This Borough of Geistown History was compiled by Dr. Patty Derrick for the Borough of Geistown's 75th Anniversary
Based on the 1976 research of Bernice Dravis Tkacik, the area now known as Geistown was first inhabited by a tribe of Shawonese Indians, a tribe of approximately 250 led by Chief Okewlah in the first half of the eighteenth century. Their camp was called Kickenpawling. Other tribes also roamed this area: Delawares, Asswikales, and Mingoes. Of the twenty-six Indian trails in the area, the principal one later became old Route 56, or old Bedford Pike, a winding trail over the 2,711 foot elevation to Bedford, which was then called Raystown. The trail began in Johnstown (called Conemaugh by the Indians) then progressed up the hill to Geistown to Elton to Paint Creek and then over the mountain.
The first white settlers in Cambria County were Rachael, Samuel, and Solomon Adams in 1769, prior to governmental permission for settlements on Indian land. In 1774, the family was given a warrant for their settlement; however, Samuel was ambushed and killed by a group of hostile Indians at the angle of Geistown and Elton, Solomon escaped to Bedford and settled there, and Rachael was later killed by Indians in Elton next to Rachael’s Stream, subsequently named for her. Not until the early nineteenth century when the Indians were paid for their land did the settlements become safe.
In 1812, William and Rebecca Hemphill Slick moved from Johnstown up to the hilltop that is now Geistown. The Slicks purchased a large tract of land, largely wilderness, and called it Slicksville. Their home housed the first church in the area, a Methodist church, beginning December 25, 1829. William Slick, always a member of the Whig Party, joined the Republican Party when it was organized in 1856, and he served as justice of the peace for Richland Township for twenty years. The Slick farm and tannery secretly served as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
The Slicks lived on their farm for fifty-four years—until 1866—but during that time their original homestead was divided into three parcels. One parcel, consisting of 1.8 square miles, was purchased in 1842 by Squire Horner for $950.00; Horner, in turn, sold it to Joseph Geis, who, with his young wife Mary Ann Fleckinstine and a party of seventeen, was emigrating from Bavaria in hopes of settling in Ohio. Along with the Geis couple and from the same Bavarian hometown was Charles Sebastian Ruth. As the group with Geis and Ruth traveled west on the Portage Canal, one of the travelers fell ill and the group stopped in Johnstown while he recuperated.
During the friend’s recovery, Charles Sebastian Ruth decided to settle in Johnstown and opened a paint and wallpaper store on Clinton Street in what is now Coney Island Hotdogs. Charles Ruth’s son James moved to Geistown (Radian Street) around 1914 and later became the borough’s first Burgess and also served as a magistrate for many years. Another son, Leo, settled in Geistown (Rosewood Street) around 1919.Also during the traveling party’s stay in Johnstown, Joseph and Mary Ann Geis took a ride up into the mountains and discovered a beautiful piece of land (Horner’s parcel bought from Wm. Slick), and it was the first of several that he bought. Within fifteen months, Joseph Geis settled his homestead and traveled back to his home in Aschaffenburg, Bavaria, to bring his parents (Conrad and Anna Maria Geis) back to his farm.
The early twentieth-century businesses that have survived until the present are Schrader’s Florist and Greenhouses (1904), Niessner’s Florist and Greenhouses (1908), and the Orchard Hotel and Tavern (1913).
The decade began with high expectations and ended with Black Thursday and the Stock Market crash that began the Great Depression. Prohibition was the law of the land, enacted with the Volstead Act of 1920; nevertheless, “speakeasies” flourished, and even Geistown had its brush with Prohibition laws. The Orchard Hotel was owned by the Hoffman family, and an article in the Johnstown newspaper (November 4, 1925) reported: “C.A. Swasy, who claims to be the proprietor of ‘The Orchard,’ near Geistown, was held in $1,000 bail for court at a hearing before Alderman Eph. Wirick of the Seventeenth Ward last night, on a charge of violation of the liquor law.”
The ‘20s saw the mass production of automobiles at Henry Ford’s Detroit plant. One could purchase a new Ford for $290, which was a significant portion of the average American’s salary of $1,236. Early Geistown businessmen saw the automobile’s future and opened gasoline filling stations.
In the 1920s, more and more children were being educated, and illiteracy in the country fell to a new low of 6% of the population. At the same time, Geistown’s grammar schools (one public and one parochial) were expanding. Bob Ruth recalls St. Benedict’s early one-room schoolhouse on land donated by the Freidhoff family. A large pot belly stove stood in the middle of the room where Mrs. Weaver taught roughly twelve children in eight grades. Older children often helped the younger ones as the teacher circulated among the grades. The boys and girls played together at recess, shooting marbles or playing hopscotch and hide-and-seek. In the early ‘20s, St. Benedict’s School expanded to a new building with two rooms, four grades in each, and a teacher in each room. That building further expanded with a second floor and two rooms on each floor.
The public school—Geistown Public School—started in 1899, and its first teacher was Mr. Luther. The original school was located in what became the Grange Hall and later the first Fire Company on Lamberd Avenue (currently the site of Follow Charlie Carwash). In 1923, a new school was erected on the corner of Lamberd and Bedford Street. The building cost $80,000 and was known as one of the county’s most modern schools. Housing both the grade school and the high school, the new Richland Township School had approximately 75 high school students and 125 grade school students in the mid-twenties. The school had six large classrooms, a library, a well-equipped gymnasium, and an auditorium seating 500.
Despite the economic shock of the Great Depression, Geistown officially organized as a borough on March 6, 1930, with thirty acres purchased from Stonycreek Township and the remainder purchased from Richland Township. James J. Ruth was elected the first Burgess. A group of citizens formed a seven-member Borough Council and elected Charles Leventry the first Council President, with Ernest Heinrich the first treasurer and Ralph S. Mowry the first secretary.
After Leventry’s election as Geistown Borough Council President, he oversaw the initial business of running a municipality. The issues the Council first addressed included road maintenance (Oakmont Boulevard was impassible in inclement weather), tax millage (.4 mills or $1.40 on each $100 of valuation, yielding a total of $10,543 from taxes in 1930), signage (to prohibit dumping of refuse near roads and to forbid dogs running free), and the purchase of a vehicle and uniform for the first constable, Anthony Himmer (see “The Police Department”).
Early in the 1930s, Father Baronner decided to organize a club to keep all the young people busy; such was the beginning of the St. Benedict’s Friendship Club. The group met in the original one-room schoolhouse, where the kids had fun tending the pot-belly stove, playing games, and rehearsing a minstrel group that performed all over Johnstown.
The first half of the 1940s was marked by World War II, and Geistown residents felt the effects everyday. Young men and women sacrificed their youths to serve their country. Geistown Borough alone sent nearly 145 young people to the service.
Few people, especially young people, had cars, so teenage girls would take lengthy walks for entertainment—up to Oak Ridge Drive on Bedford Street or to Scalp Hill on Route 56. The Red Geranium was still a popular restaurant with its fancy dining room, and for young people, a new place opened in Richland: Ripples Drive-In Restaurant. The conclusion of the war signaled a bright future for Americans, and in Geistown the business community immediately began to grow. In 1946 Saylor Brothers Hardware opened a small 30’ x 30’ store next to the Nees store. Saylor Bros. was the first non-food or gasoline establishment on the hill.
Life changed slightly in Geistown in 1950 when the four-lane highway was built, what the Johnstown Tribune called “the million-dollar project” in a headline on March 8, 1950. The news story, complete with photos, described the planned changes that would occur in Geistown with the road project: “The highway [Bedford Street beginning at city line] will be widened by adding one more concrete traffic lane and an eight-foot parking lane to the left side. Then the four lanes will be blacktopped.“The three-traffic-lane road—two for outbound traffic and one for inbound motorists—will continue east on Bedford Street from the city line to the curve just below Schrader’s greenhouse. The dangerous curve there will be eliminated by relocating the highway behind the greenhouse. . . .
“The relocated highway, running behind Schrader’s greenhouse, will rejoin the present road near the lower end of St. John Gualbert’s Cemetery. From this point eastward, or toward Windber, one lane will be added to each side of the present highway. Here as elsewhere along the residential sections of the road, it will mean condemnation of strips of front yards to obtain the right-of-way for the new traffic lanes.
“The new right-of-way for the major relocation in Geistown will cut right through where the Orchard Hotel stands. Besides the relocation of the main highway at this point to bypass the business center of Geistown, a spur road will cut off at the Orchard Hotel to Belmont Street—the road running from alongside Von Lunen’s toward Belmont and Moxham. Geistown Council sometime ago approved the proposed new alignment.
“Von Lunen’s Restaurant will be razed to make way for a big figure 8 traffic intersection. The top of the figure 8 will be where the restaurant now stands and the bottom will be near Bernard Street, where the Harry G. Wise and Sons buildings now stand. They also must be razed. The main four-lane highway will cut at an angle across the field behind Von Lunen’s. It will be constructed as an overpass across present Belmont Street.
“The Geistown relocation, behind Von Lunen’s, will rejoin the present Johnstown-Windber Road at Demuth Street. From this point to Jacoby’s Tavern there will be practically a new highway as plans call for eliminating the curves and some of the grades on the present road.
Although Geistown was still largely a rural community in 1950 with a population of 2,148, growth was swift after the war, and the seeds of certain changes were planted—here and all over the country. Televisions became more affordable, so families could stay in and watch “Wagon Train” or “Death Valley Days.” The color TV and wireless remote control were invented in the ‘50s along with pocket-size transistor radios, computer hard disks, and lasers. While Dr. Jonas Salk discovered the vaccine for polio, children were more concerned with Hula Hoops and watching “Howdy Doody” on television. Probably the most visible marker of the post-war era was the golden arches: MacDonald’s Hamburgers. Along with faster highways and more cars came fast food.
1960's and 1970's
Geistown’s central business area continued to expand in the ‘60s just as new homes continued to be built. Nevertheless, in the middle of all the growth, kids still played football in the heart of town—in the open field behind Lopresti’s (where The Meadows sits now), evidence that the community’s growth had not erased the small-town charm embraced by all residents.
Several major events define the 1960s for most Geistowners: the demolition of the old St. Benedict’s church in 1962, the installation of the sanitary sewers in the early ‘60s, and the building of the new fire hall and borough building in 1968.
The building of a new fire hall and a borough building in 1968-69 closed a decade of growth and modernization. The old Grange Hall had always housed the volunteer fire company since its chartering on March 15, 1932. The second floor of the Grange Hall had served as a meeting place of the Borough Council, but modern times called for more modern facilities.
The Geistown Volunteer Fire Company had begun as an ambulance business, responding to calls from all over Johnstown in an Army surplus ambulance.
Despite the political upheaval occurring across the country, with controversies over Viet Nam and the youth counter-culture, Geistown life remained stable yet progressive. Highway 219 and the Johnstown Bypass opened in 1965, so traffic increased in the borough as cars cut through en route to Walters Avenue and the new highways. With more traffic in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, children were less able to roam the borough and play in the streets and instead participated in more organized activities, such as Little League.
The 1977 flood hit Johnstown more disastrously than any place, but Geistown still felt its effects. Robert Lux recalls vividly the relentless rain. He was taking a flying lesson when the control tower required all planes to land, after which he went to check on the various bridges in the borough. Trees were uprooted, and debris swept down the road from Ashbridge Oil all the way down Walters Avenue, washing out the bridge on the lower end of Walters and flooding several houses along the way. Also, the bridge at Demuth and Belmont began to crumble, with nearby businesses on Belmont flooded, and still the rain kept falling. Even the Johnstown Bypass started to crumble and trapped a Volkswagon in the cracks.
In the heart of Geistown, the creek alongside the borough building overflowed, and water streamed in the back door of the fire hall and out the bay. Robert Lux also remembers that Highland Regional Park had just been graded before the flood, but the space was needed for an encampment of mobile homes for people displaced from their homes. Two or three years passed before the ball fields could be used for recreation again. Lou Wise recalls that his business slowed considerably after the flood because the mills and mines were damaged and shut down. But Geistown residents responded to the emergency as might be expected; they pitched in and helped with the clean-up all over the city. Lucille Janisko remembers that her husband Al volunteered to help remove debris over in Tanneryville, where the flood did considerable damage.
The 1977 flood resulted in more people from Johnstown wanting to move up the hill—into Richland and into Geistown. However, by the late ‘70s, few lots were still available in the borough, necessitating Geistown’s next and final residential expansion in the 1980s.
1980's and 1990's
The ‘80s and ‘90s were a time of many business changes in the borough and one last residential expansion. Richview Manor, part of which lies in Geistown and part in Richland, was developed, leaving almost no remaining land in the borough for new homes or businesses.
The 1980s and ‘90s saw the installation of the borough’s first traffic lights. After the Richland Mall was built in the ‘70s, traffic through Geistown increased dramatically, making the central intersection of Bedford, Nees, and Belmont extremely dangerous. Consequently, in the ‘80s, Geistown Borough Council petitioned PennDot for a traffic light, the first the borough had ever needed. Since the intersection is state-owned, right of ways were taken from all four corners in order to widen Bedford and Belmont with turning lanes. The result was that Ann’s Pizza, Lopresti’s Market, and Johnstown Bank and Trust all lost numerous parking spots.
2000's to Today
The new century began in Geistown with a volunteer, grassroots project intended to enhance the quality of life—aesthetically, economically, and environmentally—in the borough: The Geistown Street Tree Project.
The borough’s population has been decreasing over the past twenty-five years (3,304 in 1980; 2,749 in 1990; and 2,453 in 2004) because many young people move away and because families are smaller. Consequently, the borough faces the challenge of maintaining a comfortable tax base with its diminishing population and its lack of space for expansion. This challenge is especially difficult with the rising cost of services and a tax millage that has held steady for fifteen years.
Borough residents and businesses continue to show pride in their community through their property maintenance and remodeling. However, the municipal government must remain vigilant in keeping building codes strict yet not too restrictive and in sustaining affordable waste disposal. Furthermore, it is important, according to Council Vice President Ed Porada, to enhance cooperative municipal aid with Richland and Stonycreek Townships because such collaborations afford our communities the opportunity to provide professional services at cost savings to the taxpayers. Collaboration will ensure that all three municipalities thrive in the new century.
As Geistown seems to have changed over the last seventy-five years, it has nevertheless remained much the same. Little boys in the 1930s would line up to get their close-cropped summer haircuts, called the “baldy jinks” haircut. In 2005, young boys and men alike sport the same haircut, now a mark of the latest style. Teenagers still cruise up and down Scalp Avenue, except now the MacDonald’s restaurants are in Richland and Windber, not Geistown. The unemployment rate in Cambria County hovers around 5.5%, just slightly higher than it was during America’s boom years prior to the Great Depression. Families are smaller in 2005 than they were in 1940, but young professionals are discovering Geistown and moving their families here, ensuring a new generation of community spirit and unity.