Nancy Sullivan, Archivist

Thursday, 30 November 2017 21:24

Dogs and Taxes

Earlier this week I came across a small collection of papers concerning a local dog tax.  The papers span several decades and list Norristown dog owners and their assessments.


Today in Montgomery County, dogs are licensed by the county for a nominal fee.  In the 19th century, we found two reasons for the dog tax.

In a 1955 article “Tax Experiments Make a Bewildering Record,” Norris (aka Edward Hocker) writes about how a national economic crisis, generally called the Panic of 1837, led Pennsylvania and several other states to repudiate their debts and suspend interest payments.  In an effort to shore up the state coffers, the legislature sought new taxes.   According to Hocker, the state taxed gold watches, pleasure carriages, stocks, cattle, and eventually, dogs.

Now, Hocker may not have seen our tax records, which show dogs being taxed as early as 1834.  It could also be the tax was actually started in response to an earlier recession.  In any case the tax seems to have expired and restarted.  Our collection has assessments for the years 1834 – 1836, 1838, 1852, 1854, 1862, and 1867.

Our records suggest a different reason for the tax on dogs, as shown by this 1829 petition of citizens from several townships, and is couched in patriotic language of developing the United States’ developing wool industry.  The tax on dogs in this case, would create a fund to compensate the owners of sheep who were attacked by dogs. 


Whatever the reason, the tax records show some interesting things.  Most of the people assessed have dogs, that is, males.  Only a few, ahem, female dogs are listed.  One wonders how the species survived.  The tax on dogs in this 1867 list was 75 cents, while females were taxed a full dollar, so that might explain the difference. 

In this list, you can see the Bank of Montgomery County had two dogs, perhaps as guard dogs. 


Here, you can see the name of General Winfield Scott Hancock’s father, B. F. Hancock, who owned one dog.


Thursday, 09 November 2017 21:05


Sometimes, I venture out into the world and meet new people, not very often, but it happens.  Inevitably, someone asks what I do.  The conversation goes like this:

“What do you do?”

“I’m an archivist.”

“Oh, an architect!”

“No, an archivist.  It’s like a librarian but with unpublished papers instead of books.”

“Oh, you mean an arCHIVist.”

[Suppressing a sigh] “Sure.”

Then my new friend says how interesting it must be and ask what I’m working on, and lately, I’ve been working on records from turnpike companies.  This gets more questions, and many people are surprised to learn that many roads were built by private companies.  They were toll roads, operated privately, and usually ran as corporations with stock holders and dividends. 


The earliest turnpike to come through Montgomery County was the first in Pennsylvania.  It was built in 1792 and ran from Philadelphia to Lancaster, passing through four miles of Lower Merion along the way.  Germantown Pike was built by the Germantown and Perkiomen Turnpike Company, beginning in 1801.

According to Frederick C. Swinehart’s article “The Turnpikes of Pennsylvania” (HSMC Bulletin, V. IX, April, 1955), by 1821 there were 146 turnpikes authorized in Pennsylvania.  Not all of them would be built, however.  It was not uncommon for the companies to fail to sell all their stock.

minute book

The Historical Society has records from several of the turnpike companies, including the Norristown, Bridgeport and King of Prussia Turnpike Road Company, now DeKalb Pike.  Originally chartered in 1848, construction began in 1853.  Shares in the company were sold for $10 apiece.  Investors didn’t see a dividend until 1885.  Soon after that, the road was “freed,” meaning it was transferred to public ownership (the company received $11,000 in this case) and tolls were no longer collected.

We also have records for the Plymouth and Upper Dublin Turnpike (Butler Pike).  Started in 1853, it wasn’t until 1857 that the company was ready to collect tolls.  Charles Dewees was paid $5 a month and use of a house and two acres for manning the tollgate at Broad Axe.


A toll house on York Road in Cheltenham

When automobiles began appearing on the roads, some of the turnpike companies decided to take advantage of what was then a luxury only the very rich could afford.  The Chestnut Hill and Springhouse Turnpike (now Bethlehem Pike) raised the toll from 1 or 2 cents a mile to 25 cents a mile.  When the Springhouse and Sumneytown Turnpike did the same, drivers in Norristown went to court.  The company settled outside of court.  Rates were lowered to 2 cents a mile for a 1 seat car and 3 cents for a two seat car.


The tolls on the Springhouse and Hilltown Turnpike in 1917

Cars brought new problems as well.  In 1913, an automobile accident on the Springhouse and Hilltown Turnpike caused headaches for the company.  Soon after the accident, correspondence of the board of managers begins to question if the company could be maintained much longer.  It was freed in 1921.


The last privately held turnpike on our county was the Springhouse and Penllyn Turnpike.  It was freed in 1923.

Thursday, 02 November 2017 20:32

The Village of Three Tuns

3 tuns

Located at the corner of Butler Pike and Norristown Road, the village of Three Tuns in Upper Dublin township derives its name from a tavern built at that intersection.  The tavern, built in the mid-eighteenth century by Jacob Timanus, had three wine casks (also called “tuns”) on its sign.  In 1803, John Collom began operating the Three Tuns Inn at the same location.


The inn was the center of public life in the village for many decades.  Various meetings, including the first meeting of the Association for the Recovery of Stolen Horses, Detention of Horse Thieves, and Obtaining Other Stolen Property, were held there, as were the earliest court sessions in the township.  The inn burned down in 1948.


Clement Jones built his store in 1834 across the street from the Three Tuns Inn,.  It also served as the village’s post office, and it was the first home of the Union Library of Upper Dublin until the library moved into Ambler in 1888.  This building was demolished in 1907 when Wilmer Atkinson bought the property for his new mansion.  Atkinson was the publisher of the Farm Journal.



A humorous pair of portraits of Wilmer Atkinson from a booklet celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Farm Journal

Atkinson had been raised in Three Tuns and returned to the area after the success of the Farm Journal.  He allowed the public free access to his large property and built a new post office for the community.  He also bought the gained control of the corporation that owned and ran Butler Pike, and, according to Edward Hocker, was known to hand out boxes of strawberries at the toll gate.  He died in 1920.



Thursday, 26 October 2017 19:55

The Bubbling Springs of Spring Mill

Spring Mill Copy

There is one corner of Whitemarsh Township known as Spring Mill.  Until perhaps the middle of the nineteenth century it was the populous village in Whitemarsh and the township’s industrial center.  Situated along the Schuylkill, the village was once home to numerous mills and furnaces.  Much of its early success can be traced back to the spring that gave the village its name.

The earliest mill in the area was built right next to the bubbling springs around 1690.  James K. Helms reported in his “Historical Notes” article of July 4, 1927, that George Washington bought flour and corn from this mill.  At the end of the nineteenth century, the first water main was built over the springs, by Charles Hamilton to supply his paper company and some private homes with water.


The springs bubble up from underground streams in two spots in the shallow lagoon they form.  Helms writes, “Both of these bubble up in a curious manner, spreading a number of continually forming and dissolving rings over the surface.”  Helms estimated that they released 4.5 million gallons a day with enough force to throw up small stones and bits of flint.


The underground waterways appear in some of the stories of Charles Heber Clark, resident of nearly Conshochocken.  In one story locals repeatedly try to bury a coffin that falls into the subterranean streams and washes in the river every time.

The old mill was still operating in 1927 when James K. Helms wrote his article about it.  He mentions several times how old it looked.  It finally burned down in 1967 and the stone foundation as demolished soon after.  The miller’s house still stands, however, and it is on the National Register of Historic Places.  The springs are still there, too, according to Philip and Sharon Welsh's book Conshohocken in Vintage Postcards.  Located off of Barren Hill Road, the springs are overgrown and no longer visible from the road.

Thursday, 19 October 2017 19:56

Two explosions in Conshohocken

In the nineteenth century the Montgomery county towns along the Schuylkill were busy industrial centers.  These mills provided good jobs for many, but they also meant that Montgomery County had its share of industrial accidents.

On February 3, 1873, at about a quarter past four in the afternoon, a boiler at the John Wood & Bros. foundry and rolling mill exploded, killing a total of fourteen people, including 2 boys who were working at the Albion Printworks, across the canal 150 feet away from the boiler’s original position.  

An engineer named W. Barnet Le Van wrote up an explanation of the event for the Journal of the Franklin Institute in 1873.  He explains that the boys were working in the kier (a vat in which cloth is bleached).  The friction of the 5,500 pound boiler hitting the kier caused the cloth inside to ignite.

boiler FI

The county convened a jury to investigate the accident and determined that the explosion was caused by the age of the boiler (it had been in operation for 20 years).  Le Van argued that the flues were too small for the amount of pressure the boiler was running, 85 pounds per inch.  He also argues that in inexpensive hydraulic test would prevent future accidents.


Records of the incident were donated to the Historical Society of Montgomery County by William A. Cooper in 1950.  These records include medical bills for the injured and funeral bills for the dead.


Bill for room and board for one of the injured men.


Doctor's bill from the accident.


Funeral bill labeled "McNulty," presumably for James McNulty, one of the boys killed.

Long time residents of the county will of course remember another explostion in the area, the 1971 gas explosion that happened in West Conshohocken on the night of January 27.  That explosion happened on a residential street, and 15 homes were destroyed by the explosion and the resulting fire.  Four people died in the tragedy.  Volunteer fire fighter Joseph W. Powers was struck by debris.  He was only 19 years old when he died. 

WC explosion


Two children, Michelle Pruitt (7) and Michael Pruitt (14) were originally declared missing.  Police searched block by block with a public address system, but by the next day both their bodies had been recovered.  Their grandfather, Calbert Rupp died as a result of the wounds he received in the fire.

We don't have any primary sources for the 1971 explosion; it's probably too recent history for people to think of donating it to us.  Do you remember that night?


Thursday, 05 October 2017 19:45

The Junior Literati of the Trappe

Earlier this week, our curator turned up an interesting book in her inventory of our museum collection.


The minute book of the Junior Literati of the Trappe is a small book that the group used to records its business from 1850 to 1851.  At some point after 1851, the book was reused as a scrapbook and newspaper articles were pasted on top of the minutes.


This kind of repurposing was very common in the nineteenth century.  The Historical Society has at least a dozen scrapbooks that were repurposed ledgers or even printed books.

At an even later point, someone decided the minutes of the Literati Society were more interesting than the newspaper articles.  This might have been someone here at the Historical Society or it might have been before the book came to us.  That person had mixed success in removing the pasted on newsprint, but the palimpsest underneath gives a good idea of what the club was about.


Meetings took place at the Augustus Lutheran Church, often called the Old Trappe Church, and the group met weekly.  It consisted of young men, probably teenagers based on some quick searching on


At the end of each meeting a topic of discussion or question for debate was offered. 

Can the Union be dissolved for under any circumstances?  The group resolved that no, it couldn’t.

Is the world was advancing in moral improvement?  There was disagreement.

They also debated the use of the Bible in common (public) schools, whether George Washington was entitled to more honor than Christopher Columbus, and whether one obtains more information from reading or from traveling.

The minutes end early in 1851 and give no indication of what happened to the club.  About one dozen pages were cut of the book, and the last sixteen pages are blank.  It may have been a short-lived club.  On the other hand, maybe someday we'll find more records from this group.

Thursday, 21 September 2017 18:44

Florex Gardens

blog329 copy

Did you know that at the beginning of the 20th century, the largest green house in the world was here in Montgomery County?

Florex Gardens was built in 1907 in Upper Gwynedd, just across from the North Wales train station.


These pictures were donated by David E. Groshens in 1954.  This photo gives a great sense of its size, but if you’d like exact numbers, here they are:

North Wales007

700 feet long

172 feet wide

35 feet high

The green house was located right by the tracks of the North Penn Railroad.  The company primarily grew flowers, and a note that came with the photographs says that the greenhouse could grow nearly 100,000 rose bushes at once.

The greenhouses were dismantled in 1951, and the land was sold to Leeds and Northrup, a manufacturer of electronic parts.  This part of Upper Gwynedd became an industrial area with other manufacturers like Zenith and Sharp and Dohme, which can be seen in the upper left hand corner of this photo.

North Wales003

The solvents used by those and other companies led to the EPA declaring the area a Superfund site in 1989.

In the 1990’s Leeds and Northrup moved production to Florida, and Merck bought the land for an expansion.  Last year, Merck donated nine acres of the property to the Wissahickon Watershed, and it was opened as a public greenspace called “Dodsworth Run Preserve.”

Thursday, 07 September 2017 19:47

The Walker Inn

While working my way through some old photographs, I found a series of five photographs of a place sometimes called Five Corners in Montgomeryville, the intersection of DeKalb Pike (202), Bethlehem Pike (309) and Cowpath Road.


Back in the 19th Century, Bethlehem Pike had many hotels.  The large white building the left was the last of the old inns, known as the Walker Inn.  


It was known as Walker Inn after its final owners, Thomas Walker and his wife.  I couldn't find out exactly when the building was built.  A hotel appears at the same site in an 1893 property atlas published  by J. L. Smith.

IMG 3063

These pictures were taken in 1949, just before the building was demolished for, you guessed, it, a gas station.




Thursday, 31 August 2017 20:14

The Delaware and Schuylkill Canal Navigation

The Schuylkill Canal (or more properly, Schuylkill Navigation) was chartered in 1815 and opened in 1825 during the heyday of canal building in the United States.  But it wasn’t the first attempt at building a canal in Montgomery County.


Back in 1792, the Delaware and Schuylkill Navigation Company was founded to build a canal to connect those two rivers.  The plan was for the canal to run alongside the river for seventeen miles, easing transportation and bringing fresh water from the Schuylkill to Philadelphia.  According to the book Old Towpaths: The Story of the American Canal Era by Alvin F. Harlow, the canal would have run from Norristown to Philadelphia (this is, of course, 20 years before the founding of Norristown, so I'm not so sure about that detail).


In our archives at the Historical Society of Montgomery County we have the “Rough Minute Book” for the company.  Familiar names from the Montgomery County – Philadelphia area appear, including Morris and Rittenhouse.  First names are never used (everyone is referred to very properly as “Mr.”), but I would hazard to say they are Robert Morris, wealthy financier, and David Rittenhouse, philosopher, mathematician, and surveyor. 

morris    rittenhouse

At this point you might be wondering how it is you’ve missed this seventeen mile long canal for the entire time you’ve been in Montgomery County.  The canal was never built.  Within a few years, the company was looking for money and, according to the minute book, resolved to seek a loan.  This is the same time Robert Morris himself was having money problems.



Work continued on the canal sporadically until 1798, when it seems to have puttered out completely.

For more about David Rittenhouse the surveyor, check out this blog entry, and if you’re wondering whether or not he was an evil mastermind, check out this one.

Thursday, 17 August 2017 06:00

Father Divine and the Peace Mission Movement

Woodmont low res

The Peace Mission Movement didn’t begin in Montgomery County, but since 1952, its headquarters has been at Woodmont in Gladwyne.

The group was founded by Father Divine, a man whose origins are unclear.  The FBI identified him as “George Baker” and he was likely born in 1876, perhaps in Maryland, though some researchers have placed his birth in the Deep South.  Most researchers agree that his parents were probably former slaves. 

In 1912, the man who would one day be known as “Father Divine” began preaching that he was God, the fulfillment of the Biblical prophecies of the Second Coming of Christ.

Preaching through the south, Divine attracted followers whom he encouraged to live celibate lives and taught that there was no difference between the races or the sexes.  Several times, he came into conflict with local preachers, who twice had him arrested.

In 1914, he and some of his followers moved north to Brooklyn, where they formed their first community in an apartment building.  There, he took the name “Reverend Major Jealous Divine.”  The congregation lived together, eschewing alcohol, tobacco, gambling, and sex.  It was during this time that his followers began calling their leader “Father Divine.”  Many of his followers voluntarily gave their money to the movement and changed their names.

In 1919, the group moved to the predominantly white town of Sayville on Long Island.  The movement grew substantially during the years in Sayville, and Father Divine attracted his first white followers.  Neighbors were unhappy with the group and made several complaints about inappropriate relations between Father Divine and some of his female followers (he had married a much older woman named Penninah during the Brooklyn years).  The local authorities found no evidence for this. 

l father divine 600x400

Father Divine

In 1931, he and many of his followers were arrested for disturbing the peace when police broke up a large party at Father Divine’s house.  Several dozen followers pled guilty and were fined $5 a piece.  When Father Divine paid the fines with a $500 bill, the police were unable to make change.  Divine, Pinninah, and several followers denied the charges.  The resulting trial caught the attention of the New York press and greatly raised Father Divine’s profile.  He was soon regularly speaking to large crowds in the metropolitan area.  As it expanded, the movement finally gained an official name the International Peace Mission Movement.

Woodmont interior

The dining room at Woodmont - a large, multi-course feast is a hallmark of the Peace Mission

Father Divine was sentenced to one year in prison, after which he moved to Harlem, where he had many followers.  During the Great Depression, he became more political calling for an end to school segregation and opposing the New Deal.  His teachings had much in common with the New Thought Movement.  The story goes that Johnny Mercer once attended a sermon in which Father Divine told his listeners to “accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative,” and a song was born.

The Depression would be the zenith of the movement.  In the 1940’s Father Divine left New York for Philadelphia, perhaps to avoid a court order to return the savings of two followers who wished to leave the movement.  His wife Penninah died sometime in 1943 (her death was not spoken of publically).  The movement purchased the Divine Lorraine and the Divine Tracy hotels in Philadelphia.  They were budget hotels with floors segregated by sex in accordance with Father Divine’s teachings on celibacy (they were however racially integrated).  In 1965, John DeVoute, Father Divine’s secretary told the New York Times, “there is only one family, one race. We don't even call people N's [Negroes] or C's [Caucasians]; we consider that a sin.”

In 1953, the movement purchased the Woodmont estate in Gladwyne for $75,000, and this became the headquarters.  By this time, however, the movement had dwindled.  Father Divine was getting older, though just how old he was no one knew for sure.  He made few public appearances at this time, but every year, the group opened the Woodmont estate, rechristened “The Mount of the House of the Lord,” to the public for an annual open house.


Father Divine's masoleum at Woodmont

Father Divine passed away on September 10, 1965.  The Times Herald reported that the cause was arteriosclerosis and quoted his lawyer as saying he was about 100 years old.  Father Divine’s second wife, known as Mother Divine continued running the movement until her death last March.  In the early 1970’s, Mother Divine fought off an attempted takeover by Jim Jones.  The movement has seen few converts since its founder’s death, and the strict teaching on celibacy makes it likely that it will one day be extinct.


Father Divine and Mother Divine

Today, Woodmont is still run by Father Divine’s followers.  The house is open to the public on Sundays April thought October.

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