Conshohocken Prominent Female Residents
In Honor of “Women’s History Month”
By Jack Coll
March 29, 2019
Conshohocken was just one of hundreds of small river towns in Pennsylvania. Throughout the 1800’s, and 1900’s, the attraction of these riverfront towns were the industries, and labor jobs were plenty. Life seemed so simple throughout these years, the lines were straight and clear.
No high school diploma needed for both men and women. When the boys/men left school a job was waiting for them at the mill, it wasn’t uncommon for young men to get a job at the same mill their fathers and grandfathers worked at. They started at the bottom and worked their way up-the-ladder. The paycheck was steady and the job was for life.
Females coming out of high school also had a straight and clear line in life in a small-town. Finish high school, marry your high school sweetheart, have a few children and become the best housewife/mother they could be. Have dinner on the table at the same time every day, bath the kids, participate in their homework, put the kids to bed, get the kids off to school, pack the husband a lunch and get ready to do it all over again, for the next couple of decades.
While most of the men in most of the small river towns held up their end of married life, every once in a while the female/wife didn’t cooperate with housewife-as-usual.
With all that being said, I’d like to point out a few of Conshohocken’s females from over the years who broke the “housewife” mold.
We highlighted a few of these women below, taken from the book, “Conshohocken & West Conshohocken—People, Places and Stories,” written by Jack and Brian Coll.
Back in the day when women who tried to break the mold were quickly told, “You shouldn’t be doing that.” There’s an old saying:
“Women Who Behave, Rarely Make History.”
Dr. Dorothy Donnelly
Dr. Donnelly practiced from her office once located on East Fourth Avenue, not only was she the first female doctor in Conshohocken, but notable, the first female to own and operate an automobile circa 1903.
Mrs. William Webb
Mrs. William Webb lived on Hector Street at the corner of Ash Street. More than a century ago, she was cooking dinner in her oven and burned her hands and arms repeatedly as she reached in the oven to retrieve the food, and/or to rotate the food. (When ovens were in there infancy they typically had a hot spot in the rear of the oven with colder areas on the sides and front of the oven, therefore it was necessary that half-way through the cooking process one would need to reach into the oven and rotate the food to get it evenly cooked). Over time, she had scars on her arms and hands from reaching into the hot oven, which wasn’t uncommon back then, but she finally did something about it.
As Mrs. Webb thought about her burns, some of which had been treated by a doctor, she began to think about the housewives across the country that were living with the same problem. Eventually, she began to devise a study of cook stove ovens, as they were known back then. She came to recognize that the old fashioned oven was hard to manage and that bad heating led to burnt food and put every person who reached into an oven in danger of getting burned.
Mrs. Webb thought out a method of changing the position of foods being cooked from one part of the oven to the other. She invented the rotisserie, a crank-handle mounted on the outside of the oven which could turn the circular rack inside the oven without requiring the cook to reach inside.
She secured a patent on what was then called a “WEBB Revolving Oven Slide.” She formed a company to manufacture and market her inventions (she had several other invention patents for ovens and the use of ovens), but rather than manufacture, she decided to shop the rights of her inventions.
The inventions and patents were shopped to the largest stove manufactures in the country, and they immediately recognized the great advantages they possessed. The rights and patents for the “WEBB Revolving Oven Slide” were sold to American Manufacturing Company of Baltimore, Maryland. The company purchased the rights to use the patent and paid a royalty to the Webb Company on every device and oven sold.
The Webb Company continued to own the rights of the built-in oven and several other patents. The company sold the patents to several other large stove manufactures that used the patents and continued to pay royalties to Webb. Officers of the Webb Company included John Webb, President; John Edtta Esq., Secretary; and Mrs. William Webb, Treasurer.
So, women throughout the country rejoiced more than a hundred years ago, and even today, as rotisseries are used in all microwave ovens and some of the larger ovens in the world.
We can all thank Mrs. Webb, a Conshohocken resident who had enough burns and did something about it!
Dorothy Davis McBride
Dorothy Davis McBride was a one time resident of 906 Fayette Street and wife of Johnny McBride, nationally known football star, Dorothy was a radio executive at R. C. A. in New York City during the 1940’s.
Dorothy’s husband John McBride was a football standout at Syracuse University from 1920-1924 where he set national records and went on to play professional football with the New York Giants from 1925-1935. Mr. McBride earned the 1927 National Football League MVP Award. Following his football career McBride joined the Marines where he became a Captain.
Dorothy rose quickly thru the ranks at R. C. A. to become the head of programing for New York’s top broadcasting station. Who would have thought that when she married McBride and left Conshohocken for the Great White Way that she would have an office with gold letters on the door and hold such a responsible position for the nation’s leading broadcasting company.
Anna Ried, a one time resident of Ford Street in West Conshohocken was the very first female elected to the West Conshohocken School Board in December 1931, for the 1932-33 school years. Anna replaced Alva MacKenzie who had served the community on the School District’s Board of Directors for eight years.
An interesting sidebar to this was Mrs. Rebecca W. Brecht was chosen as the First Woman President of the Education Board in the history of Norristown’s public education system, she was voted into the position on the same night Anna Ried was for West Conshohocken.
In January 1932 Anna was elected the first female President of the West Conshohocken School District. Anna was married to Robert Ried and together they had three children including Robert, Ruth and Jane.
Eva Pierson Davis
A former Conshohocken resident Eva Pierson Davis met her husband John at a party in Conshohocken in 1927, at the home of Clyde Hill, formerly of Tenth Avenue and Fayette Street. Twenty five years after they were married John was sworn into office of Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania in January 1959. Guest of the Davis family at the inauguration included Mr. and Mrs. John B. Kelly of East Falls, parents of Princess Grace of Monaco. The Davis’s were guest of the Kelly’s at Princess Grace’s marriage to Prince Rainer in 1956 in Monaco. The Second Lady of Pennsylvania was a graduate of Conshohocken High School and lived in Conshohocken until she wed John.
In the mid 1940’s Helen Pavlidis who lived at 119 Ford Street in West Conshohocken entertained the troops with her voice throughout the war years. The daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Isaac Pavlidis she was a talented singer who performed at the Valley Forge General Hospital, Fort Dix in New Jersey, Swarthmore Navy Hospital and canteens in and around Philadelphia.
As a student at West Conshohocken High School she was the victim of an infantile paralysis attack which interrupted her schooling but had used her talent to sing entertaining troops far and wide. Helen also performed at a number of festivals over the years.
Elizabeth V. “Bea” Brandt
When the history of Conshohocken’s Urban Redevelopment is written, Bea Brandt’s name is not likely to be mentioned. But make no mistake about it Bea Brandt’s name is high on the list of the personnel who contributed to the success of the borough’s redevelopment efforts.
Bea was a life-long resident of Conshohocken who served the borough as secretary for more than twenty years, not only for the borough, but for the Conshohocken Zoning Hearing Board as well. She was also a leader and an active participant in the civic, fraternal and humanitarian affairs in our community.
When the borough began its journey towards urban redevelopment, Bea Brandt was the borough’s only employee, other than Walt Szwedkowski, the borough Housing and Zoning officer. Most of the heavy paperwork pertaining to government grant money both state and federal for redevelopment was completed by Bea to make urban redevelopment a reality in Conshohocken. From the mid 1960’s until the mid 1980’s Bea worked tirelessly on behalf of the members of borough council handling all the borough duties along with all the redevelopment responsibilities.
When Bea passed away in the fall of 1986, she left a gaping hole in Conshohocken Borough Hall that was extremely hard to replace. Think of Bea this way, as of today, (2019) the borough has nearly 15 full time employees working in borough hall, Bea handled all of that in her time.
Ada Agnes Sturgis
Ada Sturgis was born in West Conshohocken in 1888 to William and Mary (O’Neill) Sturgis. Ada went to school in West Conshohocken and later graduated from the Montgomery Hospital School of Nursing in 1917. Ada didn’t hesitate to enlist in the Army in 1918 as an Army Nurse. During her tour of duty she spent fourteen months state side and 22 months in Germany. While serving in Germany Ada, along with a number of other American nurses visited Italy and France, and had a chance meeting with Pope Benedict XV while in Rome.
When the Army called for volunteers to travel to France at the signing of the Armistice the government was in great need of skilled nurses and Ada was part of the first shipment of nurses outside the war zone. She was transferred to Germany where she was stationed for nearly two years before returning with the rank of Second Lieutenant in the winter of 1922.
In 1923 she affiliated herself with the Conshohocken Visiting Nurse Association, the second nurse to carry out the service. Throughout her years as a Visiting Nurse Ada also served as Conshohocken’s School District nurse. Ada served as the borough’s Visiting Nurse for thirty years retiring in 1953. In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s Ada was serving between 400 and 500 calls per month, nursing sick babies, delivering babies and tending to sick adults. Ada became known as “The Angel of Mercy.”
Ada lived at 321 West Eleventh Avenue for a good portion of her life before moving to Fredrick Mennonite Home in the mid 1970’s when in her late 80’s. She died in 1986 at the age of 97, perhaps never realizing that she was perhaps the most prominent female that has ever lived in the borough of Conshohocken.
(For more on Ada Sturgis, refer to “Tales of Conshohocken & Beyond” Book, sold at Coll’s Custom Framing).
Ethel Buler Cannon was a West Conshohocken native who served in the United States Navy Nursing Corp during and after World War II. Ethel entered the service in June of 1944 and completed her training in the U. S. Naval Hospital in Portsmouth, Va., before being assigned to a submarine base in New London, Conn. In 1945 Ethel served aboard the USS Benevolence in the Far East. After the war she was assigned to the Great Lakes Naval Hospital outside Chicago Ill., and the Philadelphia Naval Hospital. She left the Navy in June 1946. Ethel became a nurse at the former Sacred Heart Hospital where she worked for 27 years.
Isabel Tyson, a West Conshohocken native, took a job with the borough of West Conshohocken in the early 1940’s, and remained there for more than two decades. She also worked in the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown as Chief Satisfaction Clerk of delinquent taxes, where she worked for nearly three decades.
During a 1962 interview Tyson was asked, “Will a woman ever be elected President of the United States?” Her reply was, (remember, this was 1962, anyone answering yes, well, you know). Tyson said, “I think it’s a real good possibly. I can’t see any reason why not. There are some extremely talented women in government today.”
Mrs. Tyson knew something about the government and politics as she was an active member of the Pennsylvania Council of Republican Women for nearly 35 years. Mrs. Tyson was an extremely educated person having attended Schissler College of Business, (a prominent business school once located in Norristown.) She also attended the University of Pennsylvania where she studied State and Local Government. Mrs. Tyson was also President of the Conshohocken Business and Professional Woman’s Club.
Mrs. Tyson also found the time to raise three children with her husband Clayton. When the ramp to the Schuylkill Expressway in West Conshohocken was completed Isabel Tyson cut the ribbon to officially open the ramp on December 8, 1952, along with other borough officials and State Highway Department Engineers.
In the early part of last century Laura Wagner first worked as Chief Operator at the Bell Telephone exchange in Conshohocken for a number of years. Back in the 1920’s most females would have settled for a high ranking position such as the Chief Operator. Not Laura, the Conshohocken resident became a graduate of the Montgomery County Hospital Training for Nurses and in the 1920’s rose to become the Superintendent of Montgomery County Hospital in Norristown.
In the late 1920’s Laura resigned as head nurse and Superintendent of the hospital to take a high ranking job with the Pennsylvania Railroad Company in the Pullman department at the Broad Street Station. Laura accomplished a lot in her lifetime and became a role model to young females throughout the Conshohocken area. Laura died in 1931 at the age of 47.
TIME and space doesn’t allow us to write about all the great females of Conshohocken, perhaps we can continue this another time. I’d like to tell you about :
Mary S. Lukens Myers
Betty Cody Vogt
Olive Lee Banks
Anna Louisa DeHaven
Margaret Shippen Beaver Molony
Mrs. Frank B. Wilson
Claudia M. Ramey
Dr. Ruth A. Brandt
Dr. Louise Gloeckner
Mrs. William Downs
And so many others, the women of Conshohocken have been inspirational over the years.
We salute the women mentioned above, they weren’t interested in being mentioned in conjunction with “Women’s History Month” celebrated every March since 1911, no, they were interested in making Conshohocken and the rest of our country proud, contributing to the success of the future of both our borough and our country.
Women’s History Month is an annual declared month that highlights the contributions of women to events in history and contemporary society. It is celebrated during March in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, corresponding with “International Women’s Day” on March 8. And it’s celebrated right here in Conshohocken.
And once again,
Thanks for the Memories.