Whether you are interested in genealogy, seeking information about your property, or just want to know more about the area, you might want to consider visiting the at 1654 DeKalb St. in Norristown.
According to Executive Director Karen Wolfe, the organization, which was established in 1881, is the official historical society for the county.
“Our mission is to educate the public on the history of Montgomery County and its peoples, and to gather not only information, but artifacts, relating to Montgomery County,” she said.
The history of the county is rich and varied.
At one time part of Philadelphia County, which was one of Pennsylvania’s original three counties, Montgomery County became a separate entity in 1784.
“Many, many early settlements here, some of the earliest settlements in Pennsylvania, are part of Montgomery County,” said Wolfe.
The county has many historic Quaker meetinghouses, some of them, in Lower Merion Township, dating back to the late 17th century.
Early on, Wolfe said, even before the English Quakers, there were Swedish settlers in the area. They were eventually followed by Germans, who tended to settle in what she referred to as “the hinterlands of Montgomery County.” In the 18th and 19th centuries, there was an influx of Irish and Scottish, and at the turn of the 20th Century, Wolfe noted, “you had the immigrants coming from Southern Europe and from Eastern Europe.”
She added, “Today, of course, we have a large Hispanic community in Montgomery County, and Asian. I’m sure this is similar to most urban-type areas.”
Among other things, the historical society houses census records, as well as histories and files that people have compiled based on their own family research. There are also old deed books, family Bibles, histories of various counties in Pennsylvania, Wolfe said.
“But we try mainly to keep what we have here to Montgomery County,” she added. “We have church histories. We have cemetery records and some church records, not all complete. We’d love to get more in, especially of the later churches, and even, personally, I think I would love to get more African-American churches. We don’t have a lot of African-American cemetery and church records, or Jewish, or some of the later groups.”
The society also has old issues of newspapers, including The Times Herald going back to 1800, and the Ambler Gazette. Its library collection also includes The National Defender, a newspaper owned by local resident Edwin Schall, who was among eight brothers who went off to fight in the Civil War.
Despite its name, The National Defender “didn’t aspire to be a national newspaper. It was definitely a local newspaper; just like any newspaper, they do report on national events,” said Jeff McGranahan, the historical society’s collections manager.
He explained that Schall was a member of the Whigs, a political party that died out as the conflict over slavery intensified in the days leading up to the Civil War.
According to McGranahan, The National Defender, which started publishing no earlier than about 1850, was originally not very favorable to the Republican Party, whom the Whigs viewed as too radical. But after the start of the Civil War, he said, the paper fell in line in support of Abraham Lincoln and the national government. After Schall enlisted in the 4th Pennsylvania infantry and went off to fight, The National Defender periodically published his letters home.
Schall was killed at the Battle of Cold Harbor in 1864. Eventually, McGranahan said, his family left The National Defender. The newspaper adopted a pro-Democratic stance and did not survive the 19th Century.
McGranahan said the historical society’s library “has a myriad of resources both historical and genealogical, for people to use.”
He added, “We get visitors that come in to do their family history. We get people that come in that want to find out about their house.” For instance, McGranahan explained, people sometimes come in and want to find out who their home’s architect was, or who used to live there.
“I guess our strength is in our genealogical materials,” said Edward Addison, former president of the historical society. But, he added, there is also a museum with interesting artifacts, many of which are stored in acid-free boxes in atmospherically-controlled space and brought out for display in a gallery area.
On past occasions, McGranahan said, the historical society has displayed exhibits of items related to such things as the Second World War, toys and modes of transportation. He estimated that 75% of what has been exhibited has come from the historical society’s own collection.
“Depending on our contacts and the people that we know, we may bring in selected items to try to fill out, round out the exhibit,” he added.
“Our artifacts, they go from a few from the Revolutionary War to the present, a lot of the 19th century,” said Wolfe.
According to McGranahan, the historical society’s collection includes a considerable amount of furniture, going back to the Chippendale style of the mid- to late-18th century. In addition to stoneware, ceramics and china, he added, there are “spinning wheels and lots of kinds of buttons and pins and badges and awards and those kinds of commemorative items that might have been passed down from parades or celebrations.”
McGranahan said the historical society also has collected artwork, including portraits and landscapes, as well as silverware, cookware, carpentry tools and blacksmith tools. Other items include a desk that came from the state Capitol building in Harrisburg, a French chandelier brought to the United States by a local Episcopalian minister, and a flag made by women in Upper Merion Township during the Civil War.
He added that one of the historical society’s most interesting collections consists of artifacts from the last execution by hanging in the county, in the early 1900s, stemming from a case in which a businessman died from injuries sustained from an attack by a group of men.
The society also has a surveyor’s level built and designed by David Rittenhouse, an early American astronomer, inventor, scientist and clockmaker who lived in the Norristown area. On display in the society’s meeting room is a tall case clock that had belonged to Rittenhouse, and there is also a teapot that belonged to Sally Hartranft, the wife of Gov. John Frederick Hartranft, a former Civil War general.
Last, but not least, a bullet removed from the groin of Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg, has been kept in a frame that also holds the paperwork which released a doctor from his station in Baltimore to attend to the injured military leader.
Yet another element of the historical society is , which it purchased in 1997.
The 44-acre graveyard, located on Hartranft Avenue in West Norriton Township, was originally owned by the Montgomery Cemetery Co., described by Eileen Santori, cemetery chairwoman and member of the historical society’s board, as “the first public cemetery association within Montgomery County. It was organized in 1847 and chartered in 1848 as a nonsectarian, nondemoninational burying ground.”
At some point, Santori said, the property was sold to the Mills family, and it later came into the possession of the Goodwill Baptist Church in Norristown, which planned to locate on the property. There was also a proposal by a builder to locate houses on an open area of land in the cemetery. Santori credited Addison, then the historical society’s president, with successfully negotiating with the church to acquire the cemetery property.
“It was in very, very poor shape,” Wolfe recounted. “Tombstones broken, trash all over, weeds so thick they had become trees. And it was through volunteers that this cemetery was brought back to life.”
She said that military groups, local volunteers, historical re-enactors and the Boy Scouts were among those who have helped restore the cemetery.
Wolfe added the Boy Scouts “come in once or twice a year, they camp and they clean up, and they save us thousands of dollars with the work that they do.”
“We’ve had 14 boys attain the rank of Eagle by doing a project in there,” said Santori. “My Eagle Scouts have contributed so much to the cemetery. “
She added that Vietnam veterans established a rose garden in the cemetery with flag holders marking every war the country has been involved in, from Revolutionary times up to the present.
“We have a great landscaper who comes in and maintains the lawns. We have the Norristown Garden Club, who have helped us tremendously with plantings, trees and flower beds,” Santori said.
According to Addison, “a lot of important Norristown people, five Civil War generals” and hundreds of veterans are buried on the grounds.
“If you’d go through the cemetery,” said Wolfe, “you’re going to see names that are Montgomery County names, Norristown names.”
For instance, the burial ground holds the remains of members of the Fornance family, who lived in the Selma Mansion in Norristown, said Santori. Other locally prominent family names represented in the cemetery include Lukens, Mogee, Chain and Kohn. Santori said the eight Schall brothers also rest there.
Drs. Louis Read and Joseph Weaver, whom Santori identified as “two of the founding fathers of ,” were also buried in the cemetery. Read’s daughter was the head of the American Red Cross in Norristown, and veterans from the Spanish-American War and World War I, the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars all served as the pallbearers at her funeral, in recognition of her service, said Santori.
She added that Emeline Henry Hoovein, an attorney and the second woman to be admitted to the , was also among those buried in Montgomery Cemetery, as was Elizabeth Jane Brower, a Civil War nurse.
“Numerous judges are buried in the cemetery,” Santori said.
Among the members of the bench interred on the grounds was the judge who presided over the trial for the kidnapping and death of Blakely Coughlin, a 13-month-old boy taken from his family’s summer home on Sandy Hill Road in 1920. Santori said the case bore similarities to the later Lindbergh kidnapping.
She added that the cemetery was also the resting place for five Civil War generals. Besides Hancock and Hartranft, the others were Brevet Brig. Gen. Matthew McLennan, Brevet Brig. Gen. Adam Jacoby Slemmer and Maj. Gen. Samuel Zook.
Santori added that over 400 veterans, from as far back as the War of 1812, up through the Second World War, were buried on the grounds.
“Our greatest majority, though,” she said, “is Civil War veterans,” of whom there are perhaps 330 buried. In the plot for Gen. Zook Post No. 11 of the Grand Army of the Republic, there are 33 Civil War veterans who were given a military burial at no charge to their families, because they could not afford it.
Santori said a stone was also placed in the cemetery to honor Edwin Clinton Genet, the first American casualty of the First World War, although he was actually buried in France.
She also recounted the story of another World War I casualty, Vincent Pearson, a member of the National Guard who went to France.
“Unfortunately, his unit was wiped out. He was buried in France, and his parents, in 1921, asked that his body be brought back to the United States. He was an only child, and the American Legion conducted the burial service for him at the cemetery,” Santori said.
She added that many victims of the Exeter train wreck, a May 1899 accident that took the lives of numerous local “shining lights,” were buried at Montgomery Cemetery.
“The whole town was in mourning,” Santori said. “You couldn’t get any more black ribbon or anything black, because the whole town was just devastated by the people that were killed on the wreck.”
Wolfe noted that the Exeter wreck was one of the themes for walking tours in the cemetery that the historical society has organized in the past. Other topics have included firefighters, nurses and doctors buried in the cemetery. One recent tour in the cemetery focused on members of the legal profession interred there.
“The history of Montgomery County, and of Norristown, can be found in that cemetery. That’s why we can do so many neat tours in the cemetery, because we have knowledge of these people and their contributions,” said Wolfe.
She added that there is also a Memorial Day observance every year.
“We honor not only the generals, but some of the lesser known people that are, gave their lives, or are just buried there,” Wolfe said. Various groups, including re-enactors, take part.
Santori said the cemetery “tours revolve around the history of Montgomery County and the people who are interred in the cemetery, and what they did: the doctors, the Civil War nurse, the lawyers, the firemen.”
She added that work was underway to organize a walking tour about men from Norristown went to fight in the Spanish-American War. The historical society would also like to have a program about the influenza epidemic after World War I, Santori said.
“That’s going to be a lot of work,” she added.
Meanwhile, on Aug. 27, there will be a program at the cemetery for adults and children, said Ella Aderman, historical society president. For children, she added, there will be games that were played during the Civil War period. Two walks will be also be scheduled: one about the five generals buried in the cemetery, and the other about civilians who had roles in the war, Aderman said.
She added that the historical society has also offered programs in schools, most recently centering on World War I history. Wolfe said she had gone to some elementary schools in the past year to provide programs on colonial life.
The historical society also tries to provide educational programs by having speakers make presentations at its building once a month.
“We have lectures throughout the year,” said Aderman.
For instance, Wolfe said, a program earlier this year recreated the persona of Mary Todd Lincoln, while other presentations have been about the Freemasons, and songs and stories of the Civil War. She added that the historical society offers genealogy classes twice a year.
Aderman said the topic of one upcoming program, in December, will be chalkware, a type of china used in 19th Century households.
“Our programs are usually all free,” Wolfe said. “We have a tea in the spring, which we charge for, but we try to present free programming for the citizens and to let them know not only what we’re about, but present educational historic programs, trying to relate most of them to Montgomery County.”
According to Wolfe, one possible plan for the future would be a history camp for children.
“You know,” she added, “we’re always limited with staff. We have great, great volunteers that do tremendous work here, but we are limited with staff, of course, through finances, so we don’t do a lot of things that we would like to do.”
Volunteer opportunities abound at the historical society.
“We have so many different projects here,” Wolfe said. “There’s something just about for everybody.”
For instance, she added, the historical society would love to have craftsmen donate a little time for things such as masonry work that needs to be done. Wolfe reported that the Masonic Lodge in Jeffersonville has done some painting at the society building in the past.
She added that there is also a need for volunteers to conduct research for people who want to find genealogical information but do not want to look for it themselves. Wolfe added that there is an ongoing project to enter information from newspaper obituaries and enter them into a searchable database. One volunteer has been working for the society for 20 years to cross-reference and identify its photographs.
These are tasks that “have to be done by hand, basically,” said Wolfe. She added, “We need volunteers at the cemetery to help with programming, plus help with the upkeep.”
Or, Wolfe said, someone could volunteer just to answer phones.
Addison called on people who would “like to come and learn something about the county by helping us with the artifacts. One thing that they could do, if they like old things, would be [to] help us in cataloging of materials as we receive them.” He added that there was a need to determine whether the materials in the society’s possession meet its mission statement.
“Our support comes from donations and membership,” said Wolfe. She added that the county also provides some help, and the society also has endowments.
Wolfe explained that people are always calling the society to offer materials that might be of historical value. McGranahan usually evaluates whether such items were really something the society would want, she added.
As for membership, Wolfe said, the yearly cost is $30 for an individual, and $40 for a family. The membership period runs from January to December.
She added that, with a paid membership, one is entitled not only to free access to the museum, but also to the library. For nonmembers, the access fee to the library is $5 per day, plus the cost of copies.
The Historical Society is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Mondays and Thursdays, and from 1 to 9 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. There is no charge for admission.
“We’re open to the public, especially for research,” said Wolfe. And, she added, “we certainly do have tours to let people know what we have to offer.”
Wolfe estimated that a tour of the building takes about a half-hour, not including time for questions. She added, “We’re not a very big building.”
Other member benefits include the society’s newsletter, which comes out four times a year. It contains information about what has been going on with the group or at the cemetery.
“It’s a little bit of everything,” Wolfe said.
Members also receive The Bulletin of the Historical Society, which is printed once a year. It is “a scholarly piece of work, where people give us articles that we might publish,” Wolfe said.
Another volunteer project, she added, is for “people to write articles for the Bulletin, for the newsletter. “
Wolfe said an oral history project on World War II is “sort of winding down.”
According to its website, the historical society had been conducting interviews with individuals connected with the county who had lived through that period of time.
“These interviews will be transcribed as well as kept on CD and will be available for future research and review. Each person's records will be kept in individual files to allow for proper study and show a complete record of service,” the website said.
The effort, spearheaded by McGranahan, as having been “very, very successful,” Wolfe said. “You know, it’s all a matter of finding the volunteers to do all this.”
She added that there are plans to move on to the Korean War period next.
Wolfe said that the historical society has also done a number of things in conjunction with the Civil War Rountable of Montgomery County.
The roundtable’s founder and leader, Charles Kelly, first vice president of the historical society, said the two groups held a symposium on Lincoln’s assassination two years ago this October.
“We meet at the historical society. Sometimes we share speakers,” he added.
Meeting once a month, the roundtable hears presentations by outside speakers, some of whom are local, while others are from as far away as Gettysburg or Virginia. The group belongs to the Association of Mid-Atlantic Civil War Round Tables.
Addison says the historical society continues “to do good things. I hope we can continue to do that in the future.”
“We have lots of hopes and plans,” McGranahan said. “As I like to tell people, if they want to get their hands dirty with history, this is a great place to do that. Unfortunately, we don’t have prepackaged, ready-to-go, easily consumable history here. We’re trying to get to that point, but we’re not there yet. If you’re interested in doing history and you’re willing to dig for it, then this is a great place for you.”
He added that, for people with roots in the county, “we’re a great resource. If they’re interested in looking into the history of their property, we can show them the direction to go, kind of help them along the way.”
For more information about the Historical Society of Montgomery County, visit its website at www.hsmcpa.org, or call the headquarters, at 610-272-0297.