Believed to have originated with the English evangelical preacher and martyr, John Bradford, “There but for the grace of God, go I,” always brings back childhood memories of my grandmother Brandt.
John Bradford was an exceedingly devout and compassionate Christian and he is said to have uttered this phrase when seeing criminals led to the scaffold. The saying proved prophetic as he was burned at the stake in 1555. By all accounts he remained sanguine about his fate and is said to have suggested to a fellow victim that “We shall have a merry supper with the Lord this night.”
The expression also reminds me of a place where I oft walk: “Cannon Hill” in the Furnace Hills outside Brickerville, Pennsylvania.
In 1750 – H.W. Stiegel, known as “Baron” Heinrich von Stiegel, arrived in the city of Philadelphia aboard the Nancy. “Nancy” from the Hebrew, means “full of grace.”The surname Steigel is a topographic name, derived from a physical feature of geography, coming from the German word “steig“, which means “narrow, steep path“.
Steigel scouted out the local countryside in search of a golden opportunity. He found his chance in a baser metal, making his name illustrious. The surrounding hills were named “Furnace Hills” because Pennsylvania, at this time, had the most productive iron mines, forges, furnaces, and consequently the most affluent, iron masters in the country.
The furnace at Brickerville was called Elizabeth Furnace, and here Stiegel achieved remarkable and swift success. He married the daughter of his employer, Elizabeth Huber.
Five years later, he bought the Elizabeth Furnace tore it down and built a larger one. Sadly although his success grew, his wife died the following year.
The main product of the Elizabeth Furnace was stoves. In those days it was customary among the Pennsylvania Germans to decorate their stove-plates with Biblical scenes and pious quotations. Stiegel put an end to this waste of good advertising space. Some of his first stove-plates were cast with the following inscription, honoring his father-in-law:
“Jacob Huber is the first German Who knows how to make iron work.”
Later, when his hold upon the establishment had become more secure, this was replaced with:
“Baron Stiegel is the man Who knows how to make stoves.”
There is no evidence that Stiegel’s title of “Baron” was genuine.
Stiegel apparently liked and affected the title. This is psychologically understandable, particularly in the case of our man. The pride of many a titled man in dropping his title in America was counter-balanced by the pride of many commoners from Europe who seized the occasion to make much ado.
Following the death of his wife, Stiegel remarried and soon expanded his business ventures into multiple avenues. To his many talents of: ironworker, surveyor, builder, musician, bookkeeper, theologian and polemic, he added glass making. He began operations with only five blowers at Elizabeth Furnace but later in Manheim built a huge glass-house 90′ in height which was wide enough that a four-horse team could be driven through its doorway, turned around, and driven out.
By 1769 he was going full speed.
His Manheim mansion was two years in the building and a full half of the second floor was taken up by an arched chapel, fully equipped with pulpit and pews. Here gathered his workmen where he delivered sermons to them in the best Lutheran tradition. On the roof was a bandstand.
“On a hill near Schaeferstown, between Elizabeth Furnace and Charming Forge, the Baron built his Thurm Berg. This was a strange tower, built of heavy wood in the shape of a trun cated pyramid, and painted red. It was so feet square at the bottom, 10 feet square at the top, and 75 feet high. The interior was divided into vast banquet halls and guest chambers. On its summit were mounted brass cannon which are said to have fired a 24 round salute whenever the Baron approached, and a 12 round salute for the approach of distinguished guests, such as George Washington, who reputedly visited there.
Stiegel drove about the country at breakneck speed in a coach drawn by six white horses, with wigged and uniformed outriders. There were other cannon at his Manheim mansion to boom his approach. This was a signal for all the townspeople to gather in the streets to cheer his entry, and for his bandsmen to drop their regular work, don their fancy outfits, grab their instruments, rush to the platform on Stiegel’s roof, and blast out with a stirring German march. All in all it was no mean affair when Baron Henry Stiegel came to town.”
His decline and fall was as abrupt and significant as his meteoric rise.
Back to his former father-in-law and employer, Jacob Huber: poor relations eventually developed between Jacob Huber and “Baron” Stiegel.
In his will dated January 26th, 1767, Jacob Huber wrote:
“Item, I give and bequeath yo my Son in Law, Henry William Sheglar (Stiegel) the sum of one Shilling sterling, and I exclude him and his heirs forever from all further claim to my Estate either real or Personal.”
Although possessed of incredible talent and business acumen and incredibly generous spirit, Stiegel had become associated with men of lesser character and through their cunning and patience, set a trap for his downfall. They waited, and Stiegel fell.
He had extended his credit to the breaking-point with constant re-investments and expansions. Then, when the shadow of impending revolution stilled the activity of commerce, and creditors rushed to draw back their money, Stiegel had everything but cash. On October 15th, 1774, he pawned his wife’s gold watch. No mercy was shown to him by men who had long envied him. He was thrown into a debtors’ prison.
The watchman is still stationed on Cannon Hill, and there the Holy Spirit bears witness with my spirit of the joyful announcement of the speedy return of Jesus Christ! Sound the Trumpet in ZION!
When this reversal of fortunes and the parting of every earthly gift down to the pledging of his last possession, a gold watch which was never redeemed – it later coming into the hands of a jeweler who cast it into the smelting pot. On this hill, the Lord spoke the words “melting pot.”
Isaiah 40:10, “Behold, the Lord GOD will come with strong hand, and his arm shall rule for him: behold, his reward is with him, and his work before him.”
Ecclesiastes 7:6, “For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fool: this also is vanity.“
Locked in a bitter prison, Stiegel wrote pitiable letters begging for help and he composed prayers of really fine literary quality. When he was finally eventually released, it brought no joy of spirit as he never fully recovered. He had lived a fantasy, and in this one abrupt failure he had lost the thread of it forever. He tried to live in the old house at Elizabeth Furnace, and the owners, whom he “thought” were his “best friends“, turned him out. In letters to them are plentiful apologies that stand in bitter contrast to the romantic splendor that was his previous existence.
He tried teaching school. And for a while, returned as lowly foreman to Elizabeth Furnace, where he had begun his auspicious career. But he was beaten, and by age 48, was a thin, bent old man: a mere shadow of his former glory.
Ironically, during this period of his utter helplessness, he lived to witness the rise to power of the nation whose industry and art he had greatly stimulated. On January 10th, 1785, he died.
1 Corinthians 10:11-12, “Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come. Wherefore let him that thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.”
A Singular Coincidence?
Nay, there but for the grace of God, I go!
Elizabeth Furnace, started in 1757, was finally shut down In 1857, after running exactly one hundred years.
The church building which Stiegel helped to erect in the town he founded, was razed the same year, 1857. The Sovereign Lord placed my feet to prayer-walk in this place and my birth year, 1957.
He lost everything, and he died a forgotten man. Even his grave was not considered important enough to remember. Even though forgotten as he lay dying, Stiegel remembered Manheim. As one of his last acts he willed a parcel of ground he owned in Manheim to the congregation of the Zion Lutheran Church. This was the little church that Stiegel himself had named.
Today Manheim-belatedly-remembers Stiegel in a ceremony which is known as the “Feast of the Roses,” held on the first Sunday of June every year. One red rose is handed, by the pastor of the church, to a descendant of the “Baron” Stiegel. This red rose is the year’s rent for the use of the lot which Stiegel willed to the church. This annual payment of a rose was stipulated in the will which Stiegel himself had made in that grand and feudal manner which he loved so well.
Yet even without his “Feast of the Roses” Stiegel would be remembered as long as collectors search for specimens of fine and treasured glass.
-excerpts from “Glassmaker – Stiegel” (Originally Published 1940 )