Growing Up Downtown - May 2016
Grandpa George Stevenson
In this fascinating chapter of Pat Murphy's book-in-progress, he writes about his grandfather, Bay St. Louis citizen and businessman, George Stevenson.
The business was operating out of a storefront on the water side of South Beach Boulevard just past the old Merchants Bank building. The company also operated a coal yard in the 300 block of Main Street. The building on South Beach was owned by an older woman named Josie Welch, who previously ran a novelty and stationary store in this location. Buster Heitzmann told me that Ms. Welch’s building was eventually demolished for the building materials.
Not long after my grandfather started his business in 1933 he expanded into the electrical contracting business. When the REA (Rural Electrical Association) co-op began providing electricity to the rural areas of Hancock County (Kiln, Ansley, Logtown, etc.) grants were offered to homeowners to have their homes wired for electricity.
Mr. Buster said that most of the town’s electricians, including himself, worked for or learned the trade while working with my grandfather’s business. Mr. Buster's dad had been an electrician. Leroy Luke, Ogden Kergosien, George Horton, and Clarence Haver all worked for Gramps at one time or another. Some of these guys like Richard “Dick” Boudreaux, Camille “Kaiser” Schaefer and Carl Santinelli were still working for my grandfather into the later 1960s.
One facet of the business that Grandpa did get into in a very big way was the sale of electrical household appliances. From radios and clocks, refrigerators and washing machines to air conditioning units, he sold them all. By around 1942 my grandfather had relocated his business and the shop was located at the corner of State Street and North Beach Boulevard in what was known as the Sea Coast Echo building. My grandfather’s storefront opened right on the corner across State Street from the A&G Theatre. In the next space going towards DeMontluzin Street was the office of The Sea Coast Echo newspaper and upstairs was the Bell Telephone Company switchboard exchange and phone operators. I have some foggy remembrances of this store from when I was a very young child.
Tap on any of the images to open gallery and see captions!
In about 1953 my grandfather purchased a piece of property at 126 Main Street and built a new building so he no longer operated in a rental space. The building had a large showroom area on Main Street with warehouse space in the rear for the electrical contracting business. On the courthouse side were several rental spaces. About four or five years later he more than doubled the size of the building by adding on a 3500-square-foot warehouse on the rear of the building.
This was in the days before big appliance discounters, and Gramps was the big dog in town. I can remember unloading four and five freight train carloads of washing machines, dryers, refrigerators, and freezers one pickup truck load at a time as a kid. His warehouse would be stacked to the ceiling with this stuff.
In the 1960s into the '70s Gramps was a big Chrysler Airtemp air conditioner (both central air and window units) dealer. In 1962 he won some sales competition and went on a big awards trip to Majorca, Spain (an island in the Mediterranean). Some of the souvenirs that he brought home included real wool Spanish berets as presents. My dad and I each got one. From that point until Gramps died, his beret was something that everyone associated him with, especially in the winter. It was like George Stevenson’s trademark!
Eventually after Hurricane Camille decimated the beachfront and downtown in 1969, my granddad got out of the appliance business except for the air conditioning end of it. At this time he was still in the electrical contracting business as well as selling electrical supplies. Around 1973 he gave up the contracting and a/c business and became solely an electrical supply business. Mr. Buster Heitzmann was the last electrician working for my grandfather.
When I came into the business as a partner in October of 1977 my grandfather had been a businessman in downtown Bay St. Louis for 44 years.
Grampa George's Discussion Group
After Hurricane Camille in August of 1969 Grandpa George got out of the appliance business. He rented out the showroom fronting Main Street to Rene DeMontluzin. Mr. Rene relocated his drugstore into my grandfather’s building because Hurricane Camille destroyed the original historic DeMontluzin Drug Store. Grandpa moved into a smaller space in the rear with an entrance on the side of the Hancock Bank parking lot.
Grandpa George continued his electrical contracting business for several more years but truthfully without my dad running the contracting side (Dad had gone to work for Coast Electric Power Association in the spring of 1969), it became too much for gramps to keep up with. Within a few years grandpa had begun running a small electrical supply business selling to local electrical contractors.
Gramps’ little supply store in the rear of his building became a local hangout along the same lines as any small town barbershop or coffee shop might be. A whole cast of characters hung out back there at Gramps’ place at one time or another. He had the sales counter and a big government surplus desk and chair and another desk chair on the opposite side of the desk. It was rare to walk into Grandpa’s store and not find someone sitting in the chair opposite Gramps shooting the bull. Sometimes there would be five or six retirees all in there at once solving the problems of the world or speculating about how the good old USA was going to hell in a handbasket.
All this was occurring when the Bay St. Louis post office was still located on the first block of Main Street. All of Grandpa’s friends would pick up their mail at the post office, walk down to Hancock or Merchants Bank and do their banking, maybe stop by the Bobby Ann Bakery for a fresh loaf of French bread and then stop by Stevenson’s to chew the fat with Gramps and whoever else might happen to be there. This seemed to be an everyday occurrence.
Doc Hornuff was a dispensing optician who rented the small front office space on Main Street from Grandpa. He was in and out of there thirty times per day. There was Harold Khumpa, a retired merchant marine captain and old man Elmer Ross (who looked uncannily like my grandfather). Charlie “Chaw Chaw” Schindler, Jack Joyce, Harry Benjamin, Omer DeBever, and even Doc Ramsey would wander in from his department store around the corner.
Added to this mix of characters were all the electricians and their crews like Norman and Dennis Tartavoulle, Mike Morel, Buster Heitzmann, Larry Smith, Lloyd Shubert, and Leroy Luke, who were coming in and out picking up electrical supplies for the jobs they were working on. Mr. Willard Gavagnie (my friend Donald’s father) and Albert Parker, the Bay St. Louis schools’ maintenance guys, were in and out of there buying light bulbs and supplies on a regular basis. Ms. Juanita Chapman would stick her head in, buy light bulbs and contribute her opinion on whatever the discussion might be.
Looking back on it, most of these guys were just good longtime friends of my grandfather, who enjoyed spending time with each other and catching up on the local gossip. All of my grandfather’s friends bought light bulbs and household electrical items from him. A lot of the lawyers and even some of the judges from the courthouse would stop in.
People like Mr. Lucien Perniciaro (Joyce’s Candy Shop), August Scafide (Wheel Inn) and Henry Pullizano (Katie’s Candy Shop) all bought cases of colored sign bulbs from him for the outside of their praline shops and businesses out on the highway. Mr. Henry Pullizano used to call my grandad Georgie! There was continuous moaning and groaning about the prices Gramps charged his friends, but they kept coming back.
Another real character who hung out at Gramps' store was LeRoy Hall. Mr. Hall was an electrician who was in his early eighties and still climbed extension ladders on his jobs. Mr. Hall had been the chief electrical inspector for Jefferson Parish in Louisiana. He and his wife lived out in Pearlington on White’s Bayou and he did a lot of the industrial electrical work out at Hancock County Port & Harbor. This was in the early 1970s at a time when many of the industries located at the Port Bienville Industrial Park were first being constructed.
Mr. Hall was a true southern gentleman and a really nice old guy. He was extremely loyal to my Grandfather and his supply business. Leroy Hall loved to come in and shoot the bull with Gramps and his buddies as much as anyone did. He was a regular at the store.
One other recollection that I have from this time is that about 1973 I was playing music with my band Corruption, and we were continually having trouble keeping a place for band to hold rehearsals. We went through a period when the Jaycees were letting us rehearse in the youth center but eventually we lost that option. Wherever we rehearsed the neighbors were complaining about the noise (go figure).
Grandpa had this huge warehouse that he had constructed when he was in the appliance business but a lot of it was not being used by the early 1970s. Once again, Gramps came to my rescue! The band paid for and built a 35-foot square room all the way in the back of the warehouse. We soundproofed the room and set it up for recording and rehearsal space. I worked part time for my grandfather at the time (he told anyone who would listen that “Li’l Pat keeps banker’s hours” describing my loose work schedule) but I was also booking the band and dealing regularly with four or five booking agencies spread all over the southeastern United States.
The band’s “business” phone was the Stevenson's store phone. Funny after all these years, I can still remember the shop phone number: 467-4515, and before that Homestead 7-4515, and before that 129J. I think that Gramps was proud of me for being the one who was booking the band in a business sense. He would proudly announce to me in front of all his friends in the store “Pat, Atlanta or Pat, Birmingham is on the phone for you,” like it was a really big deal to him.
Grandpa George Travels On
My mother died of breast cancer at 47 on February 11, 1975 — Mardi Gras day. This was really hard on all of us in the family, and individually we dealt with it in different ways. I really think that because my mother, Carol, was their only child, a piece of my grandmother and grandfather died with my mom. Grandpa George was stoic and private. I never saw him cry that I remember (I know he did, but privately). My Grandmother just slipped further and further into dementia. Gramps didn’t decline immediately, I think partly because he had my Grandmother to look after, but this is when he started his decline.
Grandma Odile Stevenson passed peacefully in her sleep (we should all be so blessed) in 1979 and Gramps was never quite the same after she was gone. He just seemed to have lost interest in living. I had become a partner in business with him in 1977 so I watched his decline on a daily basis.
By 1977 Grandpa George had been businessman in downtown Bay St. Louis for 44 years. Shortly after my grandmother’s passing we were forced to take the car keys away from Gramps. That was not an easy task to accomplish with this very independent man.
One thing that Grandpa insisted on was coming to the store every day. Part of this was him wanting to keep an eye on me and what I was doing with the business (something I’ll be the first to admit that he needed to do) and the other part being that he still clung to his discussion group and seeing his friends on a daily basis.
He had gotten to the point of not really taking care of his health and wasn’t eating properly at home so every day he would walk somewhere downtown and eat a good lunch. He reveled in calling around to see what was on the lunch for the day. His favorites were Gloria and Larry Ladner’s Eatery (formerly Gliem’s Sunshine Ice Cream Parlor) and the newly restored Homestead Restaurant (now Sycamore House). Grandpa George always did have penchant for southern sour mash bourbon and began drinking more and more when he was alone at home.
I have to relate a funny story that occurred around this time with Gramps. My mother used to refer to my Grandfather’s love of gambling (cards and dice) when she was a child. I never saw my Grandfather gamble and, as tight as he was, it surprises me that he ever did. Anyway, every year Gulfport Electric, one of our suppliers, staged a big open house for all of their customers. There was food and an open bar, door prizes and great company.
This event was something my Grandfather looked forward to attending every year. One year I drove Grandpa and we went to the open house. We had been at the function for several hours and things were beginning to wind down. Anyway I lost track of my Grandfather and could not find him anywhere. I asked around and finally went out into the warehouse looking down each long row.
Finally at the last row I saw a crowd of people at the end of the aisle back in the corner of the warehouse. I walked back there to see if Gramps was there. There was all this yelling and commotion going on and I wormed my way through the spectators. There in the middle of it all was Grandpa George on his hands and knees with about fifty one-dollar bills scattered in front of him, shooting dice. My 80-year-old Grandfather was on his hands and knees shooting dice! The funniest part about it was that I almost never got him to leave.
Around 1980 our business moved back up front and took advantage of the space on Main Street for a nice lighting showroom. I was insistent that we get into the residential lighting business and in retrospect, it was a big mistake. Most people have no idea of the amount of breakage and returns involved in that end of the business. Gramps was slowing down a lot but still enjoyed coming to the store every day talking to the customers. Fewer and fewer of his friends were still around.
One thing that Grandpa George still relished was walking down to the post office to get the mail in the morning. He loved going through the mail and pulling out and looking at receivables checks from our accounts. It was the high point of his day.
One Saturday morning in early August 1982 I picked Gramps up and we went down to the store. I got the coffee going and we drank a cup. He wasn’t in much of a talkative mood. Around nine o’clock he told me that he was going to walk to the Post Office. Our store had a Coke machine right next to the front door of the showroom with several cases of empty bottles next to it. I vividly remember the sight of Gramps as he walked out the front door and not more than five seconds later he stumbled back through the door half falling and half sitting on the empty cases of Coke bottles.
As soon as I got to him I knew that he was having a full-blown stroke. His eyes were wild and he was slurring his speech. I called an ambulance and we got him to the hospital within about 15 minutes but apparently he had a couple of more strokes right away and then he slipped into a coma.
My Grandpa George died several days later, early on Wednesday morning, August 4, 1982 without ever having regained consciousness. He was 82 years old. We buried him dressed in the blue suit that he bought from his friend Doc Ramsey and his trademark beret lying just to the side of his head. I also sent him out with a bottle of his preferred Evan Williams green label bourbon. In 1982, Gramps had been a downtown businessman in Bay St. Louis for over 49 years.
My grandfather Stevenson had a huge influence on my life. He was a tight old Scotsman who didn’t like to spend money but he was always willing to help my sisters or me if he was able. Grandpa George has been gone for almost 35 years but I still think and dream of him often.
I still get a smile on my face when I pass 126 Main Street and see the Stevenson name engraved into the stucco on the front of the building. My friend Nancy Moynahan, who now owns the building, swears that Gramps still smokes his pipe (yes, with that old Granger rough cut tobacco) and walks around from time to time. My “Growing Up Downtown” journey would never have happened without Grandpa George Stevenson.
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