Header Graphic
Some Dayton Saints and Prophets
Frederick Gebhart



      STRANGERS visiting in Dayton, anywhere from the Fifties to the Seventies, were wont to remark upon several things which made our city peculiar to itself.  One of these was the number of Gebharts in society.  There were Gebharts on Main Street, on Fourth, on Third; Gebharts in the banks, in the mills, in the churches; Gebharts in the directory, on the streets, at all social functions.  To keep them catalogued, with degrees of cousinship intact, required a college education and much maturity of mind!  Few ever accomplished it.  The Gebharts all lived in large, three-storied houses; they all were stalwart Lutherans, good business men; sensible, industrious, conscientious; with the sterling virtues and none of the vices, they still exist among us.

      But the family circle is no longer what it was. Death has been busy, and taken away many of the older people; the families, not so large in the third and fourth, as in the first and second generations, are being scattered.  Business blocks are driving the old houses into oblivion.  The early Gebharts would scarcely recognize the Dayton they came to live in, so changed it is.

      The emigration of the clan started from Somerset, Pennsylvania.  They belonged to the sturdy stock of the Lutheran-Germans, which, together with the Presbyterian-Scotch-Irish, made the wonderful prosperity of that State.  Why Ohio should have offered attractions to people who owned land, and had already gotten a start in life, can only be explained by the historic principle of the West-ward-taking course of empire.

      In 1830 rural Pennsylvania had four times the number of inhabitants it has now.  Family after family passed over those mountain roads, bound for Ohio and Kentucky.  Frederick Gebhart was one of those migrators who brought his fortunes to the Miami Valley, the first of his name to dwell in Dayton.  He had been brought up on a farm eight miles from Somerset, Pennsylvania, with few advantages of any kind. Upon his majority he purchased a general store in the village, and gave a mortgage on it.  In those days there was a vast amount of whiskey drinking; the habit was universal, and as a consequence, much drunkenness.  Pitcher after pitcher-full was brought into Mr. Gebhart's store, and consumed at tables while his customers were attending to their purchases.  It did not improve trade.  When the first installment of payment was due there was no money.  Mr. Gebhart offered to give up his store, saying he could not move the goods on his shelves; "nothing doing," he said, "but whiskey."  The man who held the mortgage encouraged him to patience, and advised a stand against the drinking habit.  This meant a one-sided battle against united public opinion; always a difficult thing to do. The effort attempted, was successful, putting an end to drunkenness in one place at least, and making a temperance man of the proprietor to the close of his life.  In the end the business benefitted by it, and Mr. Gebhart was able to pay the mortgage entire.

      He came to Dayton in 1838, and was followed, not long after, by his two brothers, George and Herman.  These three were the first generation of Dayton Gebharts; they all had large families, and their sons and daughters had the same.  Frederick Gebhart was married at Somerset, in 1819, to Catherine Walter, and their family numbered five sons and five daughters.  One son died young, another son and daughter died when just grown, the remainder of the family lived to see their grandchildren, some their great-grandchildren.

      When Frederick Gebhart became a Daytonian the census showed but four thousand people.  Third Street was a muddy, straggling thoroughfare, lined with plain frame houses.  Pastures and potato-patches were all about his home. Embarking in the dry goods business, his was the first store-room built on Third Street. It stood on the alley on the north side, between Main and Jefferson, the site of which was afterward used by a building for many years by D. L. Rike and Company.  This business Mr. Gebhart continued in for ten years, being then succeeded by his two sons, Alexander and John; while he engaged in the manufacture of linseed oil.

      On of the first things, of which the husband and wife felt the lack, in the new home of their choice, was a Lutheran Church.  Bred in its principles, no other denomination could supply their spiritual needs.  The Lutherans in Dayton numbered perhaps a dozen, but they belonged, for the most part, to that hilarious fraternity of the bottle, which Mr. Gebhart had so successfully gotten rid of in Somerset; not a hopeful nucleus upon which to found a church.  For a time the Gebharts worshiped at the German Reformed Church, being repeatedly urged to unite with that faith by letter, but the idea of having a church of their own was never abandoned.  It seems to be granted that Frederick Gebhart was the principal founder of the Lutheran Church in Dayton.  He brought a minister from Pennsylvania to help in organizing, and together they endeavored to arouse interest.  Almost the whole financial burden at the start was borne by Mr. Gebhart, and the majority of the congregation furnished from his own family! For more than sixty years this name has been the prop of the Lutheran Church, the descendants still honoring the traditions established by their grandfather.

      The active business career of Mr. Gebhart lasted for more than half a century, during all of which time he was prominent in the performance of good works and public benefits.

      As a man and a father, there could be no better exemplar of the old-fashioned virtues.  He was a quiet, conscientious man of iron integrity and plain manners.  His children dared no liberties; they never romped nor used slang, nor spoke lightly and unadvisedly.  Until they were old enough to be sent away to school, his boys were not permitted to be out of the house at night.  The father's word was law; the mother's came next.  It is astonishing, (considering how greatly this mode of household discipline has declined,) what fine men and women it made.  One might think a reversion, for the sake of experiment, might be wise; the new fashion of liberty unto lawlessness in the family not having succeeded as well as was expected.

      The happiest lives and most peaceful countries have little history that can be written.  The year 1869 brings this story to an event in the lives of Frederick Gebhart and his wife, that should be chronicled,--their Golden Wedding.  The children began their preparations by each having his portrait painted, ready to present, upon the anniversary.  The venerable bride and groom had been taking tea at Simon Gebhart's, in order to leave a clear field for the loving labors of the conspirators.  The house was decked and trimmed and lighted, the family portraits hung upon the walls, and guests to the number of two hundred, began to gather.  A long absent daughter, coming up Ludlow Street from the train, saw the father and mother walking leisurely homeward, and had some difficulty in reaching the house without being seen.  The door opened welcoming the master and the mistress to a chorus of congratulations.  The first indication to them of an unusual occasion was the sight of John W. Harries, an old friend and "crony" of Frederick Gebhart.  Mr. Harries always went to bed at eight o'clock, and his presence in a festive gathering, at the late hour of nine, was sufficient to indicate that something extraordinary was going on!

      Guests crowded around with congratulations.  Besides Mr. Harries, there were other old friends: Judge Holt, Henry Herman, Valentine Winters, James Turpin, Daniel Keifer, George W. Rogers, Dr. Edwin Smith, Ebenezer Thresher, and Peter Odiin.

      All the ministers in Dayton were invited; those who accepted were Dr. Thomas (First Presbyterian), Dr. Sawyer (Third Street Presbyterian), Dr. Colby (Baptist), Dr. Weddell (Baptist), Dr. Shuey (United Brethren), Dr. Jewett (Episcopalian), Dr. Dustin (Methodist), Dr. Kemper (Park Presbyterian), Dr. Berger (United Brethren), Mr. Winters (German Reformed), Mr. Herr (Grace), Mr. Fritzy (German Lutheran), Mr. Ramsey (Methodist), and Dr. Magee (Lutheran).  Seven children and nineteen grandchildren gathered about the beloved father and mother to express their wishes for the coming years.  Ten little granddaughters each presented the bride wdth a "bouquet" of roses. (Was it not wrapped tightly with wire, and surrounded with a frill of perforated paper?)   There was music, good sweet old-fashioned songs, like "Home, Sweet, Home," and "John Anderson My Jo."

      The chief of the Clan Gebhart, tried to rise to the occasion, and express his thanks.  He began, wet-eyed and hesitating: "I thank you all.  I am glad to see you here.  It is a happiness to have my family all around me--my family"--a pause, a look around for an absent face,--"all my dear ones, except Margaret."   He felt himself grasped by the arm from behind, and a voice said:

      "Margaret is here, father."

            Dr. Thomas gave the address of felicitation in his best vein.  Among other things he said:

            " 'Instead of thy fathers shall be thy children,' is the gracious promise of God.  

Our excellent friends have fully realized that promise.  They began life together fifty years ago, in Gebhartsville, and if we may judge from the brilliant crowd around us they are likely to end their journey in Gebhartsville! * * Not to the past only, does this Golden Wedding point us.  This holy relationship is not to terminate by death.  The beautiful verses of poor Burns, to which we have just listened, have one capital defect; our venerable friends need never sing,


"We'll sleep together at the foot

Of the hill of life."


            "Even the Pagan philosopher could say to his friend, when asked where they should bury him, 'Where you please, if you can catch me.' Even he knew that his immortal spirit could never enter the grave, and can we, to whom the gospel has brought life and immortality, doubt that the spirits of our friends, temporarily separated, though they must be by death, shall meet again in the 'better country'?  Can we doubt that the union so long hallowed here shall be remembered there?  And, as in successive generations, children and children's children shall assemble around them in the home of the blessed, may not the memory of this wedding, of this happy earthly union, be commemorated above, among the countless precious gifts of a faithful God and a gracious Redeemer?"


                                    *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *

      At the close of the evening, the following poem was read; with it we leave the Gebharts:


To Frederick Gebhart, at His Golden Wedding.


Thus speed the years!

Thus garlanded they come and go.

Some hung with tears,

And some with gladness overflow.


Thus speed the years!

Three-score and ten are coming fast.

Some full of fears,

But each more golden than the last.


Thus speed the years!

Fast climbing up the weary way,

But each sun clears

The azure of an endless day.


Thus speed the years!

Oh, crowd them full of golden lights,

Until he hears

The call to crowns on golden heights.


Thus speed the years

Eternal!  And no shadows fold

About the spheres

Where he shall walk the streets of gold.


 Return to "Some Dayton Saints and Prophets" Home Page