Growing Up Downtown - February 2015
by Pat Murphy - historian and well-known coast musician - has been working on his memoir, "Growing Up Downtown," for several years. During 2015, the Shoofly will feature one of his essays each month - along with historical photographs from his archives.
This was in a time before Main Street Programs and Downtown Development Districts became fashionable in small town America. Downtown Bay St. Louis had just been taken for granted by all who lived here including myself before 1970. It was a thriving business area that had always been there and always would be.
A devastating hurricane named Camille changed it all on the night of Sunday August 17, 1969. From that point in time forward and especially since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the masses of people that moved in to this area would never know what downtown Bay St. Louis had really been all about because the beachfront along Beach Boulevard was completely wiped out. It was at this time that I decided that I wanted to try to chronicle the area of downtown through whatever photographs and history that I could assemble.
I am getting ahead of myself though. I really want to go back and start at the beginning of my association with downtown Bay St. Louis, Mississippi
I was born downtown in Bay St. Louis on February 16, 1949. The Bay St. Louis area hospital was The King’s Daughters Hospital and it was located in an old house on the first block of Carroll Avenue. Dr. Marion J. Wolfe ( who happened to be the younger brother of my grandfather’s former business partner ) brought me into this world sometime around nine or ten that morning. Doc Wolfe probably delivered almost every baby born in Bay St. Louis from around the mid 1940s until the late 1950s. The birth announcement ran in The Hancock County Eagle and The Sea Coast Echo proclaiming that “mother and son are both doing just fine and so is Grandpa George”. My mother was Carol, businessman George Stevenson’s only child. I, Samuel Patrick Murphy, Jr. was his first grandchild.
My mother’s family, the Stevensons, was from New Orleans and moved to the Bay in the mid 1920s. My great grandfather, Bill Stevenson, was a steamship captain for United Fruit Company and transported bananas from Central America to New Orleans. My grandfather George bore a striking resemblance to his father, Bill, and hated bananas until the day he died due to having eaten so many as a child . My grandmother, Odile Stevenson, was orphaned early in life and raised by an aunt. My mother, Carol, was the only child of the Stevensons and was born in 1927.
My Dad’s family, the Murphy’s, was from the Gainesville/Napoleon area of western Hancock County along the Pearl River. We came to know it as Logtown. This whole area is now part of the vast uninhabited Stennis Space Center buffer zone. My grandfather Murphy’s family goes back five generations in Hancock County beginning with James Murphy marrying one of Simon Farve’s daughters. My grandfather, Charles B. Murphy, owned and operated a large farm on the Pearl River. Two of his brothers, Jhue and Rayford lived and farmed adjoining land.
My father, Samuel Patrick Murphy, Sr., was one of the nine children born to Charles Boyet and Mary Starks Murphy. My grandfather Murphy served on the Hancock County Board of Supervisors for many years and also the Hancock County School Board in addition to farming. The former Charles B. Murphy Elementary School in Pearlington was named after my grandfather Murphy. My father’s last living sibling, Rod Murphy, just recently told me that he was attending St. Stanislaus when I was born. His teacher, Ms. Vaughn, was apparently friends with my mother because, he remembered that she was the first person to ever call him Uncle Rod on the day that I was born. As a child, I spent many, many happy times at the Murphy farm in Napoleon with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.
As I mentioned earlier, my Mom’s father, George Stevenson, was a well known Bay St. Louis businessman and an integral part of Bay St. Louis’s downtown area. He had been in business there since the early 1930s Men like Joe Scharff, Doc Ramsey, Oc Delph, Ed Arceneaux, Laurent Kergoisen, Dan Dantagnan, Rene Demontluzin, Pete Porter, Joe Treutel and Alden Mauffray were my grandfather’s buddies and he was one of the in crowd in downtown Bay St. Louis. His business, Stevenson Radio & Electric had started in a building at 211 South Beach Boulevard. This building was located on the water side of South Beach Boulevard diagonally across the street from Merchant’s Bank but further down towards Our Lady of the Gulf Catholic Church.
The building that housed his new business was owned by an elderly woman named Ms. Josie Welch. Mr. Buster Heitzmann tells me that this original building was demolished around 1940 by Alfred Robiteau and the material was salvaged to construct a home in Bay St. Louis. By the early 1940s my grandfather’s business had relocated to a rental space formerly occupied by Ashton’s Grocery Store downstairs in the Sea Coast Echo Building. This building still stands at the northern corner of North Beach Boulevard and State Street. This rental space would later house a Western Auto store and a bar along with several restaurants through the years. This whole building is now occupied by the 200 North Beach Restaurant.
I have some vague memories of my grandpa’s old store on North Beach with all of the refrigerators, washing machines and other appliances, large and small, lining the aisles. I remember that the store had rough wooden floors. My grandfather, along with being the town’s largest electrical contractor, was also Bay St. Louis’s Frigidaire appliance dealer, so there were aisles and aisles of refrigerators, stoves, washing machines and various home appliances.
In 1953 my grandfather purchased a piece of property from a young attorney, Cornelius Ladner, located on Main Street across from the Masonic Temple Building. At that time the ground floor of the Masonic Temple building housed the local offices of MississIppi Power Company as well as People’s Federal Savings and Loan Association. Gramps built a new larger concrete block building on this property for his business. The building still stands at 126 Main and now houses Maggie May’s Gallery.
This building featured rental space and also housed the offices of Bell Telephone and the local Selective Service Board (the draft board) as well as my grandfather’s electrical contracting and appliance business. By the late 1950's, Grandpa George would double the size of this building when he built a warehouse in the rear for his growing appliance business. I can remember as a child trucking between the railroad depot and the store on Main Street with truck after truck of crated appliances. The store would receive appliances by rail sometimes two and three rail cars at a time.
Can you imagine being a little boy of seven or eight and having this big warehouse world stacked to the ceiling with hundreds of crated refrigerators, washing machines, dryers and air conditioning units? There were so many nooks and crannies for us to play and hide in! I was accountable for my behavior (as most of us were in those days) but lovingly spoiled rotten at the same time!
Being George Stevenson’s only grandson, I had the run of his store and downtown Bay St. Louis. Everyone in town knew me and I knew all of them. Back in those days, the whole downtown area was my turf and everybody looked out for me and all of the children. Back then people just naturally watched out for everyone else’s kids. That was just the way things used to be. If I got caught doing something that I wasn’t supposed to be doing, in most cases my parents or grandparents knew about it before I ever saw them.
After moving into the new building at 126 Main, my grandfather expanded his business into every child’s fantasy. Gramps went into the toy business in a BIG way! Around Halloween every year the showroom was emptied of all of the appliances and filled with shelves and displays of all of the latest kid’s toys. About twice during each summer he would go to toy shows at the wholesalers in New Orleans. If I played my cards right, I usually got to go along with them and check out all of the new and latest toys. My sisters and I were Gramps’ toy barometer of what was going to be cool and what wasn’t. He did a BIG business in toys and wisely included lay- a- ways for toy purchases.
One year Gramps sprung to have a 16mm commercial filmed for his toy business featuring my two sisters and me as the stars of the commercial. How special do you think that was to be sitting in a movie at The A&G or Star Theatre with all your friends and have this commercial featuring you come up on the screen? Every year Ms. Vera Carver would come in and work helping out with the toy business and the lay-a-ways. Many, many local people bring up childhood memories of coming into my Grandfather Stevenson’s toy showroom back then.
My childhood schooling began with nursery school and kindergarten at Coast Episcopal, then on to St Joseph’s Academy, which was coed through third grade, and finally St Stanislaus from fourth grade through senior high with a six year run in the mighty SSC Rock-A-Chaw band. Both of these schools were only a short walk to my grandfather’s store so on most days I walked from school down to “the shop” and rode home with my dad after work. Weekends and holidays were spent hanging out downtown more than I did around my family home out on Felicity Street. There were soda fountains, five and dime stores, barber shops, cafes, bakeries and picture shows all within a two block area. What more could a kid want or need?
All of the buildings on the water side along North and South Beach Boulevard were built on the hill that ran from the street down to the seawall. The entrance to each store was on the sidewalk but the building was built out on creosote pilings. The only building that I remember having a basement below on the hill was DiBenedetto’s. Underneath the other businesses was a vast, overgrown, mysterious no man’s land. Sometimes this space under these buildings was used as a place for the building’s owner to store junk or lumber. It was dark and dangerous. This was the kind of dark, dangerous place that little boys loved.
There was very little beach below the seawall and what beach that was there was overgrown with vegetation. This was another secret play area that provided a cornucopia of sensual delights for a young boy’s imagination. There were thousands of pigeons that roosted under these buildings and an abundance of hiding places to retreat to when it was playtime. I spent many hours with my cronies chasing rats, catching snakes, terrorizing pigeons and, most importantly, hoping that we wouldn’t get caught or seen down there. As kids, we’d all been threatened with death if we got caught down there! Every one of us would have been “half killed” or “beaten within an inch of our lives” if our mothers had known we were down there hanging out.
I consider myself very, very blessed to have been able to grow up in this small town environment in the 1950s and 60s. It was just such a wonderful experience with soooo many great things for a kid to do. There were two or three different Boy Scout troops, little league baseball, kid’s fishing rodeos, and a municipal pier with free Red Cross swimming lessons during the summer (thank you Ms. June Porter). The different businesses in town sponsored little league baseball teams. There was Coast Electric’s “Coast Electri-kids,” the funeral home’s “Ken’s Little Diggers." Boating - including sailing, water skiing and trips up the Jordan River - beaches, skim boarding, bonfires and picnics were all activities that were commonplace in my youth. Snowballs at Ms.Toulme’s on Main Street just past Necaise Avenue were a regular treat as were night time excursions for ice cream from Inn By the Sea or the Frostop. I don’t ever remember being bored because there seemed to always be something fun happening. A couple of kids on the seawall with six or eight crab nets and some fish heads could spend the whole day with sandwiches, chips and soft drinks and come home with a wooden hamper filled with big fat blue crabs!
Times have to change and nothing stays the same. It is a perfectly natural thing for all of us to fondly remember the days of our youth. I had my mother’s relatives and cousins in New Orleans. I would spend weeks over in the city during holidays and vacation. My memories of growing up and doing kid’s things over there are also precious. Mid City Bowling Alley, Pontchartrain Beach, the dime stores, movie theatres and Christmas with Mr. Bingle on Canal Street were all very special. But I would not trade anything for my experience of growing up downtown in Bay St. Louis!!
About the photographs
From the very beginning of my photo collecting, I have always been blessed by kindness from others. Ms. Mary Winnard and Ms. Emily DeMontluzin gave me my first old photos of Bay St. Louis. Through the years I have always tried to share what I had with the Historical Society and they have shared with me. My longtime friend, Georgie Necaise Morton has taken the photo collection to another level with her Facebook group “You Know You’re From The Bay If”. I have always shared with her and she continues to share with me. I would also like to thank my friend Charles Gray and the Hancock County Historical Society.
There are photos that I have no idea of where they came from or who the photographer was. If you see a photo that is uncredited or wrongly credited, I would welcome information on where the photo originated and who the photographer was. If you have old photos of the area, I encourage you to share them.
Comments are closed.