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DCNR Agency Spotlight: Norristown Farm Park
One of the most unique parks in the Pennsylvania state park system, Norristown Farm Park is a working farm in continuous use since colonial times. The 690-acre park is home to 71 species of wildlife, fish, reptiles and amphibians; 173 species of birds; 89 species of trees; and 216 species of wildflowers. Here you will find hiking trails, a trout nursery, picnic areas, separate forest areas of mixed oak and other deciduous trees, flood plain, old farm fields, working fields, wetlands and two streams. There are 15 historic buildings on the property, the earliest dating from 1764.

One of the last undeveloped areas in Montgomery County, Norristown Farm Park is actively farmed. Sitting quietly in the midst of a population of over 65,000 people, eighty percent of the park is dedicated to growing farm crops.

Under a 1992 lease agreement with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), Montgomery County is responsible for the development, operation, maintenance, and administration of the park. Visit the Montgomery County Web site for Norristown Farm Park.

Just outside the park office is The Millennium Grove, one of two sites in Pennsylvania selected by the American Forest Foundation and the White House Millennium Council to promote the planting of historic tree groves in each state.

These trees have been propagated to continue the lineage of trees touched by important figures in our nation’s history. The Millennium Grove is a national program sponsored by U.S. Department of Agriculture, American Society of Landscape Architects, White House Millennium Council, and the American Forest Foundation. The groves are part of Millennium Green, the White House Millennium Council’s project which encourages people and businesses to plant and adopt trees, establish gardens, or care for a special natural resource treasure in honor of the new millennium.

The American Forest Foundation provided the initial 100 seedlings to SmithKline Beecham for donation to the Millennium Grove project at the park. These seedlings are from 21 parent trees of historic significance, including: the Johnny Appleseed tree; Hermitage Tulip Poplar; Trail of Tears Redbud; Minuteman Red Maple; John F. Kennedy Post Oak; Charter White Oak; Mark Twain Cave Bur Oak; Abraham Lincoln White Oak; Franklin D. Roosevelt Redbud; Ft. Atkinson Black Locust; Harriet Beecher Stowe White Ash; the Frederick Douglass White Oak and others.

Paved trails are open to bicyclists and rollerbladers. Please use caution as you share the trail with pedestrians, and obey all posted speed limits.

There are several picnic areas throughout the park and two ADA accessible picnic pavilions. Each pavilion contains 14 picnic tables and accommodates up to 84 people for a total of 168 people. There are five charcoal grills at each pavilion. Groups, organizations and individuals wishing to reserve these pavilions for their function need to contact the park office for dates and availability. The picnic area is slated for expansion soon. One large picnic pavilion, four smaller picnic pavilions and two restrooms will be added and available for use. Check with the park office concerning availability.

The free "Concert in the Park" series is held on selected Saturdays from June through August, 6:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., at the picnic pavilion area. Check the Norristown Farm Park Web site for information on musical acts and dates.

Visitors may fish at the Farm Pond or at either of the two trout-stocked streams, Stony Creek and Kepner Creek. A Pennsylvania fishing license and a trout stamp are required for persons age 16 and over and may be obtained by contacting the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

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.

In 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.

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 Department of Agriculture took responsibility for the land when farming operations ceased. The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), Bureau of State Parks, then took over the property in 1987 through the legislative efforts of Senator Edwin G. Holl. In 1992, Montgomery County leased 690 acres of the land from DCNR and created the 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.

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August 26, 2015

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