Dr. William Edgar Geil


the Great Wall of China

Doylestown 2008

Dr. William Edgar Geil


the Great Wall of China

William Lindesay and his wife Wu Qi produced this limited-edition book documenting the remarkable events of 2008. I treasure it!

Our visit in Doylestown in 2008 stands as one of the best experiences of my life. It was exceptional. I might even call it transformational, it was that significant. Just a year after our mother died I received the email from William Lindesay trying to find the relatives of her adoptive father. And now, just 18 months after her passing, we were back in Doylestown. We were back in the home where she grew up and where we spent time with our grandmother. And we were meeting people that knew more about our family than we did — more than me, certainly! We met good people and you could say we met ourselves, even. It was amazing, and remains so.

Returning to the Barrens, our grandparents' home, was magical. It was like going back in a time machine. The restoration was so well done, with such care and detail... and love. We truly appreciate it and I'm certain our grandparents do as well.

It was also great meeting William Lindesay, Piao Tiejun, Wang Baoshan, and all the many good folks of Doylestown. I believe we will remain lifetime friends.

The initial meeting was wonderful, but just the start. Our first meeting and visit to the house was on Monday, June 23, 2008. The next morning, Tuesday June 24th, we convened at our grandparents' gravesite for a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of William Edgar Geil's 1,500 mile trek along the Great Wall of China in 2008.

William Lindesay is pictured here speaking of William Geil's accomplishments and his importance in China. As he speaks, William is holding a copy of Dr. Geil's book, The Great Wall of China. Left to right, the woman in glasses behind the boy is Carol Gustafson, a daughter of Walter Gustafson who purchased Dr Geil's papers at auction in 1959 after our grandmother died. She and her sister, Marilyn, donated this material to the Doylestown Historical Society (DHS) earlier that year in 2008. Next to Carol is Judge Ed Ludwig in the baseball cap, then President of DHS. Next is Bill Symonds with the walker. To William's left in the blue shirt and jacket is my brother, John Laycock, and then Tim Adamsky in the striped shirt.

Moments later, on behalf of International Friends of the Great Wall, William placed a plaque at Dr. Geil's which is now permanently installed.

Geil Commemoration Ceremony

Cemetery in the Afternoon

Visit to Mercer Museum

On Wednesday morning, June 25th, we accompanied William to Mercer Museum to take a look at Dr. Geil's typewriter — a Blickensderfer No. 6. Dr. Geil carried his typewriter with him on his journey along the Great Wall and elsewhere, I guess much like we carry our phones today. He would write in the evenings and whenever time permitted.

William Lindesay has described the typewriter as "the 'ThinkPad' of its day [which] always attracted the attention of the Chinese as Dr. Geil used it in villages beside the Great Wall."

Visit to Mercer Museum

Visit to The Pagoda

While visiting the Barrens we also saw the Pagoda that Dr. Geil had built behind the house. It's an impressive structure — a 5-story, 500-gallon water tower to supply the main house. It has since been split off to a separate property.

Water was pumped up to a cistern on the top floor and then gravity provided the pressure needed to supply the house, in effect creating an artesian well. My brother, John, reports the tower is a copy of Suzhou's Ink Pagoda that Dr. Geil admired during his 1910 journey to all of the then-empire's 18 ancient capitals.

As a young child I found the Pagoda dark and foreboding. But now, in 2008, it was a delight seeing it again.

Visit to The Pagoda

Dinner with New Friends

After our first whirlwind day arriving in Doylestown and visiting "our ancestral roots" at the Barrens, we all gathered for dinner — William Lindesay, Piao Tiejun, Wang Baoshan, Brad Laycock, John Laycock, Bob Laycock and David Lansaw. There's no better way to seal newfound friendship.

Visit to Doylestown Historical Society

In addition to commemorating the centennial of Dr. Geil's walk, William Lindesay's mission in Doylestown included an examination of the material contained in the 21 tin boxes donated by the Gustafson family to DHS. We joined him at DHS to see some of the items in Dr. Geil's collection.

William Lindesay is shown holding one of the American flags that Dr. Geil always carried wherever he went.

Marilyn Gustafson is shown holding one of the 21 tin boxes her father bought at auction in 1959 and the family donated to DHS in 2008.

Dr Geil always traveled with an American flag. Several times he lost his flag and had others made, once by a 13-year-old Pygmy boy and another time by a laborer in China named Old Moon. He recounts the story of Old Moon in his book, Yankee on the Yangtze, pages 65-68.

It was nightfall, but all things were ready, and we expected to be off early in the morning. I was feeling quite comfortable and happy, and leisurely and complacently looked about for my American flag, which I always carry with me. I went through all my easily-get-at-able bags, but it did not turn up. I felt something get big in the region of my heart, and became quite anxious, as I overhauled the heavier boxes, looking eagerly, then desperately, for the emblem of freedom and bravery. But I could not find it anywhere! Then I sat down to think. Yes, it had gone round by the sea to Rangoon with my other baggage. Here was a pretty kettle of fish! I could not and would not travel without the Stars and Stripes. Have a flag I must by hook or by crook. Calling one of the soldiers, I dispatched him with a note to an American in the place, in which I begged for the bunting. He soon came back for a lantern, as he could not distinguish an American house in the dark. The fact was that his way to my friend's house led by the graveyard, and unlike Tam O'Shanter, he was unwilling to risk his precious hide with the spooks, spirits and goblins. But he got the light, and brought back word that there was a flag five by eight inches in the port, probably not available. Despite this cheerless prospect, I determined not to be outdone. Accompanied by an English interpreter and the Chinese soldier, we repaired to the cloth shop of one "Old Moon" by name. Old Moon was plump, and smoked a pipe a yard long. We firmly, but politely, pushed open the closed door and discovered eight men counting filthy lucre in the shape of cash placed in trays, being, I suppose, the proceeds of the day's sales. Even though I was in hot haste, I could not help admiring the method of assortment. The big specie were placed by themselves to be put in the middle of the "string" when this "legal tender" was made up. The little ones were used to taper off the string and make up the one thousand which, to an American, is an hypothecated value. It looked quite symmetrical when finished with the big in the middle and the little at the ends.

Well, Old Moon at first refused even to sell the cloth. It was past business hours and too late, but after some persuasion, he sold me three Chinese feet each of red and white cloth and a square of blue, and a spool of cotton. Old Moon demanded five hundred and thirty-two cash for the cloth and one hundred cash for the thread. And these materials were to constitute a flag of the American Republic destined to play an important part in a great journey across China! I handed the shopkeeper a Mexican dollar worth eight hundred and twenty cash in 'Deserving Prosperity' and, just for fun, took up one of his already strung one thousand cash and pulled off two hundred. He smiled and nodded assent. So I appeared to have bought the stuff for six hundred and twenty cash. But money in China is very crazy.

I had intended to play tailor and make the flag myself, even if it delayed us. But Old Moon got his curiosity aroused. "Was I the new Consul General?" "How old was I?" Some said I was in my teens; others guessed I was in my twenties, and all smiled great Celestial smiles. Then I asked Old Moon to find me a tailor who would be willing to work that night and make a flag under my direction. It was already eight o'clock, but Old Moon gave me an affirmative sign, and disappeared down the dark narrow street. He soon returned, bringing the kind of workman of which the proverb saith it takes nine to make a man, but he became so scared at the prospect (probably of myself) that he declined the job. A second attempt on the part of Old Moon was more successful. "Sound Faith" was secured, and he called three others. This quartette worked hard for more than two hours. As it was too late to put all the stars in the comer, I told him thirteen would be enough. He gave me good measure, and put in fourteen. As this would knock out the original intent and might be construed as showing preference, I ordered him to remove one. While I was waiting in the cold room, the night watchman passed by, beating his drum. He does this to warn all thieves and murderers to flee, and let the town know that he is awake and on duty. The watchman beats his drum five times every night at intervals; one stroke for the first watch, two for the second, and so on. Then somebody passed jingling bells which sounded just like the sleigh bells I have heard on Christmas night at my home in Pennsylvania, far, far away. Ah, home! And the contrast with such a place as this ! I thought of home so emphatically that it actually hurt. Suddenly the notes of a familiar Christmas hymn sung to Chinese words fell upon my ear. On enquiry I found that the landlord, who lived near by, a man of independent means, was having family worship; and I thanked God that even in these wretched Chinese cities the Light of the World is beginning to shine.

The flag was finished. It cost twenty-five cents gold. Bidding the workmen good-bye, we started off to the gunboat. We met the watchman, who was striking three. Eleven o'clock! We found the big city gates closed, but at the word of the warrior escorting the Great American, they were flung open, and we passed out.

L-R: William Lindesay, John Laycock, Brad Laycock, Bob Laycock.

Dinner with Friends

Smithsonian Magazine:

'A Yankee in China'

Following the gathering and events in Doylestown in 2008, by brother John was interviewed for an article that appeared in Smithsonian Magazine.


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