“We could have succeeded if it had not been for an American colonel named Smythe.”

Those were the words of a German colonel named Rossberger, who was chief operations officer for Field Marshall Gerd Von Rundstedt.  He told American journalist Thomas Henry about his experiences at the Battle of the Bulge in 1946.  The “Smythe” he’s talking about is George W. Smythe, a son of Montgomery County.

Born in Norristown in 1899, Smythe was the thirteenth and last child born in his family.  He was a Boy Scout, sang in a local choir, and attended Norristown High School, graduating in 1917.  He went on to West Point where he distinguished himself on the football field.  He graduated in 1924.

boy scout

Smythe was living in Honolulu with his wife, Susan, and their two sons George, Jr. and John when the Japanese attacked.

During the war, Smythe served with the 47th Infantry, which captured Cherbourg (an important Atlantic port and major Allied goal) on June 26, 1944.  Colonel Smythe accepted the German commander’s pistol as a symbolic gesture of surrender.

A few months later at the Battle of Bulge, Smythe organized retreating soldiers into his own regiment, increasing its size to the extent that the men jokingly called it the “47th Division.”  Smythe soon learned that German paratroopers had be dropped behind him.  At the same time he was out of communication with his own general, Louis A. Craig, due to a radio glitch.  Smythe figured that the Germans would try to capture the main road through the area, so he organized the men to keep the enemy from reaching it.  Henry writes, “The slaughter in the swirling snow was such as never before had been known in battle.”  The Germans never reached that road. (You can read all of Henry’s article here.)

Too smart

On the night March 6, 1945, the 47th crossed the Rhine with the rest of 9th Division at the unguarded Remagen railroad bridge, in the rain.  They moved quietly into the village of Erpel without the benefit of maps or flashlights.  The next day they came under heavy fire as the Germans tried to expel them, but the 47th held while other regiments crossed the river to join them.

After the war, Smythe remained in the army and served in the Korean War and as an advisor to Chaing Kai-shek in Taiwan.  He retired from active service in 1957, having been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, the Croix de Guerre, the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, and the Taejuk Distinguished Service Medal of Korea among others.

Memorial Day is a day to honor those who have given their lives in the service of their country.  Smythe died peacefully on January 16, 1969, but I thought this week he was fitting topic for our blog, which celebrates and people and places of Montgomery County.

We’ll leave Major General Smythe with the prediction for his future that appeared in Norristown High School’s Spice in 1917:



Thomas Henry, “The Avenging Ghosts of the Ninth.” https://9thinfantrydivision.net/the-avenging-ghosts-of-the-ninth/

Ronald E. Heaton, “Major General George Winfred Smythe: A Tribute from His Classmates of the 1917 Summer Class, Norristown High School” The Bulletin of the Historical Society of Montgomery County, vol. XVIII, no. 1, Fall, 1971


Norristown’s Grand Opera House

One of the most striking pictures in our current exhibit, Pairings, is this photograph showing the Grand Opera House in Norristown.

Opera House 8x10

Originally opened as the Music Hall in 1874, it hosted many travelling performers, included the Prague born actress Fanny Janauschek.

In 1899, it was renamed the Grand Opera House.  It continued to host touring companies, especially the melodramatic operettas that were popular at the time.

One local theater fan, Margaret Blackfan, was a huge theater fan who kept a scrapbook of programs and newspaper articles on Norristown and Philadelphia theaters.  Here’s the program for one production:


Most of the operas did not enter the canon.  They often feature women dressed as men (known as a “trouser role”) as this one did.


Margaret’s scrapbook also features the above article on a different production of Sinbad at the Grand Opera House (you can see that cast described in the article is different from the one on the program).

In 1894, responding to the popularity of vaudeville at the Norris Theater (originally opened as the Wonderland Dime Museum in January of 1894), the Grand Opera House began showing continuous vaudeville acts several days a week.  According to “Norris,” a gallery seat would cost you only 10 cents.  Here’s a close up of the entrance to the Grand Opera House in its vaudeville days.


In those days, the theater was also a place where people could gather.  A large meeting for the Norristown Centennial was held at the theater in 1912.  It is also where locals gathered to memorialize President William McKinley after his assassination.


The Grand Opera was the sight of several fires.  One, in 1900 destroyed the interior.

opera house

It reopened about six months later in May, 1901.  In 1922, it burned again.  This time it had to be rebuilt, and it reopened in 1922 as the Grand Theater.


Tolle, Michael E.  What Killed Downtown: Norristown, Pennsylvania, from Main Street to the Malls.  (2012)

Norristown Times-Herald, March 31, 1944

Captain Harry Jacobs


While searching through the stacks for an account book, I found this interesting ledger, “Enlistment Book of Capt. H. Jacobs Company of Volunteer Infantry, Norristown, Mont. Co.”

The inside pages gives the names and some personal information of the men who enlisted in Company F of the 6th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.


It also lists where they live and where they were born, a brief description, and their occupation.


The book is undated so I wasn’t sure if this was a Civil War era book or not.  I decided to investigate.

“Capt. H. Jacobs” turns out to be Captain Henry “Harry” Jacobs, who died in 1919 at the age of 80.  He was from Norristown, and like many young men in this county, in 1861, he left off working at his father’s business, and volunteered for the Union Army.  He served his original 90 day enlistment, and then enlisted as a corporal for three more years with the 51st Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers.  According the regimental history, he was wounded at Jackson, Mississippi, and was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant in 1864.

After the war, he went back to work with his father as a butcher. His obituary says  that when the National Guard was reorganized in 1879,  he was active in the formation of Company F of the 6th Regiment.  He was captain of this regiment for many years, retiring as a major (though the same obituary notes that he was known locally as “Captain Jacobs”).  I think the ledger is probably from this time.

Despite being retired from the National Gaurd and his successful butcher stand in the Norristown market, when the USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor, he returned to service with the 6th Regiment.  The regiment did not leave the mainland and was mustered out in late 1898.

Old Market

The market where Captain Jacobs had his butcher stall

I was hoping to find a picture of Captain Jacobs, but I was unable to.  According to his obituary, he was very active with the Grand Army of the Republic Zook Post #11.  “Whenever the boys in blue appeared in public, the militant bearing of Captain Jacobs was one of the features.”  So I thought I would include a picture of the G.A.R. from 1916, that Jacobs might be in.  I like to think he’s the tall gentleman in the center.



Norristown Times-Herald, June 11, 1919

Thomas H. Parker, History of the 51st Regiment of P.V. and V.V. (1869)


May is Bike Month

blog bikes

Bikers lined up before a race at Oakview, 1891

If you’ve been to our new exhibit, Pairings: Photographs from the Collections of the Historical Society of Montgomery County, you’ve probably seen the above photograph.  It’s one of my favorites, and since our Executive Director, Barry, keeps reminding me that May is National Bike Month, I thought it was time to dedicate a blog to bicycling in Montgomery County.

As in much of the United States, the bicycle craze hit Montgomery County in 1890’s, and bicycle racing, both amateur and professional was a popular pastime.   Willow Grove Park, the county’s top amusement park, hosted the national meet of the League of American Wheelmen in 1897.


This souvenir album was donated by T. W. Peirie in 2015.

Founded in 1880, the League counted among its members  the Wright Brothers and John D. Rockefeller.  Besides organizing meets, the League worked to increase the number of paved roads to make cycling easier.


As you can see the meet drew a large crowd to the park’s race track or velodrome.


In the picture above you can see the steeped curve that was already a standard part of track design, and in the image below, you can see officials holding the tape that marks the finish line.


The following year, Willow Grove Park featured the track in its souvenir brochure.  The small note on the bottom left says that the track holds the world record for the one mile, 1.85 minutes.  Perhaps the record was set at the Wheelmen’s meet?


Now the pictures from the meet and the name “Wheelmen” might suggest that bicycling was an exclusively male sport.  In fact, the new transport was very popular among women, who now had an inexpensive way of getting around.  In 1895, a group of ladies in Bridgeport founded the “Alpha Bicycle Club.”


The minutes of the Alpha Bicycle Club are part of the Coats Family Papers.


We only have the minutes of a few meetings, so either they started keeping the minutes in a different book, or the club petered out.

The League of American Wheelmen still exists, though it changed its name in 1994 to the League of American Bicyclists (because who uses the word “Wheelmen” anymore?), and it is this organization that sponsors National Bike Month.  So, if the weather ever improves, maybe go for a ride.

Source: http://www.bikeleague.org/content/mission-and-history