I know very little about my maternal great-grandfather James William (or sometimes William James) Stevens. One thing I do know about him is that he enjoyed music and dancing.
J.W. Stevens, commonly known as Billie, was born on October 5, 1884 in Alabama. That’s the date in his wife’s Bible and on his tombstone.
The earliest official record I have for him is his marriage license. Here his name is listed as James W. Stevens and his bride’s name is given as Miss Mary E. Pittman. The license was issued in Baldwin County, Alabama, on Wednesday, July 3, 1907 by Probate Judge J.H.H. Smith, who also notes that he performed the ceremony himself in Bay Minette. The information was recorded on Saturday, July 6th, 1907. The marriage bond portion of the certificate is not filled out.
In 1910, the U.S. Census lists William J. Stephens and Mollie Stephens, both age 26, both born in Alabama, now living with their one-year-old daughter Willie in Muscogee, Escambia County, Florida. He’s listed as a merchant at a grocers.
My grandmother Willie said her father was quite a practical joker. One of his favorite tricks was to pull the chair out from under her when she would go to sit down. Years later, she had an x-ray and it showed her tailbone twisted like a corkscrew. She wondered if her father’s practical joke caused that.
In 1917, Billie registered for the draft, listing his occupation as an oiler at the sawmill. He’s described as short, medium build, with hazel eyes and dark hair. Here his birthdate is listed as October 5, 1880.
The 1920 Census shows J.W. Stebens, age 37, living with his wife Mollie, age 38, and daughters Willie, age 11, and Nellie, age 5. Also sharing the home is Billie’s mother, Mollie Muterspaugh, widowed, age 65. His occupation is still listed as oiler. I recall being told that he was a sawyer, who often worked nights sharpening saws.
I discovered one incident from this time period while browsing on Newspapers.com. I did ask the Pensacola Police Dept. if they had mug shots of my great-grandfather and his brother-in-law; unfortunately, they did not. The article confirms Billie is still living in Muscogee in 1925.
By 1930, Mollie Muterspaugh has apparently died and Willie is out on her own. In the household are J.W. Stevens, age 42, and Mollie, now given the age of 47, and daughter Nellie Mae Stevens, age 15. They are still shown as living in Muscogee. Now his occupation is listed as laborer, odd jobs.
Florida’s 1935 Census shows Mr. and Mrs. J.W. Stevens, aged 51 and 52 respectively, now living in Brent. His occupation is still listed simply as laborer. My mother has told me that, for a while, he took orders for men’s suits. He would go to the home, or the workplace, I suppose. He would show samples of suit fabrics and take the gentlemen’s measurements. The clothes would be made to order for the customer. My great-grandmother later used the fabric samples to make a quilt.
I know of a story from around this time, although I don’t know the exact date. I remember my grandmother, Willie, talking about this, and my mother. They told me that Billie Stevens was in the garage when he was struck by lightning. As I understand it, this was at the Brent home, just off Palafox Street. The garage still stands, by the way, at the corner of Mason Lane. His wife and daughter realized what happened and pulled him out in the rain to wash the electricity out of him, they said. I wish now that I’d asked more questions and taken more notes, about how they realized what happened, did he have any burns, were there scorch marks on the building. I do wonder, looking back, if that’s what weakened his heart. I believe it was my grandmother Willie Stevens who was there and helped.
The next record I have for Billie is his daughter Nellie’s death certificate. She was pregnant, and was found dead in the home her husband built for her, just a little more than a stone’s throw from where Billie and Mollie were living in Brent. That house still stands. For years, Nellie’s widower rented out the home, and a smaller one next door that he also built. Just past those two houses stands a shotgun house built as a rental property by Billie Stevens.
Finally, I have Billie’s own death certificate. As the world marked the arrival of a new year and a new decade – and the end of the Great Depression – Billie Stevens went out dancing. He probably went to the Green Gables nightclub, not too far from where he lived. His wife didn’t really approve of his drinking and dancing, so that New Year’s Eve, he went, not to his own home, but to his daughter Willie’s house. Willie and her husband Hoyt Cook lived at 4103 North Palafox Street, about half a mile south of Billie and Mollie. Hoyt put him to bed in my mother’s room and took my mother in with them; she was just two and a half years old. The next morning, Billie was dead.
I’m not sure why they dated his death as December 31st, 1939, instead of January 1st, 1940. Maybe he didn’t wait for midnight to leave the nightclub, so he was last seen alive on the 31st. I hope he enjoyed his last night on the town.
Billie’s death certificate gave his parents’ names as Bill Stevens and Mollie Reed. I found a marriage certificate for William A. Stephens and Mary Reid in Conecuh County the year before Billie was born, and DNA provides strong evidence of Mary Reid’s family. I can’t pin down William A. Stephens (or Stevens). Mary R. Stevens remarried in 1889, and then again in 1891. I have yet to find divorce papers or a death record for her husband, so Billie’s heritage remains a brick wall, for now.