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History of Norristown Farm Park

The American Indian Lenni Lenape (Delaware) tribe occupied the land for generations. Women farmed, while the men hunted game for food. The Lenape believed it was their duty to share what they had with everyone, and the Native people welcomed early European visitors graciously.

They expected that the Europeans would respond in kind, but prior to the arrival of William Penn and the Quakers in 1682, the Lenape were ill-treated -- first by the Dutch, and then by the Swedes. The Lenape response was usually swift and violent, often involving destruction of livestock and property, and the death of the settlers.

Relations with European settlers changed for a time after Penn arrived. When King Charles II deeded the land called “Penn’s Sylvania” to Penn in payment of a debt, Penn laid the groundwork for a friendly relationship with the Lenape.

He wrote to them to explain the Quaker faith and guiding principles, and asked their permission to settle on the land. Penn quickly became a beloved friend of the Lenape through his willingness to learn their language, and his participation in their festivals and games. He spent only five years on the land, from 1682 to 1684, and from 1699 to 1701.

While Penn was gone, relations with the American Indians soured.

During 1704, when Penn was away in England, his son William Penn, Jr., sold the land to Isaac Norris, after whom present day Norristown was named. In 1744, the land was sold to James Shannon, who built the Shannon Mansion in 1764.

That building still stands near the entrance to the park. A nearby springhouse was also built around 1764. The Getty Cottage, situated directly behind the Shannon Mansion, was built in 1802.

In 1777, the British marched through the town and burned several areas in the park, including a gunpowder mill and several homes.

Other historic buildings in the park include the Castner House, built in 1802. On the south side of the house built by shoemaker (cordwainer) John Castner, is a date stone and a boot symbol.

Happy Hollow Cottage was inhabited by the Norris family, and was built in 1800. The Sheetz House was built in 1870, and Doctor’s House dates from 1900.

Norristown Hospital

In 1876, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a law giving the state permission to buy land on which to build hospitals.

Norristown State Hospital was built as one of the mandated facilities. Until 1975, patients at the hospital worked the farm growing crops and raising animals as part of their treatment program. Further, the hospital farm served as a program to train farm managers, and also as an “Alternative Service Program” for conscientious objectors who could not, because of their beliefs, participate in military actions.

It was believed that patients who worked the farm recovered more quickly. After 1975, the state changed its policy, stating that the farm work did not, in fact, help the patients to recover more quickly, and that it was less expensive to buy food than to grow it themselves.

The Park

The Department of Agriculture took responsibility for the land when farming operations ceased. DCNR's Bureau of State Parks then took over the property in 1987 through the legislative efforts of Senator Edwin G. Holl. During 1992, Montgomery County leased 690 acres of the land from DCNR and created Norristown Farm Park. Montgomery County operates the park for DCNR.

Four hundred and fifty acres of the land are still farmed by a tenant farmer, allowing visitors to see an unusual site in this urban area -- a working farm.