Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Lessons From Norristown's Founding

Courthouse in mid-1800s.  
First, a quick reminder that tonight is "Meet The Chief" at 6:30 pm, American Legion Post #39, 500 E. Marshall. Norristown Police Chief Mark Talbot will introduce himself and talk about the department's policing strategies. Additional parking is available at the old Washington School parking lot in the 600 block of Violet Street. Be there.

Now for today's topic. On Saturday, the Preservation Society is hosting a Birthday Party for Norristown at Selma Mansion starting at 1 pm. Since I'm one of the historical interpreters at that event (come see me in my colonial costume), I've been refreshing my knowledge regarding how our town came to be. With the anniversary of Norristown's incorporation less than a week away, I want to share a few interesting tidbits about the borough's past.

William Penn received the land grant that he called "Sylvania" from King Charles II of England in 1681. It was the king who named it Pennsylvania, after Penn's father, who'd been an admiral and who'd also lent Charles a lot of money. Pennsylvania was the king's way of paying back the debt to the family.

Penn set aside parcels for his family and friends. His son, William Jr., received 7,000 acres, roughly from what we today know as Saw Mill Run, up the river past Barbados Island (West Norriton Township), inland to include what today is East Norriton. Junior never lived on this land, just set up a plantation and reaped the profits.

In fact, for the next hundred years, none of the men who owned the lion's share of the land lived on it. That's right, Norristown was begun by absentee landlords. The last owner in this line, from about 1776 to 1784, was the University of Pennsylvania, who owned the 500+ acres that makes up our downtown today.

When the Pennsylvania legislature decided to split Philadelphia County and call the northwestern part Montgomery, it was decided that the UPenn parcel was perfectly situated for a county seat, so the university's provost sent his son, William Moore Smith, to design the community. He laid out the first streets, plotted out where the courthouse and public square would go, and called the place "The Town of Norris" (after a previous absentee owner). William Moore Smith is the closest thing to a real founder that we have, but no one remembers him.

Apparently everyone thought the name was pretentious or too long. They started calling us Norristown. We applied to the state to become a borough and the governor signed the incorporation charter on March 31, 1812. Why that date? Possibly that was just when the charter ended up on his desk.

The first council was elected May 1st--8 members named Swaine, Coates, Hahn, Schrack, Hamill, Thomas, Holstein and Winnard, an interesting mix of English and German names. One would assume some or all were involved with sending the charter to the governor, so they could be called founders, too, but we don't remember them either.

Norristown was at one time called Williamstadt, Norriton Manor, Norrington, and the Town of Norris--nearly 130 years of identity crisis. Those formative years were filled with absentee landlords and other outsiders who made most of the decisions that would effect the residents and shape our town. In some ways, we don't seem to have evolved much beyond that in the 202 years since.

I think it's time for the residents and local business people of Norristown to take hold of the steering wheel for good--to tell the county and other outsiders, thanks, but we have a better idea what Norristown is and ought to be than people who don't live here, and who only get their community planning notions out of trendy magazines and websites.

We could all be founders of the borough's future.

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