This week, I’ve been going through a box of legal papers: wills, leases, contracts, etc., belonging to many different people.  I came across an interesting folder this morning with two papers relating to the Dager family.

The first was an inventory of the estate of Jacob Dager, a farmer from Whitemarsh.  The inventory shows that he was a prosperous farmer when he died in 1809.  Here are his livestock and some of his farm implements:

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And here are some of his household goods:

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Inventories are always interesting, and they can tell us so much about a person’s life, but the next document was even more interesting.

This long document is what we today call a “prenuptial agreement.”  Margaret Dager, Jacob’s widow, was preparing to marry Henry Scheetz, also of Whitemarsh.  The print is small, but if you click on the image, you can see it larger.

marriage

The very long indenture (it covers three and one half large sheets of paper) provides for Henry Scheetz to collect the rents and proceeds from the property for one year after Margaret’s death (should she predecease him).

one year

The document goes on to say a lot more, and a man named Caspar Schlatter of Upper Dublin comes into it somehow, but the legalese was too much for this archivist.  I guess a pre-nup in the early nineteenth century could be as complicated as the ones signed by modern movie stars.

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A New County?

Working through a box of correspondence, I found what appears to be the draft of a letter to the Chester County Historical Society. The letter is unsigned, but it was probably written by George F. P. Wanger, the Treasurer of the Pennsylvania Association of Fire Insurance Agents and long time member of the Historical Society of Montgomery County.

As the undated letter explains, Wanger was sending the Chester County Historical Society two reproductions of maps showing the location of a proposed county, called variously St.Clair County or Madison County, which would be made up of parts of Chester, Berks, and Montgomery Counties.

GFPW letter

Wanger goes on to give the statistics of the county in 1848.

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The seat of the new county would have been Pottstown, and the idea was particularly popular there.  As Wanger writes in his letter, a bill to create the county came up in the legislature more than ten times in the 18th and 19th centuries.  An article from the Pottstown News (April 28, 1896) mentions Wanger’s search for more about the movement for a new county in the journals of the state legislature.  He found that in 1798, a group in the legislature proposed a county called St. Clair with borders reaching to East Vincent and East Nantmeal in Chester County, Union and Hereford townships in Berks County, and Limerick and Marlborough in Montgomery County.

The movement for St. Clair or Madison County waxed and waned through the early 19th century, reaching a fever pitch in 1852.  In Bean’s History of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, I found a brief biography of a Pottstown merchant named John C. Smith who ran for state senator in that year.  He had for sometime advocated for the creation of Madison County, and the senate election became a referendum on the new county.  Bean writes, “after a most exciting struggle, in which politics was almost lost of and the friends and enemies of “Madison County” were arraigned against each other in the contest, Mr. Smith was defeated by thirty-two votes.”  If not for those thirty-two votes, Montgomery County might have very different borders.

John Smith

According to Bean, Madison County failed “through the purely selfish and political motives among the peoples of the opposing county towns.”  Wanger’s letter says that the movement for the new county didn’t really die until Pennsylvania adopted the 1874 constitution.

While digging though the collection for more on the story, I found out that there was another movement to produce a new county out of part of Montgomery County.  Edward Hocker wrote about an article about it for the Times-Herald (December 3, 1925).  This county would have been called “Penn County” and was to be made up of Northwest Philadelphia and the townships of Moreland, Abington, Cheltenham, Springfield, and Lower Merion. This plan dates to 1836, and doesn’t seem to have gained the traction the St. Clair/Madison County plan did.  When Philadelphia consolidated in 1854, the Penn County idea was revived, but this time by the people of Frankford and would have included Bristol Township in Bucks County.

Busy Bees

For those of you who know Norristown, this item should look familiar.  It’s a bee skep, and it’s featured in the municipal seal.

Bee skep in the collection of HSMC

Bee skep in the collection of HSMC

Beekeeping shows up in many cultures, from Egyptians using wax and honey in mummification processes to Mayan apiaries in the 16th century.  Even before domesticating bees, people around the globe collected honey for eons, from Asia to Africa, India to Australia.

Close-up of woven straw

Close-up of woven straw

A bee skep is essentially an upturned basket used to house bees and eventually collect honey and wax.  This style, made of straw, was used from the Medieval era through the mid-19th century, when new techniques were developed.  They can also be made from wicker coated with mud or manure.  The skep has one hole for the bees to pass through and it sits on a mat or platform to keep the bottom closed off until necessary.  The bees produce a comb inside the skep just like they would naturally in a tree.

The bees line the interior with propolis, a resin mixture used to seal the hive and prevent fungal and bacterial growth.  If you look closely at this image, you can see the slightly darker material, especially between the layers.

Interior showing propolis

Interior showing propolis

With a skep, a beekeeper had to many times destroy the colony of bees to extract the comb, by either placing the skep over smoking coals or by pressing the skep, bees and all.  Some alternatives were used, like forcing the bees to move from one skep to another, but once wooden hives with removable frames were introduced, the bee skep slowly faded from use.

Bees provide not only honey, which has antiseptic and preservative properties along with being a sweet treat, but they also produce beeswax.  In early colonial America, bees were imported in the mid-17th century.  By the end of the century, most every family would have had at least one skep.  These colonists used wax not only for making candles, but also to waterproof leather and bind wounds, and honey to cure their meat.

Norristown banner, showing bee skep symbol

Norristown banner, showing bee skep symbol

So the question remains, why does Norristown use the bee skep as its municipal seal?  It’s an indication of industry…a busy bee!  It’s paired with the Latin phrase, “Fervet Opus” meaning “Boiling with work.”  Norristown is the county seat, and in its early days was full of canals, railroads, and mills as a manufacturing center in the county, as busy as the inner workings of a bee skep. Through the years it became a hub for retail with department stores and other draws, with trolleys and passenger rail bringing people to the downtown businesses.

Wooden nickel used for advertising at the 1962 Norristown Sesquicentennial

Wooden nickel used for advertising at the 1962 Norristown Sesquicentennial

Norristown isn’t the only one to use this symbolism.  The Mormons also uses the bee skep, and through them it has become one of the state symbols of Utah.  The Masons, too, use the image, to signify industry and cooperation.

Odd Fellows' apron of Norris Lodge owned by Theodore Bean

Odd Fellows’ apron of Norris Lodge owned by Theodore Bean

Anti-slavery petitions

Like many Quakers, the Corsons of Plymouth Meeting were active in the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad, and at least one member of the family was involved with the American Anti-Slavery Society.

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In 1834, the newly formed American Anti-Slavery Society urged it’s members to petition Congress on various issues relating to slavery and its abolition.  This morning I found two such petitions in the Corson Family Papers.

This first one is to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia.  You can get a better look at it by clicking on the image.

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And this one is to end the domestic interstate slave trade.

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If you compare the two petitions, you’ll notice that they have the same names in almost the same order.  It’s likely they were circulated at the same time.

Now, since they’re here in Montgomery County and not the National Archives, it seems likely that these petitions did not make it to Congress.  I looked through some more of the collection to find an answer.  I started with Dr. Hiram Corson’s diaries, which are extensive.  Unfortunately, he did not keep his diaries during the 1830’s and early 1840’s, when the petitions were most common.  So I took a quick look through Alan Corson’s papers and found some correspondence with Jacob Fry, Jr., the congressman for Pennsylvania’s 5th district from 1835 to 1839.

Here’s a letter presenting this or a similar petition to the congressman:

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So, I checked out the Honorable Mr. Fry.  The internet came up with very little, but when I turned to our old card catalog, I found a brief biography of Fry in Lives of the Eminent Dead and Biographical Notices of Prominent Living Citizens of Montgomery County, PA by Moses Augé.  It turns out that Fry was a Democrat.

Petitions sent in by the various anti-slavery groups caused much controversy in Washington.  Congressman (and former president) John Quincy Adams championed the petitions, bringing them to the floor of the House.  The Democrats managed to stifle the small but growing abolition movement by voting to table all petitions (meaning they could not be debated).  Known as the “Gag” Rule, it remained in place until 1844.  According to Augé, Fry supported the Gag Rule, “doubtless from convictions of duty” to President Van Buren.

So, it’s likely these petitions never got anywhere, at least in the short run.