Across the county in a 1937 Studebaker

In 1940, Jacob K. Rahn set out from his home in Royersford with three companions (Frank K. Rhan, Jacob Shantz, and Harvey Mensch) for California.  He kept a detailed record of the trip which is now in the collection of the Historical Society of Montgomery County.


The men travelled in a 1937 Studebaker, most likely the model with the unfortunate name of “Dictator” (it would be renamed the “Commander” in 1938).

1937 Studebaker Dictator Image

Image from

The ultimate goal of the trip was the Golden Gate International Exposition, held in 1939 and 1940  to celebrate the opening of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge (1937) and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge (1936).  Rahn enjoyed the fair, listing all the pavilions he visited (Denmark, Missouri, Illinois, Portugal, etc.). He was less impressed by the midway which he described as having “lots of fakers like the other fairs.”  They also crossed both bridges though Rahn only recorded the toll for the Bay Bridge (65 cents).

Each day on the drive out and the drive back he recorded the main crops.  In Illinois he writes, “Good wide Hiways [sic], the main crops are Corn, Oats and Soybeans.  Beef Cattle and Hogs.”

And in Wyoming, “travelling through the barren State of Wyoming for Miles and Miles no signs of any crops, the fields look [as] if every[thing] is burning up we passed over the LaPlatte river South and it was perfectly dry with a sandy bottom, all smaller streams were dry.”

They took in all the sights, Yellowstone, the giant redwoods, the Great Salt Lake, and Boulder Dam.  In Arizona he wrote, “we are now coming into a Cactus section — it had a very funny shapeand we seen lots of them a little explination [sic] they [are] full of pickers.”  And he drew this helpful picture.


The only souvenir from the trip kept with the diary was this ticket to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico (where he records seeing the “Rock of Ages” complete with a recorded choir singing the hymn of the same name).


Rahn recorded the number of miles traveled each day, as well as the cost of gas, food, and lodging (he preferred cabins to tourist camps).


Yes, you read that number right.

Although I read few complaints in the diary, I guess there’s nothing like coming home again.


Marsella Conservatory of Music

For the past few months, I’ve been very slowly digitizing our photograph collection.  A couple of weeks ago I came across this one.

Marsella music

It was actually a negative, but with the magic of Photoshop, I got a pretty good positive image from a scan of the negative.  It’s a great picture.  The note at the bottom was attached to the negative, but I don’t know who the “David” is.  I was, however, able to find out about the Marsella Conservatory of Music.

For several decades Loreta Marsella was Norristown’s leading musician.  Born in San Giovanni Incarico, Italy, in 1874, he first came to American in 1895, settling in Providence, Rhode Island. He moved into this area around 1908 and started a music school in North Philadelphia.  In 1911, he began the Marsella Conservatory of Music in Norristown.  He was perhaps better known for his Verdi Band, which he founded in 1920.  The Verdi Band appeared at all kinds of events and celebrations in Montgomery County, and in 1954 it won the first prize at the Atlantic City Centennial.  Every year the band awarded a prize to the best music student at Norristown High School.

Marsella was also a composer.  He wrote the grand march “Norris City” for the Sesquicentennial in 1962 and another in honor of John Glenn’s historic orbit of the Earth, titled “Glenn Friendship 7.”  His “Saga of Valley Forge” is 1600 pages long!

Marsella died in 1964 at the age of 90, but the Verdi Band continues to entertain to this day, check out their website here

Were you a student of Professor Marsella?  Do you have any memories of the Verdi Band?

The Martyr’s Mirror

Last week, our director, Karen Wolfe, mentioned that she believed we had a old copy of a Mennonite classic called The Martyrs Mirror.  After much poking around, our intrepid board member and volunteer, Ed Ziegler, found our copy which turned out to be a first edition of the first German translation.


The full title of the book is Der blutige Schauplatz oder Märtyrerspiegel der Taufgesinnten oder wehrlosen Christen, die um des Zeugnisses Jesu, ihres Seligmachers, willen gelitten haben und getötet worden sind, von Christi Zeit bis auf das Jahr 1600. (The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians who baptized only upon confession of faith, and who suffered and died for the testimony of Jesus, their Saviour, from the time of Christ to the year A.D. 1660).  The title emphasizes two central tenants of the Anabaptist movement.  First the title specifically mentions that the martyrs were defenseless, meaning they offered no resistance in line with Anabaptist pacifism.  It also states that the martyrs were baptized upon their confession of faith, meaning that they were old enough to confess their faith.  Anabaptists rejected infant baptism and would “re-baptize” adults (according to their enemies – they insisted they were really being baptized for the first time).  This practice as well as their pacifism led to their persecution by both the Catholic Church and other Protestant Churches.


This persecution led many Anabaptists to settle in the New World. Today, Anabaptists have evolved into several groups, including the Amish, Mennonites, and Hutterites.

The Martyrs Mirror was originally published in 1660 in Dutch, and it recounts the stories of over 4000 martyrs from the Apostles down to the Seventeenth Century.  In 1745, Jacob Gottschalk, the first Mennonite bishop in New World, arranged to have the book translated into German by the Ephrata Cloister.  It took fifteen men three years to accomplish the translation.


Our copy is a first edition that the Historical Society purchased in 1896.  The book is huge and seems to have been deliberately made to look old or medieval, with brass at the corners and the covers are held on with tacks.


Many copies of the book were printed as every Mennonite family owned one, and it was frequent gift for newly married couples.  It remains a popular book among Old Order Amish and Mennonites.

Family Reunion

You may remember that last October the Historical Society was honored to receive the diaries, letters, and a self-portrait of John Jacob Scholl, a resident of Norristown and soldier in the 51st Pennsylvania Volunteers.  You can check out our blog post about it here.  The items were donated by Scholl’s great-granddaughters Carole and Suzanne.


The diaries had long been in the possession of Milton Scholl, Jr., John’s grandson, who painstakingly transcribed them and provided us with a brief biography of Scholl.  So, we knew that right after the Civil War he married Laura J. Taft (who is mentioned in the diaries).  The couple had twin girls, but the marriage ended in divorce less than three years later.  One of the twins, Reno Ambrosia Scholl died after only a few weeks, but the other Lillian Laura Scholl survived.  In 1869, Scholl moved to Texas where he married Mary Hester and had another family.  No one seemed to know what happened to Lillian.

That is until a couple of months ago when we received a call from Earlene O’Hare, a descendant of Lillian!  She had seen our article on the Scholl papers in our quarterly newsletter.  She was very excited to see her great-grandfather on the cover of our newsletter.  Last week, Earlene and her siblings traveled here to see the original diaries and read the transcriptions.


Terrence Wright, Earlene Wright O’Hare, Glenn Wright, and Suzanne Wright Blackburn examining the Scholl papers.

It was wonderful to be able to share a piece of family history, and I think it shows the value of local historical societies (but then, I guess I’m prejudiced).

Oh, if you’re wondering while the first marriage ended, I’m afraid we still don’t know.  I asked the Wrights if they knew what happened, and they all replied that they were hoping we knew!  Divorce was unusual in the 1860’s, but one wonders if the number of young women mentioned in Scholl’s diary had anything to do with it.

The War of 1812 Riot

In the Spring of 1812, relations between the United States and Great Britain were heating up.  The Napoleonic Wars had disrupted shipping, and the British routinely impressed American sailors into service for the Royal Navy, while the British were suspicious of American ambitions in Canada (to give a quick and simplified review).  So, spirits were running high by the time President Madison called on Congress to declare war in June of 1812, and all over the country, troops were raised for the war.

In Norristown, the growing unrest was covered thoroughly in the Herald.  We have only a few issues from March 1812 on microfilm at the Historical Society, and they are full of the evil machinations of the British, specifically an attempt to lure the New England states away from union in the case of war.  The British agent, John Henry had second thoughts when the British government refused to pay him what he wanted.  So, he sold his orders from the British to the US government for $50,000.  The papers turned out to be valueless and Federalist papers (like the Herald) attacked the government.


The Herald also covered British press gangs who did not recognize the US citizenship of foreign born Americans.


The Federalists were generally against war with Britain.  The paper at the time was under the ownership of Charles Sower, the son of David Sower who founded the paper.  After the commencement of the war, Sower published something in the paper that provoked a violent reaction, but the stories on just what he published are in dispute.

According to a letter by Charles Sower’s nephew, Charles G. Sower the article was “when read in calmer times quite inoffensive, but it was violently distorted and misrepresented in a distant part of the county.”  That letter was written in 1866, and does not quote from the article at all.  He goes on to say, “A party was formed who came to Norristown in the night or early morning (I believe) broke into the office and did some little damage.   Thereupon some of Charles’s friends persuaded him to sell out believing his life was in danger.”


An old exhibit at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania gives a more detailed version.  It states that Sower published a letter in the Herald, making fun of a newly formed militia company in Philadelphia, particularly targeting its Irish-American members. It was the officers of that regiment who incited a mob, which, according to the exhibit catalog, caused a great deal of damage.  They also threatened Sower’s life.

Of course, not having the issue of the newspaper in question, we are left with uncertainty.  We do know that soon after Charles Sower sold the paper and moved to Uniontown, Maryland where he began another Federalist newspaper.  Charles Sower died there in 1820 at the age of 31.

I. H. Brendlinger’s Dry Goods Store


I. H. Brendlinger’s Dry Goods store stood at 80-82 Main Street in Norristown.  The business began in 1870 when Irwin H. Brendlinger bought out Neiman Brothers.  This building was erected in 1876.  Moses Augé, in his Lives of the Eminent Dead, described Brendlinger’s as the “most capacious store of the kind in Norristown and doubtless does the largest business, employing about sixteen store assistants.”

Some of those assistants can be seen here:


Now, you may be asking yourself, what are dry goods?  Well, they’re textiles, as you can see from this other interior photograph.


Brendlinger’s sold fabric, lace, rugs, gloves, blankets, and oil cloth.  According to the book Norristown by Michael A. Bono and Jack Coll, when Irwin H. Brendlinger died in 1898, the store was taken over by Jay F. Brendlinger who continued to run the store into the 20th century.

Presidential signature

Recently, the Historical Society of Montgomery County had the honor of receiving a document signed by President Ulysses S. Grant.  The document was donated by Christopher Geers in honor of E. L. Geers of Cincinnati, Ohio.

Here it is:


And here’s a close-up of the presidential signature:


If you’d like to check it’s authenticity, you’ll find another example of Grant’s signature on his Wikipedia page.

The document appoints Robert Iredell Deputy Postmaster of Norristown for a four year term.  Iredell was a prominent Norristonian.  He was the publisher of the Norristown Free Press, later the Free Press and Herald (after Iredell purchased the Norristown Herald in 1837).  Iredell was active in politics and attended the Whig Party’s national convention in 1848.  There he met Abraham Lincoln for the first time.  According to his biography in Biographical Annals of Montgomery County  by Ellwood Roberts, he met Lincoln several times, and it was he who first appointed Iredell postmaster.  He served as postmaster for 22 years and was, according Roberts, “courteous, obliging, and attentive to the interests of the public.”  Iredell died at the age of 95 in 1904.


It’s always exciting to add something presidential to our collection, but even more exciting when it also concerns a prominent citizen.