Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Our Public Square--Always Open

Yesterday I heard someone mention "the courthouse lawn." I assume the person meant our Public Square. That piece of land, its name, and its concept have been important to Norristown for 229 years. It's our oldest historical landmark.
In 1784, Montgomery County was formed and the Town of Norris was designated as the county seat. Despite its name, Norris was an unincorporated village of about 100 people on 28 acres. The photo shows the original street layout and plan for the courthouse. It also designates a public square, with the words "To remain open forever."

Public Squares, or Town Greens, were common at the time. Residents would have kept chickens, and possibly a cow or goats, in their backyards, but in town, extra grazing land was always needed. Also, a place was needed to hold market days, when farmers brought their goods into town. And villages recognized the need for a community gathering place, for harvest and May Day festivals, and in America, Independence Day celebrations. In a county seat, too, those with an hour's business at the courthouse would appreciate a place to stake and graze their horses without having to seek out a livery stable.

Our Public Square in 1784 would have been a simple lawn, mowed only by sheep or goats. In 1812, when Norristown incorporated as a borough and its boundaries were expanded to include over 500 acres, our founders still needed the Public Square, for most of the same reasons. They kept the pledge to keep it "open forever." It was Norristown's first park.

During the 19th century, monuments, walks and trees were added to the square, as well as raised paving around the edges, to prevent erosion. Our Square became a favorite landscape for painters. Many local postcards of the 1890s and early 1900s featured it. Other monuments, steps and railings were added during the 20th century.

That's why we have a Public Square, and why, in theory, we will ALWAYS have a Public Square. So don't simply call it "the courthouse lawn." It belongs to the "public"--the people of Norristown and Montgomery County--and will "remain open forever."

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