A roadside sign and a turn off the highways can lead to some interesting discoveries. We were driving home on WV Rte 18 on Thursday, having decided to take a different way home. I don't know about you, but I get tired of the same old roads and like to find new ways and places. These routes invariably take longer, not just because the roads are narrower and don't go directly to where we want to go, but also because there are new things to see along the way---and sometimes, a side road calling out for investigation.
On Thursday we noticed this historical marker on the side of the road.
We could only make out the name so I pulled out my much battered copy of West Virginia Historical Markers and looked up the name we'd seen on the sign: Joseph Diss Debar. Who was he? we wondered. The name was slightly familiar. I found the listing: creator of the West Virginia State Seal, and he had lived in the tiny community of Leopold that we had just past through. By this time we were a few miles down the road, but Larry obligingly turned around, and we went back to read the sign. Just before the sign was a beautiful old farmstead, and that lured us up Little Buck Run where we found the log barn, old schoolhouse and other homestead pictured yesterday.
I was very curious about the "Saint Clara community" mentioned on the sign. What was that? Back home, I started looking online and found out more:
The Saint Clara community was part of a larger effort to settle Swiss and German immigrants in the state. As this article in Wonderful West Virginia magazine explains, Mr. James Swan bought huge tracts of land in what is now West Virginia for pennies on the acre. He planned to parcel it out and make a fortune but his plans did not work out as planned and he actually died a poor man. A land agency obtained his holdings and hired agents to find people to buy the land. Joseph Diss Debar was one of those agents. In Comstock's West Virginia Heritage Encyclopedia, Boyd Stutler's article on Debar hailed Debar as "the first prophet of West Virginia."
Debar was born in the Alsace province of France, and sailed to America in 1842 on the same ship that brought Charles Dickens to America for a literary tour. Debar met Dickens on the ship; one incident noted by Comstock said that Debar got into a game of blackjack on board and lost almost everything, but then had a run of luck and was able to get over half of his money back. Dickens was watching and signaled to Debar to leave the game at the point, which Debar did, so he retained at least some of his money. Debar became and remained a fan of Dickens for the rest of his life.
In America, the colorful Debar was known for his large mustache and energetic, creative nature. He worked hard to get settlers to come to western Virginia, writing letters and advertisements about the many advantages and resources of the land. He married Clara Levassor in Parkersburg, but she died soon after giving birth to a son. Her parents moved back to their home in Cincinnati, taking the baby with them. Debar moved to his lands in Doddridge county and later married again, and he and his second wife had several children.
It was during this time that Debar envisioned and developed the Saint Clara community. Named for his first wife, the community drew Swiss and German people who were interested in a farming life. The community was prosperous and Debar became its first postmaster. He lived on his farm here until 1866, when he moved to Parkersburg. The Lutheran church was established there in 1852 (and is still there today) and got its first minister in 1867.A soldier who had been in France in the first World War told the church about a bronze sculpture he had seen and the church managed to raise the funds to have the statue brought to Doddridge county in 1921. The statue is still there, and that is what we missed seeing on Thursday. Just a few more miles up the road...so, another road trip will have to be made. This is something I just need to see for myself.
Mr. Debar became interested in politics and was elected to the state legislature the year after West Virginia officially became a state. He was appointed Commissioner of Immigration and continued his efforts to attract immigrants to West Virginia, and even sent, at his own expense, a display of the state's mineral and natural resources to the world fair held in France in 1867. He was asked to design the state's seal and his design was adopted by the legislature and is still in use today.
Eventually Debar moved to Philadelphia but he kept an interest in West Virginia until his death at 85 years of age. According to one of Comstock's sources, at the time of his death, Debar was placing advertisements for his services as a medium who could contact the dead. He was apparently a colorful character right to the end.
Interestingly, a reader of this blog sent me a link to an application for National Historic Register status for one of the homesteads in the area (thanks, Bob!). I am not sure if it is one of the ones we photographed on our trip, so I'll be checking on that when we return too. The application includes a lot of historic information about the area and about the history of this particular piece of property. There is a listing also for Krenn School on Little Buck Run, but I do not know where that is. More investigation!