Thursday, July 07, 2005

Samuel Ernest Welch Jr.

S.E. Welch Jr. , merchant, community-builder, and staunch Republican, was born in Scott County, Virginia on June 20, 1861. After migrating to McKee, Kentucky in 1883, he married the former Martha Belle Morris of Jackson County, Kentucky. They moved to Berea with their three children, John Welch, Ernest Dooley Welch, and Hilda Welch in 1890.

In Berea, Welch opened a store on the south side of Chestnut Street just east of the railroad tunnel. His store was so successful that he bought the three acres across the street in 1893 and began building what was later called "the Welch block," composed of a dry goods, hardware, furniture, grocery, Gentleman's Furnishings, and drug stores. This commercial block continued to exist after his death until it was destroyed by fire in 1924. He was so successful at business in Berea that the Berea Citizen recognized him as a commercial leader in the community in 1902.

After establishing his store, Welch played an important role in founding the first bank in Berea in 1901, Berea Bank & Trust Company. He left that bank after only one year, but then helped start a rival bank, Berea National Bank, in 1906. He served as president until his death in 1910. Welch also helped found the Berea Printing & Publishing Co. which published the Berea News, a local newspaper designed to compete with the college-owned Berea Citizen. Welch was involved in state and local Republican politics, and hr served two terms on the Berea town council.

In sharp contrast to his sterling reputation as a businessman and community-builder, Welch's personal reputation was tarnished by his affair with Jennie B. Fish, the wife of A.T. Fish, his partner in the Berea Bank & Trust Company, which lasted from 1899 until his death. There were whispered rumors, after A.T. Fish's unexpected and sudden death in 1902, that Welch had poisoned Fish. This clandestine relationship also lead to Welch shooting shooting P.D. McBride, a traveling salesman, in 1906 for visiting the Fish home. Eventually, Welch's older daughter, Dooley, eloped with Jennie B. Fish's son, Grover, and had a son. Welch tried hard to break up the couple's marriage and finally succeeded in 1910 when Dooley took her baby son and returned to the Welch house. (That house was located behind his commercial block and is now known as Reppert Funeral Home.) As a result, Grover Fish sought out Welch in his store one evening and fatally shot him in the back. A jury subsequently exonerated Fish, finding that the killing had been justified.

See Everybody Trades at Welches, at the Berea branch of the Madison County LIbrary for a more complete portrait of Welch, and the following editions of the Berea Citizen, 14 Dec 1972; 27 Feb 1902; 21 Apr 1910; 28 Apr 1910.

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