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Last updated: April 05. 2013 11:44AM - 1170 Views

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JENKINTOWN — They packed it all up — the wagon wheels and stagecoaches, the carriages and cars, the big-box stores that sell everything from kitchenware to computers.


Not the actual items, of course.


The images and memories and records, loaded into 600 boxes and trucked out of Jenkintown to spacious new quarters in Abington.


The Old York Road Historical Society has a new home, taking over the second floor of Alverthorpe Manor, the mansion built by a Sears heir. As part of the move, the society that for more than 75 years has studied one of the region’s major suburban arteries is expanding its outreach to offer greater, more comfortable access to researchers, scholars, genealogists — and even news reporters.


“It’s a much more inviting environment,” said society president David Rowland, a local banker. “It allows us to serve people better.”


Old York Road is older than the United States, laid out perhaps as early as 1681, and serving as a private toll road until being bought by the state in 1918. It’s a route of stark differences, moving from city to country and valley to hilltop, surrounded by the ordinary — banks, strip malls, and car dealerships — and the extraordinary, such as the Beth Shalom Synagogue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.


The society collects the stories and folklore of the communities that line the corridor from Philadelphia to New Hope, presenting lectures and publishing scholarly papers. Its archives feature particularly strong holdings on Eastern Montgomery County.


The collection fills rooms: scrapbooks and Blue Books, photos, atlases, maps, journals, yearbooks and postcards, a thousand books about the road and its neighbors, boxes of family collections and copies of newspapers like the Hatboro Public Spirit, Old York Road Caller, and Jenkintown Pestle.


There’s an undated poster touting a Jitterbug Jamboree at the Keswick Theatre. A blue banner from the McKinley Society, named not for the president but for a neighborhood association. A 1907 button bearing portraits of bandleaders at Willow Grove Park, which was a luminous amusement park before it was a mall.


And a horse’s hoof.


Not just any hoof, but one from Old Baldy, the steed of Union Gen. George Meade, hero of Gettysburg. The horse, retired after the Civil War, was exhumed soon after its death in 1882. Its head was preserved as a prized artifact, now property of the Grand Army of the Republic Museum in the city.


People at the society presume the hoof was taken at the same time, though they are not sure how it was acquired. Or precisely which leg it came from — likely the left front.


But everyone can come see it, and also make use of the more conventional files, said board member Mary Washington, a genealogist and Revolutionary War re-enactor known and loved locally as the Union Avenue crossing guard at Myers Elementary School in Elkins Park.


Washington — no relation to the president — is considering a research project on the mansion where the society resides.


Alverthorpe Manor was built in 1938 as the home of Lessing Rosenwald, son of Julius Rosenwald, the president and chairman of Sears, Roebuck and Co.


Lessing came here in 1920 to open a catalog supply center in Northeast Philadelphia. In 1932 he succeeded his father as chairman, holding the job only until 1939, when he dedicated himself to collecting rare books and art. He and his wife later donated Alverthorpe to Abington as a cultural space.


Today it houses the Abington Art Center.


The society had been located at the Jenkintown Library since it was founded in 1936, back when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president and a new magazine called Life was beginning publication. But the basement setting led to mold troubles, and when the lease was terminated the society began looking elsewhere and raising money — $64,000 to pay for renovations and the move.


At the new quarters, the rent has doubled to $8,000, no small concern for a society with a $20,000 annual budget.


The manor offers bright natural lighting and lots of room for archives and the people who prowl them. The main reading room, with its big bay window and tile fireplace, used to be a bedroom. A portrait of Russell Smith, the Scottish-born Glenside artist who painted Pennsylvania landscapes, looks down from a wall.


“The Rosenwalds envisioned a cultural community center,” Rowland said. “For us to be here with the Abington Art Center, it’s a nice pairing.”


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