A (future) noted West Virginian befriends Charles Dickens

Posted by Dave Tabler | June 20, 2019

The year he turned 44 years old, in 1864, Joseph Hubert Diss Debar was appointed WV commissioner of immigration by Governor Boreman; during his tenure he produced the only handbook for immigrants to be published in the state, printed in English, German and Swedish. He was Doddridge County’s first representative to the newly created West Virginia Legislature, the only foreign-born delegate to serve in that body. In 1863, the legislature had appointed Debar to make drawings for a state seal and coat-of-arms. These designs became the official seal and coat-of-arms for the state when West Virginia came into the union. Joseph Diss Debar, in short, was prominent in matters of state.

Joseph H. Diss Debar

Joseph H. Diss Debar

But all these successes were still far in the future in 1842, the year Diss Debar crossed paths with Charles Dickens for the first and only time.

Diss Debar didn’t start his life in West Virginia. He was born in Strasbourg in French Alsace in 1820, the son of the estate manager for Cardinal Prince de Rohan. The young Debar headed to America, with strong connections from France to pave the way, to become a land agent in what would later be West Virginia. One major land holding covering several counties in the north central part of the state was known as the Swan lands, acquired by James Swan of Boston before 1809. John Peter Dumas of Paris, named trustee for the estate upon Swan’s death in 1831, ended up hiring Diss Debar.

Joseph Diss Debar sailed toward America from Liverpool, England to Boston, in January 1842 on the steamer Britannia. Charles Dickens was also making the voyage, and the two became friends.

In this excerpt from Reminiscence of Charles Dickens’ first visit to America by a fellow passenger (J. H. Diss Debar), Debar explains how:

“For pastime only — for I have never played anything but whist or e’carte’ before — I took part in a game of vingt-et-un in the saloon, supposing the company respectable and the risk slight. The fascinations of the game, however, and the stimulating example of an American gentleman at my elbow, carried me beyond my soundings.

“I lost nearly fifty dollars the first day and half as much the next — almost a catastrophe for a young commercial traveler on a moderate salary. Hoping to retrieve my luck, I next morning again ventured to the shrine of the fickle goddess and had recovered half my losses, when, a change of dealer or banker occurring, I felt a soft but significant touch upon my right shoulder, and looking around beheld a pair of large and wonderfully eloquent eyes beckoning me to come away.

Collection Wikipedia Commons

RMS Britannia in 1840.

“Comprehending the situation, I quietly arose under some pretext and took a walk on deck, where Mr. Dickens made his appearance an hour after, apparently unconscious of my presence. Seeing me approach him, he waived the formality of my expressions of gratitude with a sweeping gesture, merely inquiring whether I meant to play again in that company.

“Upon my unhesitating reply in the negative his satisfaction was unequivocal, and with a brief injunction of secrecy regarding his intervention he gently bowed himself away. Subsequent developments in the case of another victim of nearly my age revealed the fact that certain passengers, rising importers of New York City, whose banking proved so disastrous to some of their clients, were confederates playing into each other’s hands by such tricks as may readily be surmised by persons familiar with the game.

“Another occasion on which Mr. Dickens was forced out of his contemplative mood into something like personal display was afforded by the midnight storm so graphically depicted in the “Notes”. Granting that this war of elements was all that is claimed for it by the imaginative author, it failed to impress itself upon a majority of the passengers as a narrow escape from a watery grave.

“Perhaps an accident to the cow, which somewhat reduced the supply of milk in the regulation tea and coffee, contributed to magnify the perils of the gale in the eyes of transatlantic neophytes. At any rate they regarded the occasion as one eminently suggestive of a substantial testimonial of their grateful admiration to the captain, although this gallant little man, on hearing of the proposition while picking up crumbs around his plate with his moistened index, ‘thought he had often seen much worse weather.’

“A meeting was called, attended by scarcely any one not belonging to the British mess. In explanation of this term it may be of interest to state here that in those days English travelers on transatlantic steamers generally outnumbered all the others put together, and regularly messed at one and the same table during the passage.

Sketch of Charles Dickens from 1842.

Sketch of Charles Dickens from 1842.

“On this trip this table was presided over by the captain or his next in rank and occasionally by a young Briton, a colonel in a Canada regiment which he was going to join. Since this scion of nobility could be spared from the turf and field, it undeniably was a wise discretion that destined him to the military instead of the diplomatic career in which his father, a peer of the realm, occupied a distinguished rank.

“And it was undoubtedly the attraction of opposites which threw this young man preferably into the society of Mr. Dickens, who, at the table, occupied the seat immediately to his right. The other table in the saloon was almost exclusively tenanted by passengers from the continent, with a sprinkling of Americans and such Celts from the Green Isle or the land of Scots as were conscious of a tinge of disloyalty to her majesty’s authority.

“Some one having called the meeting to order, the choice of president fell upon the youthful Colonel, and Chas. Dickens Esqr was chosen secretary. So far, so good; but when the first named officer blushingly arose to explain the object of the meeting, an incident occurred, the generous omission in the “Notes” is herewith supplied it is hoped without impropriety.

“Although endowed with an organ that would have marshaled a whole army corps as well as a regiment, the noble colonel was totally unable to give vent to his feelings. In vain did his nervous hand wander from the tips of his flaxen hair to the depths of his pockets and vice-versa, but beyond the thrice repeated invocation, “Gentlemen — I — ah — awh” — he could not proceed. The meeting was beginning to look blue and sly jokes were already flashing up and down the opposition table, when the cart was happily pulled out of the bog by the nimble secretary who, gently elbowing down his honorable friend, accomplished the refractory task in his most felicitous style.

“As a result it was unanimously decided to present Captain Hewitt with a silver tea-set, for which a subscription was raised before the meeting adjourned. Nor did the luckless orator lack in grateful appreciation of his timely rescue from a critical strait, for he was ever afterward observed to cling to his benefactor more devotedly than ever, and at the sightseeing at Halifax and Boston the two had become perfectly inseparable.”


sources: http://www.polsci.wvu.edu/wv/Doddridge/dodhistory.html

Cowan’s Auctions Catalogue June 2012 



WV Governor’s Message, submitted to the Legislature of 1907, with the Accompanying Reports and Documents coevering the Two Fiscal Years Oct 1, 1904 to Sept 30, 1906


One Response

  • Ian Keable says:

    Great to see this story in fuller detail. Dickens of course would have known all about card sharping and hustlers from his early days in London. One thing that puzzles me is that I first came across this in Peter Acroyd’s Dickens, published in 1990. He attributes the story to Pierre Morand. Was that Joseph Hubert Diss Debar’s original French name? Or has Acroyd got it wrong?

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The June beetle – capturing a living music box

Posted by Dave Tabler | June 19, 2019

“From some long-forgotten source, I heard that June beetles made a sweet sound while flying around. I loved music, and the method to acquire this living music box was to fasten a long thread to one of the bug’s hind legs.

“Now, June beetles are about half an inch across and three quarters of an inch long. The ones in the South are dark green on the back side and have an armor-like covering over their undersides. They feed on fennel and are harmless.

june bug

“One day, I chased down a June beetle and brought it in. It was hard to hold. That bug clawed me with its sharp toes and rooted with its sharp nose. But I held on for dear life and persuaded Mother to tie a thread on its hind leg. She wasn’t too anxious to oblige me, but finally the job was accomplished and I took my musical bug outside to test it out.

“The ground around the house was level, so I chose a spot where I could turn my bug loose. It gladly took off, and I ran after it, holding on tight to the thread. The bug made a pleasing sound that was music to my ears. The sound that June beetle made—along with the Jew’s harp and harmonica—was the one source of music my young ears had ever heard.

“Soon the bug grew tired and sat down. I realized the thread might hamper its movements, so I waited while it rested. Still anxious to hear more music, I urged it to fly. As quick as lightening, the bug took off with me pounding along behind it. I was thoroughly enjoying the performance until the thread slipped off. With mixed emotions, I watched my music box disappear in the distance.

“I felt bad over my loss and set about repairing it. I found another June beetle, but somehow I didn’t like this one quite as well as the first one. Just the same, I hurried into the house to have Mother tie a thread on its leg. This time Mother openly expressed her dislike for such activities. Nevertheless, with strong urging on my part, she tied the thread once again. I took the new June beetle outside and let it fly as I had the old one, but the knot in the thread was too loose and slipped off. This bug also flew away, heading due north. It didn’t slacken its speed for even a moment.”


From a Parks family history compiled by Lillian “Lilly Ann” Parks Adams (1880-1976), at Capitola, CA, 1949-50, when she was 70 years old. She was born in Wayne County, WV. The story, she says, is to the best of her knowledge as a four-year-old child, and from family re-tellings.

source: M. Constance Hodges: LORDS OF THEMSELVES, A History of Eastern Lincoln County, Oregon. Volume 1; Delcon Historical Publications, Printed by Pioneer Printing, Copyright 1978, M. Constance Hodges. Chapter: Big Elk Valley: Parks Family History, pp. 243-272, Lillian (Lilly Ann) Parks Adams

One Response

  • James Parks says:

    This sweet little girl was my Dad’s Aunt. Her collection of memories is one of my most valued possessions. God Bless her beautiful Soul

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Decoration Day

Posted by Dave Tabler | June 17, 2019

An important tradition symbolic of the vital place of family in Appalachian life is Decoration Day, usually held on a Sunday in June. Families gather at rural churches and cemeteries to honor the memory of deceased family members.

A few days earlier, neighbors and kin gather to mow the cemetery grass, clean the graves, and prepare flowers. Homes are opened to accommodate family members returning from far and wide, communal meals are prepared, and folks gather to make a little music.

On Decoration Day, special preaching and church singing pay homage to the dead and bring families and communities closer together. The service is followed by “dinner on the grounds,” with large quantities of food cooked by local community members. Graves are decorated with flowers, visited, and stories told of humor, love, and remembrance about family members buried there.

Image ULPA 1979.33.0374/Jean Thomas, The Traipsin' Woman, Collection/University of Louisville Photographic Archives.

Image ULPA 1979.33.0374/Jean Thomas, The Traipsin’ Woman, Collection/University of Louisville Photographic Archives.


Timing of the event reflects Appalachia’s agrarian heritage. Mid-June was a time when crops were planted and growing, but long before harvest, mountain weather allowed for outdoor activity and made travel easier, and flowers were in bloom for decorating graves.

It was a betwixt and between time when mountain folk could reflect on their shared family and community heritage. Decoration Day is also a ritual for healing rifts and wounds among living family members. For all families, Decoration Day is a time and place for reconnecting kinship networks and remembering core family values. The tradition of Decoration Day in Appalachia is an old one, but it is a living tradition.

Source: Smithsonian Center for Folklife & Cultural Heritage

Decoration+Day appalachia appalachian+culture appalachian+history history+of+appalachia

4 Responses

  • Joan says:

    I miss those old traditions. However, the weekend before Memorial Day I took my black shepherd for a walk at Emigrant Lake, near the old cemetery. The parking lot at the cemetery was filled, as was the road leading up the hillside. Youngsters, oldsters and everyone in between were emptying out of cars, pickups and just good old guy “rigs>].” Out of hatchbacks and backs of trucks and rigs came lawnmowers, weedwackers, rakes, shovels, and various kinds of cutting implements. With some unspoken plan, the work group spread out over the hillside, mowing, wacking, and tending to graves. There was no food laden table, but the camaraderie of people talking about a shared and honored task was like music. Thanks for reminding me of that lovely day.

  • tipper says:

    The Decoration Days have been going on around my part of Appalachia for the past few weeks. I’m hoping to go to one next weekend-that I have to travel by boat to reach : )

  • […] in de Appalachen. Eens per jaar in de lente trekken families naar de graven van hun voorouders voor Decoration Day. Alle graven worden schoongemaakt en voorzien van verse bloemen en […]

  • latasha says:

    I’m in north east TN. I’ve never heard of this but it will now become tradition! I love these old traditions so very much. they need to come back!

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The Devil danced on Fiddlers Mountain

Posted by Dave Tabler | June 14, 2019

During the 1930s and 1940s Rose Thompson worked as a home supervisor with the Farm Security Administration in Georgia. While she worked with farmers and their wives — teaching them to put up preserves, make cotton mattresses, and build chick brooders — she listened to the stories they told.

Thompson spent some time during the summer of 1946 in Clayton, in Rabun County GA, where an elderly black preacher told her the tale of Fiddler’s Mountain.

The Reverend, Clayton GA“I had heard that there were very few blacks in Rabun County,” she recounted, “and I knew better than just to go rambling around. So I asked someone at the courthouse if it would be all right for me to go up there, and that person showed me the way to where an old black woman lived. She was nice enough about it, but she was a little vague about why she thought they called it Fiddlers Mountain.

“But she said the Reverend over there, he lived around a bend in the road, would know. She sent for the preacher, and sure enough he could and then they told it together although the preacher did most of the talking.”

“Why do they call it Fiddlers Mountain? Because nothing lives on it except those two musicians—just a fiddling and a swaying as they sit there and play. Any moonshiny night you can see them just a pulling the bow; and if you listen with a keen ear and a fearful heart, you can hear their music.

Bless your time, nobody knows how long they have been sitting there, but they are playing yet—to be sure. It was too long ago that a man came to one of the fiddlers and asked him to play the fiddle for him that night. Come to such and such a mountain. Going to be a big ball. And when night came, the fiddler went up on that mountain and took another man with him.

And when they got up the mountain there, they saw a great big house. Carriages and horses standing around. House all lit up. Laughing and talking going on—men and women all dressed up; women with trail train dresses on. Gave the fiddlers a seat and they went to playing. Every time they went through a cotillion, would come and pay the fiddlers. What a time they had! And just about that time the old Devil pranced in all dressed up and took his seat. They were all dancing and a bold gal walked up to the Devil and asked him to be her partner.

Devil got up and bowed and scraped and led the gal out in the ring. Then he set in to dance. He danced and danced. Cut so many capers that he pretty near danced that poor gal to death. Folks commenced to look at him and saw he had a pewter eye. After a while he cut so many fancy steps, they saw he had a club foot. All quit dancing. But the Devil kept on and danced the gal plumb to death. All the folks fell down on their knees and the Devil went out and took the side of the house with him—a braying like a mule.

And when the clock struck twelve, house went out of existence. House disappeared. House went down like a light going out. Nothing left but the two musicians still sitting up there on the mountain—just a fiddling and a swaying.

Hush, child! Can’t you hear the music?

Source: Hush, Child! Can’t You Hear the Music? By Rose Thompson, Charles Allen Beaumont, 1982, Univ of GA Press
The book is illustrated with photographs taken by Thompson and WPA photographer Jack Delano

Rose Thompson was a native of Greene County, Georgia

2 Responses

  • nellie says:

    I attended St. Andrews Presbyterian College during the mid 70’s. Our entire student body studied Black Mountain College, including Buckminster Fuller’s theories and ideas. In celebration of Earthday, we build a geodesic dome,. It was a great success. Mr. Fuller came to speak at our school of 680 students. It was a great experience. When I had the chance to hear him speak again in Parkersburg, West Virginia, I was one of the first to buy tickets. So many of his ideas have been found true. I am still waiting for our country to adopt his ideas on education in small, neighborhood 1-2 room schools. Thanks for the memories!

  • Keith Salter says:

    I cannot listen to broadcast any longer.
    Are they still being broadcast?

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She would stretch on tiptoes to reach the piano keys

Posted by Dave Tabler | June 13, 2019

A prolific composer, South Carolinian Lily Strickland (1884-1958) published 395 musical works for popular, church, and children’s performances. Her early works displayed the influences of life in the Jim Crow South, incorporating numerous elements of African American spirituals and folk music and the rhythms of Southern speech.

Lily was the only daughter of Charlton Hines Strickland and Teresa Hammond Reed. The family lived with her maternal grandparents, Judge & Mrs. J. Pinckney Reed at Echo Hall in Anderson, described by The State newspaper in 1958 as “a beautiful old place in the midst of formal gardens.” The home was built by Judge Reed, whom the paper went on to portray as a “man of such great personal charm and ability that his legend persists after six generations. He is remembered as an immaculate dresser, who wore frock-coat and stove-pipe hat and carried a gold-headed cane. Yet he often ‘fiddled,’ as he called it, for dances at his house when his many daughters were young, and is said to have been full of fun and frolic.”

In addition to his distinguished career as a judge, Reed was a successful lawyer, publisher of Anderson, SC’s first newspaper, and a member of the South Carolina Secession Convention. Lily’s grandmother was also known for her friendliness and charm, and both grandparents provided strong influences on Lily Strickland’s childhood.

Composer Lily StricklandFor a brief time the family relocated to New York City, where Lily’s father’s work as an insurance salesman had taken them. But upon her father’s death a few years later, Lily and her two brothers returned with their mother to Echo Hall. Often sung to sleep by her mother and aunt, Lily was surrounded by a musical, and warm, loving family.

She attended local Anderson schools and began learning to play the piano at the age of six. At an even younger age, her family reminisced that she would stretch up on tiptoes, barely reaching the keyboard, to pick out a few notes of musical expression. As a small child she often listened to the cotton pickers as they sang while working in the nearby fields.

Absorbing the Negro rhythm and melodies and the other influences of the natural environment of long Southern days amidst the pines and magnolias and the chirping of songbirds provided Lily with inspiration for her first compositions. Her older cousin Reed Miller, a noted concert tenor, encouraged her by singing the songs she made up. Other family members fostered her musical ambitions as well, and Lily played the pipe organ in the local Episcopal church and published her first compositions when she was only sixteen.

Lily received her formal musical education at Converse College in Spartanburg, known across the South for its strong music program. She studied piano and composition there from 1901 to 1904. Strickland went on to fame and fortune elsewhere, but in recognition of her accomplishments as a composer, Converse College conferred an honorary Doctor of Music degree upon her in 1924.

Lily Strickland enjoyed wide popularity, an unusual accomplishment for a female composer in the early twentieth century. Numerous ensembles, including the New York Philharmonic, the Charleston Symphony, and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, performed her work.

Words and music by Lily Strickland (1920)

Honey, did you hear that mockingbird sing last night?
Oh Lord, he was singing so sweet in the moonlight
In that old magnolia tree, bustin’ his heart with melody.
I know he was singing of you, Mah Lindy Lou, Lindy Lou
Oh Lord, I’d lay right down and die
If I could sing like that bird sings to you,
Mah little Lindy Lou.

Lindy, did you smell that honeysuckle vine last night?
Oh Lord, he was smelling so sweet in the moonlight
Clinging ’round my cabin door, reckon it’s ’cause he loves you so.
Honey, that’s the way I love you, Mah Lindy Lou, Lindy Lou
Oh Lord, I’d lay right down and die
If I could be as sweet as that to you,
Mah little Lindy Lou.

Lindy, did you feel that south wind blow last night?
Honey, it was kissing you sweet in the moonlight
Blowing from that old bayou, seems to say it loves you so.
Honey, that’s the way I love you, Mah Lindy Lou, Lindy Lou
Oh lord, I’d lay right down and die
If I could be that wind a-kissin’ you,
Mah little Lindy Lou.

Her most famous composition was a popular piece with a Southern flavor, Mah Lindy Lou, which entered the popular repertory through repeated performances by ballad singers in vaudeville in the 1920’s, and later was recorded by both Burl Ives and Paul Robeson.


sources: More Than Petticoats, Remarkable South Carolina Women, by Lee Davis, Globe Pequot, 2009


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