LEWIS E. STOKES, OUTSTANDING LEADER FOR FIFTY YEARS
By Jack R. Mays, Charlton County, Ga. Historian
Lewis Elbert Stokes was born on September 10, 1876, the first son of Henry Jasper Stokes, a Confederate veteran, and Mary Motes Stokes, just three months after the Sioux Indians annihilated Colonel George Custer and his U.S. Cavalry forces in the Battle of Little Bighorn in the Dakota Territory. Lewis Stokes’ birthplace was Stokesville, Georgia, in the bend section of Charlton County on the winding St. Marys River.
The busy little river settlement in the south end of Charlton County was settled in 1830 by Lewis Stokes’ grandfather, Elbert Greenberry Stokes, along with his two brothers, James and Henry E. Stokes, who moved there from South Carolina, twenty-four years before Charlton County was created by the Georgia Legislature.
Young Lewis Elbert Stokes grew up in Stokesville, named for the family, on a busy farm where they operated a sawmill and ran a turpentine and naval stores business in the early days of the developing south. The little community had grown considerably since its founding.
On September 24, 1905 Lewis Stokes married Mary Lucretia (Molly) Braddock, a daughter of Lewis W. Braddock, a prominent pioneer settler of nearby Duval County, Florida.
In Stokesville, Lewis and Mollie Stokes raised their family: Jasper, Mary, Wilton, Maggie, Lettie, Edwin, Juanita and Carlie. Lewis Stokes continued to make his living amid the towering pine trees of the region, rafting the logs down the St. Marys River to other sawmills, while continuing to operate his own sawmill and turpentine still in Stokesville. In the meantime Stokes became a finished carpenter; a vocation which would later prove useful to him as he built and sold homes in the Folkston area in the early 1920s.
Stokesville, while boasting of gas lights, a grocery store, and a post office, offered only an elementary school education in nearby St. George, to the children of Lewis and Mollie Stokes. Lewis Stokes, a champion of education, was willing to pay whatever price necessary for his children to complete their high school education. He served as a School trustee for the St. George School.
With three children ready to begin high school, L.E. Stokes and Mollie decided to move to Folkston where the children could attend the county’s only high school. It was now 1928. Stokes had built and sold several homes in Folkston while living in Stokesville and was well acquainted with the people of Folkston.
The August 25, 1928 issue of the Charlton County Herald noted “ Mr. L.E. Stokes of Stokesville, this week moved his family to Folkston for the school term at least. They have the dormitory rented. Mr. Stokes wants to give his children the benefit of a high school education.”
It was an eventful year for Stokes and for Folkston. Folkston had only recently completed the school dormitory, called the Teacherage, where students and teachers boarded. Mrs. Stokes was to operate the dormitory during the school term. The county had just been ravaged by disastrous winds and high waters from a tropical hurricane. Roads and bridges were out all over the county and outlying communities found themselves isolated from Folkston and the rest of the county.
What started out possibly to be a limited stay in Folkston for the Stokes family turned into a permanent one. On Sunday May 5, 1929 their Stokesville home was destroyed by fire from a defective flue while the family was attending church services. Lewis and Mollie Stokes decided to build their own home in Folkston and live permanently in the progressive little town.
On August 2, 1929, Stokes, a resourceful money-manager, bought out the general merchandise store and building of Jack Davis located on Folkston’s Main Street, calling it L.E. Stokes and Son. His daughter, Maggie was to help run the store.
Lewis Stokes and his family were devoted Baptists. In Folkston they immediately joined the First Baptist Church where Rev. J.D. Poindexter was the minister. The church was then undergoing a complete remodeling and the addition of a Sunday School Annex. 30,000 bricks were on the ground, and used-brick from the old building would also be cleaned and used in the new structure. The church building was located on the same block as it is today.
Robert Moore, a local brick mason had been hired to lay the brick. Stokes and his family quickly got involved in the building effort. The long association with the Folkston Baptist Church had begun. Baptist Church services were held in the town’s Presbyterian Church on Kingsland Drive while the old church building was being remodeled.
Quickly, Stokes earned a reputation for unquestioned integrity, fairness and as a fighter for the cause of better education in his new hometown. The people sought and accepted his leadership.
A devout member of Folkston’s First Baptist Church, Stokes was made Sunday School Superintendent and a member of the church’s Board of Deacons. He was also named to the County Board of Education, a position he held for twenty-four years until his retirement. L.E. Stokes filled the offices with dignity, ability and respect.
Soon after the Stokes moved into their new two-story home, the school dormitory, or teacherage, was destroyed by fire. To be helpful, Mollie Stokes began boarding school teachers in her home; a tradition that continued for years. The teachers would eat breakfast and supper in the large Stokes’ family dining room, and Mrs. Stokes would prepare a lunch for their noon meal. An eager student would be sent over to the home for the teacher’s lunch.
Lewis E. Stokes opened the doors of the Folkston store in August 1929 for the first time. Two months later, in October of 1929 the stock market crashed and the nation dived headlong into the deepest economic depression ever. It was to last for ten years, until 1939, but L.E. Stokes & Sons’s general store sailed smoothly through the economic storm with the former lumberman at the helm. Six days a week Lewis Stokes served his customers, offering words of encouragement to those in trouble, and every Sunday he and his family took their places in church.
He became Chairmen of the Board of Deacons of the church and Chairman of the Board of Education. His deep-rooted faith and superior intellect served him well when either met a crisis. Lewis Stokes’ generosity to his church and community never waivered. He and his family became deeply engrossed in the religious, cultural and social life of the community, as the Stokes children became adults and married, starting families of their own.
On November 1, 1967 Lewis Elbert Stokes sold his general merchandise store to his daughter Maggie and her husband H. Ben Rodgers. He was retiring after 38 years on Folkston’s changing Main Street. Mollie Stokes died on February 17, 1964, three years before her husband’s retirement. She was 87.
Lewis Stokes lived on in retirement for ten years following his beloved Mollie’s death. Lewis E. Stokes died on March 10, 1974. He was almost 97.The entire county mourned their deaths. They are buried in Pineview Cemetery.
Mollie and Lewis Stokes’ life centered around the First Baptist Church of Folkston. When they joined in 1929, the first church edifice, built in 1904, was being completely remodeled and a Sunday School annex added in 1951, under Stokes’ leadership as Chairman of the Board of Deacons, that building was torn down and replaced by the present church building.
Few people achieve the measure of respect and admiration accorded Lewis Elbert Stokes. For nearly a half-century he, and his family were loved by friends and neighbors in Folkston and Charlton County as they traveled happily along life’s high road. The Christian influence of Lewis and Mollie Stokes wrote a magnificent chapter into the history books of Folkston and Charlton County.