Doddridge County Through the Eyes of J. H. Diss Debar
Joseph H. Diss Debar was born Hubert Diss on March 6, 1820 in Alsace, France. He received a classical and scientific education and spoke French, English and German, as well as Spanish and Italian. He was also an excellent writer and artist. He first came to Doddridge County in 1846 as a land agent to sell and manage property in the southwest part of Doddridge County.
Hubert Diss, as he was then known, came to the United States on January 4, 1842, on the Cunard Steamer Britannia. A fellow passenger was the renowned author Charles Dickens. Hubert first lived in Cincinnati, where he fell in love with Clara Levassor, whose wealthy father Eugene accused him of forgery and had him arrested. Circumstances of the alleged forgery are not known, but may now be seen as a foreshadowing of questionable activities to come. Clara, being in love with Hubert Diss, was grudgingly given permission by her father to marry. In 1848 they were married and settled in Parkersburg. From what I can tell, it was while living in Parkersburg that Hubert Diss changed his name to Joseph Hubert Diss Debar.
Tragically, Julia died shortly after giving birth to their son in 1849. After burying Clara at Riverview Cemetery in Parkersburg, the grieving Diss Debar came to Doddridge County to live and to oversee his land interests. Here he founded the German community of Saint Clara, named for his late wife. He soon became involved in local politics and was later commissioned to design the West Virginia State Seal.
Diss Debar left Doddridge County around 1868 and moved back to Parkersburg with his second wife, Amelia Cain Diss Debar. From there they moved to Philadelphia sometime prior to 1880.
In 1893, about fifteen years after leaving, Diss Debar wrote about his experiences in Doddridge County. Being so well educated and refined, his droll descriptions of the primitive people and communities of Lewisport and West Union were sometimes comical in style, but appear to be quite factually accurate. Below are his opinions of Doddridge County as they appeared in The Life of Joseph H. Diss DeBar and His Reminiscences of Doddridge County, by Rev. Jesse A. Earl. All of the featured sketches were drawn by Diss Debar. The originals are housed at the West Virginia State Archives in Charleston.
Reminiscences of Doddridge County
Ed. West Union Herald—In complying with your invitation to send you a sketch of the good old times in Doddridge, 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, April 15th, forty-seven years ago, that one of Major Hilderbrand's grimy coaches, conducted all the way from Parkersburg via Vaucluse by the experienced hands of Dick Cheaton, stopped for dinner at a certain hostelry in a secluded but picturesque landscape called Lewisport, and not yet discovered on any maps of the State.
Foreground, Caleb Boggess
Background, Edwin L. Duncan
Right, Joseph Gratz
Left, Daniel Sherwood
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. 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 easygoing 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 inquired 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 very good maps on rather poor paper, I climbed on top of the coach and 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 linsey hunting shirt, had also improved my acquaintance. His silken hair was of the most ardent hue, with which dame 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 resident 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. Hewett, 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 beehive. The name seems to have been found in 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 tho not Lewisville or Lewisdale, as its topography suggested, but perversely Lewisport. I was at a lose to perceive, since the usually shallow stream which poetically meandered through the inland region had never, to the best of my recollection, floated as much as a skiff, until Floyd Neely and Dan Sherwood had the unheard of pluck 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.
Ephraim Bee, giving a stump speech.
But if the name of Lewisport was a puzzle, that of West Union seemed an ironic sort of joke, since it owned its very origin to a 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 preference 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 secession war, which settled many another neighborly strife about a stray sheep or a breechy pig brought about that retribution state of things which sent Ephraim Bee to the Legislature and Preston Randolph to Camp Chase. But let us now explore the folds of memory for some more peaceful features of that delightful old time.
Diss Debar's horse Fanny
Surveying the surrounding country from the veranda 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 a freshly painted frame building on the turnpike, half way down to the bridge, where William and Frank Lewin kept a general store and their mild faced brother-in-law, Mr. Grove 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-track in Ephraim Bee's meadow since the whole of West Union town plot barely afforded level land sufficient for a ten pin alley. It was upon this green field of glory that Floyd Neely's Hambletonian dun, Nim Dent's chickasaw Godolphin and Debar's blackjack mare, Fanny Ellsler, periodically competed for the honors of the local turf. And though it was originally only a private affair with an aggregate of bets never exceeding twenty dollars, the public soon took sufficient interest in 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, Toliver [Taliaferro] 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 boots and
shoes 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 shoulder of a clever young man known as Wm. Beard, who later found a watery grave, that I was enabled to reach my lodgings 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 aforementioned that the first keg 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 Lewin'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 "big tavern" in the center of the town where after his well known friends, F. 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 flip penny bits wherewith to patronize the alluring delicacies in variously shaped bottles. It is hardly necessary to add, that these who enjoyed credit—nearly all of them who did never failed to improve it to their heart's content, and expressed their gratitude therefor 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 Linse Owens was not an excellent good fellow, it was generally believed that he could fiddle much better with a handsaw than with a horsehair bow, when he had a mind to, which was sometimes the case. And as for the matter of musical genius, none of the worthies 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 qualifications 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 performer 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 Jinny" his steadily inflating bag of Spanish Dollars, and his remnant of a once fashionable pig-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 Court House, his brother-in-law, Chapman J. Stuart, not long since emigrated from Harrison County, was building a residence and opening 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-unwrapped with the words: "I have found out your little secret, but Chap never shall." The pith 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 Wm. Meserva, was putting up a storehouse 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 then 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 new fangled 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 feel in duty bound to mention at least those I
Fiddle Player, Eli B. Tucker
Captain Nathan Davis
distinctly remember. But exactly where Enoch Southworth, the tailor, Dave Hansford, the painter, ex-merchant Lawson Yates, Bill Mahana, 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 Mrs. Maulsby, with her family resided 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 eldest son Josiah, equally esteemed as a man and merchanic (?), was then still living nearly opposite Meserva's on the pike, but soon afterward began to build a comfortable permanent home a few lots back of Mrs. Maulsby. In these days court, both county and superior, was held in the vacated brick mansion of the patriarch, Capt. Davis, around which and a few others not quite such dry places, the yeomanry of the surrounding country could be studied under unusual advantages, when Dame Justice was holding forth within. The first impression of such scenes upon a city denizen was inevitably quaint and even bordering on the comical in certain features. But upon closer acquaintance it generally became apparent to an unbiased observer why those good old quaint people looked, talked, dressed, and acted precisely alike as they did, and not otherwise. It was all in the peculiar history and circumstances of a section of country but recently taken from the stump. And it always was to me an object of wonder how amid so many unfavorable elements, these hardy-handed pioneers managed to preserve a degree of self respect, native tact and courtesy which you would look for in vain among the jumbled population of the West or the boasted Puritan descendants in the far East. On the other hand in the region of country where a numerous class of people deemed speculative pursuits more honorable and profitable than splitting rails and hoeing corn, it behooved strangers to keep his eyes open, buy no cats in a bag nor sign his name to any paper without first reading it through under penalty of very severe experience. But after all, things are scarcely otherwise in far more civilized communities, and I still cling to the sentimental opinion that certain traits of your native mountaineers would form quite a commendable improvement on the average Wall Street operator.
But I have wandered far from the Court House into whose majestic hail I was about to take a peep, while that time-honored institution, the County Court, is in session. Quite as vividly as if seen but the other day. I there recognize the familiar faces of a dozen or more rural magistrates selected from the best local material and generally typical of the population under their jurisdiction. When I have named such men as Thomas and Matthew Neely, Daniel Haymond, Thos. S. Jones, Tate, Capt. Davis and his son, John, from across the creek, Col. (Tollgate) Davis and even John Dotson, 'Squire' Jeffrey and Archibold. I may have included some whom one or both of the county factions called by more or less unenviable names. But upon the whole that group of dignitaries impressed me at the time as representing a fair average of the local intelligence, with certainly quite as much sense of justice and righteous endeavor as could be expected under the divided condition of the public interest and sentiment. And moreover, with my taste for the picturesque. I must own to quite a weakness for those stately- looking country Squires with their straight combed hair, their ambitious shirt collars, their holiday clothes and generally fitted as they had been borrowed for the occasion from a next-door neighbor.
Not having enjoyed the advantage of personal observation for over a quarter of a century, I cannot speak of the social delights of your community whose cradle I have helped to rock in my better days. But at least in the Herald's local column, interesting as they are, I can find little or no trace of that genial tone of intercourse that prevailed at the county seat beneath all its ruffled surface, especially on those red-letter days when the courts were in session. When in the absence of railroads the legal fraternity had to journey from one county to another in the saddle, over helter-skelter roads, rain or shine, they appreciated good things in a social line in a degree and style necessarily unknown to the modem barrister, who, with his green bag now comes and goes on a train in as many hours as it formerly took days. And persons inclined to total abstinence on account of dyspepsia, lung trouble or other infirmities, did not then forget the Golden Rule to the extent of confining their healthy fellow citizens to their own preferred element so notoriously congenial to your ducks, oysters and fish. Some respect still prevailed for the imperscriptible rights of American freedom, who did not shake off the yoke of King George to put their necks into that of a far more .......master. If apples had been abolished after and on account of Adam's fall through that delicious fruit, may I ask you, Mr. Editor, in true and honest candor, where would we all be now?
In the happy days I was writing about, gentlemen convened and enjoyed themselves in a cozy and sensible manner that always left a fragrant dew on the pages of memory. Yes, those were truly halcyon days when the hospitable wall in the "Big Tavern" aforementioned echoed the sparkling wit and humor of such sprightly compeers as the Hon. Jas. M. Stephenson of
Squire Joseph Jeffrey
Squire Samuel Archbold
Parkersburg, John Duncan and his brother-in-law Jim Jackson, Col. Augustus J. Smith, Col. Ben Wilson and his cousins, Wm. L. and Ben. W. Jackson, Jacob B. Blair, with Chancy Lewis, U. M. Turner and Robert Johnson in a quieter background, yet within hearing of the broader jests of Jack Homer and one or two other wags of the same order. True, some good things were abused now and then, as they undoubtedly are now, only perhaps, under a longer cloak. For instance, others besides myself may still remember a case where four or five young gentlemen, all members of a noted family and two of them county prosecutors, were indicted and brought to trial by the father of two of them, who was prosecutor in another county, for sitting-up rather late in a garret room by the light of two tallow candles planted in the necks of empty bottles. Yes, Mr. Editor, those bottles were empty, and I would not hesitate to swear to that fact, if required.
Of course outside of court times the course of pleasure in West Union town ran in rather straight and simple grooves, and sociabilities, although cordial as far as they went, were few and far between. Frank Hickman's late latch string always hung outside the door for a game of euchre with himself and his amiable wife. By and by our dark eyed, but not unsocial friend Foley paid a visit to his native haunts and brought back with him a stately and in every way an agreeable helpmate whose sunny temper tended not a little to light up the long dreary village evenings. The day when Floyd Neely and Wm. Dent wisely followed suit belongs to a somewhat later period. In the fate of our friends Hewitt and Sherwood, I believe similar improvements never became matters of record.
When Capt. Marion Smith took charge of the "Big Tavern" it was beginning to be styled a hotel, and besides the suppression of the bar-room music above described, other refining features soon tended to make life somewhat more agreeable. His interesting wife, whose demise I recently noticed with regret, marked feminine traits and fondness for intelligent society and conversation. And if her Virginian husband's oratory did not invariably convince his native hearers of the superiority of everything Old Virginia he could boast at least of a keen pair of eyes which, I hope, may still serve him to read these lines, as I am writing them without specs.
Despite the several instances of pairing off above cited, there were always idle bachelors enough left on the hotel porch to discuss the various points of Tom's new horse, of his old fence, or Dick's lefty sire and store clothes since he had been to Baltimore with a drove of hogs, or Harris forsaking the plow handles to teach school where he had so rarely been himself. Not infrequently either, charitable speculations were looking to the time when this or that other recklessly swopping and bantering citizens would receive a visit from the sly old Mexican trader, Uncle Fred Harrison, now deputy sheriff, on matters of business not exactly relating to the Santa Fe Trail.
Still for all that, as a general thing, dullness and apathy reigned Supreme. There was nothing to stir up the ambitions, no exciting social diversions, no public amusements of any kind, "not even church," as the keen witted Jack Jarvis once expressed it, when further indulgence in his own favorite fund would have been perilous to life and limb, since he had to ride seven or eight miles to get home. No wonder then if some of us exuberant spirits at reasonable intervals were beguiled into doing or saying some eccentric thing or other by way of pastime, that can be under gossipy observation. And, though idleness is said to be the mother of all vices, those few of her numerous children that timidly strayed into that primitive city were by no means the wildest of her family.