Pigeon racing

Yesterday, I was looking through our postcard collection for a patron, when I came across five postcards of pigeons.


A couple of cards have writing on the back explaining that the pigeons are racing pigeons, and it turns out, pigeon racing was a popular pastime in Montgomery County.



According to pigeon racing enthusiasts, the hobby has been around for centuries, but it really became popular in the mid-nineteenth century in Belgium.  You’re probably aware of pigeons’ homing abilities, and that comes into play with pigeon racing.  The pigeons are brought to a single starting point and released.  They then fly to their home lofts.  Officials carefully measure the distance between the starting point and home loft i, and the birds are timed to determine the winner.

Montgomery county has a long history with pigeons.  The county was once home to tens of thousands of passenger pigeons, leading to the name “Pigeontown” for what is now Blue Bell.


Several clubs for homing pigeons and racing pigeons existed throughout the county (and a few still do in Norristown, Gilbertsville, and, fittingly, Blue Bell).  In 1892, Charles F. Hoser of East Norriton bought a periodical called The Homing Exchange.  According Hoser’s obituary in the Times-Herald (June 13, 1953), the magazine had a circulation of only 600 when he purchased it.  Hoser changed the name to American Racing Pigeon News, and it became one of the leading international journals on pigeon racing.


The pigeons in the photographs were all bred by Lin Hendricks of Norristown.  According to his obituary (Times-Herald, October 11, 1940), Hendricks first learned pigeon breeding in the army during World War I.  His loft was named “The Danger Loft.”


The races can be anywhere from 100 to 1000 kilometers.  Over such a long distance, it is not uncommon for birds to get injured or killed during the race.  Birds of prey, the weather, and running into cell phone towers or power lines are common threats.  For that reason, animal rights groups have objected to pigeon racing.




Mount Pleasant Baptist Church

Mount Pleasant Baptist Church held it’s first service, with 21 congregants, in Mount Pleasant Grove on May 25, 1834.  The building shown below was opened in January of 1835.


It originally stood in Whitpain on Morris Road between Lewis Lane and Mount Pleasant Avenue.

The congregation founded a mission church and school in 1872 in Ambler, a small village of about a dozen homes at that time.  Both were in the home of G. W. Lowry.  Five years later a small chapel was built, which was the first church built in Ambler.  In 1887, the Ambler church became the home of the congregation’s regular services, and the fancier church seen below was built in 1892.

This building is at the corner of  Forest Avenue and North Spring Garden Street.  Here it is with a group from the North Philadelphia Baptist Association Meeting in 1908.


Both these photographs are recent gifts from Mr. and Mrs. Ross Gordon Gerhart, III, of Ambler.

The original church has been demolished.  The second church is still standing in Ambler, but it is now the Ambler Korean Presbyterian Church.  Some of the records of the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church are here in the Society’s archives.

Freas Family Papers

The Freas family in Montgomery County can trace itself back to George Freas, a German immigrant who settled in Whitemarsh township and fought in the American Revolution.  The family stayed in Whitemarsh for several generations.  We have a small collection of Freas family papers, including papers of that original George Freas, donated to the society in 1940 by Alice Propes.


Recently, I came across another collection of Freas related materials donated to the society in 1993.  This collection was accumulated by Katharine Coulston Bilgen Frankenfield (say that 5 times fast) and donated by her step-granddaughter Michele Frankenfield.



Katharine Coulston Bilgen Frankenfield in 1951

Frankenfield’s papers largely cover several decades of Freas family reunions, which were held on and off in Montgomery County from the late 19th century through the middle of the 20th century. Here’s a photograph from the 1897 reunion:


Now, you might have noticed that the Freas doesn’t appear in Mrs. Frankenfield’s long name.  Her mother Ida was a Freas who married Walter Coulston.  Mrs. Frankenfield also kept a very old family album filled with cabinet cards, many of which are identified.  This tintype is identified as Ida:


I didn’t see a picture labeled Walter, but according to the reunion binder, Walter’s mother was Amanda.  Unfortunately, I didn’t see her maiden name anywhere in the documents.


Amanda Coulston

The organizers of the family reunions (they changed over the years) kept up correspondence with the far flung reaches of the family.  Many of the letters to the organizers report marriages, births, and deaths, but one letter had an intriguing story.  Written by Mrs. Walter Hess in 1957 she reports what happened to her daughter Alice’s husband.


His name, she tells us later in the letter, was Erdmann Ellis Brandt.  I realize he’s neither a Freas nor a Coulston, but it was too interesting not to include.  Alice went on to became a vice-president at the University City Science Center and died in 2013.

Supplying an army (or at least part of it)

Way down on a bottom shelf in our lower stacks, I found a box labeled “Peter Shearer Papers.”  When I find a box like this, I have no idea what I’m going to find inside: deeds, report cards, diaries, even hair.  In this box, I found the papers of the Peter Shearer, and a bunch of other Shearers, but that’s not what this blog is about.  Not this week anyway.

Tucked in among all the Shearer papers, was an unrelated set of papers from the 51st Pennsylvania Infantry.  Of this regiment’s ten companies, five were recruited in Montgomery County.  It was led by Norristown’s own John F. Hartranft (a future governor of Pennsylvania).  The papers come from the summer of 1865, just after the war ended and the regiment was mustering out in Alexandria, Virginia.

Here is an 1865 letter from Captain William F. Thomas listing supplies his company, Company C, received in 1864.


These are two lists of stores showing what Company C received from the Quartermaster, or in one case the “C. C. and G. E.” (if someone knows what that stands for, please let me know in the comments).


Finally, we have this great document that the men themselves signed or in a couple of cases left their mark.  It lists the items each man received: sack coats, trousers, drawers, socks, bootees, and canteen.


All the papers concern Company C, so most likely the papers were saved by one of the men, perhaps even Captain Thomas himself.  I have yet to find the record of how they came to the Historical Society.

One woman’s life

As I work my way through the lower stacks, I find a lot of intriguing things.  This morning, I opened a box that had been donated to the Historical Society in 1972 with instructions to keep sealed until 1978.


That’s not particularly unusual.  Donors often protect the privacy of their relatives or friends by requesting that personal papers go unopened until sometime after the individual’s death.  The boxes containing Main “Annie” Derr Slingluff’s diaries were probably opened in 1978, as instructed, but they were never cataloged or described.


There are twenty-seven volumes in all, from 1908 until her death in 1938.  Main Derr Slingluff was born in Norristown in 1868 to Henry and Ellen Derr.  She married William H. Slingluff (a future president of Montgomery National Bank) in 1892.  Now, I can’t say for sure that this picture is Main D. Slingluff because it is only identified as a member of Slingluff family.  However, it was donated by the same man who donated the diaries, and the style of the clothing is consistent with Mrs. Slingluff’s dates.


When something has been sealed up, we often expect there to be something scandalous or controversial.  Of course, I wasn’t able to read all twenty-seven volumes of her diaries, but I didn’t see anything of the sort.  I did find some very moving passages from the life of one of Norristown’s society ladies in the early 20th century.

The entries describe trips to the theater and the “movies,” bridge games, her involvement with St. John’s Church in Norristown, and drives in the family car.  The Slingluff’s had two children, Eleanor (born in 1896) and Marjorie (born in 1900), and they feature prominently in the diaries.  In August of 1909, both girls became ill.


Everyday in August, Mrs. Slingluff recounts her day with the children, their symptoms, and the doctors who came to the house.  Then on August 30th, she wrote:


Eleanor recovered would recover from typhoid a few weeks later.

Most of the diaries are personal.  I looked through the years of World War I and saw little reference to it.  Likewise, I looked through October of 1929 and found no reference to the stock market crash.  In 1918, however I found two entries that were interesting.  At the beginning of the year she wrote:


“Grippe” is what we usually call the flu today.  And it’s possible that the the flu that sent Mrs. Slingluff to bed in January of 1918 was just the run of mill flu.  But, January, 1918 was the start of the “Spanish” flu epidemic that killed tens of millions.  She recovered, and in November was able to record this happy entry:


Main D. Slingluff continued to live in Norristown after the death of her husband in 1930 and after her only surviving daughter moved to New York.  She fell ill in the summer of 1938, and the last few entries were written by Eleanor.


Main Derr Slingluff is buried at St. John’s Cemetery in Norristown.

An attempted kidnapping

Right now, our intrepid volunteer and board member, Ed Zeigler, is working on rehousing part of our collection of county indictments.  This morning he found an interesting one.

force and arms

The indictment is for three men, John Dyer, Howell Rockyfellow, and Fisher Wilson (aka Wilson Fisher).  They were accused of attempting to kidnap an African-American man named Robert Waters with the intent of selling him into slavery.


The court papers say that the men were planning on taking Waters into New Jersey to be sold as a slave.  New Jersey had passed a gradual abolition law in 1804.  That law freed children born after it was passed, but those children had to work unpaid apprenticeships for their mothers’ owners until the age of 21 for women and 25 for men.  People held as slaves in 1804 remained slaves until 1846, when a new law converted their status to “apprentice for life.”

So it would not have been legal to sell to sell a kidnapped black person in New Jersey.  It’s possible that New Jersey was just the first stop for the men, or it could be that didn’t know the details of New Jersey’s laws.  It’s also possible that if they were willing to kidnap someone they were also willing to illegally sell him.

I looked around for more information on these men.  The folder doesn’t give us a verdict.  I checked the Norristown Herald for May 7, 1816 and the case isn’t mentioned (to be fair, almost no local history is in the Herald from these times).  Ancestry was a little more helpful.  I managed to find a Howell Rockafellow who was born in New Jersey in 1792.  It’s possible he might be the right man.  I also found a record of a Robert Waters.  It’s a citizenship affidavit for American seaman.  Of course, I can’t be at all sure it’s the same man.


As a final note, Ed pointed out that it’s interesting that the kidnapping charges were county charges.  Kidnapping did not become a federal crime until 1932 (after the Lindbergh baby kidnapping).



An image of the house from a 1918 issue of The New Country Life

In 1799, John McClellan Hood came to Philadelphia from Northern Ireland.  He became a successful tea and coffee importer, married Elizabeth Forebaugh, and began a family.  Every summer to escape the regular epidemics that swept through the city, the Hood family would retire to the country.  Hood bought a large farm in Limerick, eventually building a mansion there in 1834.  The house was name “Bessybell” (you’ll also see it spelled “Bessy Bell” and “Bessie Bell”) after a hill near his native village, Newtonstewart, and was supposedly based on the mayor’s house there.

Now, John McCellan Hood’s oldest son was Washington Hood, who was the 500th graduate of West Point.  After graduating, the army assigned him to the Corps of Topographical Engineers.  Hood traveled throughout North America on assignment for the army.  In 1835, he determined the boundary between the state of Ohio and the Michigan Territory.  A few years later he was in Florida making maps for the army for the Seminole War.  He then went west to map the Oregon Territory.  His maps attracted thousands of people west.  Washington Hood died in 1840 at the age of 32 of unknown causes.  His family buried him in their private plot at Bessybell.  Many of Hood’s drawings are held at the Winterthur Library.


Charles Gilpin, Sr.

John McClellan Hood died in 1848, and the house passed to his daughter and her husband, Sarah and Charles Gilpin, Sr., who was mayor of Philadelphia from 1850-1853.  According to Muriel E. Lichtenwalner’s book, Limerick Township: A Journey Through Time, 1699-1987, the house was a stop on the Underground Railroad in the years before the Civil War.  It stayed in the Gilpin family until 1981, though no one in the family lived there after 1930’s.  Throughout the twentieth century the various tenants lived in the house, including a man who allowed his goats to roam freely.  In the 1960’s a couple named Kenneth and Virginia Kehler lived in the house, and had it wired for electricity for the first time.  During their time in the house, Bessybell made the news for a series of spooky happenings around the family burial plot.


An image of the mausoleum from FindAGrave.com.

In 1962 the Pottstown Mercury reported, “For the past several nights strange phosphorescent lights have mysteriously flitted through the woods, clanking chains have rattled through the dark and sudden shots have shattered the midnight stillness.”  People wondered if it wasn’t the ghost of Washington Hood, who’s mausoleum had been desecrated at some point before 1940 (no one seems to know just when).  The family’s very bones were on view to any passersby.  A few days after the newspaper reported about teenagers visiting the site looking for the ghost, the state troopers got involved and soon discovered old pretzel tins that had been turned into bells hanging from trees around the burial site.  The eerie lights were phosphorescent moss on damp, decaying logs.


An aerial view of the house.  The outbuildings are no longer standing.

Bessybell has changed hands a few times now.  The latest news I could find on it was from 2008, when the Times-Herald reported that a company in Las Vegas owned the property.  You can see a picture of the house from about 10 years ago on Flickr.


Lichtenwalner, Muriel E., Limerick Township: A Journey Through Time, 1699-1987.  Limerick Township Historical Society, Limerick, Pa., 1987.

Pennsylvania Folklife: 1990, vol:39, no:3 pg:131 -139

Pottstown Mercury, August 27, 1962.