Tuesday, October 1, 2013

When Norristown Went To Washington

What do Freedley, Fornance, Markley, Sterigere and Roberts have in common? If you said they're all streets in the North End, you would, of course, be correct. But I mean the people for whom those streets were named. They were all members of the US Congress from Norristown, along with two other men who never had anything in town named after them. With the government shutdown, today seemed like an appropriate day to talk about congressmen.

Our first, Jonathan Roberts, actually was born in and spent most of his time in King of Prussia, but in the late 1700's, KofP was all farmland, so the Town of Norris was considered his hometown. He was apprenticed as a wheelwright, but chose politics instead, entering the PA State House in 1799, the PA Senate in 1807. By the time Norristown incorporated in 1812, Roberts was in representing us in the US House. In 1814, he began a 6-year term as a US Senator, where he only missed about 10% of the votes (amazing considering travel to and from DC was difficult, the nation's capital was still pretty much swampland at the time, especially after the British burned the place in 1814). Roberts went back to the PA House in the 1820s, then became a customs agent, staying in public service until he was 61. You can still see the schoolhouse he built on Roberts Road in King of Prussia. He's buried at Roberts Cemetery in KofP.

Levi Pawling was born in Fatland, the estate on Pawling Road in Audubon, but he moved to Norristown in 1795 to practice law. He helped to raise funds to build a lock on the Schuylkill River Canal in 1816, served as our US Congressman the next 2 years, then became a "burgess" (councilman) of Norristown. He was a founder of St. John's Episcopal in 1812.

Philip Swenk Markley was born in Skippack, but like all attorneys at the time, came to Norristown to practice law. He served in the PA Senate from 1820-23, before moving on to the US House for 2 terms. He became Pennsylvania's Attorney General in 1829. He was also a founder of St. John's.

Right after Markely was John Benton Sterigere, born in Upper Dublin. He came to N-town to, you guessed it, practice law. He served in the PA House from 1821-24, then was elected to 2 terms in the US House in 1827, where he only missed 12% of the votes taken. When he came home, he edited the Norristown Register for a few years before entering the PA Senate in 1839. But Sterigere's more important for what he did while Fornance was in office.

Joseph Fornance was born in Lower Merion in 1804. He came to Norristown, yes, to practice law, but also served as president of borough council. He entered the PA House in 1834, and served in the US House from 1839-43. In the number of votes he missed, he ws perhaps our worst representative (37% on average -- in 1842, he missed 86%). Still, unlike his predecessors, he made a major contribution to history: he got Winfield Scott Hancock into West Point. (I'll go into Hancock's bio in another blog, but if General Hancock hadn't been at Gettysburg, the South might have won the war that year. We might still have slavery.)

The story goes that former Congressman Sterigere became upset when he found that his favorite horse had been mistreated by the family of the boy that Fornance intended to nominate for West Point. Sterigere went to Fornance and talked him out of it. The only other boy the right age who seemed interested in the military was Win Hancock. Sterigere went and woke up the Hancock household that night to seal the deal. So Fornance's only historical contribution was a direct result of Sterigere's sense of vengeance.

John Freedley was born in Norristown, where his father owned a brickyard. Freedley became a lawyer, but also operated a local marble quarry. He was Sterigere's age, but didn't enter politics until he was 54 years old, when he served 2 terms in the US House. Like Fornance, he's buried in Montgomery Cemetery.

The last, and my favorite, was Ephraim Lester Acker, who came to Norristown after earning a medical degree from the University of Penn. He became a school teacher and, eventually, school superintendant from 1854-60. He published the Norristown Register from 1853-77, was our Postmaster in 1860 (until President Lincoln removed him to appoint a Republican to the post). Ackers then became Inspector of the Prison. In 1871, he was elected to the US Congress for one term (missing only 12% of the votes). At age 50, he went back to school for a law degree. He practiced as an attorney until his death in 1903 at age 76. He's buried in the Norris City Cemetery. I think we need a street named after him, just for being a teacher.

So that's my list of congressmen who lived in Norristown. None of them were known for major legislation. Only Fornance (with Sterigere's help) did anything worthwhile. But, honestly, I'd take any of these fellows, even Fornance, over what's in our congress at present. Besides, they were all Norristonians, so I'm going to brag about them.

1 comment:

  1. Great article! Looks like we have ourselves some bragging rights!