Laurens County Connections
They are the children of the rich and famous. They are the parents and grandparents of celebrities. Beginning with this column and in future columns, I will tell the stories of some of our county's most famous family connections. In the past I have written of Sugar Ray Robinson and Ty Cobb, Jr., but there are many, many more.
Tall men seemed to run in one branch of the O'Neal family of Laurens County's Burgamy District. Hilton O'Neal, a farmer, was between six feet eight inches and six feet nine inches tall. His son Sirlester stood a imposing six feet five inches above the ground. The O'Neals were a farming family from way back. Hilton's father George was a son of former slaves Freeman O'Neal and Charity Blackshear. The progenitor of the O'Neal family in the county was Jack O'Neal, who was born about the year 1835 and may have been a slave of the family of William O'Neal, who maintained a plantation in northwestern Laurens County.
Lucille O'Neal was born to Sirlester and Odessa Perry O'Neal in the early 1950s. It was time when the O'Neals and many other black families felt uncomfortable in the postwar South. The family moved North in hopes of finding a better life. On March 6, 1972, Lucille gave birth to a son. The little boy didn't remain little very long. He began to grow and grow and grow. Carrying the genetic markers of his mother's paternal ancestors, the young man began to grow to a height of seven feet and one inch tall.
Today you know that young man as Shaquille O'Neal, one of the most celebrated, dominating and talented basketball players in the history of the National Basketball Association. Just think, had his grandparents not moved away, it is possible that this giant of a man would have played on the high school courts of Laurens County and with the right compliment of teammates might have dominated the ranks of Georgia high school basketball for four seasons.
Gertrude Johnson was born in 1843 in Jefferson County, Georgia. Her father was a lawyer practicing primarily in Louisville. When she was one, her father was chosen as a presidential elector. The Johnsons moved to Baldwin County. He served for a short time as a U.S. Senator before returning to Georgia to serve as a Judge of the Superior Court. As the nation rapidly sped toward Civil War, Gertrude's father found himself in the spotlight of political cataclysm which evolved in Georgia and throughout the nation. Elected governor of Georgia in 1853, she moved to Milledgeville to live in the governor's mansion. In the highly contested presidential election of 1860, her father was nominated by the democratic party as it's candidate for vice-president on the ticket with Stephen Douglas. Democrats and Whigs split their votes among three candidates, all of whom lost to the eventual winner, Abraham Lincoln. Ironically had Southern democrats not split their vote in refusing not to vote for the northern Douglas, Gertrude's father would have been elected. Even more ironic was the fact that Stephen Douglas died of natural causes the following year and Gertrude's father, a native Georgian, would have become president of the United States changing the course of history of the nation and the world forever. Her father served in the Confederate government and ended his public career on the bench of the Superior Court of the Middle District. In 1857, the State of Georgia honored her father for his service to the state by naming one of it's newest counties, Johnson County, in honor of Herschel Vespian Johnson, the only judge in the history of the state to preside in a county court named for him.
Gertrude, who had never married, met a dashing young widower from Dublin. He was a former Confederate officer and an enterprising farmer, horticulturist, editor, railroad and river boat entrepreneur and lawyer. They married in 1878. His name was John M. Stubbs, one of the city's most prominent leaders who brought Dublin from the depths of the post Civil War period. Gertrude and John Stubbs lived in their home "Liberty Hall," which was located across from the Piggly Wiggly grocery store on the site of the Claxton Hospital. Gertrude Johnson Stubbs died on February 3, 1897 at her home in Dublin. Her body was buried in the Stubbs family plot in Macon.
Stubbs, who had first married Ella Tucker, daughter of Dr. Nathan Tucker, a wealthy Laurens County planter and physician, once again re-married. His new bride was Victorie Lowe. Victorie was born in Maryland. Her father Enoch Louis Lowe served as the Governor of Maryland from 1851 to 1854. A staunch Democrat, Lowe served as a member of the Democratic National Convention in 1856 and was a presidential elector in the decisive 1860 Presidential election. In the winter of 1861, Lowe was ready to take a seat in the United States Senate, but the beginning of the Civil War forced this ardent secessionist into exile in Virginia during the war.
Jesse Snellgrove and Elizabeth Howard, both natives of South Carolina, came with their families to Laurens County, Georgia during its infancy. They married here on July 29, 1815 and had a large family of children. Some time in the early 1830s, the Snellgroves moved to Early County, Georgia where their daughter Nancy Ann Snellgrove was born in 1837. Nancy married George W. Cassidy. Their son James M. was the father of James E. Cassidy. James E.'s daughter Virginia was married several times. Her first husband, William Jefferson Blythe, Jr., died just three months before their son, William Jefferson Blythe, III, was born. Virginia remarried Roger Clinton. Clinton adopted his step son and gave him his last name. You know Jesse and Elizabeth Snellgrove's great great grandson as Bill Clinton, 43rd President of the United States.
John William Murray's parents, Drury Murray and Susan Champion Murray, moved to Laurens County in the latter half of the 1820s. John William was born in Laurens County in 1833. The Murrays lived along the present route of the Old Macon road at its intersection with Georgia Highway 338. About the year 1834, the family followed a wave of migration to southwestern Georgia settling in the Bottsford District of Sumter County, Georgia. John William married Alethea Josephine Parker, nine years his junior and a native of Lee County. The Murrays were moderately wealthy land and slave owners in Sumter County. Their son, John William Murray, Jr., married Rosa Nettie Wise. Their daughter, Miss Frances Allethea Murray, married Wilburn Edgar Smith of Marion County. On August 18, 1927, Frances Murray Smith gave birth to a daughter, which she named Eleanor. Eleanor, or more completely Eleanor Rosalynn Smith, became a bride on July 7, 1946 when she married James Earl Carter of Plains, Georgia. You know John William Murray's great grand daughter and her husband as Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter, the 40th President of the United States.
Bobby Davis, it has often been said, was the biggest baby ever born in Bowie County in the great state of Texas. Weighing fourteen pounds at birth, Bobby tipped the century mark on the scales before he started school. When he became a teenager, the scales began to strain as the needle hit the two hundred pound mark. As a grown man, Bobby grew to at least three hundred pounds. What, you may ask yourself, does this large behemoth of a man have to do with the history of Laurens County? Well, first we will need to turn back the clock some two hundred years or so. Don't read ahead, please don't. You might spoil your surprise.
Young Keen, son of John, came to Laurens County with his widowed mother when Laurens County was still in her infancy. Keen fathered sixteen children by three wives. Kindred Lawrence Keen, a son through his Young’s wife Margaret Jones, joined the Troup Volunteers, Company B of the 57th Georgia Infantry. Keen, who played the fife in the regimental band, surrendered with nearly all the Confederate forces entrenched in and around Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1863. Unlike many of his comrades, Keen escaped injury - a result which will play prominently in this story.
After the war, Keen and his wife, Mary Alice Chipley, decided to pull up their stakes and go to Texas to find a new, and hopefully better, life. Before they left, the Keens were blessed with their first daughter, Mary Alice Robena Keen. Lawrence, a mechanic by trade, landed in Navarro County and later removed himself and his family over to Erath County. Lawrence, as he was known to his family and friends, got the calling to become a Baptist minister in Palo Pinto County. He had been a deacon in Bethlehem Baptist Church in Condor in eastern Laurens County before moving to the Lone Star State. Being a minister, Rev. Keen and his family moved around quite a bit. Keen possessed a great talent for singing and taught school kids how to sing, for a small fee of course. He died in 1906. His body lies in an old grave in the Garland Cemetery, south of Annona.
Mary Keen married a Davis and they had a daughter who they lovingly named Mary Arizona Davis. Mary Davis married Ora. I can't give you Ora's last name right now because the identity of the mysterious cousin would become instantly obvious.
Mary and Ora's second child and first son was born in Bowie County, Texas fifteen days before Christmas in 1928. Bobby, always big for his age or any age for that matter, claims he got his size from his mama's side of the family. When he was six, his family moved to O'Donnell, Texas where Ora worked on farms and eventually bought and operated his own grocery store, a handy thing to own with a son like Bobby who devoured everything on his plate. By the age of thirteen, Bobby could carry a hundred pound sack of feed, fertilizer or flour under each arm to load on his daddy's customer's trucks. When he really wanted to show off, said old friend Bob Clark, "Bobby lifted his car by its rear axles."
Bobby never tried to be a Hercules. He tried his hand at boxing, but gave up after one round with a professional fighter over in Odessa. Bobby attend Texas Military Institute. In 1946, he was named the vice president of the class and lauded as the most popular and best natured member of his class, probably because he was fond of practical jokes, good natured ones, not the cruel kind.
In college, Bobby planned to major in the social sciences and physical education. In his senior year at Sul Ross, Bobby was bitten by the acting bug and graduated with a degree in drama. Shortly after graduation, Bobby was promoted to a sergeant in the 45th Oklahoma Division during the Korean War. As soon as he was discharged, and as fast he could get back home to Texas, Bobby married the love of his life, Dolphia Lee Parker, his college sweetheart.
Inside his humongous human physique was the astute mind of a scholar. With a framed master's degree hanging on his wall, Bobby Davis taught grade school in Senora, Texas and in Carlsbad before he and his family moved to Glendale, California, where he planned to work on his Ph.D. degree at the University of California at Los Angeles. While studying at UCLA, Bobby was a substitute teacher to help pay the bills. He always wanted a career in education, but he loved to act too.
One day in 1956, Bobby was invited to appear on Gunsmoke, the granddaddy of all western television shows. And as they say, the rest was history.
In 1959, the producers of a new show tabbed Bobby to play the role of "Eric" in a new western. Don't get ahead of me yet. Eric was one of a group of half brothers who lived with their father on a Nevada ranch. If you ever watched a western on television, I think you know who I am talking about. But if you never heard of Eric, you missed the one show in which his real name was revealed. Named for his maternal Swedish grandfather, Eric was known by one of the most enduring terms of endearment ever penned on any television character.
You see, this mountain of man, who always wanted to be a school teacher and grew tired of acting, was fondly known on the show and to the hundreds of millions of viewers as "Hoss" Cartwright. Bobby's given name was Bobby Dan Davis Blocker, who played the affable character for thirteen seasons on NBC.
Though his career as "Hoss Cartwright" was nearly over in the early 1970s, Blocker had become an astute businessman as the owner of Bonanza steakhouses across the country. Because of his superior people skills and intellect, which he displayed weekly on television, and his passion for politics, Dan was often asked to run for governor, senator or congress. In one of the most tragic cases of celebrities who died all too young, Dan Blocker died after a clot formed in his body following gall bladder surgery on May 13, 1972. He was only forty-three years old.
Which brings up two philosophical questions. What would have happened if Dan Blocker's great grandfather had been killed or wounded at the Battle of Baker's Creek along with dozens of his fellow Laurens Countains? What would have happened if his grandmother never moved to Texas with her family? The answer is quite simple. We would have never loved and admired this man whose ancestral roots run deep into Laurens County and who as "Hoss," carried the heart of a lamb and the brilliant mind of professor inside the frame of grizzly bear.