Thursday, October 3, 2013

Keepers of Our Past

For some, it can be hard to relate to Norristown's history. The contributions of our first 100 years seem dominated by white, Anglo-Saxon men, most fairly well-off. But if you look closer, you find all sorts of heroes in Norristown's past--for instance, our Underground Railroad contributions, led by our African-American churches. Also from our town's black community came nationally-known athletes, politicians and musicians. Martha Settle Putney became a renowned historian and university educator.

From Norristown came Mabelle Kirkbride, a women's suffragette who went on to be the first woman active in Montgomery County politics.

The Pennsylvania Germans who settled in Norristown not only made major contributions to the culture of the area, but gave the state a governor (Hartranft) and a US Senator (Schweiker).

Our Irish immigrants helped to build the Schuylkill Canal and the Pennsylvania Railroad. They also built one of the most beautiful churches in our town, St. Patrick's.

Our Italian immigrants worked in the quarries, which provided much of the stone that went into Norristown's architecture. They also brought us tomato pie, and our signature sandwich, the zep. Baseball's Tommy Lasorda and Mike Piazza, quarterback Steve Bono, and basketball coach Geno Auriemma were Italian-American Norristonians. Not to mention actress Maria Bello, and two authors, Jerry Spinelli and, well, me.

So honestly, we can all lay claim to a piece of Norristown's history, especially since it's still being written. Yet what this community needs most right now is, instead of differentiating between our various racial and ethnic histories, we all need to own ALL of it. We need to figure out how to present our history and contributions to the outside. Perhaps a museum at the old jail? More town celebrations of our history, like Juneteenth and Selma's History Day? Restoring and opening Selma for use by the public, both for tours, and perhaps as a public meeting place. We need to make sure we preserve our most important buildings and most beautiful architecture.

The Norristown Preservation Society has been trying to do just that since 1983, and they've done good work, but I'd guess that most of the town doesn't know the organization exists, or feels a disconnect from it. Maybe a reintroduction is what's needed: Norristown, meet the NPS; NPS, Norristown. Better?

Their webpage is mostly about Selma Mansion, because that's most in need of restoration at the moment. If you're on Facebook, please LIKE their page (  Later this month, there will be a Cleanup Day at Selma, where you can come, help out, and meet NPS members. And on the 25th, Selma turns into the best haunted house in the area, with Halloween Ghost Tours to raise money for the mansion's restoration. If you want to help out Selma right away, make a donation at . Better yet, become a member of the NPS (they need new blood) by sending a check for $20 ($16 for seniors, $25 for families), made out to Norristown Preservation Society, to PO Box 2097, Norristown, PA 19404.

One thing is certain, if we can organize and make our history tourist-worthy, we can attract visitors to the borough, who might then stick around to eat in all those restaurants popping up downtown and in the North End. This can only be good for Norristown's economy. So be a keeper of our past. The more we have, the better.

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