The Forgotten House on Ferncliff Hill

Originally published in the Spring 2005 issue of Wittenberg Magazine (p. 20-31)


Every house has a narrative, a unique story separating it from the brick, mortar, and wood next door. As walls do not speak in words, it is our obligation to give them voice. Waiting for us in dusty archives and old family letters, this narrative sits. When pieced together it will tell a story as extraordinary as the people once calling it home. For the Geiger House on Ferncliff Hill, this narrative embodies early family life at Wittenberg College, the movement to free Southern slaves, and the acceptance of the educated women. Strong but worn, its walls stand today as a tribute to the remarkable family once calling it home.


By the 1850s, the hill overlooking Buck Creek was largely unsettled. At the time, Springfield was confined wholly to the south of the creek. With the nearest navigable bridge on Limestone Street being two blocks away, the land newly acquired by Hezekiah Geiger was considered wooded countryside. In the rural Wittenberg College campus to the north, trees outnumbered students and fences were required to keep wandering farm animals out of campus. It is in this wooded terrain overlooking an expanding village that this narrative begins. Hezekiah purchased the land in 1854, though it would be two years until he and his wife Nancy Hartford had the money to begin construction. Finances were always strained for the Geigers, though they embraced hardship for the causes of faith-based education. Graduating in 1846 from Gettysburg, the main Lutheran college in the United States, Hezekiah declined a better offer from his alma mater to help save a struggling Wittenberg College. That same year after the close of Wittenberg’s first session, two professors abandoned Ezra Keller, the College’s founder and, later, first president, as they feared the struggling college would not survive. Hezekiah was willing to take the risk. At twenty-six, he moved to the rapidly emerging village of Springfield, consenting to a low paying and uncertain future. Nancy’s life was following a similar course. The Xenia Female Academy elected her as their principal teacher in 1850 upon her graduation from the Female Seminary in Steubenville, Ohio. The school charter in Xenia had passed the General Assembly three days before Nancy’s graduation. Within four years, Nancy would move to Springfield and teach in the Presbyterian Female Seminary less than a mile from Wittenberg College.


Considering the demographics and culture of Wittenberg in the 1850s, it is probable that students helped Hezekiah and Nancy build their house, with assistance in craftsmanship work (e.g. windows, stairs, and woodwork) from area companies. Early layout sketches support, although do not prove, the possibility that Hezekiah designed the house himself utilizing his background in mathematics. Either way, it was not the work of an architect. Designed in the early Italianate fashion, which is more cubic in massing than later examples, the house resembled other area homes. Hezekiah, then professor of mathematics, had a fascination with geometric designs. His brother, Andrew, wrote a letter in 1858 congratulating him on the house’s completion and expressing his concerns. “You have such a mathematical taste as to make me fear that you would not be satisfied until [your yard] was laid out in large and small precise squares and circles, ellipses etc.” He pleads with him to “gratify your taste” in only one small corner “for the sake of your less gifted friends.”


Whatever the layout, the yard was the most cherished aspect of the property. It is here that Nancy and Hezekiah’s seven children would spend their time throughout the warm months. Elizabeth Geiger Hosterman, commonly called Lizzie, depicted the yard as “covered with large oak, walnut and maple trees,” and bordered by a tall white picket fence built by her father. Within the perimeter of the fence, the Geiger’s yard had many distinguishing features. There was a formal garden, which “even the smallest child had an interest and pride because of the aid he gave to form and care for it.” To the north of the house was a small apple orchard and produce garden. Much of the Geiger family’s food grew on the property. They canned about 40 gallons of apple butter each summer, enough to last through winter with remaining jars given as gifts to the neighbors. The entire family helped in the paring and coring of the apples as well as polishing the brass kettle and cleaning the canning jars. The yard provided entertainment as well. A croquet ground sat to the west of the house, “beside two oak trees giving shade and a pear tree.” Wittenberg students, professors, and other area children regularly played games of croquet in the Geigers’ yard. “ The greatest excitement was when a game was played by well matched teams, usually students from the college. Such cheering could not be equaled any other place and often too many noisy arguments, sometimes ending in hot words, afterwards changing to laughter.” The Geiger children would also create their own games. Prisoner’s Base, one such game, involved the large trees covering the yard. Each of the children had a tree as their home base, and one massive tree played the role of the prison. The object was to ‘steal’ others away from their tree and put them into the jail. In the years before radio, activities like these occupied much of the children’s time.


When forced inside during the winter months, the Geiger children would put on charades for the family’s amusement. The “assembled crowd” on these fun-filled evenings consisted of the Geigers and other area children. They would select leaders, divide into teams, and dress in old clothes stored in the Geiger’s attic. Their dress, “shown to no one until they walked across the stage covering or revealing the beauty of the star of the evening,” was a major part of the show. Parents gathered at the house for the “always original” play, although they were charged a fee for admission.


The Geiger budget stretched as the family grew. As students left for the Civil War, the College’s financial situation worsened and the Geigers felt the impact. At the end of 1863, the family was forced to sell off three-fourths of an acre to the west of the property as they were relying solely on Hezekiah’s income. Supporting five children, Hezekiah’s sister, and father – all living in the house – the family’s means of living was sensible and personal. Nancy birthed two more children by 1868 and the family was forced to build. A northern addition was completed in 1870, moving the kitchen out of the original structure and adding two additional bedrooms on the second floor. The new addition was smaller, eight-foot ceilings rather than 11 foot, and lacked the adorning woodwork. Wood shingles covered the roof, rather than slate, and windows were considerably smaller in size, sacrificing light for heat in the winter.


The new addition also moved the house closer to the water well, which was positioned between the residence and barn. Hezekiah built the latter along an alley to the east of the property (now Woodlawn Avenue) before 1859. It would play an important role in the house’s narrative. The barn, a one-story wood structure, was built to accommodate a horse, carriage, and sleigh, although its uncharacteristic roles are most significant. As an external structure contained within the Geiger estate, it served as a central recreational area for the Geiger and neighborhood children to play. As the girls were maturing in the 1870s, they transformed the barn into a small kindergarten. Lizzie recounts the experience years later:


Of course there were many things to do to get ready for, we planned to decorate the bare walls. Such fun we had making these improvements with glue and bright, unusual paper and little pain. All the older children had a hand in these preparations. Chairs had to be found and placed, table and blackboards, boxes for pencils, dull pointed scissors, hangers for coats and hats and other things too numerous to mention. It was two full weeks before the school bell rang for the children to assemble. Such a happy lot could be found no other place. The little girls were dressed in starched dresses with their hair in bright ribbons-the boys looking in at the door as if they were too big to play and yet wanting to come in so much they didn’t have the courage to leave.


Young children like these were not alone in finding refuge in the barn. Years prior, Nancy Geiger hid runaway slaves in the barn after their lengthy journey from Xenia. Although it is unknown when Nancy started to involve herself with the movement to free southern slaves, one of two beginnings are likely. She may have started working with the Underground Railroad in Steubenville, Ohio, where she graduated from seminary. Steubenville, on the Ohio River, was then just across from the pro-slave state of Virginia and active in the movement. If not Steubenville, Nancy became involved with the Railroad in Xenia. Lizzie recalls that Nancy first taught at the “Presbyterian seminary in Xenia, Ohio, which had an underground railroad.” Xenia and Greene County were known for their involvement in the Railroad and the anti-slavery supporters utilized Nancy’s new northern home to the Railroad’s advantage. This was very late in the movement, which presumably reached its height for the Geigers during the Civil War as large groups of slaves escaped to the north.


A strong sentiment in opposition to slavery existed at Wittenberg, and even more so within the Geiger family. Hezekiah’s brother Andrew, writing to him three weeks after the first major battle of the Civil War, states this sentiment:


Perhaps in our present form as a nation we are to be destroyed. God seems to have given the South over to strong delusions. No honest and sane man could endorse and fight for the principles of secession. We have long been perplexed as a nation as to the best thing to do with slavery. We have shunned the issue and compromised. We have all made ourselves guilty. Now God is showing us what is to be done with it. We cannot avoid it now. We cannot by questioning excuse ourselves – the captives must go free and perhaps die for our sins – or the South at least shall be engulphed [sic] in a sea redder than the ancient sea of Egypt – a sea of blood.


Although we are unable to hear Hezekiah’s pain about this issue, it speaks through the words of his closest brother. He too felt guilty for shunning the issue. “The captives must go free,” and Nancy and Hezekiah would help those attempting to escape. During the Civil War, the aiding of fugitive slaves was still dangerous. Severe penalties, supported in the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, were imposed upon any person assisting in a slave’s escape. Nevertheless, there is no evidence the Geigers were overly guarded in their involvement. Lizzie recounts that a women from Xenia would visit her mother, “accompanied by flocks of negroes, whom mother fed in the yard and often kept overnight in the barn, for which kindness they would fall down and worship her.”


Nancy’s compassion is apparent. She boarded and provided for the slaves by making sacrifices in her own household. “If mother’s children sometimes had to go hungry to bed, it was all right, the poor slaves had to have a good supper.” In one instance, Hezekiah did not agree with the concessions his wife was making. Nancy provided a cold slave with one of Hezekiah’s coats without his approval. The slave is said to have accepted the coat, “with many bows, smiles and ‘God bless yous’.” Hezekiah and Nancy disagreed on her decision as Hezekiah said the coat was his finest. Lizzie recalls that the “incident almost caused a break in our peaceful family… there being no truce in hostilities until old uncle was found and the coat returned.” Nancy disputed Hezekiah “until the last” that the escaping slave was in greater deprivation and could better utilize his coat.


Nancy made similar choices in the management of her household. When the Wittenberg College Board met in Springfield twice a year, they would eat at the Geiger House. The children remember the board visits as “lean times” as they would be forced to eat less due to the family’s lack of expendable income. Nancy believed in the causes of religion and supported her husband and Wittenberg by making sacrifices in her own household.


However, she was not a stern woman. During one board visit, Manda, the Geiger’s black paid servant, allowed the children to have some rolls with homemade apple butter. As Lizzie was hiding her roll under the table during prayer, butter spilled out unto Lizzie’s dress and the Geiger’s “rag carpeted floor.” Nancy was compassionate for her children’s sacrifices and did not punish her. “I never remember her voice raised, or a punishment given.” She was a woman of strong spirit and dedication, both of which would be inherited by her children.


Of their seven children, six would graduate from Wittenberg College, including all four girls. This would have seemed improbable before 1874, as Wittenberg had not made it policy to accept women into the institution. The basis for this change came in two parts, though both hinged on harsh economic conditions. The first involved Wittenberg’s financial situation. In June 1874, the faculty reported, “the number of students is much smaller than we had anticipated,” and “proved to be smaller than in previous years.” The College – always plagued with economic troubles – decided mixed education could diminish their financial plight. “It is certain that the Institution would gain largely in financial support and in the number of students if it were thrown open to women as well as men.” The second part hinged on the financial troubles of the Geiger family. Although Hezekiah was away in June 1874 on a research trip to the Hawaiian Islands, he was key in the proposal. Not only was he the informal head of finance for the College, he was paying for three girls to attend the local female seminary. Alice, the eldest child, was 17 when the board resolved to accept women. It is unlikely that Hezekiah and Nancy could have afforded to graduate all four girls from seminary, thus the need for Wittenberg to accept women.


There was great excitement in the Geiger House on that warm June day. Lizzie recalled, “It was a subject much debated, most bitterly, before the vote was finally taken in the affirmative. When the news reached our home it meant much excitement as the four girls could now have a college education.” Alice entered in the first year with nine other young ladies from the community. In the second year, Lizzie – 15 years old – entered Wittenberg, followed a couple years later by her younger sister Anna. Living at home, the Geigers worked together at their studies with the help of their parents. After the evening prayer, the children would “all assemble around a round colonial table to prepare lessons for the next day.” They were studying subjects like Latin, Greek, trigonometry, physiology, physics, and law.


Most of the females entering in the first few years of open enrolment would not graduate. Of the 10 ladies to enter in 1874, only Alice graduated in four years, the first female graduate and first to earn a bachelor of science degree from the institution. In a review of the 1879 graduation ceremony, the class historian noted, “Whether women is [sic] mentally inferior to man we do not know, but we are certain that Miss [Alice] Geiger’s recitations were prepared fully as well as those of the members of the Class.” Lizzie challenged this notion of inferiority by studying and excelling in advanced mathematics when it was the general perception that the woman’s mind was not capable of such. She loved algebra and claims to have helped tutor male students with their studies. As the daughter of Wittenberg’s first mathematics professor – regarded in one account as the finest mathematician in Ohio – her claim is not only possible, it is convincing. Lizzie graduated second in 1880, followed by Anna in 1883. Without the Geigers, the only three female graduates in the first decade of open enrollment, the trial of co-education at Wittenberg would have seemed a failure.


Clearly, this house’s narrative is as extraordinary as the family once calling it home. From early college board meetings and aiding fugitive slaves, to Wittenberg’s acceptance of women, it was an exciting twenty years at the Geiger House. Today we find ourselves at another exciting time in this aging house’s history. After sitting empty for seven forlorn years on the threshold of demolition, the Geiger House, and narrative, are being revived. Soon this story will begin a new chapter, though the scratches in the woodwork and worn paths on the floor will embody a story that will never be forgotten.