Gresh Cigar Factory

Gresh cigar factory

Located at Marshall Street in Norristown, the W. K. Gresh & Sons cigar factory was founded in 1872, though Gresh had been making cigars at home for some years before this.  The building in this picture was built in 1891 when he outgrew his first factory.  The article on Gresh in Biographical and Portrait Cyclopedia of Montgomery County by Henry Wilson Ruoff, calls the factory “a handsome brick structure of rare architectural beauty and utility, perhaps the finest cigar factory in the world.”  William K. Gresh was killed in front of his factory in 1904 when he was hit by an out of control wagon.

Gresh with cars

Today the building has be renovated into apartments.

John Jacob Scholl – 51st PA Volunteers


This week the Historical Society of Montgomery County received a visit from Carole Scholl and Suzanne Jaggers who presented their great-grandfather’s collection of diaries, letters, and a self-portrait.  John Jacob Scholl had served in the 51st Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment during the Civil War.  His diaries, letters, and other papers were passed down to his grandson Milton Scholl, Jr. (Carole and Suzanne’s father and honorary HSMC Volunteer), and Milton became the caretaker of this precious collection.

Besides preserving his grandfather’s documents, Milton transcribed the diaries and letters.  The sisters also donated a bound copy of the transcription and several papers, relating to John Jacob Scholl’s military service.  Clearly a labor of love, Milton Scholl did an excellent job of preserving his family’s legacy by carefully storing the various pieces in acid free boxes, folders, and sleeves.

The diaries cover only about one year, from February 9, 1864 to February 23, 1865.  It’s an exciting year in which Scholl saw action at the Battle of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg.  At the Wilderness on May 5, 1864, he wrote, “9 AM. our Brigade took up the line of Battle about the centre of our column heavy wood along the line at 11-1/2 [11:30] our Brig. was ordered to make a charge also the whole line we drove the rebels out of their Pitts but being Flanked on our left were forced back.  fighting desperate.  Some firing continued and I was struck on the side and took the corner of the diary off.”


Photograph of the first diary with part of the left corner missing.

Throughout the diaries, Scholl lists his activities, how far the regiment marches, and details of regimental losses.  He also keeps track of letters he received and sent, many of which he transcribed into the diary.  From these we learn that he was popular with the young ladies of Norristown (though he describes himself as “bashful” in one letter).  While the diaries list the bare details of Scholl’s activities, the letters provide us some insight into his thoughts.  In one letter he writes of his Christmas meals, “Breakfast Hard Tack and coffee.  Dinner.  Pork and hard tack.  Supper Coffee and tack and whatever pork was left from Dinner.  Stylish way of f[e]asting wasn’t it.”

In another letter he writes “I never seen much enjoyment in the Army, but think it my duty to help crush this Wicked Rebellion.  I enlisted and since I have made up my mind to see it through unless prevented by sickness, and if the Johnnies Chooses to make me their Target which I hope they will not do.  So far I have been one of the lucky ones.”

Before and after the war, Scholl worked as an artist, and included among his papers was this pencil sketch.


After the war, Scholl moved from Norristown to Texas where he lived until his death in 1919.  Milton Scholl, Jr., without whom the Historical Society would not have this wonderful collection, passed away last year, just a few days after Freda, his wife of nearly sixty years.  HSMC is very grateful to the Scholl family for bringing us this extraordinary collection.

The Great-Granddaddy of Emailing


This relic from our collection is a Morse, or electric, telegraph.

Before the advent of the telegraph, the most useful means of long-distance communication were smoke signals or semaphore. With advances in the science of electricity and magnetism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, many people experimented with using electricity to transmit communications.  Some successful projects were realized in Europe in the 1820s and 1830s, but in 1837, two separate groups finally conceived the telegraph.  Cooke and Wheatstone in England created a model which was used on British railways through the nineteenth century, up until the 1930s.  Samuel F. B. Morse and his partner, Alfred Vail, patented the Morse telegraph in the United States.  In 1844, Morse sent the first telegraph from Washington, DC to Baltimore.

Samuel F. B. Morse

Samuel F. B. Morse

By 1861, cross-country lines had been laid, and by 1866, transatlantic lines were run.  This long-distance transmission almost instantly changed the face of communication.  Instead of waiting days or weeks for news to arrive, information could be exchanged in a matter of minutes.  The instrument pictured here was donated in 1930 by John C. Rountree.  He was an employee of the Pennsylvania Railroad and used the instrument throughout his employment there, from 1875 until 1924, when he retired.  According to his obituary, he always wore a “sand sombrero” and was a well-known figure in the Main Line.

Detail of Morse telegraph

Detail of Morse telegraph, owned and operated by John C. Rountree from 1875 to 1924

Morse code was utilized by telegraph operators, consisting of a series of dots and dashes representing letters. Originally, a marker of some type was used to record the codes, and then a series of embossed symbols, and quickly, operators began sending by key and receiving by ear.  This meant that the operator was essentially able to recite in English what was coming through the telegraph in Morse code.

Samuel K.  Zook

Samuel K. Zook

Samuel K. Zook is best known as a Civil War general, and is buried in Montgomery Cemetery, owned by the Society.  Before his military days, he was a telegraph operator.  He helped to string lines from Norristown to Philadelphia, and worked with crews as far west as the Mississippi River.  Before the war, he was operator and manager for a variety of different telegraph companies, and even contributed some important improvements to the design of the telegraph.

Charles Heber Clark

Though the name is virtually unknown today, Charles Heber Clark, who sometimes wrote under the name “Max Adeler,” was a best-selling author of humorous stories

In 1856 or 1857 (according to his son, Frederick L. Clark), teenager Charles H. Clark moved from Maryland to Philadelphia to begin his working life.  He began as a reporter for several Philadelphia newspapers, eventually becoming an editor and even owning his own paper, the Textile Record.  His career was briefly interrupted by two years in military service during the Civil War.  After the war he gained fame with the publication of his first book.


Out of the Hurley-Burley, or, Life in an Odd Corner was published in 1874 under the name “Max Adeler.”  It’s a collection of humorous stories about life in New Castle, Delaware, in the middle of the nineteenth century. It features hundreds of illustrations, including many by A. B. Frost, developer of the comic strip.  The book was very popular in the US and in Britain, selling over one million copies.

A few years after the publication of Out of the Hurley-Burley, Clark moved to Conshohocken with his young family.  In his final volume of short stories, By the Bend in the River (1915), Clark described Conshohocken as “Where the quiet river bends to the eastward, and below, where it turns sharply toward the south through the cleft in the long-hill range.”

The Historical Society of Montgomery County has four of Clark’s books.  One of them, The Fortunate Island and Other Stories (1882), contains the story of a professor and his daughter shipwrecked on a magical island stuck in the Middle Ages.  This story led to rivalry with fellow humorist Mark Twain. Clark accused Twain of plagiarizing parts of “The Fortunate Island” in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.


Clark, however, did not want to be known as only a humorist.  He was a serious man and he wanted to be taken seriously.  Later in life he wrote several novels, including The Quakeress (1905), which takes place in Conshohocken (referred to as “Connock” in the book).  He was also president of the J. Ellwood Lee Company, a manufacturer of surgical instruments that was founded by a former student from Clark’s Bible class.


The novels were not as successful as his humorous stories, and eventually Clark reconciled himself with his reputation.  He died in 1915 and is buried in Montgomery Cemetery. 

Source: Clark, Frederick L., “Charles Heber Clark.”  Bulletin of the Historical Society of Montgomery County Pennsylvania, v. III, no. 4, Norristown, PA: April, 1943

Upcoming events

It’s an exciting fall at the Historical Society of Montgomery County!

Join us at Montgomery Cemetery this Sunday, September 21st for Death and Dying in Victorian Times from 10:00 to 2:00.  The $8.00 entrance fee covers all exhibits and presentations.  The cemetery is located at 1 Hartranft Ave., West Norriton, PA 19401.

Tuesday evenings in October we’re having a four-part seminar on World War I.  The speaker will be me, Nancy Sullivan.  Learn about the causes of the “war to end all wars,” the progress of the fighting, and how the First World War shaped the world we live in today.  That’s on October 7th, 14th, 21st, and 28th at 7:00 pm at headquarters.  The cost is $40.

On October 15th at 7:00 pm, Joseph Hylan, Esq. will give a talk on Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Mr. Justice Holmes and the Civil War.”  The talk is free.

November 2nd at 2:30, we’ll have another free talk, this one on “The Underground Railroad in Quilts” by Cassandra Gunkel, PhD.

In November and December, Micheal Snyder will be offering another one of his popular courses at our headquarters.  This one will be “The Revolutionary War Comes to Southeastern Pennsylvania.”  The cost of the six week course is $65 for members and $75 for non-members.  The dates are November 5th, 12th, and 20th, and December 4th, 10th, and 17th at 7:00 pm.

The Historical Society’s annual luncheon will be on November 15th at noon at the Bay Pony Inn.  Speaker Beth Kepart will be speaking on the Schuylkill River.

Wednesday, December 3rd, Michael Harris will give a talk on the Battle of Brandywine.  It’s starts at 7:00 and is free to the public.

Finally, just in time for Christmas, Judy Parrish will give us “The History of the Christmas Tree.”  It will be on December 14th at 2:30 at headquarters and is free.

Our headquarters is located at 1654 DeKalb St. in Norristown.  We hope to see you at one of events!

“I pity the human being that is disappointed in seeing the Falls at Niagara.”

In the United States in the early Nineteenth Century, new advances in transportation allowed Americans to travel through their new country, appreciating its many natural beauties.  Of the country’s numerous natural wonders, none rivaled Niagara Falls.

In 1824, Miss Mary Donnaldson of Montgomery County, traveled with her brother Edward and his wife to Niagara Falls.  Fortunately, she kept a journal of her experience, now part of the Donnaldson Papers at the Historical Society of Montgomery County.


Miss Donnaldson gives vivid descriptions of the operation and noise of the steamboats, the vistas of the Hudson River, and the newly opened Erie Canal.  She describes why they choose to travel by the canal from Albany to Schenectady even though the canal route was longer, 28 miles, than the land route, 15 miles, “it was … a new and therefore a preferable mode of travelling.”  The Erie Canal was the technical wonder of the age, and Donnaldson describes many details about the elevation and the operation of the locks.

When the group reaches Niagara, Donnaldson describes it in the language typical of the time.

“The immense force with which the waters rush to the precipice, the suddenness with which they are precipitated the spray which they throw … as they descend into [the] stream below, & the beautiful white mist which rises from the gulf into which they have fallen, & which is driven by either direction by the wind, are all points to fix the attention and rivet themselves in the memory of the beholder.… Below where the waters are received, – a charm presents itself resembling in whiteness, an immense bed of snow, but lighter, more liquid & if such an exposition is allowable, conveying the impression of something unearthly & purely spiritual.”


On the return trip, the party traveled overland and visited the Finger Lakes and Saratoga where they took the waters at the spring.  Throughout the journal, Donnaldson describes the people she met and many tales of the War of 1812, and she references the writings of Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper.

She ends her journal, “To the friendly eye that map peruse these pages, I can only wish a portion of the gratification I received during my journey – and less weariness tan I have experience in recording its progress.”


And drink to Old Tippecanoe…

Below is an interesting recollection by John C. Boorse of a rally for presidential candidate William Henry Harrison in 1840. The meeting took place at the White Horse Hotel in Mainland (Harleysville). The recollection is undated, but says that it was dictated by John C. Boorse to H. Rittenhouse Boorse.  You can click on the image to make it larger.

Seven year-old Boorse was witnessing a very interesting moment in American history.  Prior to the Harrison campaign, presidential elections were fairly low key, and actively seeking the office was frowned upon.  The Harrison campaign was the first to use slogans and imagery to win office.


William Henry Harrison is probably most famous today for dying a mere 32 days into his presidential term.  Candidate Harrison in 1840 was best known as the hero of Tecumseh’s War (a conflict with the Shawnee) and the War of 1812.  It was during Tecumseh’s War that Harrison acquired the nickname “Tippecanoe” after winning a battle near Tippecanoe Creek. When Harrison became the Whig Party’s candidate in 1840, the Democrats tried to portray the 68 year-old former general as out of touch, saying he would rather sit in his log cabin and drink hard cider.  However, then as now, Americans appreciated the “common man” aspect of the candidate, and the Whigs turned log cabins into the main symbol of the campaign (Harrison actually came a wealthy family).  Boorse describes the log cabin he saw, and he records for us two verses of a campaign song.

The campaigning worked, and Tippecanoe defeated incumbent Martin Van Buren in a landslide.  His death so early in his term (the first time a president had died in office) was a disaster for the Whig Party, however.  His vice-president, John Tyler, proved a divisive president who alienated both Whigs and Democrats.