archives BuildingSouthern Lancaster County Historical Society

Biographical Annals of Lancaster County" Beers inc printed 1903

HENRY GEIST was born in Bart township, Lancaster county, Nov. 13, 1782, son of Simon Geist, who emigrated from Germany in 1750, and he died June 29, 1858, in the seventy-sixth year of his age. He was united in marriage to Agnes McCready, who died in 1832. In early life he assisted his father in managing his large farm, and becoming overheated in the harvest field, he sat down in the barn "to cool off," during a shower, contracted a cold which settled in his eyes, resulting in total blindness. His case was a remarkable illustration of how nature compensates for the loss of one sense in the more exquisite development of the others. When this misfortune overtook him he had a wife and five small children depending upon him for support. Thus thrown upon his own resources his future looked discouraging indeed, but he did not despair. His Christian training had taught him to believe, with Laurence Sterne, that "God tempers the wind 'to the shorn lamb." His parents deeded him a small farm "in consideration of the natural love and affection they have and bear unto the said Henry Geist, their son," on which they built a modest home, the same being now in the possession, by inheritance, of his grandson, Henry Martin Geist. Nature had endowed the afflicted man with rare musical and mechanical instincts, and these he industriously cultivated. He was an expert performer 00 the violin, and after he lost his sight that which bad been indulged in merely as a pleasure became one of the means of supporting his family. In those days big annual fairs were held in "the shire town" of Lancaster, at which the prominent feature was dancing, continuing fOr several days, and in which every section of the county was represented. Mr. Geist became the leading violinist on those occasions, and his services were also in demand at dancing parties held in other sections in connection with sleighing carnivals, then more common than now. The musician was then "paid by the tune," the currency being "tips,"' "'levies" and "quarters." His sense of touch had become so acute that it was impossible to impose a spurious coin upon him, although it was often tried, sometimes by friends as a test, but in some instances by those mean enough to try to cheat a blind man. These he invariably" detected and exposed, and they were generally summarily ejected from the room. On one occasion the Farmers' Bank of Lancaster received a counterfeit half-dollar which the officers declared was calculated to deceive the best judges. The late Joseph McClure, who chanced to be present, said, "We have a blind man in our neighborhood upon whom you couldn't pass that coin I" The bankers were incredulous and a wager was the. result. Mr. McClure was to bring his blind expert to town, and the party losing was to bear the expenses of the trip. Several genuine coins were placed on the counter with the counterfeit. Passing several as genuine he detected the counterfeit as soon as he got it in his fingers. This sensitive touch also served him in judging the quality of textile goods, and in the various mechanical occu-pationshe followed. It enabled him to plane a board as level and smooth as one with his sight, his fingers following the movement of the plane each backward stroke. In those days thatched roofs were in vogue. Mr. Geist took up this trade, and there were few straw roofs in the neighborhood that had not been made or repaired by him. The late Jacob Eshleman, passing by one day when he was working on the roof of a large barn, begged rum to come down,. fearing he might fall, and finally offered to pay him the price of the job if he would do so. But he assured his friend that be was not so liable to fall as one with his sight, because, conscious of his danger, he was more cautious in his movements and was not liable to vertigo from looking down. He never met with an accident in this, or in any of the occupations in which he had occasion to handle all kinds of edge tools. Another occupation he took up was dressing flax and weaving it into cloth. All the farmers raised flax and had it converted into cloth for everyday ware. Mr. Geist built for himself a little shop in front of the barn, invented a rotary machine, operated by treadle, for "'scutching" the flax after it had been broken,"' by means of which he could do as much work in a day as three men could do by the old hand process. He also, with the aid of his brothers-in-law, Mark Brooke (wagonmaker) and George Fogle ( cabinet-maker) , erected a loom for weaving carpets, and, subsequently, another for tow-cloth and linen and taught his daughters to operate them, doing' much of the weaving of the neighborhood. Everybody then wore "tow" or "flax" cloth for summer wear. In the winter season he took up shoemaking, a trade he had learned in his youth. When he had difficulty, in consequence of nervousness, in inserting the "wax-ends" in sewed shoe-work, he had his youngest son sit beside him with his lesson book in hand, and it was in this way that the editor of The New Era got most of his primary education. He also worked at carpentry, and built a frame addition to his house on a novel plan of his own designing, which attracted much attention at the time. While framing this building under the shade of the cherry trees, his son pursued his studies and helped his father in handing him the tools as needed. He could build as good a post-and-rail fence, when given the starting and terminal points, as most men having the use of their eyes, and when a two or three rail fence was to be supplemented with a base of dry stone masonry he was equal to the task. One of his specialties was making wheelbarrows, which, though not as highly finished, were more durable than those turned out of the modern shops. He did all the work on them except the ironing. He was handy in all domestic affairs. Being an early riser, he made the fire, fed the cow and pigs, pared the apples at the annual "butter bee" (on a machine of his own construction), dressed the sausage skins at butchering time, and did many other chores required about a country home in those days. Those who saw him about his work, or traveling through the neighborhood, would not infer that he was blind, so natural were his movements. The Rev. Dr. Easton, who had been his pastor for over thirty years, wrote of him that "in the loss of one of the noblest sources of earthly enjoyment he ever justified God. All acquainted with him were constrained to bear witness to his , meekness and patience. And, those who witnessed will never forget his emotions when, the day before he died, the precious words of his own covenant with God were repeated, how feelingly he manifested his acquiescence in their truth."

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