Weekly Features

Historically Speaking –Joseph H Diss Debar Visited West Union

   Most of our readers know that Joseph H Diss Debar was a talented artist who designed the West Virginia Seal.  Many of you probably know that although originally from France, he was a Doddridge Countian at the time.

   Diss Debar came to the United States in 1842 at the age of 22.  He arrived in Parkersburg in 1846 and married the beautiful Clara Levassor.  Sadly in 1849, Clara died from complications of childbirth.  The child, Joseph Henry Jr. lived and was raised by his grandparents in Cincinnati, OH.  He lived a long and full life but left no heirs.

   The community of St. Clara settled by Diss Debar was named such by Diss Debar in honor of his beloved wife, but that is a different story and has been covered in an earlier article.

   In recognition of Diss Debar’s first visit, I contemplated how best to describe it to our readers.  Finally, I concluded that no one could tell that story better than Joseph H Diss Debar himself and he did just that when he wrote an article and published it in the West Union Herald (now Herald Record) in April and May 1883 at the newspaper’s request.  

The article was titled Reminiscences of Doddridge County – By J. H. Diss Debar and was published as follows:

   “In complying with your invitation to send you a sketch of the good old times in Doddridge County, it seems expedient that I should go back far enough to invest it with the interest of Novelty to the present generation.  Perhaps I am not hitting wide of the mark by commencing in the year of our Lord 1846 when I first had the good fortune to set foot on Virginia soil.

   It was on this very day, the 15th of April, forty-seven years ago, that one of Major Hildebrand’s grimy coaches, conducted all the way from Parkersburg via ‘Vaucluse’ by the experienced hands of Dick Cheaton, stopped for dinner at a certain hostlery in a secluded but picturesque landscape called Lewisport and not yet discovered on any map of the state.

    The landlord was not at home, but the cheerful and kindly partner of his bosom and business, whom they all addressed as Mrs. B.—, was promptly on hand with a smoking hot dinner of boiled ham and greens, mashed potatoes, dried peach pie and store tea, all of a quality and savor to be gratefully remembered to this day.  As I say “gratefully” remembered because the price charged for this fare, with an appetizer thrown in, seemed to me hardly enough for the cooking, although firewood, could then be had for the chopping and time was even less valuable there at that easy going period.  Having been born in a foreign country and lived in large cities on this continent for the last six years, my speech and appearance were sufficiently exotic to attract attention.  Visible interest, too, was everywhere by my broom-sage mustache which excepting a darker one belonging to a young law student at Clarksburg by the name of Caleb Boggess was the only ornament of the kind then flourishing between the Ohio River and the Allegheny Mountains.  As a consequence, when I settled my bill, the landlady who, like her rosy and athletic daughter, had scarcely ever taken her eyes off my movements, with very natural feminine curiosity enquired for my name.  Her worst suspicions were probably confirmed when I informed her that I was coming to look up a large tract of land in that vicinity after due consultation with my lawyer at Clarksburg, whither I was bound for the present.

     At the mention of land on Cove Creek, a modest mannered young man, with an honest eye and an expansive white forehead, who before dinner had been busy at a writing table in a corner, informed me that he had some knowledge of that ancient survey and I concluded at once that he might be of service to me.  Noticing that he was then engaged in drawing opening a trunk, extracted from it half a dozen sheets of superior article which he accepted with grateful surprise.  Such was my first meeting with esteemed old neighbor, Daniel Sherwood, one of the most clever and unassuming men and able, conscientious surveyors I ever met.

   Meanwhile a rather more pretentious and fluent tongued gentleman in a butternut hunting shirt had also improved my acquaintance.  His silken hair was of the most ardent hue, with which same nature had also generously besprinkled his otherwise comely face and neck.  He lost no time impressing me with the intelligence that he was the only reliant barrister in that locality and hailed from the good old town of Alexandria, the like of which admirable place was nowhere to be found west of the mountains, if indeed in any other section of the globe.  Without disparagement to my able counsel, Mr. W.A. Harrison of Clarksburg he regarded it as eminently to my interest to consult his informant’s uncle, Col. Augustus J. Smith, of the same place, a legal light of superior experience in land titles.    Undoubtedly my surviving contemporaries around you have already recognized the beautiful figure of Mr. Edwin L. Hewitt, who like our friend Sherwood, was for many years a standing prop of Mrs. B.—‘s establishment.  And by the way, when I was taking leave I asked him for the full name of the matronly hostess, who I thought was rather too familiarly designated by her first letter; he explained with a quizzical smile that there was nothing more to it worth mentioning.  “B double ee” “Bee” that was all.  Glancing back at a swarm of pale blue eyed youngsters assembled on the porch I could not repress the jocular remark that I had never before dined in a bee hive. The name seems to have found favor and the sturdy humorous proprietor whose acquaintance I subsequently made, seemed to think nothing more appropriate, though it had never struck him before as a suitable sign for his hospitable inn.

   My business at Clarksburg being concluded, my duties required an immediate investigation of the lands referred to with headquarters at the identical hotel kept by Mr. Bee, whose given name was Ephraim, as most readers have already divined.  This then already prominent and widely known citizen being largely engaged in land matters on his own account would have been of much practical assistance to me but for his personal relations with the Hon. Lewis Maxwell, a Lewis County lawyer and ex-member of Congress whose interests seriously threatened to conflict with those represented by me.  This speculative gentleman being universally credited with a rare genius for appropriating to himself every strip of land in the country not adversely held under an iron clad, indefensible title.  It was not deemed safe policy to tread upon his toes.  It was in honor of this formidable personage I presently learned that the town site had been named, but, who not Lewisville or Lewisdale, as its topography suggested, but perversely Lewisport.  I was at a loss to perceive since the usually shallow stream which poetically meandered through that inland region had never, to my recollection, floated as much as a skiff until Floyd Neely and Dan Sherwood had the unheard of luck to erect a mill-dam in the rear of Uncle Tom Gatrell’s chocolate colored frame mansion and Jim Foley’s original store in the aspiring town of West Union, right across the bridge.

   But if the name of Lewisport was a puzzle, that of West Union seemed an ironical sort of joke, since it owed its very origin to the state of civic feud and discord from which I venture to surmise it has hardly recovered to this day.  The bone of contention was as usual the division of political spoils and especially the very capital site of the county of Doddridge which had been called into being only a short time before my personal advent.  The Bee faction conscientiously regarded Lewisport as the most eligible site, while the Randolph faction was equally honest in its prefer

ence for the other place.  Entire disinterestedness was all the more probable since Mr. Bee on the one side and Capt. Davis, ‘Squire Randolph’s father-in-law, on the other side, respectfully owned the territories competing for the honor and profits of the choice.  As a consequence, according to the Bee faction, it was only through slimy underground machinations too dark and crooked for human tongue to mention that victory had been bribed to perch upon the Randolph banner and quite naturally the latter party contended that the whole county would have gone to the bottomless pit if that reprobate Lewisport conspiracy had prevailed.

   With this difference though, that when Squire Randolph was done complimenting his supporting neighbors, the catalogue of bleak English profanity was measurably exhausted, whereas brother Ephraim generally tempered the expression of similar sentiments with the graces of his sarcastic and inimitable wit.  And as another consequence, this red hot state of unpleasantness was kept alive for years and years until the great session war which settled many another neighborly strife about a stray sheep or a breech pig, brought about that retribution state of things which sent Ephraim Bee to the Legislature and Preston Randolph to camel chase.  But, let us not explore the folds of memory for some more peaceful features of that delightful old time.

   Surveying the surrounding country from the verandah of the Lewisport Hotel, only two other human abodes were then plainly in sight.  One of them was rival Eagle’s Lair, the Randolph Mansion, a short distance up Blue Stone Valley and the other freshly painted frame building on the turnpike half way down to the bridge where William and Frank Levin kept a general store and their mild faced brother-in-law, Mr. Brown Grave also from the Shenandoah Valley, made saddles and bridles and presided over the post office.  This much at least of public institution had temporarily remained in possession of unappreciated Lewisport, not to mention an occasional race-trackin Ephraim Bee’s meadow since the whole of West Union town plot barely afforded level land sufficient for a ten pin ally.  It was upon this green field of glory that Floyd Neely’s Hamiltonian dun, Nim Bent’s Chickasaw Gold Dolphin and Debar’s black jack mare, Fanny Ellsler, periodically competed for the honors of the local turf.  And though it as originally only a private affair within an aggregate of bets never exceeding twenty dollars, the public soon took sufficient interest it to induce his Honor, Judge Fry, a strict Presbyterian to adjourn court on the occasion.  True, this was never done until the question of making the judgeship elective agitated the public mind, as will probably be remembered at least by your venerable neighbor, Oliver K. Knight, who first called my attention to this clever stroke of policy.  At that time this proverbially sensible and observant citizen was still engaged in supplying his neighbors with books and shows of his own manufacture and like Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, in another useful branch of industry, invariably made a good fit.  Undoubtedly, had I patronized him at that time, I would not have had the misfortune to lose one of my boots-a genuine brogan-  one dark night while attempting to cross the sea of yellow clay mud on the way from Foley’s original store to the bridge.  It was on the Samaritan shoulders of a clever young man known as William Beard, who later found a watery grave, that I was enabled to reach my lodging without further accident, though my brogan boot was never recovered.

   But I must beware of a decided tendency to anticipate. Although it was in Foley’s same store afore mentioned that the first key of ale in Doddridge County was tapped by a set of young sprigs already named in this narrative, it was not the pioneer store on that side of the creek.  An establishment similar to Levin’s had for some time past flourished at the other end of the town site in full view of the romantic Doe Run.  This Arthur Ingram, a native of Tyler County who in a matrimonial way had traded sisters with Dr. Ingle.  This noted physician who had previously acquired fame as a steamboat clerk on the Ohio River, was then engaged in erecting the “tig tavern” in the center of the town where after his well known friends, E.M.F. Smith and James A. Foley successfully catered to the public.  At any time of the day or week when not riding out with his saddlebags, the popular “Jake” could be seen and heard in his bar room (the only part of the house then furnished) performing on the violin before an admiring crowd, most of whose members had more leisure to listen than frippery bits wherewith to patronize the alluring delicacies in variously shaped bottles.  It is hardly necessary to add that those who enjoyed credit, nearly all of them who did never failed to improve it to their heart’s content and expressed their gratitude there for by more or less serious or comical contributions to the general amusement.

   Among Dr. Jake’s customary audience there was at least one well remembered citizen who fired by inaudible rivalry occasionally attempted a diversion in his own favor, but with very questionable success.  While no one would have contended that Lindsey Owens was not an excellent good fellow, it was generally believed that he could fiddle much better with a hand saw than with a horse-hair bow when he had a mind to which was sometimes the case.  And as for the matter of musical genius, none of the others just mentioned could hold a tallow candle to one certain Eli B. Tucker, also famous as a trader of blooded horse and for all the qualification characteristic of his ingenious craft.  Quality in fiddling was then still an unknown feature of this fine art in this pioneer region.  It was quantity, the greatest number of up and down strokes that would be jerked off in half a second that took the cake.  And though I have seen that rare former keep a gay company a “hoppin” for four consecutive hours at Uncle Tom Gatrell’s after he had removed upon the hill, I do not remember his playing more than three distinct and separate tunes all told during the whole of that pleasant time.

   If despite such a generous supply of melody, perfect harmony did not invariably prevail in that rising community, it could not have been for the great diversity of minds among a population of rarely a hundred.

In an attempt at a partial enumeration I shall approximately begin on top of the hill where the octogenarian patriarch of the settlement, Capt. Davis, aforesaid mentioned, occupied a small one-story house with his equally venerable consort, “Aunt Jenny”, his pig tail cue which he still marked as a cue steadily inflating bag of Spanish Dollars and his remnant of a once fashionable pit-tail cue, which he still nursed as a relic of the time when he was monarch of all he surveyed.  If I am not mistaken, the same roof also sheltered his father-in-law, Mr. Sutton, nearly a century old who through the dim vista of his waning memory could still retrace desperate Indian fights and the scalping of white settlers around the fort at Clarksburg and other places, innumerable bear tales not to mention the husband of this pioneer’s great granddaughter, Frank Hickman, just from Tyler County, then Clerk of the Doddridge County Court had just finished a dwelling on the street where Col. Neely, Joseph Cheuvront and others since followed suit.  The latter named artisan was then drowsily confining himself to the making of furniture for the living and the dead as yet unruffled by ambitious dreams of merchandising and U.S. post office and hotel.

   On the same line of level, but below the right hand corner of the courthouse, his brother-in-law, Chapman J. Stuart, not long since emigrated from Harrison County was building a residence and opened a law office.  Later on the post office also climbed up the hill and under his roof, where it was principally attended to by his first wife.  In honor of this kind and intelligent lady, I cannot omit to relate that it was through her somewhat involuntary connivance that I was enabled to receive the New York Tribune, the patronizing of which was at that time a treasonable and indictable offense in the state of Virginia.  The paper had always come to me disguised in a French printed wrapper and Mrs. Stuart supposing it to be a French paper, opened it one day to refresh her schoolgirl acquaintance with that polite tongue.  What was her amazement on beholding Horace Greeley’s proscribed and felonious abolition sheet?  Promptly folding it up again, she handed me the paper on my next call, pointing to the patched – unwrapper with the words, “I have found out your little secret, but chap never shall.”  The pitch of the incident lies in the fact that Chap 

was just then the Commonwealth or Prosecuting Attorney for the County.      To do full justice to this kind friend as I subsequently knew him, I dare say it would have made no difference if he had.

   Across the lane from the Hotel Ingle at the corner of the pike, one William Meserva was putting up a store house and dwelling, but did not take deep root in the community.  Another frame gradually taking shape was that of Mr. T. K. Knight, just above the short bend in the road where it probably still defies the tooth of time, like its tenacious proprietor.  

   This closes the brief list of the tenements than in course of erection in that mountainous village, for it was only the year following, I believe that Dr. L. R. Charter appeared upon the scene, like a thorn in the flesh of some of the homespun settlers with his brisk Northern ways of business and his putting up a big newfangled house with a roof higher in the middle than on the four corners. But Dr. possessed among other strange attributes a peculiar contempt for small talk and an amount of industry and perseverance that could not fail to keep him on top of the wave to this day.

Since I have undoubtedly forgotten some of your pioneer settlers of that time, I felt in duty bound to mention at least those I distinctly remember.  But exactly where Enoch Southworth, the tailor, Dave Hansford, the painter, ex-merchant Lawson Yates, Bill Mahane, the jack of spades and the gentleman of leisure, cooked their salt mackerel for dinner is no longer clear to my mind unless it was in that suburban cluster of wind shaken little frames near the bridge.  Near there, at the corner of the Bluestone Road with its phenomenal mud hole in the narrows, a respected widow lady, Mrs. Maulsby, with her family reside in a more substantial house.  Her nearest neighbor is still reflected in my memory as Uncle David davis, a cheerful and clever sort of citizen, particularly memorable sire of Elias, Joe and Lafayette Davis.  Ephraim Bee’s oldest son Josiah, equally esteemed as a man and a mechanic, was then still living nearly opposite Meserveis on the pike, but soon afterward began to build a comfortable permanent home a few lots back of Mrs. Maulsby place.” 

   This article and the statements within it are the sole thoughts and opinions of Mr. Diss Debar and do not necessarily reflect the thoughts or opinions of anyone other than him.

God Bless and Stay Well

Patricia Richards Harris