Relief from the Great Depression

In 1931, seeing the great need caused by the world wide depression, employees of Upper Merion schools organized relief for some local families.  They caught the attention of the Upper Merion Benevolent Association, which began to support their efforts to feed breakfast and lunch to school children.


In 1932, the Upper Merion Releif Association was created, and in January of 1933, it began distributing relief to people throughout the township.  We have a small notebook in our collection listing the recipients of relief by area.


Relief seemed to take of the form of foodstuffs and cash, but at least one person received a layette according to this note tucked inside the book.


A newspaper article enclosed in the book shows that the organization was still around in 1935, but I couldn’t find out what happened to the group.  Perhaps as the economy improved and it was no longer needed, or it may be that the organization turned to the war effort after 1941.


This group and all the people who supported it are great examples of the generosity of Montgomery Countians.  Do you know anything about the Upper Merion Relief Association?  Are you aware of similar groups in other parts of the county?  Please tell us about them in the comments.


Do you know this old schoolhouse?

About a month ago, we received four class pictures in the mail.  An accompanying letter explained that the donor had purchased the photos together at a flea market in Michigan.


The image above gives an excellent view of the two story school building with a porch and cupola.


The photographs were taken by D. F. Ziegler of Souderton, so we think they’re probably from that part of the county.


Based on the clothing on the children, we’re guessing these photos are from 1910-1925.  The shutters on the window to the left of the door are open in some pictures and closed in others.  So, they photographs might not be from the same day.  They may even be from different years.


If you have any idea about the school, let us know in the comments.

Joseph Amodeo


Last week, I described the papers of Cleopatra McClellan Nelson, which were left in a grocery bag by our back door in 2013.  Mrs. Nelson’s papers weren’t the only ones in that bag.  It also contained the papers of Joseph Amodeo.  If there was a connection between Nelson and Amodeo, I wasn’t able to find it, so I don’t know how their papers wound up together.

Nevertheless, in Amodeo’s papers we can also see the interesting life of an ordinary person.

Born in Norristown in 1917, Joseph Amodeo’s parents were immigrants from Sicily.  His father owned a shoe shop at 303 East Moore Street in Norristown.  Joseph began working in the shop as a boy, eventually inheriting it after his mother’s death.


Amodeo stayed in the shop for decades as his brothers and sisters grew up and moved away.  His papers give us little hints about them.  There is a letter from his brother Charles who was stationed in San Francisco while serving in the Signal Corps.  His brother Harry got into some trouble with the police.


He seems to have straightened out and also served in the military during World War II.

As I often do when writing a blog post about a particular person, I did a little sleuthing on the internet.  It was helpful, but I also discovered some of the shortcomings of internet research.

I found the Amodeo family in the 1940 census.  The census taker’s handwriting isn’t great, and here’s what he wrote for Joseph’s occupation:

Amodeo census

Since I know something about Mr. Amodeo’s life, I know that this says “shoemaker.”  The person who transcribed this record, however, interpreted this as “stenographer.”  Always check the original.  I also found him on where he has a spouse listed, “Mary Maria Amodeo.”  Mr. Amodeo never married; it’s possible this is referring to his sister Mary.

Still, I can say with some confidence that Joseph did not go into the military, as his brothers did.  Among his papers was this proclamation on “aliens of enemy nationalities.”  His mother, Anna Amodeo, would have fallen under the category of “enemy alien.”


Joseph Amodeo continued to work in his shop, a mainstay on the East End of Norristown, while the neighborhood around him changed.  I found a great article on him from the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1994.  The article makes a reference to an old stitching machine.  Perhaps it was the same machine his father Melchiorre (Menzi) Amodeo purchased in 1931.


In the article, “Mr. Joe” seems determined to stay on E. Moore Street.  The Norristown phone book lists him there until 2003.  He died in 2004 and is buried in St. Patrick’s Cemetery.

Cleopatra McClellan Nelson

I couple of years ago, I arrived here at the Historical Society to find a grocery bag full of papers left at the door.  For the record, archivists hate that; we like to know where the papers come from and get a little background.  But, this grocery bag contained the papers of two individuals.  I’ll write about one this week and one next week.


Cleopatra Nelson is identified on the left.

Cleopatra McClellan Nelson was a local political leader.  Her obituary, which appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, described her as “the grand dame of politics in her community.”

Her early life is a little mysterious.  Her obituary states that she was born in Norristown and that her father was a lawyer, but the 1920 and 1930 census both list her birthplace as Florida.  In the 1920 census, her father James McClellan’s occupation is given as “Laborer,” and by 1930 he’s listed as a “Plasterer.”

As a young woman, Mrs. Nelson worked as a domestic servant, but she eventually attended Cheyney University and became a schoolteacher in Philadelphia.  She married Russell L. Nelson of Ardmore at the age of 29 and moved there.

Cleopatra Nelson was active with many organizations as evidenced by the papers donated to the society.  She was secretary of the Main Line chapter of the NAACP from 1968 to 1988.  She was a member (or Soror) in Zeta Phi Beta, and president of the Young Women’s Literary Guild.  In 1981, she was elected President of the Democratic Committee of Lower Merion and Narberth.

Mrs. Nelson’s papers are not complete, so in some cases we can only see part of the story.  For example, during the war, it seems Russell Nelson entered the military, but at some point the army ceased paying his family allowance.  We have the letter indicating that the payments would be reinstated, but we don’t know anything else about it.


While her husband was in the service, Mrs. Nelson may have worked at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, but this temporary pass was only valid for two weeks.


Finally, the biggest mystery of these papers has to do with another person named Robert Nelson.  Presumably a relative of Russell, he isn’t listed with Russell in the census, and doesn’t seem to have lived in Ardmore.  We know that he worked for a family named Kauffmann for forty years.  A certificate stating as much is included, but it doesn’t give much more information.  The Kaufmann family had at least one well known friend, Clifford Berryman, the cartoonist who first drew the Teddy bear.  He drew this anniversary picture showing Robert Nelson with his famous creation and the Kauffman family.  It’s an amazing picture.


Cleopatra McClellan Nelson died at the age of 95 in 2004.  I’d love to know more about her, so please share this blog with anyone who might have more information.

Thomas A. Stewart


Currently on display in our lobby and reception area, is a sword that belonged to Adjutant General Thomas A. Stewart.  The sword was a gift to Stewart from the Pennsylvania Department of Internal Affairs.


The name Thomas J. Stewart may be familiar to you if you’ve heard of Stewart Middle School in Norristown.  But who was Thomas J. Stewart?

Born in Belfast in 1848, Stewart emigrated with his family when he was a year old, and settled in Norristown.  He attended local public schools and Quaker City Business College.  The Norristown Area School District’s webpage notes at that he was particularly recognized for his penmanship and that he opened his own writing school.

When he turned 16 in September, 1864, he joined the 138th Pennsylvania Volunteers.  The war ended only a few months later, and Stewart never rose above the rank of private.

When he returned to Norristown after the war, he worked manufacturing and selling window glass.  He also joined the Pennsylvania National Guard in 1868, and in 1877 was appointed adjutant of the 6th Regiment (he might have gotten the position due to his handwriting; an adjutant is an adminstrative position).  In the 1870’s he became a member of the Grand Army of the Repulic, Zook Post #11.  According to an article on his life that appeared in the Times-Herald in 1925, he helped to revive the Zook Post which had not had meetings for several years.


Stewart also went into politics.  He was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives as a Republican in 1885. Ten years later he was appointed Adjutant General of the Pennsylvania National Guard, a position he would hold until his sudden death in 1917.



As Adjutant General, Stewart oversaw the compilation of Pennsylvania soldiers and sailors who severed in the Spanish-American War.

Stewart also rose high in the ranks of the G. A. R.  In 1889 when the Johnstown Flood killed 2,200 people, Stewart and the G. A. R. stepped in to centralize the distribution of supplies and organize door-to-door canvasing.

Thomas J. Stewart died on his birthday, September 11, 1917.  A bronze statue was erected for him in the state capitol, and today the Pennsylvania National Guard has a medal named for him. Here’s the criteria for the medal from Senate Bill no. 232, 1971 session:

The General Thomas J. Stewart Medal shall be awarded to members of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard and Pennsylvania Air National Guard upon recommendation of their unit or organizational commanders, for one hunder per cent attendance and excellence in drill, including annual field training, during any one year.  Only one of these medals shall be awarded to any one individual.

Stewart Middle School opened in 1925 as a junior high school.  It became a middle school in 1973, and continues to educate the children of Norristown.