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Haven History: Little Gertrude

By Lou Bernard in Arts & Entertainment

April 12, 2012


Lou Bernard/Eagle Eye

Gertrude Kistler might have grown up to be someone wonderful. She might have been a famous writer, the mayor, a teacher, or even curator of the local museum. She most likely would have done great things with her life.

We’ll never know.

The Kistlers lived at 30 West Water Street in Lock Haven. Sedgwick Kistler was a banker, industrialist, and senator. His wife Bertha made a home for her husband, was active in her local church, and gave money and time to various charities.

Their daughter, little Gertrude Kistler, was born in 1908. She was raised with privilege, but never acted superior or looked down on anyone. Gertrude’s parents adored her, and so did everyone else. Gertrude was known as an intelligent, sweet child, and very popular in the community.

At about eight years old, Gertrude was taken to school by the family servant. She realized that the other children didn’t have servants escorting them in, and she asked the servant to drop her off outside and not walk her in, so she didn’t make the other children feel bad.

This was typical Gertrude, sweet and considerate to others.

The Kistlers divided their time between Lock Haven and Philadelphia, and Gertrude went to school in both places. She made friends: Mary Horstmann, Kathryn Lenihan, Agnes Reilly, Agatha Schwoerer, and Florence Spotes all attended Saint Leonard’s Academy with her, a school connected with Rosemont College. The six of them became close friends, and spent a lot of time playing together.

Agnes’s father Thomas owned a contracting business in Philadelphia. His daughter charmed him into letting the girls have the unused upper floor for their meeting place. It became their clubhouse, and they begged and borrowed furniture from their families, cleaning the place and making it livable. It was a Saturday tradition, the girls meeting at the clubhouse, cooking over a can of sterno, laughing and chatting together.

The girls went to summer camp together at Camp Tegawitha in the Poconos, and Gertrude loved the water there. She delighted in watching the waterfalls, hiking into the woods to see them, and even wrote a poem for the camp newspaper.

Nature the bride, the falls her veil

That swept the path of laurel trail.

It was Gertrude’s love of the water that led to tragedy.

Senator Kistler was asked to attend the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco in July of 1920, when Gertrude was twelve years old. He chose to make it a family vacation, taking his wife and child with him. The three of them made several educational stops, including Yosemite National Park. While Gertrude watched the Mercedes River, she leaned over and fell in, and was swept away by the rapids.

Sedgwick and Bertha’s lives changed in an instant. A driver for the family, H.J. Pink, dived in to save Gertrude, and was also killed. Her body was found days later, and shipped home to be buried beside her grandparents in Saint Mary’s, Pennsylvania.

The Kistlers were never the same. They withdrew from the public, living full-time in Philadelphia, and never lived in their Lock Haven home again. They never sold it, however, and wouldn’t allow Gertrude’s bedroom to be disturbed. Her toys and clothes stayed the way they had been, untouched, for over thirty years.

They donated an organ in Gertrude’s memory to Great Island Presbyterian, the church across the street, and a stained-glass window to Saint Agnes’s Catholic Church. They donated money for a library to be built at Rosemont, the college Gertrude would likely have attended with her friends.

The Gertrude Kistler Memorial Library opened in 1926, six years after her death, when Gertrude would have turned eighteen. Her parents and friends were there to see the opening, and Gertrude’s favorite flowers were on all the tables. Her friend Florence grew up to become a nun, working at the same school, and left behind a memoir she’d written about her time with Gertrude.

Gertrude Kistler could have been anything. We’ll never know what she might have achieved with her life. But I like to write about her, and keep her memory alive. Stories like this don’t come along every day.

Kindhearted little blonde girls don’t, either.


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