by David Schmidt
Special to Main Line Life
The Lower Merion Historical Society prepares to celebrate 50 years of its own history, and, as you can imagine, they know a little of their own history — because they are continuing to live it.
Not many of the 100 founding members are left, as Jerry Francis, the Bala-Cynwyd resident who has just become the group’s president points out. “This society wasn’t founded by young people,” he says. “But there may be some families where the second, or even third generation are now involved in the stewardship of Lower Merion’s past.”
On Saturday the volunteer group is inviting anyone to join them in Ashbridge Park — the society’s home — for a day of historical fun. Activities include a display of Autocar trucks, which were manufactured in Lower Merion. While there will be entertainment for kids and a giant birthday cake for everyone to share, there will also be some historical “entertainment” as well.
For example, the Society will exhibit artifacts from their collection, including Lenape stone tools, memorabilia from the Pennsylvania Railroad and antique maps. If you have some old books, you might be able to discover that you have some rare books, because Bauman Rare Books is going to be there offering evaluations. Don’t bring a whole library: the society wants to limit the free service to two to four books per person. The event runs from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., rain or shine at the corner of Montgomery Ave. and Airdale Road.
What’s being celebrated
The evening of Oct. 24, 1949 some 90 people showed up for the first meeting of the society. Dr. S. K. Stevens, executive secretary of the Pennsylvania Federation of Historical Societies was the keynote speaker. Chairs were set up for 30 people. According to accounts at the time more, chairs were brought in, and there were closer to 90 people sitting and standing in the Ardmore Junior High School room where that meeting was held.
The society came about through the driving force of three men, all of whom were well known in Lower Merion. The first was John M. Nugent of Philadelphia’s Evening Bulletin newspaper staff. Next, Dr. Douglas C. MacFarlan was a prominent eye, ear and throat specialist and artist. Finally, Edward H. Snow was the famous and forbidding principal of Ardmore Junior High School.
For years these three men would represent the society’s personality. Nugent was the writer; MacFarlan was the voice; and Snow was the researcher and the organizer. He was known as both a strict disciplinarian and spirited motivator on behalf of both his school and his community.
But Snow was nothing if not trusted. In a newspaper editorial a month after that first meeting citizens are encouraged to send him two dollars at the school or to “make out the check to Edward H. Snow.” he would then, according to the editorial, send you a “duly executed membership card.” That two dollars was the price of the annual dues.
Getting a new home
In 1953 the society moved its library into the old Ashbridge House, a township owned building in Rosemont which was donated to the township by Emily Ashbridge in 1940. The grounds are now Ashbridge Park, a memorial to local men who served in World Wars I and II. The house was built of multi-colored fieldstones with Georgian period proportions in 1769 by Rees Thomas III and his father, William. By 1845, George Dunn had purchased the house and 155 acres. Five years later, Peter Pechin bought the property and his daughter, Rebecca Emily, inherited the farm and married Joshua Ashbridge.
One of the society’s first acts was to place a boulder with a bronze marker at the Gladwyne birthplace of five-star General of the Air Force, Henry R. “Hap” Arnold, the World War II commander who is considered the father of the Air Force
In 1976 a Museum was formally dedicated and the township provides space for the Library and Museum on Ashbridge House’s second floor. In further celebration of the U.S. Bicentennial, an architectural history of the township, “Lower Marion — A Portrait” by Carl E. Doebley, was commissioned printed and sold in hardback and paperback editions. Another project in 1979 was a reproduction of a 1956 Main Line map with sketches by Dr. MacFarlan.
The three men continued as the cornerstones of the organization. Nugent served as president from 1950 to 1954. Then Dr. MacFarlan took office and was president until 1960. Dr. Snow continued all these years as secretary, director and mentor until his death in 1977.
“The membership now includes 380 families, and usually about 150 people attend the meetings,” said Francis. While the founding members may have paid only $2 a year, 50 years later the annual fee is all the way up to $20 (or $30 for a family membership.)
A changing role
While those dollars aren’t quite the same as the historical dollars of 1949, the commitment of the society’s members hasn’t changed. In fact, it is perhaps even deeper. In 1949 the stated purpose was to gather, preserve and disseminate information about the history of the lower Main Line. “Those purposes now include a broader interpretation,” says Francis. “We still are concerned with educating people about Lower Merion but what we do has changed.”
In previous decades, education and dissemination was done through lectures and slideshows. Those activities still happen — schools classes and community groups still delight in presentations about the Lenape Indians or the first Welsh settlers. Two of the more active volunteers, Mary M. Wood and Ann Bagley, both of Merion Station, are also former teachers.
Wood co-edited the organization’s 1988 book, Lower Merion A History. She’s been volunteering for close to 20 years and is the group’s expert on the Quakers. Bagley, along with Narberth’s Charles Timm, is considered by the group to be experts in the “Pencoyd Roberts,” one of the earliest and most important Welsh families inthe area.
Farilyn Leopold of Bryn Mawr is the group’s Librarian and former recording secretary. She’s been an active volunteer for nine years. She is the one who finds the answers to questions. “I really enjoy finding the answers for people that call and write,” she says. “People have an interest in their histories. That may be the history of their family, or of their homes.” This is the growth area of what the historical society provides to its community: it answers questions people ask.
Finding out about ourselves
With a great collection of early maps, many of which now also reside in a computer database, it is much less time consuming for Leopold to answer the questions “who lived at so-and-so in 1864 and how much land did they own?” In addition to asking the question, people can come and do their own research — finding out who owned their property during the past three centuries, or when their great, great grandfather was married, and to whom.
According to Ann Bagley, this is the first step of an evolution. “Some people begin by asking questions, which we answer. Then they move to coming in on Thursday (when the society has public hours) and conducting their own research. Before they know it there having so much fun that they are members and are helping others,” she says.
In addition to coming into the Ashbridge House, people can order books through the Ludington Library. “The books are on reserve for two weeks and we hand-deliver them. Naturally they aren’t allowed to leave the library,” says Librarian Leopold.
It’s the volunteers
One of the reasons we can do this is with no paid staff is that we don’t have to spend a lot of their time fundraising or having membership drives,” Francis says. “This means we can devote more time and energy to our primary tasks which involve history and educating people,” adds Board Member S. Hamil Horne, of Gladwyne.
The society’s vice president and program chair, Christine Jones, also of Gladwyne, adds that in the nine years she’s been active it has been about the volunteers. “I can’t say enough good things about them. They’re here, doing the work and getting things done. They’re the backbone of the society.”
But today’s society has taken their mission beyond the initial mission. They’ve added stewardship and preservation to their tasks, working to find and maintain the remnants of yesterday’s history and capture today’s. Much of that work is done on computers.
Computers make a big difference
In addition to the need to develop and communicate the information they have, the society must preserve it — act as stewards of the history. This means having original documents, but not “using them up” or damaging them. For that task computers just make sense.
The society has several computers used for scanning documents, and making information available to the public without risking their future by over-handling them. Therein lies the next generation of community involvement. Young people, people who instinctively understand the value of creating computerized data out of age-old information are helping with this part of the society’s work. The best thing about computers is that we keep things without hoarding them. That’s as bad as losing them,” said Francis, who is pretty much the group’s computer guru.
For example, Adrienne Gallagher has worked for two years entering data about more than 100 homes. She works with one of the society’s most noted members, reaching across two or perhaps three generations as 94-year-old Mary Keim edits the newly computerized information.
Sara Francis uses a digital camera to create images for the society’s files and also their upcoming book, The First 300, which Dick Jones has dedicated the previous two years of his life to producing. Maps are being scanned by volunteers, so that the knowledge of who was where and when will be available for generations.
Another similar project is being done with less cutting edge, but equally permanent technology. People are making oral histories by interviewing people from the community on tape recorders, creating oral histories from people who participated in Lower Merion’s history.
The previous president, Ted Goldsborough, a Bala-Cynwyd resident, interviewed the son of Lower Merion School District’s first school bus driver. “I talked with his son, Miles Cassidy, who’s in his eighties, and he recalled team scores, and stories that were incredible. It was amazing,” Goldsborough says. “Much of the history is in people’s heads, and that’s going to be lost, so oral histories are one way to automate the process,” Goldsborough concludes.
The final part
The society has a third mission now, outreach. Through this they work with other community organizations to help preserve properties and monuments throughout the township. “We like to work with the political process to get things done — you can’t bust heads with community leaders and expect progress,” says Francis.
For example, Goldsborough and Francis located the milestones along Montgomery and Lancaster avenues and Gulph Road, and the society got a grant to refurbish and relocate 15 milestones to their original locations.
But to reach the final part takes two things. First the physical — computers and a new facility to house their larger collection and library so that it can be more a part ofthe community’s life. That may be coming, but it’s not sure yet.
But the most important thing is people. “In the last five or ten years I’ve seen so much more interest in preserving our heritage and finding out about our past,” says Vice President Jones. While the society doesn’t spend much of its valuable time of membership drives, it is always looking for people who want to be involved.
Francis wants it all to be fun: “We want people to see that it is a relaxed and fun way to do something important for the community.” Spend much time around the society, and you can see that it is. The people are dedicated and very capable, but more than that, they share a passion expressed in a camaraderie that is just plain fun to be around.