County Feature is a series of articles on each county in Pennsylvania and its history.

County histories, written in most cases during the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, serve as the starting point for most research in local history. Montgomery Coun­ty’s classic county history, by Theodore W. Bean, is no exception. History, however, did not stop as the final pages of that volume were written. Much has happened since. Just as the Centennial of our nation spurred the desire to record local events of the first century, the Bicentennial has re­vived interest in bringing those valuable resources up to date. The project described in the following article is an attempt to do just that. It is a project which should be noted and may serve as a model for others.


Montgomery countians are now preparing a history of the county’s second century to be pub­lished with the observance, in 1984, of the county’s two hundredth anniversary. Hundreds of writers and re­searchers are preparing a full-scale history of the county’s last one hundred years to place beside the standard history of its first century.

The county was established as a political entity Septem­ber 10, 1784 when it was separated from Philadelphia County and incorporated. To commemorate its centennial, Theodore W. Bean published his History of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. It narrates the county’s rich history from its beginnings to 1884 and has been in use ever since. So important has it been to local history, in fact, that the Historical Society of Montgomery County reprinted it in a two-volume edition as recently as 1975 and is doing so again this year.

Updating the Bean work was prompted primarily by one man, the Honorable Alfred L. Taxis, Jr., judge of the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County. To fulfill his dream, four years ago he encouraged the historical societies of the county to form a federation: The Montgomery County Federation of Historical Societies today has twenty-five member societies. Guided by its president, Judge Taxis, and an executive committee, and with the support of the county commissioners, the federation initiated plans to pro­duce a research and reference volume on the past century, just as Bean did for the county’s earlier history.

The process of updating Montgomery County’s history has three major parts: 1) deciding goals and methods, 2) inviting participating writers and 3) editing and arranging the contributions. It would seem, at first glance, that after having attacked and conquered one part, work could then move to the second, and on to the third in neat sequence. In a general sense, this has come to pass, but as work has progressed and more writers have joined the project, new approaches and additional topics have further defined its contents. It has proven essential to remain flexible within the structure.


Establishing Goals and Methods

To begin the project, the federation selected an editorial committee which then interviewed applicants for the editor­ship, the selection finally being made in April of last year. Now the committee meets with the editor monthly to help make the million and one decisions that must be done. An executive secretary was also hired to head a capital fund campaign to raise the money needed to print the book. At the same time, the federation has also undertaken a parallel oral history project.

The decision to return to the historical beginnings of all subjects was essential to the goal of continuing Bean’s History. Writers introduce municipalities and institutions that pre-date 1880 by giving brief summaries of their founders and purposes before continuing on with the past century. There is no attempt to repeat or rewrite the earlier history. but comments on the past are frequently made from today’s point of view.

While Bean’s work was originally published as one volume, Montgomery County: The Second Hundred Years will be in two. Volume I will contain approximately forty chapters covering topics at the county level: geography; natural resources; environmental change; population groups; transportation; government; political, social and military history; agriculture; industry; commerce; labor; banking; social services and organizations; medicine ;science; religion; education; architecture; art; music; theater; dance; film; photography; fashion; communications; literature; journalism; sports; parks; clubs; recreational activities; his­toric preservation and more. Volume TI will have sixty-two chapters, one for each of the thirty-eight townships and twenty-four boroughs. Writers of the municipal chapters cover the topical areas where appropriate at the local level.

Bean’s history, covering thirty-eight county topics as well as the then thirty-one townships and twelve boroughs, is a useful ‘jumping off’ place. Fortunately, a 1,273-page unpublished county history through the 1940s, written by Edward W. Hocker, also exists. Under the byline of “Norris,” Hocker wrote a feature on Montgomery County for more than thirty years for the Norristown Times-Herald. The history, on microfilm at the Montgomery County-Norris­town Public Library, has been a resource for various past histories, including E. Gordon Alderfer’s The Montgomery County Story (1951). Sperry Univac, Whitpain Township, produced copies of the manuscript, enabling each writer to have the section appropriate to his/her topic. Another copy rests at the Historical Society of Montgomery County.

Sources were suggested to the writers to assist in their research. Some of these include: local county historical societies, their libraries and publications; the Historical Society of Pennsylvania; the Pennsylvania History maga­zine; the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s State Archives; the Schwenkfelder Library and Museum; the Montgomery County-Norristown Public Library and the thirty-one other public libraries in the county; the Montgomery County Planning Commission; county news­papers; government services and records in the county seat; the State Library in Harrisburg; publicity departments and public information offices of commercial, industrial, bank, farm and labor organizations, as well as educational, recrea­tional and cultural institutions; church records; doctoral dissertations; interviews with older residents and those knowledgable about local events; oral history tapes; memor­abilia; diaries and the like.

Before writers were invited to participate, however, one of the first tasks of the editorial committee was to develop a Writers’ Packet. The packet includes tentative contents, general instructions and a style sheet. As the project de­velops, supplementary information to the Writers’ Packet, such as newly discovered sources and lists of co-writers, go out to participants. The writing will continue throughout 1980 (the first deadline was this past May) and will in­corporate 1980 census data.


Inviting Writers

Finding writers who love history enough to research and write without compensation, other than a byline, has not been as difficult as it might seem. From the beginning, the approach has been to invite people to write chapters or sections who have a knowledge and interest in a particular aspect of the history, whether county, borough or town­ship. A large number of those writing township and bor­ough chapters have recently researched their areas for com­memorative historical publications for local anniversaries and the Bicentennial. Members of the executive and editor­ial committees include writers who suggested other writers. Further suggestions for participants came from ht:ads of major Montgomery County and Philadelphia institutions, historical societies, libraries, university faculties, newspaper and industrial leaders, from the director and staff of the Montgomery County Planning Commission, and from neighbors throughout the county. The responses of people who have been invited have been extraordinary. Equally remarkable are the rewarding personal friendships that have developed from working together on this common endeavor.

American volunteers are unique. They combine good will, responsibility to their community and energy. They bring to learning the motivation and commitment which are necessary for writing history. They are self-educating and exemplify the dictionary definition of “amateur,” which derives from the Latin word amator (lover) and refers to “a person who engages in [some activity] for the pleasure of it rather than for the money.” Amateur histor­ians, who paradoxically may be professionally trained, are volunteers with a passion to discover trends and facts for personal satisfaction and for the understanding of future generations.

The writers who have undertaken this responsibility are historians, teachers, civil servants, librarians, news­papermen, businessmen, scientists, designers, vintners, lawyers, doctors, theologians; they are actively employed or retired; professionally trained or untutored; old-timers or newcomers. While most are county residents, a few are not. They all care about their subject, care about their community, care about digging into the past to tell its story. All are working without financial compensation, often during hours following full-time jobs or other obli­gations.

Sending out updated lists of writers from time to time is particularly useful. The lists indicate the topic or munici­pality, name, address and phone number for each chapter or section head and enable writers to talk over subjects which may overlap or complement each other. For ex­ample, how will the writers on geography and environ­mental change approach their topics? Or, how will the chapters on changing population groups and changing social lifestyles be defined? Or, which township will cover a ser­vice that is common to more than one? Since municipal writers are covering, at a local level, the topics of the county writers, the question of overlap continually recurs. While each may be dealing with the same subject. the county writer provides an overview while the municipal writer stresses the importance of the subject to the com­munity. It will be the editor’s task to delete unnecessary repetition and provide cross references.

Most chapter and section writers have others assisting them. For example, the education chapter, coordinated by a chairperson and a committee of three, has 138 writers or public, parochial, independent and special agencies and has its own guidelines and timetable. Art has sections which include crafts. sculpture, antiques. painting, collections arid organizations. Medicine covers changes in medical practices, hospitals, medical organizations, pharmacology and nursing. Religion embraces the traditions of more than fifteen denominations. Municipal writers, as well, have had many individuals help them tell the histories of their town­ships and boroughs.

In February, the editorial committee had a “Sociable Symposium.” One hundred twenty people came to hear panelists discuss how they were researching their chapters and comments from spokesmen for the county commis­sioners, the executive and editorial committees, and the Montgomery County Planning Commission. Over wine and cheese, the writers mingled and talked with one another. The enthusiasm and interest of this gathering were more eloquent than anything anyone could say.


Editing and Arranging

Each writer submitted to the editor a brief outline of subtopics that he/she intended to cover. These helped to define the writers’ approach and suggested subtopics for other writers covering parallel topics to consider. The out­lines also made it possible for the editor to recommend subtopics which may have been overlooked. In addition to the outlines, the Outline of Cultural Materials became an invaluable loot in establishing various new approaches to a subject.

Chapter length has been a recurrent question. Municipal chapters will average sixty manuscript pages, or thirty pages in print with photographs. (The completed book pages will be the size of those in the Bean work, but with larger, easier-to-read type.) The length of the county topic chap­ters, due to the variance in the nature of the topics them­selves, is more difficult to assess. When the chapters are in their final form, each writer will prepare two copies. One will be edited and used in the book. The other will be set aside, uncut, to be placed in an archives so that none of the historical material will be “lost.” Unused photographs will also find their way into the archives.

The book will not include footnotes, for each writer will note author, full title and date for quoted material in the text. Authors for every chapter will be acknowledged by name and provide a bibliography of all sources used. The book will have various county maps, an early and late map for each municipality, photographs, an extensive Appendix of comparative statistical data and a thorough Index.

Rather than include biographical sketches, as in the Bean work, The Second Hundred Years will tell the stories of in­dividuals through the roles they played in all aspects of county life. In the same way, the writers will provide the stories of all population groups who have settled in the county – their lifestyles; their reasons for settling there; and their social, cultural, economic, political. military and scientific contributions.

The writers of the second hundred years’ history are ac­tively researching primary sources. They are narrating local history chronologically to demonstrate major themes of human experience and development. What seems unique to Montgomery County expresses local responses to changes, controversies, problems and forces that have no borders. The many historical spinoffs of updating a county history are yet to come. Already chapter writers are developing additional articles and publications, including a new work on the art in Montgomery County and several histories of townships and boroughs.



The centennial History appeared in April 1885. The goal is to have the bicentennial Montgomery County: The Second Hundred Years available in 1984. Theodore W. Bean’s work and its sequel each bring a contemporary per­spective to topics old and new. The centennial history in­cluded chapters on manufacturing, railroading, banking and other topics that were unimaginable at the inception of the county. The bicentennial volumes include the history of cultural, social, environmental, industrial and communica­tion changes inconceivable one hundred years ago. Often, lovers of history think that the greatest satisfaction comes from digging up stories that are the most remote in time. But Bean’s task and today’s are very much the same. Bean brought the county’s early history up to date just as the writers updating Montgomery County’s history are doing one century later.


Editor’s Note: It is impossible to detail a vast project such as this in a single article. That being the case, this ac­count is presented with the hope that it might encourage others to think about developing similar programs in other sections of the Commonwealth. In order to assist in those efforts, the Montgomery County Federation of Historical Societies asks interested readers to write to them with any questions they may have. Inquiries should be addressed to the society, Box 1027, Norristown 19404, or call (215)
277-3009, office; (215) 277-7895, editor.


The author wishes to thank Suzanne Hilton, co-chair­woman of the editorial committee and author of young adult histories, for her assistance in the writing of this article.


Jean B. Toll is editor of Montgomery County: The Second Hundred Years. Formerly a freelance editor of books for Harper & Row and several university presses, she also was production editor of Philadelphia: Three Hundred Years of American Art, published by the Philadelphia Museum of Art.