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The History of Montgomery Township

Montgomery Township is a community of more than 20,000 people on the eastern edge of Montgomery County, PA — a bustling suburb of Philadelphia – but the area looked very different three hundred years ago. William Penn deeded the land for the township in 1682; in 1707, the Welsh settlement called Montgomery numbered only a handful of residents. The first township government was organized in 1714 the Pennsylvania Assembly.  The name apparently came from a county in north Wales, home to many of the early settlers.

For the next 70 years, the community grew slowly but steadily; in 1774 there were 58 freeholders (women, children and at least 15 indentured servants and slaves weren’t included in that number.) Montgomery Square, the township’s largest village, consisted of two taverns, a small school and several farms clustered around the modern intersection of Dekalb and Bethlehem Pikes (Rt. 309) where the Montgomery Mall now stands. One of the tavern keepers, Blaize Weaver, was probably the township’s most prosperous resident.

The Revolutionary War brought the outside world closer to Montgomery Township, as the community raised its own company of men to fight with Philadelphia’s militia. The Fourth Company of the Fourth Battalion was made up entirely of Township residents, and Colonel George Smith was battalion second in command. In late September and early October of 1777, a brigade of American soldiers under the command of Brigadier General Alexander MacDougall camped somewhere in the Township – exactly where isn’t recorded – while George Washington worked out his strategy for the Battle of Germantown at the Peter Wentz Farmstead in Skippack. Not all Township residents supported the American cause; thieves based in Montgomery Square worked with British troops to capture about 150 head of cattle destined to feed the American army, and British sympathizers were not uncommon.
With the end of the war, tranquility returned to Montgomery Township. During the 19th century, the villages of Montgomeryville (at the Five Points intersection where Horsham, Doylestown and Cowpath Roads intersect Bethlehem Pike) and Eureka in the southeastern corner of the township developed to serve the agricultural community.

Just as it is today, the road system of the Township was key to growth and development. The Bethlehem or Great Road was authorized by the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1608, and was probably in use as an Indian path before that time; it reached Montgomery Township by 1717 and was extended to Hatfield in 1735. Welsh Road (now Route 63) dates from 1712, was named after the Welshmen of Montgomery and Gwynedd Townships who petitioned for a road to take their grain to the flour mills along the Pennypack Creek. State (now Upper State) Road, Horsham Road, Cowpath Road and County Line Road were the major routes serving the township by the 1750s and still serve residents today.

Although there are still several houses in the township that date to the period before the Revolution, Montgomery Township’s only National Register-listed property is the 80-acre Knapp Farm on Route 202 at Knapp Road. The property was a part of a land grant from William Penn in 1682, first settled in the early 1700s by Thomas Fairman.  Dr. Charles Moore purchased the farm in 1770. Moore went to school in Virginia with George Washington, and General Washington may have visited the Moores as his army marched through Montgomery Township after leaving Valley Forge in June of 1778. Dr. Moore and his wife Milcah were instrumental in setting up the Montgomery Township Library Company in the 1700s. A niece (or perhaps grandniece) of Dr. Moore married artist Charles Wilson Peale, and her children collected animal specimens on the Moore farm for their renowned father’s Philadelphia museum.  In 1835, after a twelve-year period when the farm changed hands six times, it was purchased and deeded to Abiram Knapp and his wife Mary by Knapp’s father-in-law. The farm was owned by the Knapp family for 165 years.

There were several private schools in Montgomery Township in the early years, including the Free School which operated until 1860 from a location on the southeast corner of the intersection of Bethlehem Pike and Upper State Road, the school at the Montgomery Baptist Church, and (in the 1830s) a boys boarding school near Montgomery Square. A public education system was first instituted in 1840, and by 1844 there were four public schools operating in the township; on Cowpath Road, Kenas Road, Doylestown Road and at Montgomery Square (on the second floor of the  Free School  building.)

The first circulating library in the North Penn area was established in Montgomery Township in 1792 and survived until 1852. Contributors to the collection included not only Charles and Milcah Moore, but Elizabeth Graeme Ferguson, mistress of Graeme Park in Horsham Township. Historian James Williams, in his book An Erudite Little Township, has a theory about the eventual decline of the Library Company…along with other problems, the numerous taverns along the Springhouse and Hilltown Turnpike (now Bethlehem Pike) apparently were the library’s chief enemy. Culture and intellectual pursuits surrendered to the temptations of demon rum.

Along with schools and taverns, churches have long been the most visible public institutions in Montgomery Township. Montgomery Square Methodist Church was constructed at Bethlehem Pike and DeKalb Pike in 1842; the cemetery plot was purchased in 1879. Montgomery Baptist Church, started in 1719, was the fourth Baptist meeting in the colony of Pennsylvania. Several times in the history of the church, small groups left the congregation to start their own meeting; the minister to one of those groups, Joshua Jones, was an early owner of the stone house in Windlestrae Park. He is reported to have ended his sermons with the phrases,  “I leave it with you briefly and abruptly; may God add his blessing!”

Source: “”An Erudite Little Township: A History of Montgomery Township to 1900” by James A. Williams (pub. 1970 – updated 2014) available for purchase through this website.

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