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Eye on Lower Merion Historical Society

Jerry Francis, Historical Society president, introduces this special library of local maps, photographs, documents and objects housed in a restored 1812 school building, the Lower Merion Academy. Recorded 2014.

Part 1: The Lower Merion Academy; part 2: A tour of the Historical Society and its collections.


Mark Murray Hello and welcome to Eye On Lower Merion. I’m Mark Murray. Well, we’re out of the studio and back to school, exploring the interesting sites and places in Lower Merion Township. Well, today were excited to be in Bala Cynwyd featuring an organization dedicated to preserving Lower Merion’s past and educating the public about the treasures in our community. Let’s take a look at the Lower Merion Historical Society.

And we’re here today with Jerry Francis the president of the Historical Society and we’re in a very recognizable building here in Bala Cynwyd, Jerry, could you tell me more about it and how it came to be what it is today?

Jerry Francis Well, thank you for inviting me here today to talk about one of my favorite topics, which is the heritage of Lower Merion. And the Lower Merion Academy is, plays a big part in that. To rewind a little bit, you know, why is the building here? We have to go back to the first permanent settlers of Lower Merion were the Welsh Quakers that arrived here in 1682. They came here and established the Merion meeting houses and they built their meeting house in 1695 and part of the meeting house was the upper level was used for education purposes. The Quakers that came here from Wales were upper-class, they valued education very much and as soon as they got here, in addition to worshipping, they decided they had to educate their families. And the natives, the Native Americans that were here also, they were part of the class in their school system.

They outgrew the attic above the meeting house, they built a log cabin across the street on Meeting House Lane, and they outgrew that after a number of years. Finally in 1810 a guy named Jacob Jones he, in his will, he decided I want to build for the Lower Merion community a schoolhouse appropriate for the community.

So in his will he sets aside about nine and a half acres of land and the money to build the Lower Merion Academy. So in 1812 they start building it and this is an etching from the 1851 Levering map of what the Academy looked like back in that era. What this this dirt road along the front of it here is actually Meeting House Lane, back then which went from the Quaker meetinghouse which is just south of here about a quarter mile and it connected here.

It still is a four level building. The front in those days was what is today facing the Cynwyd elementary school. So these doors took you into the ground level area. In here was where the kitchens were. Because when the students went to school here they usually stayed overnight and stayed here for a week or so, they dormed here. So they had kitchens they had a dining room and they also over here had an area for a basement area to store tools, because the nine half acres they actually, the students helped harvest and till. It wasn’t free education, you’re learning to be a farmer.

MM So you went out actually applied what you learned!

JF And the produce from the farms help to feed the headmaster and his family. So the lower level was in the kitchens and dining rooms, et cetera. We’re actually right here which is today the first level, this was where the classrooms were and then up above here were additional classrooms and the quarters for the headmaster. And then up in the attic areas was the dormitory where the students spent the, you know, their time, or they got snowed in or whatever. There’s a lot of graffiti up there, too.

MM How many students did it house?

JF It varied over time when it was slow, it was probably 20 to 30, as high as 80 to 90, as it got later on in time. So it started out as a free education for the Lower Merion community, regardless of the race, religion or gender. And it was to teach good morals, to teach and learn a trade, and learn a profession, it was a Quaker type of education.

Over time, I want to switch now to another image of the Lower Merion Academy, this is in the 1880s, another building appears here in the back and what happened,this is where the school was, the first library Lower Merion was in here, then they the Quakers decided to extend their mission to build a union sunday-school.

So one of the buildings left over from the Centennial here in Philadelphia, in 1876, the children’s kindergarten, they took apart, moved it out here and rebuilt it, which is today in the bus circle, okay? And that was in a way a non-denominational house of worship.

So the community was growing, people were moving here, the parishes, various religious parishes had not been developed or churches built, so this is where you went to for a service. So it really, this area at this point was called Academyville. So it was the center of this eastern part of the township.

Then in 1914, it’s now a part of the public school system, the school district decided to make it into, they started a Capital Improvement Program and they built what is today the Cynwyd elementary school, which is now celebrating their centennial in the year 2014.

From 1914 to about 1938, the building was abandoned. The caretakers lived there, it was a storage area, things like that, and it wasn’t until they built the Bala Cynwyd middle school in 1938 it again, the building was worked on, rehabbed into Home Ec classes for the, for the girls, so it was, it’s a house, so the classrooms were converted into a living room, dining room, bedrooms, things like that, and there were three kitchens in here also.

So it was and then it was used by the school district until 2000, year 2000, when the school district had another Capital Improvement Program, built and put additions onto the Bala Cynwyd middle school and that was the time the Lower Merion Historical Society, we raised our hand, I said here, it’s not going to be really used for educational purposes, would you consider the Historical Society moving in and using this as our headquarters?

MM Very nice!

JF So it’s great, it’s been repurposed from school house to a library, to a community center, Union Sunday school, you know, Home Ec.

MM Very nice! And now your home, here in this historic site. Wow, this is awesome! Now, Jerry, the Historic Society wasn’t always here, as you said, they came from somewhere else. Where were they before this building?

JF The Historical Society was founded in 1949 and few years after its founding we actually, the township was kind enough to give a space at Ashbridge house in Ashbridge Park, so we had three small rooms on the second floor and that was our headquarters up until about the year 2000. We outgrew that because the collection had grown over time and this became available.

There was a part of the lease agreement, part of Jacob Jones’ will, the building must always be used for educational purposes. Since the school district was going to really abandon the building for classroom purposes, but only use it for meeting space, they needed someone who’s come in and actually use it for education purposes and have classes here. So we vied for it, we got a sublease from the school district from it, put the building and made it onto the national landmark status and we’ve been here, it’s a win-win for the trustees to still control the building and the nine and a half acres of land, and it’s also a win-win for the school district because they have a historic building and it’s good for the Historical Society and the Lower Merion community in general.

MM You’re right, it is a win-win for everyone. Well, we have to take a break, all right, and we come back I want you show me the upstairs.

FF Okay! A lot of good stuff up there!

MM Awesome! So stay tuned, you’re watching Eye On Lower Merion.


Mark Murray Welcome back to Eye On Lower Merion. And we’re in the Lower Merion Academy building in Bala Cynwyd. I’m here with Jerry Francis, the president of Historic Society and we’re on the second floor of the general reference room here, right?

Jerry Francis Correct.

MM So before we go along too far, can you tell us your contact information?

JF Well, the old-fashioned way is U.S. mail, which is 506 Bryn Mawr avenue in Bala Cynwyd 19004. The more modern is by email, it’s LMhistory@comcast.net. Obviously there is the website that we have, LowerMerionHistory.org, and we also have our e-newsletter that we send out monthly and their contact information there you can leave messages behind, it’s called Milestones and finally, there’s Facebook, the Lower Merion History Facebook account, so you can leave notes and things.

MM You’re well covered, I think!

JF Oh, it’s more of electronic age today with the email, website, Facebook, e-newsletters.

MM In this room, your general reference room, I see lots of books. This makes you a special library. What is a special library?

JF Well, a number of years ago the Historical Society said, what are we? What should we be? We can’t be everything because different historical societies could be a museum, they could be reenactors, and we took a look at what is our primary asset and that’s our collection. So we decided to really focus on, to be a special library.

So we have a number of rooms here on the second floor. We’re in the general reference room where our patrons are invited to join us, this is the central spot. Over here we have our online public access catalog which is connected to our internet, People come in, do their searching and then as they find things, they go through our collection pick out what they need, sit around the big reference table, work with our librarians as they do their research.

MM well if you’ll permit me for a moment, what are the hours the people can come in and use this?

JF Right now, it’s limited hours, people work during the day, so we’re open Wednesday evenings from 7 to 9 p.m. and Saturdays from 2 to 4, and also I would say, 80 to 90% of our visitors, our patrons, are by appointment. It’s convenient for them, many of them come out of from out of town, and they’d like to be here for half a day or whatever to do their proper research.

So it’s very customized, so it is a special library here. I must also say besides that you know because of the website, we have a virtual library with virtual users and we get probably a dozen or more emails per week asking research questions which we follow up, so not just that it’s not to face time with patrons, we also have, you know,

MM Access to it around the world!

JF Absolutely, and we have an international audience.

MM Wow! Well I see you have, like easily over 500 pieces of stuff here. Can you give us a tour of the general reference room?

JF This is kind of an introduction. We’re proud of our collection here and we were fortunate enough, back in August of 2012, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania had gotten a grant from the Mellon Foundation called Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories.

MM Just rolls off the tongue.

JF Absolutely! And they reviewed 44 small, medium libraries in the Delaware Valley, and a group of archivists came and studied our collection. They wrote this 188 page report on our collection. We came out like number like 2 or 3 out of all 44.

So we’re proud of our collection. It’s not just that we have the quantity of material, we have the quality. So it’s nice to have a third-party confirmation that we do have, you know, we have a first-class Township with a first-class special library.

MM Very nice, congratulations!

JF So we’re very happy with that. Some of the tools that we use here is, we have our books about Lower Merion. We also include Philadelphia because we’re Philadelphia-based. As settlers came in, settled and Philadelphia moved out here, it remained family, kept family connections, so it is, our history is connected with Philadelphia.

Before city line, it was just City avenue, before that, the original settlers they own land on both sides, before there was the road, they was just, so there is a connection between the two, so it was Fairmount Park primarily and Lower Merion, there is very tight connection.

We have over 500 books here that people can look at. A very nice collection we have is the atlases. We are so fortunate that the, it’s nice to have our area well documented. We have in the archive room 130 maps, our older maps of the area and then they came along and decided to atlases we have 16 different publications of the atlases here that documents Lower Merion over time.

So a lot of people come in, they’re interested in their property, who lived there before. A majority of users are interested in genealogy, they want to trace their ancestors. So it’s nice to take a piece of land, go back to, let’s say 1850, and you trace it over time. If you go to different atlases and how the ownership has changed, use the land has changed, so it’s a real documented history of the Lower Merion area.

MM It isn’t necessarily railroad-based, I’m seeing “main line”, which would be a railroad, right? All these publications are, various?

JF They’re all done by Smith and Hopkins and Franklin Maps, etc. They track the Pennsylvania Railroad on two and a half miles on the other side, so that’s their focus, that’s their primary, we’re the main line. It was a railroad, it was a location, it was a style of life. We like to use the term. It takes it that right down to the property level, who owned it, you know, the footprints, things like that.

MM Very nice!

JF So these are just the more used atlases we have. Over here, we have what we call flat files, which have, you know, just filled with more atlases, or more specialized, that follow other tracks, the Schuylkill River, things like that, and you get more complete coverage of the area, so these are more more atlases that we have, again, for the public to use, and what we are proud of and we’re really rediscovering our history, we got things called the Hexamers.

MM And what are the Hexamers?

JF These are insurance survey maps, before Sanborn maps, that guy Mr. Hexamer was the one who actually drew these maps, in great detail, mostly the factories, institutions, things like that. So you have a nice visual, like here’s the Pencoyd Iron Works that came out which we’re going to rediscover with the Cynwyd Heritage Trail and what did it look like, a description what was, you know. It’s nice to have these things as a visual to imagine. And we’re using these images on the Preserve America grant signs to add a visual, like this is where this mill was, etc., to understand the mill history of the area also.

MM Is this stuff available also online or only…?

JF No, it’s not, unfortunately, these are owned by the Free Library Philadelphia they jobbed them out to the Athenaeum to scan and we got we got special permission from the Free Library to have hard copies and to reproduce them for the township for their Preserve America, but the copyright still owned by the Free Library so, there you have to go to the Free Library’s website and get it.

So they are available but not on ours, so we link to that, but these are nice resources we have quite a few of these, of the very important buildings that were in the area. Bryn Mawr College, one of my favorites is the Belmont Driving Park, which is the racetrack.

MM OK! [laughs]

JF So it’s nice to having all these visuals here to tie in with, eventually the photographs right because the photographs we have, you know, thousands of photographs, they’re stored in the archives and ninety-nine percent of them are not online yet because it’s, only have so much time. But it’s nice to get a photograph, find it on the atlas, position it so you can identify the location of these various buildings and events that are going on.

MM How, what would you say is the oldest atlas you have? The one on the wall here?

JF Well, there’s different kinds of atlases. The oldest Atlas we have is 1871, that we have here. We do have reproductions in the other room, which, reproduction is fine, because it’s information we want, doesn’t have to be an original. The oldest one is, dates back to mid-1700s, telling how to get from the Merion meeting house into Philadelphia, so it’s kind of interesting.

The hallmark map is the Levering map of 1851, is the first map of Lower Merion showing all the property owners. It was done by Mr. Levering, a calligrapher. We have all his workbooks, how he drew this. There’s only about four in existence, we have two of the four original ones. Again, it documents Lower Merion. Doesn’t show you where the buildings are! They only highlight three buildings that they feel that are prominent. One is the Merion Meeting house. The next prominent building is where we are, the Lower Merion Academy, and the third one’s Harriton house.

It is farm land and what they’re documenting in 1850s is, where is the water? Every farm had to have access to water, so where are the wells, where’s the springs, where’s the rivulets, where are the creeks? That’s what’s important.

MM Yeah, I see that.

JF So this is a great map to start your research, as you go through, as the area’s filled with people, it’s subdivided into development.

MM Where does the library acquire most of the stuff? If I were going through my attic and I had stuff, would I bring it to you or contact you via email?

JF Luckily we have a very, some very generous people, especially the Roberts family who donated their family archives and we do have an acquisition policy, we do have an account on eBay where we do okay to try and fill in the account, but that’s a minimal, but mostly by donations. But we do have an acquisition policy, it’s extremely selective because you know we don’t want duplicates and we just don’t want people’s, it has to reflect Lower Merion history, something that is, you know, of the correct quality that we can, that would add to our collection.

MM And as we said, you’re not a museum, so you don’t want an old baby carriage.

JF We don’t want done any of that stuff. So we’d love to have family photos, daries, things like that talk about lifestyles. To us, history’s people and history is a collection of biographies and the buildings and the, you know, everything else are stage props to tell the story. Like we’re talking about the Academy, it is a story about Quaker education, about Jacob Jones, his will, and the building is an example of it, so we like to get personal diaries, things like that.

We’ve got some great ones that came in recently, what was the lifestyles back then?

MM Well, let’s go over more of the tour and check out the rest of the building.

JF Okay, I’ll show you the archive room!

MM Well, now we are in the archive room. Tell me about this room. What are all these books and binders I see before me?

JF This is a specially designed room for our primary sources, namely one of a kind that are really not reproducible or as I said, one of a kind. When we moved here because of the quality of our collection we decided that we needed a room designed like this. So with the help of the Conservation Center for the Arts and Historic Artifacts in Philadelphia, who helped design this room with structural support, vapor barriers, environmental controls, special humidity controls to preserve primary documents.

So along this wall is the first library for Lower Merion, dates back to 1842, Quaker library. Along this wall is hundreds, well, like a hundred binders, filled with old photographs. Again the environmental controls concern with these things they don’t want to get to humidity into them things like that so they have to be reserved. Primary manuscripts and documents and personal letters and diaries, things like that that. Again, environmental control is important.

Behind me is a shelf full of fabrics, civil war uniforms, things like that, that requires conservation. And these are my favorite, being a map collector, these are what they call flat files where oversized items are stored properly.

You asked to show a couple items that it would be an example of things in here. I thought I would, we helped with the township a number of years ago in 2007 to publish this booklet the 325th anniversary of the founding of Lower Merion and we are really connected with William Penn. There’s a whole story about that, but I’ll show you some documents we have that relate to William Penn, to show it’s not it is, these are primary documents.

So we’re in the white glove area right now, so if you don’t mind, to make sure that you don’t break any rules here in regards to conservation, I’m just going to open one drawer and just show you three sample documents. So we have in regards to show you the quality that we have. The first one here on the left is an original signature of William Penn which is, again, prominent in the area. Tradition has it that he came out here to Lower Merion and gave a talk at the Merion meeting house.

This is the, I guess, one of my favorite also, it’s a 1682 indenture from Wales for Mr. Roberts to buy the first 500 acres in Lower Merion. So this is the first, this is the beginnings of Lower Merion, first adventure from Wale. And this one is a kind of favorite just to be able to touch and hold, is that this is John Roberts’ personal prayer book or his Bible. So this is his, this dates back to the 17th century, he was in Wales. Because of his religion, being a Quaker, he was not permitted to use his prayer book. So he picked up his family, got on the ship, came to a new world to the wilderness so you could sit down and pray. So the power of the word speaks very clearly, so it’s nice to have his prayer book here. So it’s, every time I touch that I would say wonder what this looks like crossing the Atlantic Ocean and the storms and trying to take care of your family, so I could just, freedom of religion.

MM Wow. Now this is not a deed to a piece of property?

JF No. It’s called an indenture which is a legal document. And the way this was done, over in, it came from Wales. You bought so many acres sight unseen and then when you arrived here you turn this over to the surveyor and say this is it and they would assign you a parcel of land. This was from Schuylkill River along with is today City Avenue all the way down to what is today Conshohocken State Road. So it’s the first 500 acres, the first Lower, it was the first, Mr. Roberts was in ship number one, came over in the first ship, he’s the first one to turn in his deed, he’s the first one to get a piece of land.

MM Wow. And how did they know this matched up with what the surveyor had?

JF Well, the surveyor, on the other side, it would be a duplicate just the opposite, and when they were done, they would just cut it at a random curves. So as you, as Mr. Roberts would come into the surveyor here in Philadelphia with this, they would take the, what we think would be the equivalent half, if they lined up with the curves, you knew that was was an authentic, accurate one then they would then write out the deed for you.

MM Oh wow.

JF So that’s what an indenture is. So I think the collection is very broad, between maps that we have, both from William Penn, the Quakers, as I said, we have over 130 maps in here, in addition to the atlases we have over there, so it’s nice to document the area and how it developed over time. And we’re trying to really document today so we have a roadmap for what the township’s going to be like 50 years from now.

MM And there’s still another room, right, that unfortyunately we don’t have time for?

JF Yes, the third one, we call it the file room, that’s where we keep the articles and the ephemera and they’re in file cabinets, there are about nineteen to twenty thousand items in there. It’s also the workroom for our volunteers. As material comes in, that’s where they’re evaluated, excess cleaned, decide how they should be integrated into the collection. So that’s another room, and then we have an office and some other things here, some more storage on this floor. So it’s a nice sized building, I think Jacob Jones would be pleased that his heritage here, the Quaker heritage, William Penn, is all being preserved and appreciated by the Lower Merion community.

MM I think you’ve done an awesome job here, Jerry, thank you very, very much. Before we go, could you remind us again, your contact information?

JF OK, the address is 506 Bryn Mawr Avenue in Bala Cynwyd. The email address is LMhistory@comcast.net. And please take a look at our website, which is LowerMerionHistory.org. And we have a Facebook account.

MM Thank you very much, you have done an awseome job here, alright?

JF Come back again!

MM Thank you very much! Well, that’s all the time we have for this month’s show. I’d like to thank Jerry Francis for giving us a great tour of this wonderful building. If you want more information about the Historic Society, check them out online, they’re at LowerMerionHistory.org. That’s it for this month. Eye On Lower Merion. I’m Mark Murray, I’ll see you next time.