VIENNA - A relatively unknown local man played an important role in the formation of the State of West Virginia, a historian told a group of senior citizens in Vienna Thursday as part of celebrations to commemorate the state's 150th anniversary.
Bob Enoch, president of the Wood County Historical Society, spoke to more than 50 seniors at Pleasantview Towers in Vienna on the history and significance of West Virginia's State Seal and the man who designed it.
"My talk is about a man who led an interesting, but somewhat sad life," Enoch said.
Photo by Brett Dunlap
Bob Enoch, president of the Wood County Historical Society, speaks to a group of more than 50 seniors Thursday at Pleasantview Towers in Vienna on the history and significance of West Virginia’s State Seal.
Joseph H. Diss Debar was a gentleman who came to America and western Virginia in the 1840s. He wore a Van Dyke beard, a cloak, a silk hat and twirled a cane as he walked the streets of Parkersburg. He was educated in France and spoke fluently several languages.
"It was his natural ability that was his greatest asset," Enoch said. "He was a talented artist."
The state archives has Diss Debar's sketches of people, places and events in early West Virginia.
Diss Debar came to America because of the love of a woman, Clara Levassor. At the time, Diss Debar was 30 and Levassor was 17. Her family disapproved, left France and came to Parkersburg. Diss Debar followed and the two were married in 1847. They lived on 12th Street in Parkersburg. Clara died in childbirth with the couple's first child.
Diss Debar left and bought a tract of land in Doddridge County where he created a village called Santa Clara, in honor of his wife. He eventually remarried and had five children.
By the 1860s, the Civil War erupted and Diss Debar became an emerging political figure and was present at the Wheeling conventions where statehood for West Virginia was being considered.
"It was the formation of the state where the name of Joseph H. Diss Debar became more widely recognized," Enoch said. "In the early months of statehood, due to his artistic ability, Diss Debar was appointed to make drafts of the proposed seals and coat of arms for the new state."
His eventual design was adopted in September 1863.
Diss Debar was elected to the House of Delegates in 1864, representing Doddridge County. In his later years, Diss Debar moved to Pittsburgh where it had been said he died destitute as a pauper, Enoch said.
"The Great Seal of West Virginia is Diss Debar's most lasting legacy," he said. "It contains much symbolism, reflecting the people and the State of West Virginia."
The seal contains the motto, "Montani Semper Liberi," which means "Mountaineers Are Always Free." A farmer, dressed in traditional hunting garb, stands to the right with one arm on a plowhandle and the other with a woodsman's ax to signify that part of the land had been cultivated while work was still being done to clear out some of the original forests.
A miner, with a pick ax on his shoulder and minerals at his feet representing the resources of the state, is to the left of a large rock bearing the date of admission to the Union, June 20, 1863.
In front of the rock are two hunters' rifles with a Phrygian Cap, or "Cap of Liberty," resting at the cross of the rifles indicating the state's freedom and liberty are one.
Other aspects of the seal highlight farming, the railroad and industry as well as the state's liberty is tied to the founding principles of the United States, which at the time Virginia had left the Union and people decided to form a new state that would remain with the Union.
"It is hard to imagine that when Mr. Diss Debar designed this seal, the thought that had to go into it to create all of this symbolism," Enoch said. "It is truly a great piece of work."
The event at Pleasantview was organized by resident Clesta Dickson. The event included music selections played by an ensemble made up of Jack Dickson on trumpet, Helen Rivaud on piano, Joe Howard on tuba, Buddy Lee on saxophone, Bill Warfield on clarinet and Paul McCutcheon on trombone.
The crowd sang "West Virginia Hills" and "Country Roads." There was a small reception with West Virginia-themed cupcakes.
"I love West Virginia and my brother loves music," Clesta Dickson said. "We were able to put them both together."