Montgomery County: Cultural Microcosm of the Commonwealth

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

The third most populous county in Pennsylvania, with ap­proximately 480 square miles of rolling hills criss-crossed by rivers, streams and superhighways, Montgom­ery County is a microcosm of the Com­monwealth, a reflection of its cultural development. Pan of Philadelphia County until 1784, Montgomery Coun­ty served as a sanctuary for numerous ethnic and religious groups seeking the freedom William Penn intended when he bought this territory from the In­dians in 1683 and 1684.

Between 1623 and 1665, long before Penn’s purchases, Dutch and Swedish merchants established trading posts along the Schuylkill River. Following a verbal agreement between Welsh Quak­ers and Penn at a meeting in London, a party of Welshmen settled in Lower Merion, part of Upper Merion, and townships in Chester and Delaware counties in 1682. Other areas of the county were inhabited by Welsh Bap­tists. Within fifty years, twenty percent of the population was of Welsh descent.

The eastern end of the county closest to Philadelphia was occupied by Eng­lishmen, while Germans coming from Germantown before 1690 settled in Whitemarsh and Springfield and spread to Limerick, New Hanover and Potts­grove by 1709. So large was this Ger­man immigration that by 1734 more than one-half of the population of the county was German. Many more Ger­mans arrived as redemptioners or inden­tured servants bound w their masters until their ship passages had been paid. Destitute Irish likewise entered bondage in order to escape the horrible condi­tions of their homeland.

Each immigrant group brought with it its own religious beliefs and customs. Consequently, Montgomery County boasts some of the oldest church con­gregations in the country. Among those established in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries were Merion Friends Meeting and Plymouth Meet­ing; St. Thomas’ Episcopal, White­marsh; St. James’ Episcopal, Perkio­men (Evansburg); Montgomeryville Baptist; New Hanover and Augustus Lutheran churches (the latter in Trappe); Norriton and Abington Pres­byterian churches; and Whitemarsh German Reformed Church (now United Church of Christ). The first German Reformed communion in America was administered in 1725 by John Philip Boehm at Falkner’s Swamp. Bethel Hill Methodist Church, organized as early as 1770 in Worcester, is the oldest Method­ist church in the county and second in age only to St. George’s (Philadelphia) in the state.

Smaller sects, such as the Brethren (Dunkers), the Mennonites, the Evan­gelical Association or Albrechtians, also found haven in what was to become Montgomery County. The Moravians, attempting ecumenism with the Re­formed and Lutheran churches in the colonies, held meetings at the home of Christopher Wiegner in Towamencin and conducted a school for boys at the farm of Henry Antes in Frederick.

Unique to the Montgomery County area is the settlement of the Schwenk­felders. Of the five Schwenkfelder con­gregations in the United States, four are in the county and one in Philadelphia. Followers of Caspar Schwenkfeld von Ossig, escaping Catholic persecution in Silesia in 1734, established communities in the central and northwestern town­ships of the county. Each year descend­ants of these eighteenth-century refu­gees celebrate the anniversary of their first thanksgiving (September 24, 1734) with a traditional Gedachtnis-Tag meal of bread and apple butter. Two Schwenkfelders recently achieving prominence are former Senator Richard Schweiker and Drew Lewis, both of whom served in President Ronald Rea­gan’s cabinet.

While Montgomery County served as a refuge for many dissenting religious groups in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, other faiths did not become established until la1er. Prior to the erec­tion in 1836 of St. Patrick’s Church in Norristown. Roman Catholics had to worship in Bally, Berks County, or in Philadelphia. Jewish congregations were not organized until the late nine­teenth century, but the Temple Beth Sholom in Cheltenham Township is a twentieth-century architectural marvel. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and dedicated in 1959, the building is based around the theme “In God’s Hands,” with the foundation following the stylized contour of shaped hands and the lighted tower representing Mt. Sinai as the “mount of light.”

Following a split among the Ameri­can followers of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, one group, known as the General Church of the New Jerusalem, settled in a county vil­lage in the 1890s. At the request of twenty-nine petitioners of the Sweden­borgian faith, the community was incor­porated as the borough of Bryn Athyn in 1916. The Pittsburgh glass manufac­turer John Pitcairn made his home there and commissioned the architect Ralph Adams Cram to construct a cathedral for the bishop of the New Church. After Pitcairn’s death, his son Raymond dis­missed Cram and assumed full control of the project. The cathedral was built as much as possible like a medieval church, with craftsmen and artisans working in shops and studios on the construction site.

Such a varied collection of religious refugees and seekers of freedom as settled in what was to become Mont­gomery County were, quite naturally, attracted by the restless urge for inde­pendence from Great Britain that even­tually arose in the colonies. The coun­tryside west of Philadelphia, in fact, be­came a center of military activity at one time during the Revolution. Washing­ton and his troops, for instance, camped at many locations during their nine­-month residence between September 19, 1777 and June 19, 1778. British forces also marched through the county, pil­laging and burning as they went and skirmishing with the Americans at Em­len in Oreland, the Crooked Billet in Hatboro and St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Barren Hill. Many of the houses and churches figuring in these war-time activities are preserved to­day: Augustus Lutheran Church, the pastor of which welcomed the Ameri­cans but feared the British since his own son, John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg, left his Anglican ministry to lead a regi­ment of Virginians against the Redcoats; Pottsgrove, the mansion of Thomas Polls used by Washington as a headquarters and now open to the pub­lic; Fatlands, the home of James Vaux, which was inhabited by Washington one night and by Howe the next; and the cemetery of the Towamencin Mennonite Church, where Gen. Francis Nash and three other officers who were mortally wounded at the Battle of Germantown are buried. Recently the county commissioners acquired the Pennypacker farm, which Samuel W. Pennypacker, a fre­quently published historian who served as governor of Pennsylvania from 1903 to 1907, claimed Washington made his headquarters in the fall of 1777. There are other historians, however, who dis­pute Pennypacker’s claim, stating that Washington stayed at the home of Henry Keely a mile west of the Perkio­men Creek. A third group suggests that Washington may have stayed at both places.

Washington’s presence in other parts of the county is more firmly documented. While he was meeting with his gener­als a1 Bethel Hill Methodist Church to plan the attack on the British in Ger­mantown, his personal headquarters was maintained at the home of Peter Wentz in Worcester. Today, the Peter Wentz Home on Schultz Road is operat­ed by the county as a reconstructed colo­nial farm and contains fine examples of period furniture.

One of the greatest testimonies to American courage and the county’s most famous Revolutionary War site is Valley Forge, where Washington win­tered his men from December 19, 1777, to June 19, 1778. Valley Forge National Historical Park has been administered by the federal government since 1976, when the 200th birthday of the nation was celebrated by the arrival of covered wagon parties from every state, hun­dreds of thousands of patriotic citizens and many government dignitaries, in­cluding President Gerald R. Ford.

When the Americans broke camp on June 19 and headed toward New Jersey, General Washington spent the last night of his nine-month stay in Montgomery County at the home of Dr. Robert Shan­non in what is now East Norriton Town­ship. Dr. Shannon and his brother John were to play prominent roles in the crea­tion of Montgomery County, which was to be established six years later.

Although Philadelphia seemed satis­factory as a county seat before the war, it became increasingly burdensome to travel from the western end of the county to the city for official business. Therefore, on September 10, 1784, the state Assembly passed an Act “for erecting pan of the County of Philadel­phia into a separate county, named and thereafter to be called Montgomery County.” There is disagreement among county historians as to whether Mont­gomery County was named for Mont­gomery Township (which honored a Welsh shire) or for the two gentlemen in the Assembly named Montgomery who actively supported the bill creating the county. Until recently, Gen. Richard Montgomery was the man most widely accepted as the person after whom the county was named. An early Revolu­tionary War hero, he left the British Army, emigrated to America prior to the war, and was killed at the battle of Quebec in 1775.

Once the act creating the county was passed, a committee of prominent citi­zens met at the inn of Hannah Thomp­son in (West) Norriton (restored after British damage in 1777) to elect officials and to authorize them to purchase land “[s]ituated in some convenient place in the neighborhood of Stoney Run, con­tiguous to the river Schuylkill, in Norri­ton Township, in trust and for the use of the inhabitants of this said county, and thereon to erect and build a Court House and Prison, sufficient w accom­modate the public service of said coun­ty.” Henry Pawling, Jonathan Roberts, George Smith, Robert Shannon and Henry Cunnard were chosen, and a town was then plaited on land formerly belonging to Isaac Norris and his son Charles.

The first Quarter Court Session was held December 28, 1784, at the public house of John Shannon in Norris Town, northeast of where Egypt Road (Main Street) crossed the Stony Creek. Presid­ing over the session was Frederick A. Muhlenberg, the son or the Lutheran patriarch Henry Melchior Muhlenberg and brother of General Muhlenberg and Henry Ernest Muhlenberg, who became one of America’s foremost botanists. Other court sessions were also held at Shannon’s tavern before the courthouse and jail were completed in 1787, four years earlier than the first county office building.

In 1849 the old two-story stone jail was to be replaced by a more modern prison based on the Pennsylvania or Solitary Confinement System. Plans were submitted by the illustrious Phila­delphia architect Thomas U. Walter and his equally famous student Napoleon LeBrun. LeBrun’s plans, with an esti­mated construction cost of $49,000, were selected. The magnificent Norman castle-like prison was opened in June 1851 on Airy Street.

At the time or the selection or the site for the new jail and courthouse in 1849 and 1850, efforts were made to relocate the county seat to Centre Square, Skip­pack or Trappe. There was even a move­ment to create a new county (Madison County) from parts of Montgomery, Berks and Chester counties, with Potts­town as the seat. However, the commis­sioners moved ahead and built the new jail in Norristown and cleared the site of the old jail for a new courthouse.

The new courthouse, erected in 1854, remodeled in 1878, rebuilt in 1904 and further enlarged and modernized in the 1960s and 70s, was also built according to the plans of LeBrun. Marble for the 1854 building was obtained by Norris­townian Franklin Derr from the quar­ries or Upper Merion and the clock in the steeple was crafted by Jacob D. Custer. Plans have been made to build a new county prison on the site of the prison farm in Lower Providence Town­ship, but the fate of the LeBrun jail has not yet been determined.

It was not long after the county was established that villages began peti­tioning to be incorporated as boroughs. Norristown was incorporated in 1812, followed by Pottstown in 1815. The earliest villages or Montgomery County grew up along the roads and waterways, while late nineteenth-century villages developed, as might be expected, along the railroad and trolley lines.

Crucial to the development of the county and its western expansion was the development of early transportation systems, such as the first stagecoach line, which was begun by George Klein in 1763 and ran through the county from the King of Prussia Inn in Phila­delphia to the Sun Tavern in Bethlehem. In 1781, William Coleman opened an­other line, this one between Philadel­phia and Reading, running through Norristown, Trappe and Pottsgrove. Such roads or turnpikes as German­town, Ridge, Skippack and Bethlehem soon provided access from all pans of the county to Philadelphia and bridges were constructed to cross rivers and streams.

The last of the county’s covered bridges may have fallen victim to prog­ress in 1955, but many other historic spans remain. The Perkiomen Bridge, erected in 1799 over the creek between Collegeville and Evansburg and fi­nanced by a lottery, still accommodates heavy traffic. The eight-arch Skippack Bridge, which crosses the creek of the same name only a short distance to the east on Germantown Pike, was built in 1792, making it the oldest span in the county.

With the advent of the canal era, the Schuylkill Valley Navigation Company was incorporated in March 1815. Opened in 1824, the company’s system eventually included 110 miles of canal and extended from Fairmount in Philadelphia to Port Carbon, Schuylkill County.

Not long afterward, the Philadelphia, Germantown and Norristown Railroad was begun and opened to Norristown in August 1835, two years after the incorporation of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. In 1834, the Pennsylvania Railroad was completed from Philadelphia to Columbia, with six miles passing through the county. The lower part of the county, known as “The Main Line,” developed along this railroad line and offered building sites for the mansions and resorts of wealthy busi­ness and industrial magnates from the city of Philadelphia.

Paralleling the development of trans­portation routes was the rise of com­merce and industry. The county’s earli­est successful industries included lime­stone and marble quarrying in Ply­mouth and Upper Merion. The marble for Pennsylvania’s stone in the Wash­ington Monument, for example, came from Hitner’s Quarries along German­town Pike in Plymouth. William Strothers embellished the block of while marble with Pennsylvania’s coat of arms, a portrayal of Penn’s treaty with the Indians, a keystone, a palm leaf, pen, Indian bow, scales of justice, and the words “Pennsylvania, founded in 1681 by deeds of peace.”

Iron ore mining and smelting, rolling mills, nail factories, flour mills, iron foundries, cotton and woolen mills, and the vast network of railroad lines into every corner of the county all contrib­uted to the county’s rapid industrializa­tion by the late nineteenth century.

The second half of the twentieth cen­tury has precipitated many changes in Montgomery County’s industrial pro­file, however; gone are most of the iron­-related industries, the rubber factories and the great mills lining the Schuylkill River. In their places are a number of research and development centers for the pharmaceutical industry and several others incorporating space-age tech­nology. The suggestion has been made that the Schuylkill Valley, particularly the area around King of Prussia, will someday rival the Silicon Valley or Cali­fornia. Indeed, Montgomery County is so economically healthy, according to the 1980 census figures, that it has the highest median family income in the state and rates among the twenty-five highest counties in the nation.

Such a highly industrialized and di­S versified society, of course, de­manded, and still demands, educated workers and citizens. Indeed, many of the first settlers brought with them a love and respect for knowledge, and the well-trained clergy of the early German and English churches oversaw the estab­lishment of schools for their young peo­ple. Christopher Dock, the German Mennonite schoolmaster, began teach­ing in Skippack, Salford and German­town in 1718. His crowning achieve­ment, Schul-Ordnung, was the first treatise on pedagogy published in Amer­ica.

The nineteenth century saw the ex­pansion and growth of education. The Norristown Academy, chartered in 1804, was built in 1805, and the Trappe Boarding School was opened for young men and boys in 1830. Some years later, the latter was moved to a new building and renamed Washington Hall Collegi­ate Institute. The renowned Hill School was opened in 1851 in Pottstown, and many other excellent prep schools. which continue today, were located in Lower Merion.

Dr. J. Grier Ralston opened the Oak­land Female institute in 1845 in Norris­town, with the Pennsylvania Female College in present-day Collegeville fol­lowing in 1852. The merger of the Female College with the Rev. Abraham Hunsicker’s Freeland Seminary resulted in the founding of Ursinus College in 1869. Other colleges include Bryn Mawr, Beaver, Rosemont, Haverford, Montgomery County Community Col­lege and St. Charles Borromeo Semi­nary.

An educated and literate population depended upon the local printer for news and public opinion. Christopher Saur, Jr., the influential Germantown printer attainted for ,reason during the Revolution, spent his exile from Phila­delphia in the neighborhood of Fairview Village and is buried at Methacton Men­nonite Church. His son, David Sower, continued in his father’s profession and began publishing the Norristown Gazette in 1799. Sower’s paper, cham­pioning the Federalist cause, was soon challenged by another tabloid, the True Republican, renamed the Norristown Register in 1803. In addition to his newspaper business, Sower and his suc­cessors also published a number of books by local authors.

The sizable German population in the county demanded special attention and Sumneytown became the center of Ger­man publishing. Certain newspapers, such as Enos Benner’s Bauern Freund, became popular among the Pennsylva­nia Germans in the region and were quite influential on behalf of the Demo­cratic party.

The establishment of libraries and literary societies in the villages of Mont­gomery County reflected the concern of Pennsylvanians for the protection of cultural values. The Union Library Company of Hatboro was founded in 1755 because a number of people fell that the formation of a public library was “the most likely way to promote knowledge and moral virtue.” At that time, it was one of three libraries in Pennsylvania and one of only eleven in the colonies. Almost forty years later, in 1794, the Norristown Library was estab­lished. Following a charter amendment in 1941, the name was changed to The Norristown Public Library, and in 1962 it was designated a District Library Cen­ter. The Montgomery County-Norris­town Public Library was formed in 1968 when the Montgomery County Free Li­brary and the Norristown Public Li­brary merged. In 1975, the library moved into a $4.5 million building, which housed 218,903 volumes, making it the state’s third largest public library in terms of its collections, services and size, a far cry from the county’s first li­brary which cost $155 .43 and contained 162 books.

Concomitant with the interest in pre­serving culture through the development of libraries was the active participation in literary and debating societies in the mid-nineteenth century. Young men met several times a year in public halls or schoolhouses to hear lectures and to de­bate vital issues of the day.

Music, too, was carefully preserved and nurtured among the early settlers. The German churches in particular fostered a rich musical heritage, with pipe organs being imported from Europe un­til Americans began building the instru­ments themselves. Andrew Krauss, who had been making organs with his brother, John, in Lehigh County since 1790, established his own shop near Palm, Montgomery County, following his brother’s death and continued to make pipe organs as well as flutes and violins. The first Krauss church organ was installed in Wentz’s Reformed Church, Worcester, in 1796.

John Ziegler of Skippack built four pipe organs for home use. A skilled cabinet maker, he apparently taught himself the craft after studying several Tannenberg and Krauss organs in near­by churches. Three examples of his work still exist: one in the museum of the Historical Society of Montgomery County, one in the Goshenhoppen His­torians Museum in Green Lane and one in the Pennsylvania Farm Museum at Landis Valley, Lancaster County.

Almost every village boasted a brass band in the latter part of the last cen­tury, and singing schools had become popular by mid-century, with rehearsals scheduled both in schoolhouses and churches. Several large choral groups still flourish today performing major works, often with orchestral accom­paniment. Outdoor concerts were his­torically an important pan of the activi­ties at Willow Grove Park, with such musical luminaries as John Philip Sousa, Walter Damrosch and Victor Herbert on the podium.

For thirteen years, ending in 1980, Temple University conducted a Music Festival and Institute at its Ambler Campus, and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra was resident orchestra in the large amphitheatre each summer. Sever­al community orchestras, composed of both professional and amateur musi­cians, exist today, including the Potts­town Symphony, the North Penn Sym­phony, the Old York Road Symphony, the Ambler Symphony and the Main Line Symphony of Chester County, which draws on members from several adjacent counties.

The county, in fact, has been blessed with a number of prominent artists. in­cluding painters such as John James Audubon, who made his home at Mill Grove in Lower Providence, as well as Thomas Hovenden, Russell and Xanthus Smith, William T. Trego, Thomas P. Anschute, Henry McCarter, and Manning de Villeneuve. More re­cently, Ellis Law painted numerous his­toric sires and buildings of the county.

In another medium, Sigmund Lubin, a Philadelphia optician, helped make Montgomery County a “Little Holly­wood” for a while during the early days of motion pictures. This pioneer film maker shot movies in Betzwood on the Schuylkill in West Norriton Township, where the river and surrounding quarry sites were used as “on location” back­grounds for such films as The Battle of Shiloh, The Sunken Village, Toonerville Trolley and numerous wild westerns.

Others turned their creativity toward the sciences. David Rittenhouse, a mathematician, astronomer, inventor and statesman, observed the transit of Venus in 1769 from his observatory in (East) Norriton. Professor T.S.C. Lowe, who invented instruments to test the upper atmosphere with the help of hot-air balloons and developed aero­nautical reconnaissance methods during the Civil War, moved to Norristown from New England after the war. There, he experimented with refrigeration and the production of artificial gas for heat and illumination, which led to his inven­tion of the first incandescent gaslight.

Montgomery countians could not always pursue tranquil lives enjoying the fruits of their inventiveness, however. Periodically, their lives were interrupted by warfare, even after inde­pendence had been secured. Militiamen answered the call to duty and served briefly during the Whiskey Rebellion, Fries Rebellion and the War of 1812. Their services were again required in 1844, when anti-Catholic riots broke out in Philadelphia. During the Mexican War local volunteers camped at the same site in Towamencin that Washing­ton’s troops occupied after the Battle of Germantown.

Al the beginning of the Civil War, four uniformed volunteer companies from Norristown, together with two new companies and the Madison Guards of Pottstown, combined with three companies from other counties to form the Fourth Pennsylvania Regi­ment. The Fifty-First Regiment, Penn­sylvania Volunteers, also included five companies from Montgomery County, many of whom re-enlisted from the Fourth Pennsylvania. A nineteen-foot monument in the public square in Nor­ristown memorializes the 547 county soldiers who died in the conflict, and Montgomery Cemetery in West Norri­ton holds the distinction of being the final resting place of five Civil War gen­erals: Winfield Scott Hancock, John F. Hartranft, Samuel K. Zook. Adam J. Slemmer and Matthew R. McClennan. Brig. Gen. William J. Bolton is buried in the adjoining Riverside Cemetery.

As was the case with many of their countrymen, Montgomery County citi­zens were divided on the issues of the Civil War. On one hand, the county was a center of abolitionist activities. Sam­uel Maulsby and Alan W. Corson began holding meetings as early as 1828, and Underground Railroad stations existed in Plymouth and Norristown. Lucretia Mott, a prominent abolitionist and re­former, made her home at “Roadside” in Cheltenham, close to Camp William Penn where black recruits in the Union Army were stationed. Following the war, lots in the vicinity of the camp and Roadside were offered 10 black veterans at very low prices. Some of the first houses built there were constructed with wood from the old barracks.

Pro-slavery sentiment, on the other hand, was also strong in Norristown, and many in the county approved either of slavery or or the formation of a freed-slave country in Africa, named Li­beria. Abolitionist leaders who were Quakers often felt the disapproval of their meetings. Another interesting situation was presented by the First Troop of Montgomery County, one of the oldest and locally best-known volun­teer units prior to the Civil War, which was controlled by Democrats and re­fused to join the war effort.

Montgomery County was not unique in its division over the is­sues of the day, nor was it the first coun­ty to be settled by people of diverse eth­nic backgrounds. Other counties, as well, have contributed to the state’s cul­tural, artistic and scientific heritage. The county distinguishes itself, not by displaying any one of these qualities, but rather by exhibiting them all.

Pennsylvania is known for its diver­sity, and in many ways the cultural iden­tities of the varied groups that settled here are preserved. The Pennsylvania Germans in Montgomery County pro­vide just one example. Their farming methods, daily life style and art, espe­cially fraktur, which are still in practice today, are further perpetuated at festi­vals and special events such as Goshen­hoppen Days in East Greenville and the Hecklerfest in Lower Salford.

The county provides a wonderful blend of tradition and progress. Simple Mennonite farms are not far removed from the partially completed nuclear power plant at Limerick; the auction house and farmers’ market at Gilberts­ville is less than an hour away from one of the largest shopping center complexes in the world at King of Prussia; dwarfed by the modern, circular building hous­ing the headquarters of the American Baptist Convention are tiny, unheated meeting houses, where men still sit on one side and women sit on the other. singing stately, unaccompanied German hymns; a craftsman painstakingly pol­ishes the curly maple stock of a hunting rifle while engineers are producing high­-tech computer components and soft­ware nearby.

As it moves toward the future in in­dustry, commerce and technology, Montgomery County continues to pre­serve the past and remains a cultural mi­crocosm of the Commonwealth.

 

Judith A. Meier is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and serves on the editorial committee of the Historical Society of Montgomery County Bulletin. A frequently published author, she has also written articles about East Norriton Township, Norris­town and church history.