Driving down Elm Street in Lumberton, N.C., you see the typical architecture that is found in most Southern towns.
But when you reach the 600 block, you find a Spanish-style building with a distinctive letter S over the arched entryway. The building is so different that it stands out, raising curiosities about its history.
This landmark building was the former Stephens Funeral Home, operated by a family that spent nearly 70 years serving the needs of the county’s bereaved.
James Linley Stephens was born Nov. 13, 1878, in Fairmont to James Alfred Barney Stephens and Hannah Pittman Stephens. He studied at the Fairmont schools and the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. He moved to Lumberton in 1904, where he would remain for life.
On May 16, 1906, he married Quintie Floyd, who was born Sept. 22, 1888, to English Goodrich Floyd and Martha Stephens. The next year they attended the Jamestown Exposition, which celebrated the 300th anniversary of its founding.
The couple lived in two different homes on Elm Street before moving in August 1912 into the home they built at 1200 N. Chestnut St. Ownership of the home remains in the Stephens family today.
They were blessed with four children. The first, Stephens’ namesake, James Linley Stephens Jr. (Jim), was born Oct. 27, 1912. A second son, Bruce Boney Stephens, was born Aug. 15, 1915, and named for a close family friend who was an Atlantic Coast Line Railway conductor.
Their daughter, Mabel Dare Stephens, was born Nov. 13, 1919. She became a history teacher. She married James Chappell Dew on May 17, 1952. They were parents of one daughter, Teressa Stephens Dew, and three sons, James Chappell Dew Jr., Joseph Hartwell Dew and Linley Stephens Dew. She died March 10, 2010.
Their third son, Ralph Beamon Stephens, was born March 31, 1921 and named for the Rev. Dr. Ralph Beamon, pastor of Chestnut Street Methodist Church.
When Stephens first arrived in Lumberton he went to work for Caldwell and Carlyle, a general merchandise firm, first as a fertilizer deliveryman and later as a salesman in the men’s clothing section.
During this time, many general merchandise firms offered items needed at the time of
death, including caskets and burial robes. Some companies later expanded this portion of their business, as more people looked for full-service funerals.
In 1912 W.W. Carlyle left the business, and it was renamed R.D. Caldwell & Son. That same year the store enlarged the undertaking business. A Robesonian newspaper advertisement stated that Stephens would be their embalmer, as he had completed a two-year course and had the highest score of anyone taking the State Board of Examiners exam.
From the beginning of his career, Stephens became involved with the N.C. Funeral Directors and Embalmers Association. He was elected third vice president in 1913 and he later served as first vice president. He was a charter director of the N.C. Burial Association, which was organized in 1933 to license cemeteries.
In January 1914 Stephens formed a partnership with Troup Crossland Barnes, who was a sheriff’s deputy. They conducted business at 400 N. Chestnut St. under the name of Stephens and Barnes, advertising as furniture dealers and funeral directors. The first floor of the store contained their furniture line, as well as a full line of musical instruments, including pianos and organs. The second floor housed the undertaking parlor and embalming room.
An advertisement from that first year stated that they paid 10 cents per pound for cotton when the money was applied to accounts or in trade for furniture, stoves or pianos. The business was a success, and by 1925 they had opened branches of the furniture business in Fairmont and Laurinburg. In July, they opened the Stephens-Barnes Funeral Home in Fairmont.
Politics and civic service
Stephens was active in Lumberton politics, being elected to six terms on the City Council from 1913 through the 1930s. He served as mayor pro tem for a portion of that time. In 1911, he served on the sanitary committee to study the installation of public flush toilets in town. He also served on the fire committee.
He was just as involved in civic organizations, serving as a director of the Thompson Memorial Hospital and later as a trustee of the Robeson County Memorial Hospital. He was one of the original directors of the Carolina Theater and original stockholder of Pine Crest Country Club.
He was honored a year before his death for 50 years of service in the Masons. He was a member of the First Baptist Church.
The firm of Stephens and Barnes dissolved in 1932, with Stephens taking the funeral home portion and Barnes keeping the furniture sales business. In August 1932 the Stephens Funeral Home opened in the old King Building on Second Street across from the city park. This building was where the plaza is now located facing the current Robeson County Library that was built on the city park property, In the newspaper article about the opening, it was stated that he was the oldest registered embalmer in Robeson County. It stated that he would be handling the bodies and his sons would be helping with the funerals. At this time, the Stephenses also began operating an ambulance service.
In December 1937 the funeral home moved into a new building on Elm Street. The white stucco building with a tile roof was designed by Frank Lenton of Wilson and constructed by local builder W.B. Burney. The building, which cost $13,500, including $2,500 for equipment, was declared one of the best-arranged and best-equipped mortuaries in the state.
Beautiful reception rooms were decorated with the latest chrome and leather furniture. The chapel, decorated in shades of green, gold and rust, featured a Hammond organ. The back portion of the building housed the preparation room and casket display room.
James Linley Stephens Sr. died Nov. 5, 1953, four years after he had turned over the
operation of the funeral home to his three sons. The brothers divided the workload: Jim was the embalmer, Bruce operated the ambulance service and Ralph was the business manager. Mrs. Stephens followed her husband to the grave nine years later, dying Aug. 9, 1962.
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church was formally organized at the Stephens Funeral Home on Sunday June 1, 1952, after having met there since the previous fall. The congregation continued to have services there until the church’s building was completed at 24th and Barker streets.
James Jr. was a retired lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserves and was beachmaster with the Pacific fleet in World War II. He married Mary Hamilton on Dec. 29, 1942. They had a son, Richard Hamilton Stephens.
Jim was a recognized authority on environmental protection, ornithology and ecology. He was a member of American Ornithological Union. He died May 20, 1976. In October 1978 the former River Ranch, located on the Lumber River along Riverside Drive, was renamed James Linley Stephens Park in honor of his work as a naturalist, ornithologist and conservationist by the Lumberton City Council. The renaming came at the request of the Robeson County Wildlife Club, of which Stephens was a charter member, and the Roundtree Hunt Club.
Bruce served in the Army during World War II, including 19 months in Iceland. He married Morris Johnson Marley on June 17, 1945. They have one daughter, Morris Marley Stephens Drayton. Bruce was often referred to as having a good sense of humor: His maid once said, “To be in the kind of business he is in, he sure gets a lot of fun out of life.” He died Jan. 28, 1975.
Ralph was a pilot for American Airlines during World War II. One interesting incident during his time as a pilot happened July 4, 1947. It was reported around the country by The Associated Press. While on his regular flight from Salt Lake City to Seattle, just out of Boise, Idaho. Capt. E.J. Smith noticed Stephens blinking the landing lights.
When asked why, Stephens replied, “There’s a plane approaching off our bow.” Eventually, they decided the object was not a plane; it was a flying disk. Soon it was joined by four additional disks.
“They were definitely larger than our plane, fairly flat, smooth on the bottom and rough on top,” Smith was quoted as saying. The stewardess also saw the disks.
The airplane radioed the ground station, but the station could not see the disks, which disappeared for a few minutes and then reappeared for a few minutes. Shortly after the disks disappeared for a few minutes again, they then reappeared for about 15 minutes.
“The disks vanished suddenly,” Smith was quoted as saying. “Up until last night, we all had
discounted 90 percent of the reports we’d read in the papers or heard over the radio. But now, frankly, I’m baffled.”
The Robesonian reported this incident, also stating that Stephens flew trans-Atlantic flights during the war and that he was “Lumberton’s most experienced airman.”
Ralph married Carolyn Long on April 9, 1955. They have one daughter, Carolyn Long Stephens Watson. He died Jan. 8, 1982.
End of era
In December 1981, a month after Ralph became sick, his family decided to close the funeral home, after 67 years of serving Lumberton and Robeson County.
Margaret Spruill had dealt with the father and sons over the years, coping with the loss of grandmother, mother, aunt and daughter. She summed up the lives of these men in the Jan. 19, 1982, issue of The Robesonian:
“I feel I speak for a vast number of Robeson people when I say a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to these four men, Mr. Stephens and his sons … for burying our dead through the years. The Stephens boys conducted funerals with a dignity that lent an air of reverence to each service. At the sad times they were kind and considerate, but at the happy times they met life with zest and keen enjoyment.” She ended with, “So we say goodbye to these men who stood shoulder to shoulder to help others meet life’s saddest experiences yet enjoyed the happy times which came their