Published On: Wed, Jul 30th, 2014

Historical Society hears about colorful Durbin history

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WilmothKerrStore

Wilmoth Kerr General Merchandise store in Durbin in the early 20th century. Photo courtesy Preserving Pocahontas.

For the first time in its 51-year history, the Pocahontas County Historical Society met in Durbin on Monday evening. The occasion was a presentation on Durbin history by Jason Bauserman, of Bartow.

Bauserman has uncovered a wealth of fascinating information by reading through old record books, stored in the back room of the Durbin Town Office. The records include Justice of the Peace logbooks, Town Council records and a ledger book from Wilmoth Kerr General Merchandise store, which operated in Durbin around the turn of the 20th century.

During a visit to the Town Office, Bauserman started browsing through the old books and “got hooked.”

“It’s really been a great thing for me to get into and now I can’t get out of it,” he said.

Bauserman began his presentation by leading the group on a short walk to the old Durbin Jail, a cinder block building about 20 feet square. The researcher explained that the jail was built in 1938 and is the town’s second jail. The first jail – a wood frame structure – was burnt to the ground by an escaping inmate. The cinder block jail has just two cells and a small front office, where Durbin Town Council met for several years. The jail closed sometime in the 1960s. Former jailer June Colaw, age 91, lives in Durbin.

Bauserman explained that only minor offenders would be jailed in Durbin. Minor offenses included drunkenness and disorderly conduct, and were punishable by a fine of one to five dollars. If an offender had the money to pay the fine, he would be released. If not, he was often jailed and put on a work crew for days or weeks, working on roads or other town projects. Only misdemeanor offenders were jailed in Durbin. Felons were sent to the jail in Marlinton.

More serious offenses, such as selling liquor without a license, resulted in a fine from $25 to $50 – a sizable sum in the early 1900s. Hunting or fishing on Sunday was considered a serious offense, as was operating a house of ill repute without a license. According to Bauserman, in Durbin’s colorful early days, a license could be obtained for operating a house of ill repute. The town records recite that an unlicensed house, operating in a boxcar, had been fined.

During the Prohibition Era, operating a still became a very serious offense, and offenders could be sent to federal prison for brewing “hootch” or making beer or wine.

A rail line reached Durbin in 1903. Bauserman said the train brought massive changes to the Durbin area – some good, some bad. A good change was a wider variety of goods at Wilmoth Kerr General Merchandise, shown in transactions recorded in the store’s ledger book.

“There were things that I did not see in 1901, but were there in 1909,” said Bauserman. “Never before had I seen bacon, but they had bacon, coconut, sauerkraut, castor oil, cream, fish, dry beans, snuff, bottled pickles, camphor, tomatoes, cologne – somebody bought a Valentine’s Day card – apricots, prunes, pencils for five cents, vanilla, window blinds, Postum and fly paper.”

“It’s amazing how much the train changed this whole area,” Bauserman added.

Along with the good came the bad. As thousands of single men flocked to northern Pocahontas County to work in the timber industry, crime increased. Residents were warned to stay indoors on paydays, when rowdy loggers would take over the town for drunken revelry, which often involved gun play.

Durbin incorporated in 1906 and Dr. Peter Dilley (P.D.) Arbogast was elected mayor with 37 votes. Bauserman said Arbogast created a storm of opposition when he imposed a “privy tax” of one dollar.

Before the construction of sanitary sewer systems, Durbin homes were equipped with a type of outhouse in which waste was collected in containers. A town employee would drive a wagon through town and empty all of the privy containers. The waste was spread on hayfields as fertilizer. Despite the unpleasantness of the task, Arbogast’s one dollar tax for outhouse cleaning was considered an outrageous amount at the time.

Bauserman displayed a vintage device, called an electric leak detector, stored in the old jail building. He explained that Howes Tannery produced electricity in Durbin, long before power companies, and sold electricity to town residents. Presumably, the leak detector was used to identify electric “leaks,” or the stealing of electricity.

Bauserman has reached the 1930s in his reading of the old record books, and many more books remain to be examined. When he finds a particularly interesting item, he makes notes on an index card and bookmarks the page with the information. Eventually, he hopes to compile the information in a separate volume.

Following Bauserman’s presentation, the Historical Society conducted a brief business meeting Secretary Denise McNeel reported an unsolicited $500 contribution from a museum visitor earlier in the day. Jan and Roger Orndorff, of Monterey, Virginia, contributed $500 to the Museum renovation fund. Treasurer Bill McNeel reported that the State Historic Preservation Office had awarded the Historical Society a grant of nearly $35,000 for a new museum roof, but that more than $5,000 is still needed for the project.

Monthly Historical Society meetings feature presentations on a variety of topics. A yearly membership costs $10. For more information, call Bill McNeel at 304-799-4369.

 

 

For the first time in its 51-year history, the Pocahontas County Historical Society met in Durbin on Monday evening. The occasion was a presentation on Durbin history by Jason Bauserman, of Bartow.

Bauserman has uncovered a wealth of fascinating information by reading through old record books, stored in the back room of the Durbin Town Office. The records include Justice of the Peace logbooks, Town Council records and a ledger book from Wilmoth Kerr General Merchandise store, which operated in Durbin around the turn of the 20th century.

During a visit to the Town Office, Bauserman started browsing through the old books and “got hooked.”

“It’s really been a great thing for me to get into and now I can’t get out of it,” he said.

Bauserman began his presentation by leading the group on a short walk to the old Durbin Jail, a cinder block building about 20 feet square. The researcher explained that the jail was built in 1938 and is the town’s second jail. The first jail – a wood frame structure – was burnt to the ground by an escaping inmate. The cinder block jail has just two cells and a small front office, where Durbin Town Council met for several years. The jail closed sometime in the 1960s. Former jailer June Colaw, age 91, lives in Durbin.

Bauserman explained that only minor offenders would be jailed in Durbin. Minor offenses included drunkenness and disorderly conduct, and were punishable by a fine of one to five dollars. If an offender had the money to pay the fine, he would be released. If not, he was often jailed and put on a work crew for days or weeks, working on roads or other town projects. Only misdemeanor offenders were jailed in Durbin. Felons were sent to the jail in Marlinton.

More serious offenses, such as selling liquor without a license, resulted in a fine from $25 to $50 – a sizable sum in the early 1900s. Hunting or fishing on Sunday was considered a serious offense, as was operating a house of ill repute without a license. According to Bauserman, in Durbin’s colorful early days, a license could be obtained for operating a house of ill repute. The town records recite that an unlicensed house, operating in a boxcar, had been fined.

During the Prohibition Era, operating a still became a very serious offense, and offenders could be sent to federal prison for brewing “hootch” or making beer or wine.

A rail line reached Durbin in 1903. Bauserman said the train brought massive changes to the Durbin area – some good, some bad. A good change was a wider variety of goods at Wilmoth Kerr General Merchandise, shown in transactions recorded in the store’s ledger book.

“There were things that I did not see in 1901, but were there in 1909,” said Bauserman. “Never before had I seen bacon, but they had bacon, coconut, sauerkraut, castor oil, cream, fish, dry beans, snuff, bottled pickles, camphor, tomatoes, cologne – somebody bought a Valentine’s Day card – apricots, prunes, pencils for five cents, vanilla, window blinds, Postum and fly paper.”

“It’s amazing how much the train changed this whole area,” Bauserman added.

Along with the good came the bad. As thousands of single men flocked to northern Pocahontas County to work in the timber industry, crime increased. Residents were warned to stay indoors on paydays, when rowdy loggers would take over the town for drunken revelry, which often involved gun play.

Durbin incorporated in 1906 and Dr. Peter Dilley (P.D.) Arbogast was elected mayor with 37 votes. Bauserman said Arbogast created a storm of opposition when he imposed a “privy tax” of one dollar.

Before the construction of sanitary sewer systems, Durbin homes were equipped with a type of outhouse in which waste was collected in containers. A town employee would drive a wagon through town and empty all of the privy containers. The waste was spread on hayfields as fertilizer. Despite the unpleasantness of the task, Arbogast’s one dollar tax for outhouse cleaning was considered an outrageous amount at the time.

Bauserman displayed a vintage device, called an electric leak detector, stored in the old jail building. He explained that Howes Tannery produced electricity in Durbin, long before power companies, and sold electricity to town residents. Presumably, the leak detector was used to identify electric “leaks,” or the stealing of electricity.

Bauserman has reached the 1930s in his reading of the old record books, and many more books remain to be examined. When he finds a particularly interesting item, he makes notes on an index card and bookmarks the page with the information. Eventually, he hopes to compile the information in a separate volume.

Following Bauserman’s presentation, the Historical Society conducted a brief business meeting Secretary Denise McNeel reported an unsolicited $500 contribution from a museum visitor earlier in the day. Jan and Roger Orndorff, of Monterey, Virginia, contributed $500 to the Museum renovation fund. Treasurer Bill McNeel reported that the State Historic Preservation Office had awarded the Historical Society a grant of nearly $35,000 for a new museum roof, but that more than $5,000 is still needed for the project.

Monthly Historical Society meetings feature presentations on a variety of topics. A yearly membership costs $10. For more information, call Bill McNeel at 304-799-4369.

 

About the Author

- Geoff Hamill can be contacted at gshamill@pocahontastimes.com