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John Peate


JOHN PEATE, D. D., LL. D.-The city of Greenville will have occasion to keep in lasting remembrance the life and activities of the late John Peate, whose death in 1903 removed from the city and county an able theologian and preacher, a scientist of world repute, and a distinguished citizen. Eighty-three years of age at the time of his death, he had long before completed the activities of the average lifetime, and then during the period of old age refused the ease of retirement and like the aged Ulysses ventured upon new fields of endeavor.

In a life that was so varied, and whose accomplishments were so notable, it is difficult to say which part of his career was most productive and first in interest. Perhaps it is best to read the story of his life from the beginning to end, allowing his achievements to fall in the order of time.

Dr. Peate was of Irish birth and of Scotch-Irish stock and Protestant faith. In an old journal in which he made some notes about the family history is recorded the fact that two brothers of the name, at the close of a rebellion among the Irish people, were sent to the island with commissions from the king of England. Just when this emigration of the Peate family occurred is not told. Another record says that in 1859 an aged uncle of Dr. Peate's father lived in Ireland, but no others of the family so far as could be learned.

In the town of Dumskelt, county Monaghan, north Ireland, where Dr. Peate was born, May 6, 1820, was the little home where he lived during the first eight years of his life. Then this branch of the family left Ireland, and after a brief residence in Canada and then in the state of Vermont made their home permanently in Buffalo, New York.

John Peate had no inheritance except poverty and an inborn greatness of soul. His schooling was limited. His playmates taunted him for his Irish brogue and foreign birth, and his self-defense was so vigorous and constant that his parents removed him from school because his presence there was a source of friction and disturbance. Being apprenticed soon afterward in the trade of bricklayer, he quickly proved his value and developed such skill and fine workmanship that he was one of the most sought brick masons in the city of Buffalo. There are buildings still standing in that city to prove the durability and plummet-line straightness of his work, and it was always with pride, when opportunity offered, that he called the attention of his friends to these evidences of his early career.
His experience as a school boy was no evidence of his lack of a scholarly mind and a thirst for knowledge. Few men have excelled him in these qualities. While a workman he carried a book in his pocket, and was throughout life a student of both men and books. As a boy he enjoyed the companionship of older, intelligent men, and was a silent auditor as they conversed. In his later years, in turn, he showed extreme fondness for young men, delighted in their companionship, and interested himself in their careers. Though hampered by lack of early advantages, he entered Oberlin College with the intention of completing the full course, but two years later the death of his father obliged him to return home and assist in supporting his mother and sisters.

His father was an Episcopalian and his mother an ardent Methodist. He himself during early manhood was skeptical, until during a revival in Buffalo in 1840, when he experienced religion and was so influenced that his entire subsequent career was remodeled by that experience. Though he continued to follow his trade, he was licensed as a local preacher of the Methodist church, and in the ministry of that church his service in subsequent years was remarkable in many ways.

At the age of twenty-five it was his good fortune to meet Mary E. Tilden. Their acquaintance soon after resulted in marriage, and their mutual love and devotion extended over half a century. She was the daughter of Thomas B. Tilden, one of the oldest citizens of Buffalo, and who was a cousin of Samuel J. Tilden, whose popular election to the office of president was one of the noteworthy events of American political history. Mary Tilden was a woman of many fine qualities of heart and mind, of a disposition that caused her cheerfully to share with her husband in all the privations of his early ministerial career. To the faith and confidence of this good woman great credit must be given for the success of her husband. It was about two years after their marriage that he united with the Erie Conference of the Methodist church and became a regularly ordained minister. For two generations his time and talents were devoted to the work of this conference. He was a natural preacher, possessed the wit and eloquence of his race, and seemed gifted with the divine power of influencing men, both in and out of the sacred desk. While pastor of the First church at Akron, Ohio, he was commissioned chaplain and joined the One Hundred and Sixty-ninth Ohio Regiment. The credit fell to him of officiating at the first burial of the soldier dead on Arlington Heights, above Washington, now the National Cemetery.

Dr. Peate traveled extensively in America and abroad. He was noted as a pedestrian, accomplishing many of his travels in this manner. The letters he wrote during these journeys in various parts of the world were published by the press, and were noted for their interest and humor.
After many years in the ministry the Doctor concluded to retire from the active labors of church and pastorate, although such a move was regretted by his Bishop and the entire conference. In order that his old age might not be spent in profitless activity he devoted himself with renewed ardor to the scientific pursuits of which he had always been fond. Of all the attractions that nature offers to the student, the stars in the firmament had proved most fascinating to him from the time of boyhood. He had made a special study of astronomy, both theoretical and technical. He relied upon his own researches mainly, but before turning his attention to this practical branch of the science received some assistance from Dr. Wythe, of Chautauqua. Then relying largely on his own skill and inventive ability, he began grinding lenses for astronomical instruments. In his workshop that stood on Chambers avenue, near his home in Greenville, he spent several years in grinding and polishing the delicate lenses needed in telescopes and other instruments of an astronomical laboratory. Examples of his work are now doing duty in observatories at Wesleyan University in Salina, Kansas; at Harriman University in Tennessee; and one in Calcutta, India. His masterpiece was the sixty-two-inch lens, which at the time of his death was the largest reflecting lens in the world, and which, when completed, he donated to the American University at Washington. One hundred thousand dollars have been pledged for the mounting of this lens, and when in use promises to be of great service to the cause of astronomy. The average person can appreciate few of the difficulties involved in the production of such a lens. In the casting of the great globule of glass care must be taken that not a flaw shall appear anywhere throughout the heavy mass, for a mere speck would destroy the perfect crystalline qualities and make the whole useless for scientific uses. Four attempts to cast a perfect glass failed. After the fifth cast was successful Dr. Peate's labor and care began in grinding and polishing.

His scientific work, carried on in the little workshop in Greenville, attracted widespread attention. Scientists frequently visited him, and he was in correspondence with societies and eminent individuals in many parts of the world. Though not a graduate of any college, his scholarship and achievements were recognized by various institutions, and he possessed the titles of A. M., D. D. and LL. D.

For twenty-five years he was a resident of Greenville and so highly esteemed in the city and vicinity that he was frequently referred to as "the grand old man of Mercer county." He was a member of the Round Table Club of Greenville, and at his death his fellow members in this club were his pallbearers. As his life would indicate, he was an optimist, saw a brighter and better world every year of his life. The flowers and birds and the stars supplied many of the beauties and comforts that are denied to mere human existence. He lived usefully and peacefully until the close of life on March 23, 1903, and his remains were laid to rest in Forest Lawn cemetery, Buffalo. His wife survived until August 1, 1907, dying at La Jolla, California, and was buried at his side. Three of their ten children died in infancy; the others were: Ion, who died at the age of eighteen; James J., now a resident of Beverly, Kansas, who at the age of sixteen was a scout on the western plains, and escaped the fate of Custer's men at the Little Big Horn only because he had been detailed to another duty a day or so before the massacre; Katherine Ophelia, of Greenville; Lizzie P., wife of Arthur J. Thomas; Minnie Estella, of Greenville; Nettie, wife of Frank M. Kirk, of Cleveland; and Imelda P., wife of Francis L. Sellew, civil engineer, of Arizona.

Twentieth Century History of Mercer County, 1909, pages 543-545


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