Sunday, February 22, 2009

Back to Town Characters

Judge Jesse Fell lived on what was later the northeast corner of Northampton and Washington streets. He kept a tavern there and it was known by the "Sign of the Buck." His license, according to the old records, permitted him "to keep a public house in the town of Wilkes-Barre for the selling of whisky, rum, brandy, beer, ale, cider and all other spirituous liquors, provided he shall not at any time during said term suffer drunkenness or unlawful gaming, or any other disorders." Here in this old log tavern the principal men of the town, mostly Masons, met and talked over the affairs of the nation, county and town. Here the newspapers from the large cities of that day were eagerly read and criticised.

Here judge and lawyers on the circuit fed and lodged and, when the labors of the day were over, told their stories and cracked their jokes, stimulated by mint-juleps or rum punches, according to the temperature of the weather. Here the sheriff cried his sales in an upper room the lodge meetings were held. Here, in what was called the long room, the Fourth of July orations were delivered. In this old log tavern all prominent strangers in the valley put up. In the long room the great balls of that day were held. Great style in dress had not reached the valley yet and the young men and women at these dancing assemblies were not clothed and gowned as they are now. Homespun had not given way to broadcloth and silks. The old time fiddle had not yet been displaced by the modern orchestra. The old square dances and Virginia reels had not yet surrendered to the more modern and bewitching waltzes. Here the great suppers were served, when notable men came to town and toasts were given and responded to mid the delicious flavor of planked shad, fresh from the river, or broiled venison steaks and delicious buckwheat cakes, according to the season. In the bar room of this old log tavern Judge Fell constructed with the aid of a blacksmith a rude iron grate, and with it he first experimented if coal could be burned in a grate and thus answer for cooking provisions and warming the house, and he succeeded.

This is the memorandum he made on a fly leaf of a book called "Illustrations of Masonry"—February 11th of Masonry, 1808, made the experiment of burning the common stone coal of the valley in a grate in a common fireplace in my house, and find it will answer the purpose of fuel, making a clear and better fire at less expense than burning wood in the common way. Therefore, let us all remember, especially those of us who still have open grates to cheer and warm us in the long winter nights, that this cheer and comfort we owe to the patient experiments made nearly a hundred years ago of a brother Mason in his old log tavern with his rudely constructed iron grate. This old log tavern, where all these great events occurred, Judge Fell described as follows: "A two story log and frame building with an addition of one story high, has ten rooms, six fireplaces, three entries, a garret, a good cellar and an excellent well of never failing water at the kitchen door."

Judge Fell lived in the old tavern and kept open house there until he died. He must have been a very pleasant landlord. In his day taverns were kept by the most respectable men in the community. Taverns then were veritably for the entertainment of travelers and strangers, and not headquarters for idlers and noisy ward politicians. Judge Fell held the most important offices in the county. He was sheriff for two terms and performed the duties of his office ably and satisfactorily. His task was not an easy one.

In his day war was being waged between Connecticut settlers and Pennsylvania claimants, both sides claiming title to the same tract of land. Process growing out of these troubles had to be served by Sheriff Fell, and he did his work so diplomatically as to win the respect of both sides. Judge Fell was also appointed by Governor Mifflin the lieutenant of the county. He was afterwards appointed by the governor, inspector of the Luzerne County Militia. He knew little of the science of war and the manual of arms. As an illustration of his accomplishments in this line, brother Harvey tells the following story in his book:

"On the morning of the first parade of his brigade he took it into his head to drill a little by himself. Dressed in full regimentals he marched out, and placing himself in a military attitude, with his sword drawn, he exclaimed: "Attention battalion! rear and three paces to the rear, march!" And he tumbled down into the cellar. His wife hearing the racket came running out crying, "Oh. Jesse, has thee killed thyself?" "Go to, Hannah," said the hero, "what does thee know about war?" They were both Quakers, and this accounts for the word "thee" in their language."

Governor Mifflin also appointed Judge Fell associate judge in February, 1798, during good behavior. This position he filled with dignity for thirty-two years until the day of his death. He wrote a plain and beautiful hand, was a well informed man and a reader of good books. He was a man of few words, but what he said counted. He could prepare an address as able and scholarly as any lawyer or minister in the town. He died full of years and honor on the 11th day of August, 1830.

A quotation from an address delivered by Judge Jesse Fell before the members of Lodge 61, and visiting brethren in the lodge room, June 24, 1804.

"Let us remember in all our meetings and communications that we are brethren—although free, yet on the level, bound to keep within the compass of mutual good will, and to frame our conduct by the square of doing as we would be done by; keeping an open heart to every suffering brother, read to receive him as a tempest-driven voyager in a port of safety. Let us be of one mind, avoid all levity of conversation, be sober and temperate; abstaining from every excess that would enervate the body, debase the understanding, cherish strife and dishonor our calling; study to be quiet and do our own business with our own hands, as knowing that a wise brother's delight is the work of the craft. Let us learn when to be silent and when to speak, for a babbler is an abomination because of the unspeakable word, which a man may not utter but in a proper place."(Wilkes-Barre Record, 1905)