Erica Slason, Archivist
Historically Modern: Gen. Thomas J. Stewart Armory
Often when we consider buildings or locations as historic in Pennsylvania, we immediately think of events such as the Revolutionary War and the Civil War or time periods such as the Colonial era. However, there are some historic places that are more modern. They could have been built during your lifetime or that of a parent's or grandparent's. One such example is the Gen. Thomas J. Stewart Memorial Armory. As far as General Thomas J. Stewart is concerned, we have written about him previously when we had his sword on display. Feel free to revisit that article here: https://hsmcpa.wordpress.com/2016/06/02/thomas-a-stewart/
The armory, sometimes referred to as the Norristown Armory, was built between 1927-1928 and is located at 340 Harding Blvd in Norristown. The architects were Philip H. Johnson and Frank R. Herong. Presently the building houses the Greater Norristown Police Athletic League (EDIT 2023-06-09: thanks to some of our followers on Facebook we confirmed that it is no longer owned by PAL but is instead owned by Norristown and functions as a recreation center. This just goes to show you that you should always double check your sources and nobody is perfect!). During its early years it served as an armory for the National Guard, including the years of the second world war.
On July 12, 1991, the Gen. Thomas J. Stewart Memorial Armory garnered a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
Are there other, more modern, buildings that deserve a spot on the National Register? In our almost 250 years as a county, we certainly have a lot of history and continue to make more of it everyday. Maybe one day a place you have often visited will be considered historic. It could even be within your lifetime.
Olive Branch versus Rummies
From 1842 to 1859, the Olive Branch was published in both Doylestown (Bucks County) and in Norristown. It was a newspaper that considered itself a information source on "moral and political reform" while representing views on things such as abolition, temperance, and the women's rights movements. According to the staff at the Olive Branch, many of their subscribers would purchase copies of the newspaper on behalf of those with suspect morals, specifically "Rummies" (persons who habitually drink alcohol and are frequently intoxicated). While the Rummies would respond with rude letters to the editors on having forced their word upon them, the staff claims that Rummies would willing buy the paper for themselves in order to change their unmoral habits.
The temperance movement was all throughout Pennsylvania leading up to the Civil War. From 1846-1860 a number of laws were passed "forbidding the sale of intoxicating liquor in quantities of less than thirty gallons to any individual within three miles of certain iron and coal mines" (Martin, pp. 213-214). While this law impacted more of the western and central counties, there were a number of temperance societies in and around Philadelphia. We even have the records books of some.
Still people attempted to skirt around or outright break these laws. In 1856, Mary Martin of Upper Merion was arrested for selling liquor. It was then discovered that while she was imprisoned, she still had agents selling liquor on her behalf.
The best part about these articles from the Olive Branch is that they are free to access. We have partnered with Villanova University to digitize some of our newspapers. You can find that information on our web page here: Digital Newspapers
Martin, Asa Earl. (1925) "The Temperance Movement in Pennsylvania Prior to the Civil War." The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. Volume 49, Number 3. pp. 195-230
Al Capone Seen in MontCo?
You've most likely heard of Al Capone, notorious gangster, resident of the infamous Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, and possible instigator of the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre. You might even know that he served a 10 month sentence in Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia for carrying a pistol. But were you aware that when released from custody following his stay at Eastern, his first steps as a free man were in Montgomery County?
While helping a patron with a research request, we stumbled upon a headline about Capone. Our interests were peaked so we looked further into the report from the March 18th, 1930 issue of the Norristown Times Herald. According to the report, the official statement from the warden as to why the release was carried out elsewhere was to reduce the potential headache for the people of Philadelphia. It was known that Capone had many enemies and that some might poise themselves near the exit to Eastern for nefarious reasons so it was decided to move Capone and his bodyguard, Frankie Cline, before the intended time of release. The reporter unsure of exactly when, continued that the two were secretly removed to Graterford Prison in Skippack Township. It seemed like the right move given that at one point roughly 1,500 people were waiting outside Eastern for a glimpse of Scarface Al.
Graterford prison, which was barely a year old during Capone's stay, closed in 2018 due to being an outdated facility according to modern standards. A new facility, State Correctional Institute - Phoenix, was built on the same property as Graterford.
The Murder of Samuel Clugston
On April 3rd, 1881, a memorial sermon was held in honor of Samuel Clugston. Samuel was an Irish immigrant who, with his wife and eleven children, lived in the village of Valley Forge near the Washington Headquarters.
In the early hours of March 18th, 1881, Mrs. Clugston was having trouble sleeping due to a draft in the room. She thought a window or door might be open. A rousing Samuel doubted that something was wrong but he got out of bed to check. A man who had been crouched in the room leapt up, seized Mr. Clugston by the throat and threatened him with a pistol. When Mr. Clugston yelled for his eldest son, the intended burglar shot Mr. Clugston in the throat. There was a scuffle between Samuel, the burglar, and soon, Thomas Clugston. The murderer pleaded for his life. Thomas let go and the murderer escaped. Samuel Clugston died from the gun shot wound within twenty minutes.
The murderer left behind a good amount of evidence including Thomas' report that the man had a German accent. One suspect, Henry Greeble who allegedly served at Eastern Penitentiary was believed to be the murderer but he could not be found. As of June 1882 the murderer was still not found.
(1881, March 22). Killed by a burglar. Norristown Times Herald, 3.
Bell, J. "A memorial sermon preached in Valley Forge M. E. Church, April 3, 1881, with a short memoir of Mr. Samuel Clugston, who was brutally murdered on the 18th of March, 1881, and a poem to his memory." J. O. K. Robarts.
Gill, H. L. (Ed.). (1881, March 19). Extra! Murder! Samuel Clugston, of Valley Forge, murdered by two burglars. Intense excitement. The murderers not yet found. Green Tree and Malvern Item, 1A, 2A.
One of the benefits of working at the Historical Society of Montgomery County when you were born and raised in said county is getting to scratch old itches. I lived in walking distance of the Jarrettown Hotel and always wondered about its history.
I heard rumors while growing up that George Washington stayed in the hotel. Now I know how difficult that would have been since the hotel was built by Henry Houpt in 1847, almost fifty years after Washington's death. That doesn't mean that the hotel was immune from significant historical events. In May 1896 a tornado made its way through Upper Dublin. At that time, the hotel was owned by Charles Palmer. The hotel made it through just fine, but a shed close to the building was not so lucky.
The hotel passed through a number of hands and is still running today as a restaurant. Are you interested in the history of a building in Montgomery County? Then reach out to us via email, phone, or by visiting the historical society during our open hours and we will be happy to dive into history with you.
Big Game Nostalgia for Big Shows
In anticipation for the big game coming up in just a few days, I thought it would be a good time to take a look back at similar events that have taken place in Montgomery County history. While I cannot find evidence of any actual games taking place in the county, I have found some articles on dog shows. So, in honor of the upcoming Puppy Bowl XIX, here is a look back at some past dog shows in and around Montgomery County. (Wait, is there another big game I should be aware of?)
First up we have the 12th annual Spillane's Dog Show that took place in 1958. There are smiling faces both human and canine. Multiple awards were given for the different groups, including "waggiest tail." Best-in-show that year went to Peter Childs' dog.
In 1952 the Devon Dog Show, held in Chester County, included a prize winning dog from Norristown. Danny Boy won four prizes and is seen here with J. R. Beideman of Norristown.
Do you have a prize winning dog in your family? Do you think they could take home the MVP for the Puppy Bowl? Leave us a comment or your pictures on our Facebook page so we can see some other Montgomery County canine representation and appreciation. Let's go Team Ruff and Team Fluff!
(Fine. And let's go Eagles, too).
Bobbed Hair: Grounds for Divorce?
Montgomery County citizens (and guests), today we explore the story of the marriage of Gertrude Maria Margaretta Hoeppner Dettra and William Edward Dettra, both loyal employees of the Norristown post office. Following their wedding in 1924, the couple went to live with the groom’s parents. Two years later, the Dettras would find themselves at a banquet with friends. Gertrude discussed with the group how she wanted a “bob” hair style which William vehemently refused to allow her to get.
The offending hairstyle in question as modeled by film actress, Louise Brooks (University of Washington, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Film_actress_Louise_Brooks_(SAYRE_13807).jpg)
After much joking from their friends, William relented and told her to get the haircut. Three days later, Gertrude arrived home with her desired haircut much to the chagrin of her husband. Words were exchanged, William’s mother got involved (a not uncommon occurrence in the household), and upon going to bed that night Gertrude did not receive a kiss from her husband.
With her husband giving her the cold shoulder and her mother-in-law lamenting how poorly Gertrude treated William, Gertrude left. She said the only way she would return to her husband would be for them to get their own house for just the two of them. Upon his refusal the divorce proceedings began.
The headline and summary that accompanied the article. Copied from microfilm of Norristown Times-Herald found at the Historical Society of Montgomery County, PA.
This story was found in our research collection and is from an article in the Norristown Times Herald. We enjoy coming across these odd and yet somehow timeless stories within the paper. If ever interested, we have issues on microfilm dating back to the 1800s including the rest of this scandalous article.
The Dutch House
It should come as no surprise to anyone that the archivist / librarian here at the Historical Society of Montgomery County is a compulsive reader. Imagine my surprise when picking up Pulitzer Prize nominated novel The Dutch House by Ann Patchett, that the titular Dutch house is in Elkins Park! My first thought was “Is the Dutch house a real place in Elkins Park?”
The short answer is “no.” The longer answer is “not really.” Patchett has noted in articles and interviews that the house is not a specific house, but rather that imagined house that comes to mind when driving by historic homes and museums. She chose Elkins Park because of a friend she often visited in Wyncote and the location would make other elements of the story easier to adapt. While writing the story, her friend told her about places such as Melrose Park, Abington Memorial Hospital, Horsham, and Bishop McDevitt High School which the narrator of the novel attended (Patchett, 2020).
For our Montgomery County residents, if you wish to wander the not so fictional setting of The Dutch House, then I am pleased to inform you that copies are available through our public library system: MCLINC. Happy reading!
Patchett, Ann. “Notes from Ann: Your Questions about the Dutch House, Answered.” Musing, 6 Mar. 2020, https://parnassusmusing.net/2020/02/12/notes-from-ann-your-questions-about-the-dutch-house-answered/.