Norristown & Montgomery County
The History Of Our Community
The First 12,000 – 15,000 Years
Before European settlers arrived in North America, the land in what became Montgomery County was inhabited by Lenni Lenape Indians. The Lenape were an Algonquin speaking tribe who lived in villages of several hundred, usually near bodies of water to utilize the resources of the region.
We don’t know how many Native Americans lived in the area—estimates range from 1 to 10 million lived in east of the Mississippi just prior to European discovery. But that is a big range. Suffice it to say that the Native Americans that were here were numerous enough to leave behind many artifacts that have been uncovered over the years.
King Charles II granted William Penn the charter for Pennsylvania in 1681, and the region was meant to be a haven for Quakers particularly from Wales.
As a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers), William Penn was imprisoned several times for his refusal to follow the Church of England, and in his new colony, Penn was determined to make religious freedom one of the tenets of Pennsylvania. As a result, many religious groups that were persecuted in their homeland came to Penn’s colony and settled in the future Montgomery County: Dunkards, Mennonites, Schwenkfelders, Catholics, Lutherans, and many others. Settlers also came from many countries: England and Wales, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Germany.
This formed one of the great hallmarks of Montgomery County’s identity—diversity.
The American Revolution was an exciting time in the region. After the Battle of Edge Hill, Washington moved his troops to winter quarters at Valley Forge, an area which lies within Montgomery and Chester Counties.
On December 19, 1777, when Washington's army marched into camp at Valley Forge, tired, cold, and ill-equipped, it was lacking in much of the training essential for consistent success on the battlefield. On June 19, 1778, after a six-month encampment, this same army emerged to pursue and successfully engage Lt. Gen. Sir Henry Clinton's British army at the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey.
The ordered ranks, martial appearance, revived spirit, and fighting skill of the American soldiers spoke of a great transformation having occurred amidst the cold, sickness, and hardship that was Valley Forge.
The Formation of the County
In 1784, people in the upper part of Philadelphia County petitioned the state Assembly for a new county. They cited their distance from the county seat as one of the reasons. As a result, Montgomery County was created on September 10, 1784, and Norristown became the county seat.
The county is believed to have been named either for Richard Montgomery, an American Revolutionary War general killed in 1775 while attempting to capture Quebec City, Canada, or for the Welsh county of Montgomeryshire (which was named after one of William the Conqueror's main counselors, Roger de Montgomerie), as it was part of the Welsh Tract, an area of Pennsylvania settled by Quakers from Wales. Early histories of the county indicate the origin of the county's name as uncertain.
The History of Norristown
Norristown is named after Isaac Norris, an Englishman who came to Philadelphia in 1693, where he served as mayor and speaker of the assembly. He and a partner, Colonel William Trent, purchased the land that is now Norristown from William Penn’s son for 850 pounds. Trent sold out to Norris a few years later and the land stayed in the hands of the Norris family for several generations. In 1771 John Bull of Limerick bought the land and five years later he sold it to the University of Pennsylvania.
The university still owned the land in 1784 when Montgomery County came into being. In 1785, the university deeded a portion of the land to several citizens of the “Town of Norris.” The deed book says, “in trust and for the county of Montgomery for the purpose of erecting a court house and jail suitable to accommodate the public service.” The deed book reports that the land cost 5 shillings.
The original courthouse was built in 1787. The courthouse and its neighboring office building stood where Public Square is now.
By 1849, the Montgomery County had outgrown both buildings. The current courthouse was designed by Napoleon LeBrun, who was also the architect of the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul and the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. The building opened in 1854, at which time it had a steeple. The building is made of brick faced with marble from Schweyer & Liess, a marble quarry in King of Prussia and cost $150,000 to construct. The top part of the steeple was removed in 1877 due to water leaking though the roof, and the whole thing was replaced by the current dome in 1904. The building was expanded in 1930 and 1968.
The Montgomery County Almshouse originally began serving the poor of the county in 1808. It had been built on 265 acres that the county purchased from Abraham Gotwalt in Upper Providence Township (the county would later add an additional 31 acres to the property).
The first steward was Jacob Barr and his wife served as matron. They earned $400 per year. Over the 19th century, fire struck the almshouse three times, destroying most of the records of the early decades. We do know that the number of people coming to the almshouse was increasing because the county approved the building of a new facility in 1870. That building was completed just before the original building was completely destroyed by fire in 1872.
People who came to the almshouse were not simply housed. They were expected to work either on the farm or in the residence. Children who were born at the almshouse were only allowed to stay until they were old enough to be indentured to local families. By 1882, however, the state passed a law, allowing children between 2 and 16 only 60 days in the almshouse. This was to save the expense of running a school. The Children’s Aid Society of Montgomery County soon took responsibility for the children.
Over the years, many changes came to the almshouse. The small infirmary was replaced by a hospital building in 1900, that in turn was replaced in 1941. In 1952, the “County Home” as it was then called, was renamed The Charles Johnson Home, and then it became the Montgomery County Geriatric and Rehabilitation Center in 1972, reflecting a change in the institution’s focus and is now called the Parkhouse Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.
With its strong Quaker heritage, Montgomery County was a center of the abolitionist movement. It was the home of Lucretia Mott and Hiram Corson, and the Underground Railroad was active here. It is home to Abolition Hall which was built by George Corson in 1856 as a meeting place for abolitionists. People from all over gathered at Abolition Hall to hear speakers such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and William Lloyd Garrison lecture on the atrocities of slavery.
Throughout the nineteenth century, Montgomery County was an active region of family farms and small industries. Turnpikes, canals, and eventually railroads crisscrossed the county connecting it to both Philadelphia and the interior of the state. Agriculture blossomed alongside of other industries. Norristown became an industrial boomtown and attracted waves of immigrants.
Arts, Culture and Entertainment
Along with the newly arrived people and the flow of money cam arts and entertainment. Originally opened as the Music Hall in 1874, the Norristown Opera House hosted many travelling performers. In 1899, it was renamed the Grand Opera House and continued to host touring companies, especially the melodramatic operettas and vaudeville acts. 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.
From 1912 to 1922, Montgomery County was also home to a movie production studio. Lubin Studio, or Betzwood Studio, was located along the Schuylkill River. Originally the site of the estate of brewer John Betz, Siegmund Lubin purchased the land and building to create a studio and was one of the finest studios of its kind during its short life. The studio linked the actors and movie professionals of Philadelphia with the variety of scenery and spacious grounds for shooting early twentieth century motion pictures. As movie production in Los Angeles began to flourish, the studio declined. Lubin sold the studio to the Wolf Brothers of Philadelphia in 1917 and by 1922 the studio had closed its doors.
The Twentieth Century and into the Twenty-First
Over the past century, Montgomery County has seen more changes than ever before, with even larger industries rising up in the area.
Steel production, a variety of industries, and other manufacturing factories have emerged while agriculture continues to be a vital part of the lives of those in the northern parts of the county. But times are changing.
The population of the county has grown 700% since the 1900s. As of the 2010 census, the population was 799,874, making it the third-most populous county in Pennsylvania, after Philadelphia and Allegheny Counties, and the 71st most populous in the United States. Roads have become more numerous, as have the cars. The people, always diverse in this area, continue to be so.
Towns and industries have come, others have gone, and still others have transformed into new identities. Today Montgomery County is the home of many vibrant and diverse communities, some of the nation’s premier public and private schools, and green parkland. There are many small businesses as well as major corporations and a fabulous set of trails and bike and pedestrian paths to create a very livable and lovable community.