THOMAS B. GELZER JR.
427 Sumter AvenueThomas B. Gelzer Jr. was born on May 12, 1798. He was named after his dad, Thomas Gelzer Sr. We know he had a younger brother whose name was John E. Gelzer. Thomas B. was 19 when John was born in 1817. Thomas B. grew up around, Ravenal, South Carolina. When Thomas was 22 years old he asked Sarah T. to marry him. Sarah was born August 15, 1801 and was 19 years old when she married Thomas, June 18, 1820.

Thomas was a hard worker in his church, St. Paul’s Stono. He was a vestry man from 1823 until 1827. He was a church warden, paid his obligations and got his own separate pew.

The couple had a son, Robert L. Gelzer, who was born in 1827. A daughter Susan was born on February 4, 1832.  Some thirty years later, Susan would suggest the idea of the Ladies Gunboat Campaign during the Civil War. She was the first person to contribute $5.00 to the fund of the ship which cost approximately $30,000. The ship was an ironclad and named “Palmetto State.” On Saturday morning October 11, 1862, just seven months after the first clash of ironclads at Hampton Park, people of Charleston crowded the docks at Marsh Warf to see this new ship, now a part of the fleet of Charleston Harbor. The ship was 150 feet long. People thought it looked like a floating butter dish. Susan Gelzer commissioned the ship by breaking a bottle of choice old wine against its bow.  Another daughter, Caroline Gelzer, was born after Susan and died young on August 27, 1840. The last child a son, Thomas L. Gelzer, was born and would grow up to become a doctor and marry Claire Ann. They would have two daughters, Eugenia Oliva and Alice Charlotte.

In 1829 the rector of St. Paul’s Stono, Reverend Philip Gadsden, began to hold a regular summer series for his parishioners in Summerville. At first they met in houses but by1830 they had built their first church building. Thomas B. Gelzer had been thinking about moving to Summerville. In 1852 he purchased from Mrs. Firth, a widow, five acres of land plus her small house. The streets around the property were Railroad Avenue (now Sumter

Memorial stone at St. Paul’s

Avenue), Great Thoroughfare (now West Carolina Ave.), and Pine Street (now S. Hampton St.). Thomas Gelzer paid $500 for the lot and house on January 14, 1852. He then started building hiis house which was completed by 1853. In the tax records of 1850, Thomas Gelzer was 52 years old and considered in the planter class. His wife Sarah was 49 years old, and his two kids, Thomas 25 years old and already listed as a physician, and Susan who was seven years old.

In 1850 they lived south of Summerville and attended St. Paul’s Stono. They moved to Summerville in 1852 and attended St. Paul’s Church. In the tax records of 1860, Thomas B. Gelzer was 62 years old and not listed as a planter, but as a farmer. His wife Sarah was 58 years old and Susan, who was still living at home, was 26 years old.

Can you imagine building a house in 1852? There was no electricity. That means there were no electric fans or air-conditioning to keep one cool. No refrigerators to get a cold drink. No sounds of electric saws, or electric drills. You never heard the sound of airplanes or automobiles. No trucks would come carrying your material, just horse drawn wagons. In fact there were no pre-mixed paints. You bought the paint and mixed the colors yourself. That’s why in the 1700s and early 1800s, you would see a lot of strong colors in or on your house, like blue, green, yellow etc. You couldn’t turn a radio on, or listen to your cassette player, and there was no television! The kitchen would have been distant from the house because of heat in the summer and it was the place many home fires started. The kitchen was run very differently than today. There was no running water and dishes would have been washed outside or maybe in the kitchen but there was no sink or drain. The slave would have gotten up first to stoke the fire. When the fire was going well she would began to make biscuits. She made biscuits from scratch every morning. Then she would start working on dinner that would be served at lunch. She would use salt in her cooking but not so often pepper. Salt could be purchased but pepper was hard to get and rather expensive. Dinner or lunch was considered the big meal. What ever she fixed for dinner would be eaten, what was not eaten was put into a pie- safe and brought out for supper. The same food from dinner was served at supper. If they didn’t eat it at supper the food was given to the dogs. There was no way to the keep food overnight. It was a different world.

Thomas B. Gelzer had the house built the way he wanted it. It sat up off the ground on pillars. That would make it possible for wind to pass under the house as well as around it, keeping it cooler. He also built a cabin on his property for the slaves who would work in the house and kitchen. He built a barn in the back to keep his horse and carriage in. Thomas had something different built in his house, closets! At that time people used armoires to hang their clothes on pegs. Closets were a thing of the future since wire close hangers weren’t invented until the early 1900s.

House built by Thomas Gelzer

Thomas B. Gelzer decided to split the property up into lots of “A” “B” and “C”. Thomas took lot “C” to build his own house on. It was in the old town of Summerville about a block away from the old town hall, presently the oldest standing public building in Summerville, built in 1860. The house is close to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

The property we are talking about, is located at 427 Sumter Ave. The house was built by Thomas B.Gelzer in 1852. Thomas’s first wife Sarah died October 18, 1863, she was 62 years old. Thomas B. Gelzer married again in 1864, Rosa Adela Gelzer. Rosa was born on January 24, 1823. She also attended St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

On Monday, July 15, 1875, Thomas B. Gelzer died. Thomas B. Gelzer had made out a will leaving everything to Rosa. Thomas and Rosa had no children. He was laid to rest beside his first wife, Sarah behind St. Paul’s Church. Rosa had a pulpit made for the church and delivered to them. Rosa left the church in 1876. I’m not sure what the problem was but Rosa returned after a while. When Rosa died on January 4, 1899, she was also buried beside her husband at St. Paul’s Church.

On September 24, 1886 Susan C. Fishburne  bought lot “C”, about one acre and the house, from Rosa Gelzer for $1350.00. Margaret Fishburne took over ownership of lot “C” and the house, on April 29, 1892. Margaret Fishburne owned the house for two years before selling the house and lot to Catherine Kornahrens in 1894.

In 1912 Catherine Kornahrens sold her house to Rodenberg.  He in turn built a store facing West Carolina Avenue.  In 1920 Mrs. Rodenberg sold the lot which included the store to Bunch.  Bunch built a house next to the store.  On October 27, 1947 Mrs. Rodenberg sold the house at 427 Sumter Avenue to Edward and Pauline Kornahrens.  In 1998 Mrs. Kornahrens sold her home to her son Donovan P. Kornahrens and his wife, Cynthia.

When the house was built in 1852, this lot was in Colleton County. Years later in 1897, this became a part of Dorchester County. Across Sumter Avenue from 427 is the land purchased by JT Brown and where the Carolina Inn stood.

Many of the people of Summerville remember when Edward and Pauline Kornahrens lived here. Barbara Lynch Hill wrote in her book “Summerville” published by the town of Summerville in 1998, a conversation she had with Pauline Kornahrens before her death. “From 1949 to 1977 Pauline Kornahrens taught nearly a thousand of Summerville’s four and five-year-olds in the basement of her Sumter Avenue home. She had some second generation students and graduated five of her own grandchildren. It started as a neighborhood children’s playtime and grew into a full-fledged academic program and prepared Summerville youngsters for the ‘real world” of grammar school. “Honey, I have always loved children,” Mrs. Kornahrens said in a 1993 interview, explaining how her “little project” got started. She was always taking her daughter Paula to play with a friend or bring friends to their home, so she decided to start a little play school. It began with a few games and activities to keep a handful of kids busy for an hour or two. Before she knew it, she had her husband Ed pave the downstairs basement area and divided it into two classrooms, one for four-year-olds and one for five-year-olds. Mr. Kornahrens made tables and his wife got a little blue chairs, put up blackboards and pictures and opened her doors. Students came at 9:00 am and stayed till noon. Lunch, which students brought, was at 10:30 a.m., in the middle of the school day. At first the main activities were coloring books and little fun things to do. Special training or background was not necessary to hold a school in those days, but Mrs. Kornahrens got interested. She went to workshops in Columbia and got involved with curriculum. “My eyes and ears were open to everything that was going on in education at the time, and so it ended up that I did everything — phonetics, alphabets, teaching them to write.” She got the county to evaluate the school and the fire department to check it for safety. She didn’t have to do these things, but she wanted to be sure everything was just right and perfectly safe.
Mrs. Kornahrens tried to limit students to 45 at the most, and had a series of teachers to help her including Sandra Patrick, Shelia Williams, Shirley Lord and her daughter Paula. She charged a “minor” tuition, an amount she can’t even remember today, but insists it never went beyond $40 a month. “My children wanted to know why I was so cheap,” she laughed, “but I said that they are your friends and I’m not going to charge all kinds of high prices.”

Many of Mrs. Kornahrens students became teachers themselves and credit her as the inspiration. Summerville town councilman and attorneys still recall making a Thanksgiving turkey out of a pine cone. Local teachers and even a doctor or two can recall their special programs at Kornahrens Kindergarten when they had to memorize a verse and stand up and recite. But everybody remembers the end-of-term trip. A part of each spring commencement was the train ride to St. George. Three or four mothers would go a long to help and Mrs. Kornahrens would take the children on the train and they would have a picnic lunch on the courthouse grounds. Besides their memories students cherish their annual commencement pictures which showed them sitting in little chairs in front of the azaleas in the Kornahrens front yard. Her philosophy of teaching was to seek out the need of each individual child and meet it.

You have aggressive children and you have real shy children. This was one thing that I really believed in was trying to teach the aggressive children to be more quiet and get the shy ones to open up more. By the end of the year you wouldn’t know you had the same children.

Pauline Kornahrens cherishes the change she helped make in “her children” that, she would tell you, “Is what being a teacher is all about.”

Donovan Kornahrens has done a lot of research on his house over the past few years. When I first started giving tours in Summerville, I said all these houses on Sumter Avenue are turned backwards. They were all built, facing a street behind them. Through my discussions with Donnie I discovered my information was incorrect. There was never a street behind them. You are looking at the front of the House. House 427 Sumter Ave was built this way in 1852 by Thomas B. Gelzer Jr.

Written by: Mark Woodard

Research sources:

Kornahrens, Donavan Paul. Interview.

Hutson, Heyward. “Gelzer-Kornahrens House…Pioneer.”  The Summerville Journal Scene, June 25, 1997.

Hicks, Brian. City of Ruin, Charleston at War 1860-1865. Evening Post Books, Charleston, South Carolina. 2012