Shephard family leaves mark on Covington County history

Published 11:59 pm Friday, June 12, 2009

The Shepherd family name is not a common one to South Alabama, but it has been a significant one in the history of the area, especially in the late 1800s and soon after the turn of the century. Most everyone in the county has heard of the impressive Shephard house, with was built in the Poley community by William T. Shephard during the early 1900s.

William T. Shephard came to Covington County in 1887 to become manager of the huge lumber business in the Poley area, which is west of Opp. In 1901, he became the first postmaster when the Poley Post Office was created. He served in this role until he was relieved by Samuel Barnes on June 10, 1903. During 1901, he was married to Miss Kate Fitzgerald. Circa 1903, the couple moved to Montgomery where William went into business for himself.

William did not forget his success in Covington County, because in 1906 he returned to once again become manager of the lumber business in Poley, and he was again appointed postmaster on September 11, 1911.. Within the next year or so, he built the magnificent Shepherd house for his family. He and his wife, Kate, were “very lively, gregarious people who enjoyed guests and entertaining them.” They frequently hosted dances in their home for influential people from all across Alabama. Earlier writers have described how the guests danced under the bright glowing chandeliers, which created a very festive environment. The music was proved by an orchestra, which William Shepherd had brought down from Montgomery.

The house itself was of two-story construction featuring at least six bedrooms, large ballroom, court yard, kitchen, two living rooms, and it was surrounded on the north and east sides by a wooden porch. William completed building it in 1908 out of the finest grade lumber available. It was considered the largest and most modern house in the area, and it quickly became the social center of this section.

The Shephard house was restored in 1972 by the Opp Historical Society, but unfortunately it burned to the ground in 1976. The Shephard’s daughter, Van, and her husband, John Hickey, were the last to make the house their personal residence.

Needless to say, William T. Shephard became one of Poley’s most outstanding citizens. In addition to managing the large timber operation and serving as postmaster, he appears to have been the social leader of the area. He passed from this life in 1915 at a time that would appear to be during his prime years.

Kate Fitzgerald Shephard, was quite a remarkable person in her own right. She wrote and published a book of poems entitled Father Fairer Seas. Members of her Sesame Club of Opp reported that “she left a definite contribution to literature.”

William and Kate reared the following four children: Van, m. John Hickey; Ann; Catherine; and William “Bill.” The children were tutored by Dr. J.C. Foster’s wife who was a resident of Opp.

Another notable member of the Shepherd family was James Robert Shepherd, Sr., a native of Alabama, who established the Shepherd Furniture Company in the Town of Florala in 1905. It is not known if there was any relationship to the above William T. Shephard. The name has been spelled in several different ways, so it is difficult to confirm these lineages. James Robert grew his business and added furniture stores in the Cities of Milton and Panama City, Florida. He also realized a need for a funeral home in Florala, so he set able establishing one. He sent his brother-in-law, John Henry Evans, to the Cincinnati Embalming School to become the first licensed mortician in South Alabama and Northwest Florida.

James Robert was very active in the civic and social life of Florala. He was an active Mason, and he was a faithful member and Sunday school worker in the Florala Baptist Church. Unfortunately, James R. died an untimely death during the prime of his life.

James R. Shepherd and his wife, Minnie David Evans, reared two children, James R. Jr. and Winnie. They continued to operate their dad’s furniture business following his death. Later James moved his family to Houston, Texas, and his sister, Winnie, continued to manage the business. She sold out shortly before her death to the Gunter-Dunn Furniture Company. “Miss Winnie” contributed generously to the community and served as the Charter President of The Study Club, which was organized in 1918.

There were several other Shepherds who resided in Covington County during the early 1900s. In 1912, W.M. Sheppard operated The Artesian Star Bottling Works in the Town of Florala. J.T. Sheppard was an early principal of Carolina School, which became a thriving school, grades one through eight, during the 1930s through the early 1970s. In fact, this writer completed eight grades at the school during some of its more active years.

The following Sheppard family is buried in the Rose Hill Cemetery: J.J. Sheppard, b. 1846, d. 1929; his wife, Julia Sheppard, b. 1845, d. 1919; and their infant, b.&d. December 1922.

There are records of several marriages for Shepherds or Sheppards. Molly Shepherd married Benjamin Laurence, b. ca 1856, son of Stephen and Mariah (Redman) Laurence who settled in the Florala area during the early 1800s. In 1918, T.M. Shepherd married Lelia Gray Fendley. James Shepperd married Catherine Prestwood, b. 1843. John Shepperd married Edna Earl Sasser, b. 1887. Jane Sheppard was married to Coleman Helms. Virginia Sheppard married John Wesley Sheppard, b. 1935, and they reared four children.

Olive Bernadine Shepherd was married to Dempsey Talmadge Butler (1902-1964), son of John Byrd and Sarah Cordelia (Boles) Butler.

Georgia Rebecca Shepperd was married to John Streetman Sasser, son of John Mudson and Elizabeth Jane (Burnett) Sasser who moved to Covington from Russell County circa 1880. They had two daughters and lost one at an early age. Georgia Rebecca died young when her clothing caught fire and burned her severely. She and the infant were buried in the Valley Grove Primitive Baptist Church Cemetery, located about eight miles north of Opp off U.S. 331. John S. Sasser later married Euna Vae Elmore. John S.’s sister, Edna, married John Shepperd.

This writer has not been able to learn any relationships between the couples named above. Anyone who has such knowledge or additional information on the Sheppards is requested to contact him at the addresses below.

The source for this history includes the following: Covington County History by Gus and Ruby Bryan; The Heritage of Covington County, Alabama, and family records of this writer, Curtis Thomasson. He may be contacted at 20357 Blake Pruitt Road, Andalusia, AL 36420; 334-222-6467; or E-mail: