a school periodical called The Academy Acorn.

NW Map 1

North Wales Academy can be seen on the lower left in the 1877 atlas

North Wales Academy was founded in 1867 by Samuel Umstead Brunner.  Since the original school was in Kulpsville, its name was the Kulpsville Academy at that time (less formally, it was often called Brunner Academy).  In 1871, the school moved to North Wales to take advantage of the newly built North Pennsylvania Railroad, according to Mrs. John M. Willis in her 1921 paper “The Brunner Academy of North Wales.”


A photograph of the school in the 1884-1885 catalogue

With the move to North Wales, the school began taking boarders.  Many day students also attended.  The school hosted several lectures each year which were open to the public and free.  The school was co-ed and taught a college preparatory program as well as a business program.


Small private schools at this time existed all over the county.  They were generally led by an individual and the school’s identity largely came from that individual.  Samuel Brunner was born and raised in Worcester Township, attending public school there until he went to Washington Hall in Trappe.  He attended Eastman’s Business College in Poughkeepsie before returning to Pennsylvania to work in Philadelphia.  He taught on and off throughout his younger years and spent one year teaching in a public school in Jenkintown before starting his own school.


Samual Brunner from Biographical and Portrait Cyclopedia of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania by Henry Wilson Ruoff

The school taught math, science, music, literature, ancient and modern languages, as well as book-keeping and telegraphy.  The Academy Acorn is a combination of articles about education (presumably by Brunner) about education and articles by the students themselves.  In the first issue, Brunner writes about the public school system and an article titled “Prepare for College,” which claims that Pennsylvania’s high schools do not properly prepare students for college.  Student articles include “The Growth of Intellectual Life during the Middle Ages,” “A Few Benefits of Physical Culture,” and “The Women and Shakspeare [sic].”


The school did not outlast Professor Brunner, which was typical of these sorts of schools.  After he died in 1901, the building became a private home and was purchased in the 1940’s to be home of the local American Legion. 

Thursday, 25 January 2018 20:24

A Notable Squabble


Last week, I was working through a box of German language booklets and I came across an odd one.  First, someone had added a cover to it, with an English title “Notable Squable between Rev. Frederick [sic] Waage and Rev. Daniel Weiser in Montgomery County.”  That’s not a translation of the German title, which is “Lichtschäutze oder Hülfe zur Wahrheit.”  My best translation is “Cleaning with light, or helping to find reality.”  Before delving into 88 pages of text, I decided to see what I could find out about the squabble.

Rev. Friedrich Waage first came to Pennsylvania in 1819 at the age of 22.  He was a native of the Duchy of Holstein in what was then Denmark, but is now Germany.  He studied at the University of Kiel before emigrating. 


From "The Past and Present of St. Paul's Lutheran Church, Red Hill, Pennsylvania" by Raymond A. Kline

He settled in Chester County and began studying for the ministry with Rev. Friedrich Geisenheimer.  In 1829, he became pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Red Hill.  Founded in 1739, Waage was the 12th pastor for the church, which was also known as the “Six Corner” Church.  At the time, it was part of the New Goschenhoppen Charge, consisting of five parishes.

six corners

From "The Past and Present of St. Paul's Lutheran Church, Red Hill, Pennsylvania" by Raymond A. Kline

Besides serving the spiritual needs of the congregation, Waage was also the county’s first doctor of homeopathic medicine.  According to Theordore Bean’s History of Montgomery County, he first became interested in medicine to care for his ten children.  He began to practice more widely in 1840.

Rev. Daniel Weiser was born in Selingrove, PA, and a descendant of the famous Conrad Weiser of colonial times.  As a young man he served in the War of 1812 and trained as a nailsmith.  He was ordained a minister in 1824.  In 1833, he came to New Goschenhoppen Reformed church as its pastor.

new goshenhoppen

From A History of the Goshenhoppen Reformed Charge

The squabble, according to Edward Hocker’s 1929 article in the Times-Herald, began when Rev. Waage was invited to give an address at a local Fourth of the July celebration in 1836.  At that time, repeated toasts were given at any celebration of the Fourth, and perhaps Rev. Waage took part in some of them.  Early in 1837, a Reformed church publication, the Weekly Meesenger, published a letter from Weiser that criticized ministers who cavorted with intemperate people and condoned dancing.  Waage believed the piece was referring to him.

Then began the battle of the pamphlets, one of which is here at the Historical Society.  In 1838, Weiser brought a libel suit against Waage.  An arbitration hearing was held in Sumneytown.  The three arbitrators awarded Weiser six cents in damages and ordered Waage to pay $140 in court fees.  Most of “Cleaning with Light” is the transcript of these proceedings.  Weiser also gives an outline of his views on the Christian life and how he came to write the letter to the Weekly Messenger.

The decision of the court seems to have been the end of the issue.  Both men appear in histories of their respective churches and both are in books on the history of the county, like Bean's or Ruoff's.  None of them mention the feud, so perhaps it was forgotten.  It's  possible that the two men even made up themselves.  When Waage died in 1884, Weiser's son, Rev. C. Z. Weiser was one of his pallbearers.

This story comes to you from our “Other than that Mrs. Lincoln…” file.  Working through some papers belonging to the Rhoads family, I came across a newspaper article from the Atlanta Constitution dated Saturday, November 18, 1922.

The woman pictured below is Mrs. Varnetta Regar.  The article describes her as a “former Augusta society girl.”  On Christmas Eve, 1917, she eloped with Gordon R. Regar, son of Howard K. Regar, owner of the Rambo and Regar Knitting Mills.  She was a freshman in high school in Augusta when their romance began (the 1920 census lists her year of birth as 1901).   After a brief honeymoon, they held a “wild” farewell party when Gordon, a second lieutenant in the PA National Guard, sailed for France.


After the war, the two lived at the Regar home in Norristown with Gordon’s parents at 1420 DeKalb Street (just down the road from our headquarters).  Varnetta described a raucous life, telling the newspaper that her husband taught her to smoke and drink.  The couple fought often, but would make up.  Then at a party in Philadelphia, the couple’s argument became physical.  Varnetta described the party as “terribly wild…no one thought of drinking anything less potent than whisky and soda or gin fizzes.”  Gordon attempted to drive home inebriated, but got lost.  The two got into a fist fight, each coming away with a black eye.

Globe mills

The Globe Knitting Mill in Norristown, owned by the Ragar family

At that point, Varnetta returned south, having been assured by Gordon that he would handle the divorce.  Boy, did he!  He accused Varnetta throwing a knife at him, which she doesn’t deny in the article, but explains that she did when she saw Gordon kiss another girl.  So, Varnetta intended to get her divorce annulled and then file for divorce again, citing Gordon’s infidelity as the cause.

I wasn’t able to find out if she ever did get the second divorce, but I do know the couple never reunited, which is probably a good thing.  Gordon later married a woman named Helene Collins and moved to southern California.  He passed away in 1976.  Since the article doesn’t list Varnetta’s maiden name, I wasn’t able to find out what happened her after the divorce.   

While this story and its pictures took up much of the front page, a smaller item notes that the Fascists, led by Mussolini, had just taken control of the Italian government.  


Mussolini, below the fold

Thursday, 21 December 2017 19:39

Merry Christmas!


As the Historical Society closes for Christmas and New Year’s, I thought I’d share some Christmas cards from our collection.  These cards from the Preston Family Papers.  Mary Krause Preston was an early trustee of the Historical Society of Montgomery County.  Her daughters, Emily and Katharine, continued the family’s involvement.  Katharine was a trustee for over 30 years while Emily served as librarian for ten years until her death in 1942.  They are frequently noted in our records as “The Misses Preston.”

The tag above includes a handwritten Christmas message.  The picture also appears to be hand drawn, perhaps by Katharine.  A remembrance of Katharine printed in the Bulletin after her death in 1952 says, “Her finest effort and greatest joy… was in the painting of small watercolors.”

This card was sent out by the United States Naval Academy.


The Preston sisters lived their entire lives in Norristown.  Their house stood where the annex to the Montgomery County Courthouse now stands.  They were educated at the sort of private girls’ school, Miss Hayman’s, that abounded in the 19th century.  Upon Katharine’s death, many antiques, books, and other items were donated to the Historical Society.

This final card was issued by the People’s Bank of Norristown.  It’s a small envelope, perhaps meant to hold cash.


Everyone at the Historical Society of Montgomery County wishes a merry Christmas and happy new year to all our members!

Thursday, 07 December 2017 21:07

The Montgomery County Almshouse

Upper Providence029

The Almshouse at the turn of the century

The Montgomery County Almshouse originally began serving the poor of the county in 1808.  It had been built on 265 acres that the county purchased from Abraham Gotwalt in Upper Providence Township (the county would later add an additional 31 acres to the property).

Upper Providence030

A view of the river

The first steward was Jacob Barr and his wife served as matron.  They earned $400 per year.  Over the 19th century, fire struck the almshouse three times, destroying most of the records of the early decades.  We do know that the number of people coming to the almshouse was increasing because the county approved the building of a new facility in 1870.  That building was completed just before the original building was completely destroyed by fire in 1872.


Undated inmate register

The Historical Society records for the almshouse begin in 1873.  Our archives has 3 registers that end in 1913 and three inmate record books that cover the years 1913 to the 1930’s. 

People who came to the almshouse were not simply housed.  They were expected to work either on the farm or in the residence.  Male and female inmates were separated, though Edward Hocker tells of a love triangle between a female inmate and a gardener employed by the home.  The steward tried to split them up, but the inmate climbed out the window one night, met up with the gardener and ran off to be married in Norristown (Times-Herald, Oct. 2, 1942).

cash book

List of purchases from a 1902 cash book

Children who were born at the almshouse were only allowed to stay until they were old enough to be indentured to local families.  By 1882, however, the state passed a law, allowing children between 2 and 16 only 60 days in the almshouse.  This was to save the expense of running a school.  The Children’s Aid Society of Montgomery County soon took responsibility for the children.

In the late 19th century, the position of steward was used as a political reward, and easy going stewards allowed tramps to wander over from Chester county for a hot meal and good night’s sleep.  The county comptroller put an end to that practice.  One of those tramps later became famous as a folk artist.  He repaid the almshouse with a painting.


The almhouse painted by inmate Charles Hoffman in the 1870's.


Over the years, many changes came to the almshouse.  The small infirmary was replaced by a hospital building in 1900, that in turn was replaced in 1941.  In 1952, the “County Home” as it was then called, was renamed The Charles Johnson Home, and then it became the Montgomery County Geriatric and Rehabilitation Center in 1972, reflecting a change in the institution’s focus.

Source: Lichtenwalner, Muriel N., 175th anniversary of Montgomery County Geriatric and Rehabilitation Center; progress through caring (1983)

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