From Father to Son: Charles to Harry


Some years ago when I finally acquired all of my grandmother’s and great grandmother’s photo albums, I spent time searching through the pages. When I arrived at the end of one of the albums, I found two tiny instant photo machine pictures of a man lighting a cigar and enjoying it.

“So, who’s that?” I wondered. These photos were inside one of the Stillians albums, so I presumed the fellow was a member of the Stillians family. Then I found a note close to the photos bearing the name of “Harry!”

Still perplexed, I put the pictures and the note back in their original slot in the album and went on about my business. “Harry” remained a mystery until a recently discovered 1930 Census record disclosed one Harry Stillians, born in Texas in 1886. What follows is the rest of the story.

The Father: Charles Wesley Stillians (1862-1895)

Charles Wesley Stillians’ story is told in an earlier article I wrote: [See The Search for Charles Wesley Stillians (1862-1895)–Life With Barbara–April 13, 2014]. The son of William M. Stillians, Jr. (1826-1907) and Rachel Dilley (1834-1905), Charles left home in 1880. He appears on a census record that year working on a farm in Louisa County, Iowa. Charles didn’t want to return to Guthrie County, Iowa. Instead, he began looking for a new location. It wasn’t long before he traveled to the Great State of Texas, where he worked as a ranch hand on a number of ranches.

About 1884 or 1885, Charles became involved with a young woman. Their son Harry was born about 1886. Apparently after his son’s birth, Charles moved on to another ranch. In all likelihood, he planned to send for the mother and their child as soon as he could do so. But the lure of the smelting business in Denver proved too strong.

Charles moved to Denver in 1889, where he worked as a laborer in the Grant Smelting Company for at least a year. Subsequently called the Omaha-Grant Smelting Company, the smelter was situated on the edge of Globeville in the Denver area, so Charles probably lived in Globeville while working there. But in 1890, Charles left Denver for California, where he worked for a huge smelter in Redding, Shasta County.

In all likelihood, he contracted cancer while working in one or both smelters. The smelter in Denver stopped doing business in 1902. It would take almost 50 years before they completely dismanted the buildings, the stack being the last thing to go in 1950. Both smelter sites in Denver and in California have been labeled Superfund sites. As noted in the earlier article, the smelter in California killed all the trees and vegetation in the area. One or both smelters had a part in killing my great grand uncle, Charles Wesley Stillians. About 1893, Charles went home to die!

Charles’ brother, John, stopped to see him in 1895 before John’s departure to Dayton, Ohio. A professional photographer, John took the last picture of Charles, which is posted here. And it was then when Charles shared his secret with John: he had a son named Harry somewhere in Texas who was born around 1886. The mother had subsequently died. Charles had no idea what became of his son.

Charles died shortly after that visit. As for John, he was on his way to Ohio with no present plans to move to Texas. Eventually, John moved there. But since he had only a name–Harry Stillians–he had no idea where to begin looking. John and his family moved to Texas from Arkansas around 1913 and settled in Beaumont.

Harry Stillians (1886-aft. 1930)

Harry Stillians would still be a mystery had it not been for John Alexander Stillians (1887-1968)–the oldest son of Charles Stillians’ brother, John. By 1920, John Alexander relocated to Houston, Texas from Oklahoma, and he settled in the Sixth Ward. The area where he settled was a sea of activity. A carpenter by trade, John Alexander was quite busy. He appears on a list of lodgers in Ward 6 in Houston on the 1920 Census. Since John Alexander was recently divorced, two of his sons resided with his parents in Beaumont, while his oldest son remained in Oklahoma with John’s ex-wife. The list of lodgers on the census record with John Alexander came from all walks of life.

Records do not recite how John Alexander met Harry, or exactly when Harry moved into Ward 6. They were about the same age. I believe that John ran into him about 1925 or 1926 and realized how much he resembled his uncle, Charles Wesley Stillians. (John Alexander remarried in 1921; I do not know when he divorced, but it was before 1929.)

Harry had no clue about any of his origins. He didn’t know his father’s name–just that the last name was Stillians. His mother had died. Since then, he had been passed around from family to family–some of them good to him–some of them not so good to him. All he had was a name–Harry Stillians–and he was born in 1886.

“Not too sure of the month ‘n day–” he told John, “–but purty sure of the year.”

John Alexander called his father and the following weekend, John Alexander and his new friend arrived at the John Stillians home in Beaumont. And John Stillians probably received a jolt when he saw Harry. Before returning to Houston that evening, Harry gave John the tiny photos I have posted above. The pictures have been damaged. Harry had been carrying them around inside his wallet.

“Naw, you kin keep ’em,” he told John. “I got more and kin get more.”

John Stillians sent the pictures to his niece, Viola Clay Inman, who was living in Charles City, Iowa about this period of time. Yes, she remembered Uncle Charlie, she wrote back. The man in these photos definitely resembled him. John told her to keep the photos in the Stillians album, which she did and which is where I found them!

John Stillians died in Beaumont in 1929. His grandsons moved to Houston, where they lived with their father John Alexander that year. Then John Alexander left Houston and in 1930, his two sons are shown on the census in Ward 6. Harry Stillians appears on the census record in the same location.

The 1930 Census for Ward 6, Houston, Texas is the last record I have been able to find for Harry Stillians. Since he worked in the oilfields, he was constantly on the move. He may have been killed in an oilfield accident, or he may have left Texas and wandered on to an oilfield in another state. The only two records I have of his existence consist of the 1930 census and the two pictures posted above.

No doubt, these pictures were taken in a photo machine in Ward 6. Those machines were introduced in this country in 1925; their popularity spread quickly after that. Harry probably had these pictures taken on a Saturday night in Houston–he appears to be wearing his Saturday night suspenders. He is certainly proud of that cigar. And he appears a little inebriated.

For a brief moment, he stepped forward to claim his identity. And then as quickly as he appeared, he vanished. I can find no further record for him.

And so, the speculation continues.

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