Wayne County Wanderings: Theresa Soete Debelak and the Antique Call Bell
Many years ago, my mentor, Dr. Walter Barbe, gave me a bit of advice I've never forgotten.
We were sitting in a booth at Scarfalloto's. It was lunch time on a Wednesday and the Towne House was absolutely packed.
Every stool at the counter was filled. The cash register was ringing. Waitresses bustled back and forth, their arms loaded with delectable delights.
The buzz of light-hearted chitchat, combined with the sound of the model train overhead, made for a happy, swirling chaos.
Friend & Stranger
And there the good doctor and I sat in the midst of all this, eating our lunch and solving all the world's problems in 45 minutes.
Now, quite a bit of time has passed, so I'm not sure what the exact topic of conversation was. However, I will always remember the last line … spoken to me as he once again snatched the bill and firmly refused to let me contribute.
“A stranger,” he said while peering at me over the top of his reading glasses perched on the end of his nose. “A stranger is just a friend whose story you haven't heard yet.”
Simple, yet profound.
These are words that resonated with me and took up residence in my brain.
They also reveal a bit about Dr. Barbe's mindset … a man always open to meeting new people and hearing new stories.
To this day, he greets me one of two ways. He either says “Hello, stranger!” or “Hello, friend!”
If we haven't talked for awhile it's the former. If we have, it's the latter. Either way, his smile and the mischievous twinkle in his eye lets me know that we'll never actually be strangers.
About a year ago, a stranger reached out to me on social media. Her name is Laura and she had an interesting story to tell.
Laura lives in New Jersey, but she has family connections in Honesdale.
Her mom is Theresa Soete Debelak, a wonderful woman who's spent the majority of her life here.
Theresa grew up in the “Soete House,” which still stands today at the corner of Church and Ninth Streets overlooking Central Park.
Theresa's grandparents owned a restaurant and saloon “on the canal.”
When that closed in 1898, the family sold the business and purchased the house. Members of the Soete clan lived there until the 1970s.
One of Theresa's favorite relatives was her aunt Frances, whom she described as a spinster.
“Frances was really smart,” Theresa recalls. “She was unassuming, not very flashy. Frances was an avid gardener. She had a beautiful flower garden next to the house. It's a parking lot now and that's sad...”
Theresa went on to say that Frances was extremely dedicated to her job, which is the reason Laura reached out to me in the first place.
It turns out that Frances Soete and I have something pretty amazing in common: We both spent a large part of our professional lives here at The Wayne Independent.
In the Beginning
Benjamin Franklin Haines was born October 2, 1849 in Maryland.
He spent his childhood years working on the family farm, but then embarked on an ambitious educational journey. Haines graduated from both The Academy, in Montgomery (NY) and Albany University.
Haines' first job was as a school teacher, but he soon grew restless and left to seek out something a bit more exciting. To the bewilderment of his family, Haines signed on to work aboard a tramp steamer that traveled back and forth between Savannah (GA) and Jacksonville (FL).
This adventure lasted about three years before he finally returned home and, at his mother's suggestion, took up journalism.
Haines threw himself into a a printing apprenticeship and, in 1874 became editor of the Hancock Herald. He was so successful in this first venture, that he eventually bought the paper and set his sights higher.
Haines moved to Honesdale in 1878 and, together with a band of local backers, established The Wayne Independent.
The very first edition went out on February 7 and sold nearly 2,000 copies. By 1900, that number had more than tripled and the size of the paper increased dramatically.
The original offices of The Wayne Independent were located on Main Street in a building that still bears the paper's name etched in stone.
And one of the very first people Haines hired to work for the paper? Frances Soete, of course.
A few weeks ago, Laura texted and asked me to go and visit her Mom.
Theresa had a stroke a little while back and has been living at Ellen Memorial Health Care and Rehabilitation Center.
According to Laura, Theresa had something she wanted to give me in honor of the newspaper's recent 140th anniversary. And so, I made the trek on Tuesday for what turned into a delightful visit.
Theresa may have had a stroke, but she's still razor sharp. She told me all about her life, her family and her Aunt Frances.
Theresa attended St. Mary's College in South Bend, so she was thrilled when I walked into her room decked out in my Fightin' Irish cap and pullover. In fact, one of her grandsons is a “Golden Domer” and she's a diehard Notre Dame football fan.
We chatted amiably for nearly half an hour before she looked at me and said: “Now, let's get down to business.”
From the night stand beside her bed, Theresa produced a brass call bell carefully wrapped in cloth.
She cradled it in both hands end gently handed it to me.
The bell itself appears to have been made by Bradley & Hubbard of Connecticut and then mounted on a base from the Derby Silver Company of Massachusetts. Both companies flourished during the 1860s and 70s.
According to Theresa. this bell sat on the reception desk at the original Wayne Independent office for decades. If Frances and her workmates were busy elsewhere in the building, a visitor simply rang the bell.
It's a beautiful artifact from a bygone era … a simpler time when the local newspaper was the central hub of any community.
“I want you to put it on your desk in honor of the paper's 140th anniversary,” Theresa said. “It will be a great conversation piece.”
I was honored to accept the bell and happy to carry out her wishes.
I'm looking at it right now as I type these words … wondering how many fascinating folks used it over the years. I'm happy and amazed that it found its way back home after all these years.
As for Theresa Soete Debelak: She and I will never be strangers again. She told me her story and I regaled her with mine.
We're friends now and always will be.