Dr. William Edgar Geil
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Remembering The Barrens
Memories of the Barrens at Doylestown, Pennsylvania
R. Bradley Laycock
One of the first things I would do each time we arrived (after the “I See the Red Roof” contest) was to go to the living room and to a pedestal table that was to the right of the sofa) At some point I discovered that under the table top was a cube-shaped wooden box. The table was affixed to its top and the three legs were attached to the bottom. At some point I discovered that one side of the cube had a spring-loaded lock on top and a hinge on the bottom, so that it functioned as a hidden door. I would always hide something in the in the compartment before we left and was excited to retrieve it on our return.
Also in the living room, in the back left corner, was the Upright Floor Model Victor Victrola. It played the long-dated 78 rpm records. The sound was pretty scratchy — not surprising given the really large thick needle. We didn’t listen to it too often, but one record amused us because someone said it a very theatrical voice, “Gentlemen, be seated!” I’m not sure what followed.
Opposite it, in the back right corner was a floor model console radio. We would listen to it, either stretched out on the floor or reclining on the window seat. I can’t recall what we listened to, but those were the days of serials, such as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and others, I think.
On the back wall there was a long library table. Grandy generally sat on to the left side in an overstuffed chair with an ottoman. When we returned for the summer of 1959 we put a small portable TV on the right corner of the table and I clearly remember seeing the first episodes of Bonanza.
In the back left corner there was a short hall that joined the living room to the center hall. A closet on the left (under the front stairs) housed stacks of National Geographic Magazines. I would spend some time in there every visit, fascinated by the photos of amazing parts of the world.
The house was dark inside, and awnings made it even darker. Thanks to this and to the very thick concrete walls, it felt cooler and less humid than expected inside. Windows were not opened during the heat of the day.
In the center hall, to the right of the entrance to the dining room was the lyre table on which sat a Tiffany lamp. It had a painted shade rather than the cut glass that is more often associated with Tiffany. John is now the custodian of that lovely table.
John has described how a small xylophone-like instrument would call us to meals. On the wall to the right was a large painting of a field that sat beside the Neshaminy Creek. The creek is not far from the house. (I love that creek, especially because the YMCA Day Camp, at which I was a camper and later Counselor-in-Training, was also on its’ shore.) The frame was almost as large as the painting. That painting, sans the large frame, now resides in my dining room.
A swinging door connected the dining room to the room in which all the china and glassware, silverware, etc. resided and then the kitchen. The door was solid, so, in order not to drive the door into the face of an unsuspecting person on the other side, before pushing the door one would sing out, “coming!” That was considered fair warning. There was a sink in that first room where dishes were attended to, and silver was polished, etc.
Entering the kitchen from that direction, the back door was straight ahead. To the left of the door was an old, low, two-door refrigerator. The motor was on top. I can’t recall if it was the only refrigerator or not—there may have been another, more modern refrigerator also. That made its way back to Cleveland, where Dad drilled holes, inserted tubing and a tap on the door. It was a great keg system for draft beer. There were two ovens in the kitchen. The one on the right, if I remember correctly was an old cast iron, wood-fired, oven with stove top “burners.” A more modern stove supplemented the old original model.
Turning left on entering the kitchen led to a long narrow well-windowed room. This is where the staff would take their meals and the brightly lit room was perfect for the ironing and some of the other household tasks. Entering that room on the right end was a thick, solid door that housed the root cellar/ cold storage needs. It always smelled of the potatoes, squash, and vegetables that “lived” there. I presume they did a lot of canning, as the shelves were lined with all sorts of goodies.
Returning to the hall, just inside the front door and ahead on the right, was the main stairway. It led to the landing. At the right on the landing was a grandfather clock made by a Geil relative in the Seese family. Mom and Dad had the clock for many years and it now resides with Bob & David. A window seat crossed the landing and that was where we would often take our naps. At the far side of the landing the stairway turned 180 degrees and continued to the second floor.
John documented the contest to be the first to see the red tile roof of the Barrens as we crested one of the last hills. He also mentioned that we passed Willow Grove Naval Air Station during the drive. On the way home we would regularly stop to look through the fence at the 5 or 6 older warplanes. Our favorite was the World War II Flying Tiger, a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk. It had viscious teeth painted on the front end and they were reported to add to the fear of those being attacked.
It may be apocryphal, but I understand that the Barrens property originally consisted of land on both sides of the road — Rte. 611. There was an intersection about a mile before reaching the Barrens and I believe the property originally began there — at least on the right-hand side. I think the little community bore the name, New Britain. My presumption is portions of land were gradually sold off as needed. By the time we were growing up I think all the land on the other side (west side) of 611 had been sold off. I think the property consisted of the house itself and to the far side (Doylestown side) of the rental house near the road., south to the tree line to the south, out beyond the croquet court and the large flower garden . I’m not sure how far back the property ran, but certainly encompassed the area that was later sold off and developed on what became Elfman Dr.
Every time I see the Barrens these days I am struck by the bright white appearance. It looks so clean and sparkling. In our day the outer surface had a grey untreated concrete color. Ivy covered most of the front. The south drive was the main entry to the front of the house and you could work your way around to the back and then an alternate exit was what now is Elfman Drive to the north. It is all now black top (brick in front of the house itself), but in our time is was all crushed stone.
A couple of memories have just surfaced. The first is that I understand that the Barrens property (and probably the cost of the house itself) was supposedly a wedding gift from Grandy’s (Lucy Constance Emerson) father, E. O. Emerson. The other was a story about Edgar during the construction of the house. Supposedly, Edgar saw a worker toss a couple of sticks into the concrete as it was being mixed and the worker was fired on the spot. I’ve always understood that Edgar had a very large ego, and that incident would seem to fit.
John has spoken of the croquet court. I have an additional memory of that area. I can still see Mr. Trego riding on a large mower with a tractor-type seat. It looked to me much like the Gravely mower that Dad had in Hunting Valley. The property was huge, so it must had occupied many of his summer hours. Looking from the south porch, the croquet court was on the right and the large flowerbeds, I presume for cut flowers in the house. The vegetable garden was outside the east side of the house, off the kitchen (for convenience) basically in line with the view to the pagoda.
I got a case of poison Ivy last year and the year before—the first time in many years. They reminded me of the worst case I ever had. The regular ivy on the bank off the south porch, which wound around in the direction of the pagoda, had a major infestation of poison ivy also. I remember a huge pile of greenery that had been stacked up and was being burned. The poison ivy in the smoke gave me a severe case, but also got into my eyes. Very unpleasant!
Staying outside, I have a couple of memories related to the pagoda. The upper level had a cistern and provided the water, by gravity, to the house. It is probably 4, maybe 5, stories high. Many things were stored in the higher levels and I can remember Dad wrestling a large desk down the stairs from somewhere up above. Dad brought it home fixed it up and it served as his desk in Shaker Heights and Hunting Valley for many years. The pagoda also served as a garage. From the front there was a dirt ramp the somewhat elevated first level. The ground to the left beside and behind the pagoda sloped down. Behind and to the left of the pagoda were two wooden garage type structures. And there was a lower-level garage entrance to the pagoda. Woods were behind these garages and on one exploration I discovered a log cabin in the process of decay. The roof had fallen in and the door was off its hinges. I was told that Edgar had used it as a study. Walden-like?
Connected to the Barrens memories is the Waterwheel Restaurant. We went there the last time we were all in Doylestown when William Lindesay, etc., gathered for a visit to the Barrens, the Historical Society and the cemetery. At dinner to keep us from getting too antsy I remember Mom seeing if we could name a word she spelled. I remember how surprised she was when she spelled chandelier and I got the word right I never told her that a caught a momentary upward glance just before she started to spell the word! The other Waterwheel memory was one of the scariest of my youth. There was a door off the dining room that led to the restrooms. There was a bridge between that door and the doors to the restrooms. Off to the right in the darkness was the wheel. The stream was no longer strong enough to turn the wheel, so it had to be manually turned occasionally to keep the submerged part from rotting. Dad knew the owner of the restaurant and I was scared to death as he crept out to the wheel to use his weight to turn it. I was sure he was going to die!
View from the Pagoda behind the Barrens, looking back toward the house.
Looking north along Route 611 towards Doylestown from the driveway entrance into the Barrens.
Front entrance to the Barrens and the living room windows.
Looking west out the front door from the stairway.
Remembrances from my sister & me are coming soon.
From the top of the stairs, to the left, Grandy’s suite of several rooms was the size of the living room below including the porch where the elevator would later be installed. Straight ahead was Mary Crosley’s room, essentially over the foyer. To the right was the bedroom that was over the dining room, where John and I slept. At the end of that hall, it turned toward the back of the house. There was a bath on the left and then a bedroom that was essentially over the kitchen, or at least the root cellar/staff area. It’s even possible there were two small rooms there. I’m least clear about that area and it may be where Bob and/or Joyce slept.
I have very clear memories of the bedroom where John and I slept. We slept on two giant four-poster beds. They were oversized and required custom mattresses when we brought them to Cleveland. If I recall correctly, they were beautifully carved and there was a carved pineapple at the top of each post. On our last visit I was surprised by the lack of a feature I had in my mind. I recall a screened sleeping porch with a couple of metal beds that John and I would use on really hot
The grandfather clock that stood on the landing to the second floor at the Barrens. It doesn't currently run and I don't know if we want it to. It clangs like a fire bell! The front top finial has been temporarily removed as the ceiling is too low.
summer nights. This memory is so strong because of the beauty of the summer storms with noisy thunder and beautiful lightning. John thought that there were a couple of additions after the original construction. He mentioned the greenhouse on the flat roof of the south porch. I now suspect that the sleeping porch may have been an addition off our bedroom on the roof over Edgar’s study. Each of these additions may have been removed by the time of our last visit.