This morning in our collection, I found a very fragile letter from 1868. It was written by Dr. John Francis Bourns the founder of the National Homestead for Orphans of Soldiers and Sailors to the children attending Willow Street School in Norristown. According to the letter, the children raised $114.87 for the Gettysburg orphanage which housed the orphans of men killed in the Civil War. In the letter, Bourns tells the children that other fairs have been held to support the orphanage, but none had been so successful.
I couldn’t find anything else in the collection from the Willow Street School, but a search through the scrapbooks turned up an article by Edward Hocker (or “Norris”) about forgotten schools of Norristown. He had come across a reference to the school in the Herald describing the very fair referred to in the letter. The article appeared on October 8, 1868 and described the room at the school as being “tastefully decorated.” The children were selling items that they had made themselves. There was also a collection of pictures included a series of the monuments of Greece by T. A. Low, though the writer in the Herald declared the image created by the school’s principal Miss Emma P. Garrigus called “Departed Spirits” to be the best of the exhibit.
However, Hocker knew nothing else about the school. He writes that there’s never been a public school in Norristown with that name, so it must have a small, private academy. He turned to another local historian, Charles Major, who found that the school was in a brick building on the southeast corner of Willow and Spruce Streets.
In our card catalog, I found a card referencing the application for a charter for the Willow Street School Association. The document was filed on April 9, 1868. The card was created in 1954 and says that the document is in private hands.
So that’s all I could find about the Willow Street School. The National Homestead in Gettysburg was much easier to research. After the Battle of Gettysburg, Dr. Bourns saw a photograph of three children hanging on the wall in a tavern. The photograph had been found by the tavern keeper’s daughter on the battlefield. Dr. Bourns undertook to discover the original owner, and sent out a description of the photograph. Eventually, a woman in upstate New York recognized the photograph to the newspapers. Dr. Bourns eventually delivered the photograph to Philinda Humison personally. The search for the family in the photograph led Dr. Bourns to establish the National Homestead orphanage in 1866 (the Humiston’s would live there for three years).
Unfortunately, the orphanage later came under the control of a woman named Rosa Carmichael who abused the children by locking them in the basement among other things, and it was shut down in 1877. The building now houses the National the Soldier’s Museum.