By: Paula Dunn
I have to confess, I knew very little about Clarence Geist, the man for whom Geist Reservoir was named, until I started working on that Fall Creek Township quiz.
The more I dug into his life, however, the more I felt he was worth a column of his own. Although he was never a Hamilton County resident, he did have a profound influence on this county’s development.
Plus, he was a rather colorful character, to say the least.
Clarence Henry Geist was born on a farm in LaPorte County, Indiana, in 1866.
As a young man, he went west to seek his fortune. After five years of dealing in livestock, however, he realized there was no money to be made in the west because “no one in the west, at that time, had any money,” so he returned to the Chicago area.
Following a short stint as a brakeman for the Rock Island railroad, he went into real estate. During that period, he became acquainted with future vice president of the United States, Charles. G. Dawes, and Dawes’ brother, Rufus.
The Dawes brothers operated the South Shore Gas Company and it was through his association with them that Geist got into the public utility business. That’s how he made his millions.
From his new home base in the Philadelphia area, Geist bought, developed and sold gas, electric and water companies all over the country, including the Indianapolis Water Company which he purchased in December, 1912, as a personal investment.
“The Indiana ‘water boy,’” as journalist Cleveland Amory later referred to him, has been described both as “loud, vulgar and impolite” and as “suave and amiable.”
You can debate which of those assessments is more accurate, but I don’t think anyone would deny he was pretty quirky.
In 1928 Geist bought the Boca Raton Club in Boca Raton, Florida, and turned it into a luxurious private club for millionaires. The small town of Boca Raton (population around 600) not only became Geist’s winter home, it became his own little kingdom.
Whenever his private railroad car arrived at the Boca Raton train station, he was greeted by a crowd and serenaded by a band. The performance was repeated each spring when he departed for the north.
In 1938, Indianapolis Star reported that Geist played a round of golf every day on his Boca Raton club’s course.
During each game the avid golfer was followed around by a chauffeur-driven limo (there were no golf carts then) that contained three pairs of shoes, two thermos bottles of medicated water (I’m not sure what “medicated” means here) and a policeman with a loaded shotgun.
Geist took a drink of the water on nearly every tee and changed his shoes at every third hole.
According to the Star, the shotgun was supposed to be for any alligators or rattlesnakes Geist might stir up when he sent his ball sailing into the rough (which he often did,) however, Geist was also terrified of being kidnapped.
The possibility of a kidnapping scared him so much that he bought up every photograph of himself he could find. (Luckily, he missed a few.) He also kept an enormous checking account in case of a sudden need for ransom money.
All that paranoia amused his friends, one of whom remarked, “Nobody who knew him would want to kidnap him; if they did, they would have regretted it.”
Geist did have a generous side, though. In 1931, he donated a $15,000 “deluxe auditorium model pipe organ” to Indianapolis’ Columbia Club, one of the many social clubs to which he belonged.
Buying that organ didn’t strain Geist’s finances a bit. When his estate was settled in 1939, it was worth $10,976,042.
Just think what that would be in 2023!
– Paula Dunn’s From Time to Thyme column appears on Wednesdays in The Times. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org