A letter from the White House


Stationary from the Executive Mansion (it was still about a decade away from being called the “White Hosue”).

I just never what I’m going find when I open a folder at the Historical Society.  Yesterday, I was still working my way through personal correspondence files, when I saw a letter on stationary that read, “Executive Mansion, Washington.”  A quick examination showed the signature of Caroline Scott Harrison, wife of President Benjamin Harrison.


Caroline Scott Harrison was very interested in history and preservation.  Her husband was inaugurated in 1889, the centennial of Washington’s inauguration, which heightened interest in the early history of the county.  In 1890, Mrs. Harrison was one of the founders of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution and served at the first President General.

Reflecting her interest in the American Revolution, the letter concerns the purchase of Washington’s Headquarters at Valley Forge.  The letter was donated to the Historical Society in 1930 by Ellis R. Roberts.  He had apparently offered to contribute funds for the purchase, but in the letter the First Lady explains that the Sons of America had already purchased part of the land.

Caroline Scott Harrison’s official First Lady portrait.

The letter written in October, 1891, and soon after it was written, Mrs. Harrison became ill with tuberculosis.  She eventually passed away from the disease in October, 1892.  Valley Forge became Pennsylvania’s first state park in 1893, and in 1976 that state of Pennsylvania gave it to the National Parks Service.

Pa Museums Statewide Conference


Your intrepid blogger and archivist with General Hartranft’s equestrian statue.



If you visited the Historical Society on Monday or Tuesday this week, we might have seemed a little short staffed.  Susan and I were on a road trip to Harrisburg for PA Museum’s annual conference.  We attended some great talks about educational programming, applying for grants, and how to work beer into our events!  We also got to the see State Museum and the John Harris – Simon Cameron Mansion.

I’m sure you’ll be seeing the results of some of the sessions we attended soon.  In the meantime, join us on Sunday at 2:30 for our program on Mary Todd Lincoln.  It will be at our headquarters at 1654 DeKalb St. in Norristown.


Our curator, Susan, with Gen. Hartranft.


Maple Grove School House

Yesterday, we received this wonderful photograph from Historical Society members Mr. and Mrs. Ross Gordon Gerhart III.



The Gerharts provided the identification from Anna Madeline Cupid-Schneider Cooper, late of Ambler, and a former student at the school  The school was built in then Gwynedd Township (today Lower Gwynedd) in 1877 and closed around 1925.  There’s very little in our collection on Maple Grove School.  Our main secondary source on Gwynedd (Historical Collections Relating to Gwynedd by Charles Jenkins) covers only much earlier schools in the area.  According to Eastern Montgomery County Revisited by Andrew Mark Herman the building is still standing.

So we’re looking to our readers!  Do you know anything about Maple Grove School House?  Do you recognize anyone in the children?  Please share this post with as many people you can!


The Uniform of a Firefighter

Montgomery Hose Company parade hat, mid-19th century

Montgomery Hose Company parade hat, mid-19th century

At first glance, the hats pictured in this post do not conjure up thoughts of firefighting. But sure enough, they represent an important and interesting part of the history of firefighting in our nation and, in particular, our local area.

Humane parade hat, mid-19th century

Humane Fire Company parade hat, mid-19th century

These are called parade hats, but being worn in a parade was not their original purpose.  The start of these hats dates back to 1788, when a fireman’s convention held in Philadelphia recommended that firemen wear a uniform to identify themselves in a crowd.  From this decree, different fire companies in the area adopted different distinguishing marks.  Some wore company-specific hats, and others tied company badges around their own hats.  For many years this was all that was used to identify members of the fire companies, until later in the 19th century when capes and coats became standard.

Norristown Hose Company parade hat, mid-19th century

Norristown Hose Company parade hat, mid-19th century

In the mid-19th century, designs became more decorative, and their purpose shifted. This was a time when fire companies marched in parades celebrating special occasions or dedications. A firefighter could use his parade hat as a personal banner, representing things that were important to him, like political or religious views. Many hats also have the owner’s initials on the top, and some information about the fire company, like its name and founding date.

Founding date on back of Humane parade hat

Founding date on back of Humane Fire Company parade hat

Initials on top of Montgomery Hose Company parade hat

Initials on top of Montgomery Hose Company parade hat

Patriotic themes were extremely popular, as well as classical imagery (think Lady Liberty). Two of the examples pictured are decorated with eagles, our nation’s symbol, and an image frequently seen on these parade hats. Other popular symbols are national leaders like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.

Humane parade hat, mid-19th century showing an eagle

Humane Fire Company parade hat, mid-19th century, showing an eagle

The Clock-Weight Murder, continued


Monroe Gresh’s grave in Saint Luke’s Lutheran Cemetery. Picture from findagrave.com.

Last week, I put a lot of pressure on myself to find out what happened to Henry Moyer and Henry Sassaman who were indicted for killing Monroe Gresh.  If you missed last week’s article, you can find it here.

Moyer and Sassman were originally brought before the court in March, 1878. The grand jury indicted them for murder, manslaughter, assault and battery with intent to kill, and other minor charges. The trial was then continued to the June session of the court.

In June, the Herald ran a long article about trial the trial in June. By then, the prosecutors had dropped the murder charge.  On the second day of the trial, they dropped the manslaughter charge against both men, too.  Moyer plead guilty and Sassaman not guilty.  Both men then testified.

Moyer admitted to hitting Monroe Gresh with the clock-weight and described Gresh as “pugnacious.” Sassaman gave the same testimony, and both men brought witnesses that gave them excellent characters.

In the end, Moyer received one year and three months in jail, while Sassaman (who had kicked Gresh after he was down) received one year, with credit for time served.


The courthouse as it appeared in 1878.

The Clock-Weight Murder

Today, in going through the folders and identifying their contents, I found an interesting letter written to Joseph Fornance II.   The writer, Henry S. Dotterer, included a small news item with his letter.


Dotterer goes on to say that Henry Sassaman was his mother’s half-brother, and he wished that Fornance was in Norristown (he was in St. Louis) to provide representation for his half-uncle, who he says was not a “bad man.”


The brief news item piqued my curiosity and I managed to find two more articles on the murder in the Herald and Free Press, which tell a little more about the incident.  Apparently, four young men were gathered at Pennypacker’s Saddle Shop in New Hanover Square.  Jonathan Y. Hauck got into an argument with Henry Sassaman.  Hauck said, “He talked as if he could lick me and I let him know he could not.”  Pennypacker then ordered the men out of his store, and they went out to fight.  Moyer and Gresh followed a few minutes later.  When Gresh tried to re-enter the shop, Moyer stopped him and an argument ensued (one witness said that the men had had a quarrel three or four years earlier).  Then Moyer, according to witnesses, picked up the clock weight and threw it at Gresh.  One witness claimed Sassaman kicked Gresh twice with the heel of his boot.  A physician examined him and did not believe the wound fatal, but Gresh died ten days later.

When I told volunteer and board member Ed Ziegler about the case, he reminded me of the collection of county indictments we have. It took some searching, be we found a file containing the original indictment of Moyer and Sassaman.


What happened to Moyer and Sassaman?  I hope to find out for next week’s blog.

The Republican Invincibles

In the nineteenth century, it was common for political groups to organize marching clubs.  Men would parade in military style uniforms with capes and helmets and carry flaming torches.  In Montgomery County, probably no such group was as large and well known as the Republican Invincibles.  Founded in 1880, the club was primarily interested in presidential and gubernatorial elections.  In between, it was mainly a social club of the kind of which nineteenth-century Americans couldn’t get enough.  It’s annual dinner was required the largest hall in Norristown.

We have two remnants of the Republican Invincibles in our collection.  This is a ribbon that would have been worn by a member at an event like the annual dinner.


The ribbon below is from the first year of the Invincibles, 1880.  It has photographs of the Republican candidates, James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur.


Garfield detail

 Until the election of 1880, Montgomery County had been solidly Democratic.  Fans of Montgomery County history will know that the Democratic candidate in 1880 was our own Winfield Scott Hancock.  Despite a highly respected career in the Civil War and a very close popular vote, Hancock lost his home county by one vote.  Perhaps the Republican Invincibles played a role.