Kith and Kin

Sign for DeWolf Street, Wellington, Ohio. Photo by author.

Sign for DeWolf Street, Wellington, Ohio. Photo by author.

Just northeast of the center of Wellington, there runs a small road that currently dead-ends into the village’s main train line. There are fewer than ten homes situated on DeWolf Street, and I would venture to guess that not many of the residents suspect their road is named after one of the village’s earliest and most respected settlers. Other than his headstone, Matthew DeWolf has only this memorial. But his family’s story is deeply entwined with the founding and growth of Wellington, and contrasting Matthew with one of his younger relatives offers an interesting case study on societal changes here over the course of the nineteenth century.

Matthew DeWolf was born in Otis, Massachusetts in 1792. He and many members of his family eventually emigrated from Berkshire County to Wellington Township. Though sources offer a wide range of dates for the trip, the ones I find most persuasive suggest that Matthew, his wife Mary, young son Homer, brother Whitman, and sister-in-law Alice all journeyed west together in January 1827, shortly after the latters’ marriage. It is possible that Matthew’s younger sister–recorded as Pamelia, Parmelia and Parnela–also traveled with them, though some sources seem to indicate that she arrived in Wellington first.

In the unpublished manuscript records of the First Congregational Church of Wellington, the following passage appears on May 12, 1827: “Mr. Matthew D. Wolf & his Wife Mary & Mrs. Alice D Wolf Wife of Whitman D Wolf from the Church of Otis & Jonathan Niles from the Church of West Stockbridge, After their Letters were read the Individuals were examined in regard to their experimental knowledge of religion and their views of truth and duty—the Church votd to receive them as members of this Church” (mss. pg. 11). Two years later, Matthew’s father, James DeWolf, was also examined and admitted to what was then known simply as the Church of Wellington (mss. pg. 19).

Inscription by

Inscription by “M. DWolf – Wellington, Ohio” on the endpaper of an 1834 “Psalms of David.” Private collection. Photo by author.

Matthew DeWolf was known to his contemporaries as a religious person, deeply committed to societal reform. He is recorded in numerous written recollections as the keeper of a “temperance tavern” on what is today the corner of North Main Street and East Herrick Avenue. (DeWolf owned much of the land in the northeast quadrant of the town, which is why the street bearing his name is located there.) The name suggests a public house in which no alcoholic beverages were permitted. DeWolf’s building is also said to have served as a regular meeting spot for the church, as well as one of the village’s first schoolhouses. J. B. Lang, the Wellington correspondent to the Lorain County News, wrote in his obituary, “Mr. DeWolf during some of the first winters of his residence here, occupied his time in teaching school, and it was the fortune of the writer to attend one of his schools, which was an excellent one, he being one of the first teachers in the country who discarded corporeal punishments in the school room” (7-19-1865, pg. 3).

Homer DeWolf, Matthew and Mary’s only child, died unmarried around 1840, when he was no more than twenty-five years old. Mary DeWolf died circa 1855/6 and was interred in Wellington’s Pioneer Cemetery on what is now West Herrick Avenue. If Homer is buried near her, his marker has not survived. Matthew, by then in his mid-sixties, decided to remarry. He proposed to a local tailoress called Betsey Webster Manly, also born in Otis, Massachusetts. Betsey had been a widow for more than thirty years, but she accepted Matthew’s hand.

Betsey was the daughter of a deacon from Berkshire County. She had married first husband Josiah Manly on her nineteenth birthday. Her obituary is worth quoting at some length: “They remained [in Otis] till 1821, then with their little family of five members, bade adieu to the old home, and with an ox team set out upon a journey to the Westward, Wellington being their destination. Forty days and nights were passed before this long and toilsome journey came to an end…Russell Webster, a brother of Mrs. Manly, had a log cabin nearly completed, which was to be the future home of this family…The cabin had some extra furnishings which had been brought from the East. There was one chair, a small stand, some sheep skin mats spread upon the white puncheon [i.e. split log] floors, a candle stick, with snuffers and tray, and a tallow candle burning in the socket, an article the other settlers had not seen in use since leaving their homes in the East” (The Wellington Enterprise, 5-15-1879, pg. 3).

In the summer of 1824, sickness had passed through the village. Young Betsey and her husband both fell gravely ill. Dr. Daniel Johns was their attending physician. Josiah died August 21st, the first death recorded in Wellington. Betsey was so sick she was not told for a week that her husband had passed. Josiah Manly has two headstones: a simple, older stone in the Pioneer Cemetery, and a later joint stone with Betsey in Greenwood Cemetery. I presume that Josiah was not disinterred–why would the older stone have been left standing?–but rather Betsey wished to honor her connection to him on her own marker. It is curious that Betsey would choose burial in Greenwood given that her parents, siblings and presumably both of her husbands were all located in the older graveyard. Perhaps by the time of her passing in 1879, that small space was full.

(In later life, Betsey became mother-in-law to David Hoke who, in 1890, murdered his employer then committed suicide in a grocery store on North Main Street.)

Known for his commitment to temperance, Matthew DeWolf was also apparently an ardent abolitionist. He, his brother-in-law Abner Loveland (who married Pamelia/Parmelia/Parnela DeWolf in 1826), and Dr. Eli Boies were among the twelve Wellington men arrested and indicted for their role in the famous Oberlin-Wellington Slave Rescue of 1858. DeWolf and Loveland were considered men of means, so they were fined $20 each and only spent twenty-four hours in jail. Historian Nat Brandt asserted in his The Town that Started the Civil War (1990) that most of the Wellington men were indicted not because of direct action on the day of the rescue, but because they were known to be conductors on the Underground Railroad. He included DeWolf, Loveland and Boies in that group.

Headstones of Mary DeWolf and Mathew DeWolf, Pioneer Cemetery, Wellington, Ohio. Photo by author.

Headstones of Mary DeWolf and Matthew DeWolf, Pioneer Cemetery, Wellington, Ohio. Photo by author.

Matthew DeWolf died in the summer of 1865 and was buried next to his first wife, Mary. As I mentioned, the couple’s only child had died decades before. But one historical source claims that DeWolf raised a nephew. It is tempting to wonder if that nephew was James DeWolf, son of Whitman and Alice, who was born in Wellington in 1829. James was sometimes mistakenly referred to as Matthew’s son. Is that because he lived in Matthew’s household? Or is it because humans love to craft narrative around the events that they observe, and the more shocking and ironic that narrative, the better?

For James DeWolf was very unlike his well-respected uncle, one might say the polar opposite. He first appears in the public record in the late 1860s, charged with selling liquor. In 1868, his saloon on the south side of Liberty Street burned to the ground. The Lorain County News noted that most of the saloon’s contents were saved, excepting “two valuable billiard tables” (2-12-1868, pg. 3). Four years later, James was sued by a wife for selling intoxicating liquors to her husband; the case was to be heard by Mayor Noah Huckins but was settled out of court. A drunken brawl the same year left a customer with a nearly-severed ear and the bartender shot in the shoulder. In 1875, a suspicious death at DeWolf’s saloon resulted in a murder inquiry, but ultimately no one was charged with the crime.

Mrs. Lydia Boies met James DeWolf. In a letter now held in a private collection, she wrote: “Saloons were then not lawful, nor were they forbidden in Ohio. They were simply refused a license & were regarded as incompatible with the good of society. A young gentleman (De Wolf) opened a saloon for money making. We—that is, we that were accustomed to watch and pray for everyone were terribly aroused and began to ask ‘What can we do about it?’ We found also 2 or 3 others in town. One morning I received a message from Mrs. [Jerusha] Reed asking if I would join her in leading an attack with axe and hammer on De Wolfs and other saloons. Now I am physically & constitutionally a coward unless where I see duty or God leading, and my cowardice served me here. I replied that De Wolf kept a bull dog and and gun which he declared would be used on any one molesting him, and also I said violence was only to be used as a last resort. We then met and planned a series of visitations in person to every saloon keeper. Mrs. Reed & I visited a German who said ‘I will give up if oders will.’ De Wolf refused, and in after years it proved his ruin” (mss. pgs. 12-13).

Local amateur historian Robert Walden never met James DeWolf, but he did know James’ wife and daughter, Jessie DeWolf Seeley. Walden wrote: “James, universally called Jim…made a radical departure from the straight and narrow. He opened a saloon called ‘The Morning Star’ next door west from the Foote old frame livery stable on the south side of Herrick Avenue West. As its name suggested, he kept it open when occasion suggested until the wee hours of the morning. It was the scene of wild celebrations.” Walden noted that it was after the suspicious death in his establishment that James sold The Morning Star and left Wellington for nearby Clarksfield Hollow. “Many of the laborers were Irish and West Clarksfield had several saloons but there was an overflow crowd at Jim’s place in Clarksfield Hollow on Saturdays” (Notebook, #A159).

Damaged headstone of James DeWolf (1829-1900) in Clarksfield Township Cemetery. Photo from website Findagrave.com.

Damaged headstone of James DeWolf in Clarksfield Township Cemetery. Photo from website Findagrave.com.

James DeWolf’s wife eventually divorced him and he began living on the second floor of his new saloon. It was there, in December 1900, that he died in a fire that made headlines all over the state. The Stark County Democrat was one among many that reported, but did so in unusually gruesome detail. “Dewolf, a single man, was asleep in an upper room, was unable to make his escape, and prished [sic] in the flames. His head and limbs were burned from his body, and only a portion of his trunk was found in the ashes. He was smothered by the smoke and in attempting to get out of the building, fell headlong into the burning embers” (12-18-1900, pg. 2). Several of the newspaper accounts referred to DeWolf’s business as a tobacco and confectionery store, rather than as a bar.

Matthew DeWolf was seventy-three years old when he died. His nephew, James, was nearly seventy-two. The men shared a family name and hometown over the course of roughly equal life spans, but ultimately took quite different paths. It would be overstating matters to suggest some symbolism of a decline in Wellington’s civic life; that The Temperance Tavern, serving also as a church and school, gave way over the decades to the rowdy drunkenness and criminality of The Morning Star. Wellington grew and changed, to be sure, but it did not steadily decline from a wilderness paradise to an urban den of iniquity. Still, I find something deeply compelling in this family–and town–story.

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5 thoughts on “Kith and Kin

  1. Laura Fratus

    That was first rate! I grew up on DeWolf Street, immediately next door to the old machine shop. Although I had heard the name Matthew DeWolf, reading the detailed story was a lot of fun, and I’m delighted to have found your blog.

    Reply

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