This week I am presenting a biography of Melville Phelps one of the jailers in the third jail. I did not do the research on him or write this biography. On our family research shelves we have a 40 page book entitled "Melville Phelps, A History in Words and Pictures" by Seth Phelps. The biography presented here is a condensed version of that book. Anyone interested in Mr. Phelps would enjoy reading this book which includes transcripts of several letters written by Melville and additional information about his father John.
Melville Phelps was born on July 7, 1840, in Grayson County, Virginia, to Alsey Love and John Houston Phelps. By 1854, according to the Grayson County tax rolls, Melville’s father has sold all of their land. It is likely that the family moved at this time to the Bush area of Laurel County. The Civil War interrupted Melville’s life and likely laid not only the seeds for his future success in politics but also his untimely demise. Melville enlisted in the Union army and was quickly promoted to Sergeant in the 7th Kentucky, one of the first units organized in Kentucky during the war. On January 1, 1863, he was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant presumably for his battlefield experience culminating at Chickasaw Bluffs. Melville’s unit served under General Sherman and later General Grant in the Vicksburg expedition. The 7th Kentucky, as a result of leading the charge on the Union left at Vicksburg, suffered significant casualties. After completion of the Vicksburg campaign the 7th was reassigned to the Department of the Gulf and stationed in Louisiana.
Melville spends much of his time in Clinton and Baton Rouge searching ship passengers and cargo for contraband going up and down the Mississippi. It is this duty which causes Melville to get sick, likely with Bronchitis or something similar, generally at that time known as consumption, which ultimately leads to his pension and early death. Most likely Melville’s nickname “Dock” came from his work on the Louisiana docks.
While in Louisiana Melville begins to court his future wife Elizabeth Gertrude Puckett. They marry on March 6, 1866. Five days later the 7th Kentucky musters out of Louisiana to return to Louisville for final payment and discharge. The newly married couple takes up residence at Bush’s Store where Melville will be appointed Post Master on January 14, 1868. He holds this position for many years. Melville acquires his first property on September 8, 1871, and continues purchasing land in the 70’s and 80’s until he has in excess of 500 acres at his death. The 1880 Agriculture census indicates Melville has 400 apple trees on his property. Melville Phelps is listed as a distiller in the 1881-82 Kentucky State Gazetteer and Business Directory. Most likely he distills apple brandy better known as “Mountain Dew.”
In 1886 he is elected jailer. Unfortunately, 1886, while a political victory, is devastating personally. His beloved wife Lizzie and last child both die in May presumably from complications of childbirth. In August Melville moves to the jailer’s residence and begins his term as jailer. By early 1887 he sells half of his distilling business to Alex Tuttle. The business is renamed Phelps and Tuttle and begins to sell general merchandise which indicates it may be a general store.
Melville does not run for re-election and returns to Bush’s Store when he finishes his term as jailer. According to the August 22, 1890, Mountain Echo, “Our recently elected jailer, D. H. Loville, has moved to town and assumed the duties of his office. Our old jailer, M. Phelps, having gracefully yielded his place, has moved his family to his farm about ten miles from London, on the Manchester Road. Mr. Phelps says he has a tender feeling for the people of London on account of their kind treatment of him while a resident of the place and that he leaves with regret.” He dies April 11, 1893, of consumption.
Melville and Lizzie have the following children: Alice Gertrude (1868-1916), Naomi Louisiana (1869-1939), John Orlando (1871-1939), Sabra Elizabeth (1873-1948), Nancy Cumi (1875-1933), Robert Woodson (1877-1958), Melville Manion Beverly (1880-1953), Lula Ella Carroll (1884-1886) and the infant daughter who died in 1886. Gertrude, Sabra and Beverly die in Boulder, Colorado. The rest of the children die here in Laurel County.
You may contact me through the Laurel County Historical Society by calling 606-864-0607 or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org (The first character is a lower case L as in Laurel.) The Laurel County Historical Society is located at 310 West 3rd Street in the old Health Department Building. Weather permitting we are open on Mondays and Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.