“Our job, the job of mankind, is to so organize our world that we can live together without fears and without hatred of each other.”
—-Samuel S. Fels
One of Yanceyville’s most prominent natives is also a man who continues to make a significant impression on the world nearly 70 years after his death.
Samuel S. Fels, one of America’s top philanthropists of his time, has deep roots in Caswell County - born in Yanceyville in 1860. His father, Lazarus Fels, and mother, Susannah Fels, natives of Bavaria, had arrived in Caswell County five years earlier, in 1855, and became successful general store owners.
Lazarus Fels was known as a fair man who didn’t overcharge the local townspeople in Yanceyville and surrounding communities who rode into town to purchase his fruits, vegetables, and dry goods. His business success afforded him the chance to purchase land, livestock, and cotton, and to even open a tailor shop.
“There are few people here now (in Caswell County) who remember Laz Fels, Jewish merchant who became the friend and counsel of everyone who wanted sage advise on domestic and business problems,” wrote the Danville Bee in March, 1936. “Lazarus Fels was the owner of considerable property in Caswell County long before the Civil War. He owned lots and houses all over Yanceyville and in various parts of Caswell County. He owned a farm on Moon Creek in Pelham township, all of which property was purchased from income from the general store. Most of Caswell County traded there.”
Almost by accident, Fels came up with an entirely new business concept that would not only change his own life, but that of his young son. A group of pigs that had a little too much alcohol gave Fels the idea to produce a new personal hygiene product.
The following paragraph is an excerpt from When the Past Refused to Die: A History of Caswell County 1777-1977 by William S. Powell.
Fels had an interesting experience in Yanceyville which may have planted in his mind the the idea which was to bring him great wealth in the future. A distillery in Yanceyville sought to dispose of waste mash, and the distiller fed it to the hogs of a nearby farmer, Thomas Hatchett. For some reason the hogs died and there were a hundred dead hogs to be removed. Lazarus Fels, enterprising as usual, took over the task. From the fat of his hogs he made soap which he sold in his store.
Lazarus Fels was a well-respected man in Caswell County. And as Samuel and his five siblings were raised around their father’s general store, they saw him attain multiple prominent positions in town.
In 1861, the year the Civil War began, Lazarus Fels was named the Confederate postmaster of Yanceyville. After the war, in 1866, Fels was named a town Commissioner when it appeared Caswell County would construct a rail line from Yanceyville to the Virginia state line around Milton. The General Assembly incorporated a company and authorized capital stock in the amount of $250,000, but the project never materialized.
“In his day he was a community figure,” wrote the Danville Bee of Lazarus Fells in 1936. “Men and women went to him with their perplexities and found him willing to help them,
But after the war, hard times came to the Fels family, which forced them to leave Caswell County amidst the confusion and challenges of Reconstruction. The following paragraph is another excerpt from When the Past Refused to Die: A History of Caswell County 1777-1977 by William S. Powell.
Reconstruction brought Fels face to face with financial ruin, just as it did many other heretofore prosperous people in Caswell County. Unlike many of them, however, Lazarus Fels packed up and left. Moving to Baltimore, he began making soap, which he sold from door to door with the help of his sons. He soon established Fels & Company and in due time, in spite of setbacks, moved to Philadelphia.
By 1873, when Samuel was 13 years old, the family settled permanently in Philadelphia. Lazarus initially went to work for a local soap company in Philadelphia, but he eventually acquired a partnership and ultimately took ownership of the company. Samuel followed his father into the soap business, and became a multi-millionaire.
Fels would go on to spend much of his life in the process and spirit of philanthropy. Wealthy beyond all dreams from those early days in Yanceyville, Fels was the benefactor for the Fels Planetarium in Philadelphia, the Fels Institute for Cancer Research and Molecular Biology at Philadelphia’s Temple University, and the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania.
The Samuel S. Fels Fund is a private independent foundation with a commitment to improving conditions and opportunities for marginalized communities within the City of Philadelphia. According to its website (http://www.samfels.org), the fund provides grants to support services, advocacy and activities that move us towards a more socially, racially and economically just society.
In Part II of our series on Samuel S. Fels, to be featured in next week’s edition of the Messenger, we’ll take a closer look at Fels the businessman, the philanthropist, and how his legacy still carries on so many years after his passing.