Stephen Thomas Fife



Submitted by Frank Butcher, updated May 11, 2007

Stephen Fife grew up on a farm near Maben, Mississippi before coming to Texas with his parents as a young man.  One story told about Stephen during this time was that when he was of courting age, he sneaked out after everyone was asleep, hitched up a mule, and rode bareback to a romantic rendezvous.  Time got away from him and he realized that he would have a hard time making it home before light.  Stephen put the mule into a full lope all the way back home and got into bed just as his father started his morning chores. Stephen briefly thought his misdeed would go unnoticed, but when the elder Fife saw the lathered-up mule, Stephen had hell to pay.
The family was very poor in Mississippi, and had very few clothes.  Stephen's mom weaved a nice hat out of corn shucks for Stephen, and the story is told that Stephen was running under a fence, caught the hat, leaving nothing but the brim.  According to the storyteller, Ruby Fife, "his dad liked to have killed Stephen for tearing up that hat".
Stephen's family left Mississippi, with the men and boys coming to Texas in a wagon, and the girls and young children coming by train.  They stopped briefly in Petty, in Lamar County, Texas, where Stephen apparently met and married Theresa Mae Alexander of nearby Honey Grove. The young couple then traveled to Ben Hur where there was suitable blackland for growing cotton, and bought land. Stephen bought 100 acres from his father on June 1, 1914, and later bought 90 adjacent acres from L.S. and Mary Smiley. Stephen and Teresa raised their nine children on this farm. While cotton was the money crop on the farm, Stephen also grew corn to feed the cows and hogs. Eileen remembers her dad taking cotton to a gin, where standard procedure was for the farmer to leave his cleaned cotton and take back the cottonseed for cattle feed. Apparently Stephen was not particularly ethical, because Eileen recalled him stealing a sack of sugar (then in short supply) and concealing it in the cottonseed.
At Ben Hur, Dr. Vanholder, the local veterinarian, trained Stephen to work with animals.  When Dr. Vanholder quit his practice, Stephen became the unofficial local vet, and was called upon often by fellow farmers and ranchers to do veterinary work.  His daughter, Eileen, remembered him treating cows that had become bloated after eating clover.  Stephen would stick long hypodermic needles into their stomachs to let the gas escape.  Stephen generally accepted chickens, vegetables, or whatever commodity his neighbors had in surplus as payment for his services.  In addition to his farming and veterinary work, his daughters remember that Stephen did barbering, cutting the hair of family and neighbors.
Stephen was somewhat of a practical joker. His grandson, Duane Cohn, told the story of a preacher coming to Stephen’s house for dinner.  Fried chicken was the main course. And Stephen would distract his guest and put bones on his plate when he looked away, and eventually gave the preacher a hard time about eating so much chicken.  His daughter, Genevieve, remembers Stephen putting a sheet over his head pretending to be a ghost, and scaring his young children.
The Fife kids went to school at Ben Hur no matter how bad the weather.  In rain, blackland turns quickly to an impassable muck, and the spokes of wagon wheels would clog with mud requiring an occasional stop to punch out the mud in order to continue.  Since the buses didn't run in those conditions, Stephen would hitch his mules to the wagon and take the kids to school.  He would spend the day at Adcock's Grocery Store, playing dominoes while waiting for school to let out.  It is not likely that Stephen went to all of this trouble because he placed a high value on education, because of his nine children, only James and Eileen finished high school.  More likely it was because Stephen didn't want nine children cooped up with him in the house all day.  On a good weather day when the bus ran and stopped to drop off the children after school, Stephen would say "Hold on to what you got. Here come the kids", warning bystanders of the chaos that was about to come through the front door.  
Stephen enjoyed dancing and by all accounts was a very good dancer.  Occasionally, Stephen and Theresa would have a house dance.  They called neighbors on the party line telephone, word would spread, and soon a crowd would arrive.   Stephen would clear out two rooms except for a player piano, and dance the night away.  According to Genevieve, there would usually be a fiddler and guitar player to provide music for the dance.  Stephen was a snappy dresser, and always had a nice suit and expensive shoes and shirts for such social occasions.  When he went to town with his son, Louie, he would not allow Louie to call him 'dad', which suggests a rather substantial ego and perhaps a wandering eye.
Hog killing time was a big event at the Fife farm.   Clear, cold weather was required so that the meat would not spoil.  Usually three families would work together, because hog killing was a labor-intensive activity.  Three hogs would be shot at each family’s farm, and their throats were cut to bleed them.  Then the hogs were dipped in 55 gallon barrels of hot water to loosen the hair and the skin was scraped with knives to remove the hair.  Next, the hogs would be hung from a singletree and field dressed.  The carcass was then taken to the meat bench, cut up, salted and placed in the smokehouse for preserving.  Still more work was involved in grinding some of the meat to make sausage. The fat from the hog would be cut up and heated to make lard, which was stored in jars for later use in frying food.  The cracklins, which are a byproduct of the lard-making process were used as a snack or for making cracklin cornbread, or they could be mixed with lye and heated to make lye soap.  The old saying was that “every part of the pig was used except the squeal”.

By most accounts, Stephen was a male chauvinist of the first order.  He did not physically abuse Theresa, but treated her more like the hired help than a wife.  When Stephen decided to go somewhere, he just picked up and left without a word to his wife or children. When their son Haskell married Mary Beth Lenamon, Theresa did not have a decent dress for the occasion.  Mary Beth had to take Theresa to town to find a dress.   Stephen also favored his boys over his girls. The girls received very little, while the boys always had good clothes and transportation.
According to his children, Stephen had a mean temper.   When he was angry with one of his boys, it wasn't unusual for him to pick up whatever object was handy and hit him with it. On one occasion, a very young Haskell was sleeping with Stephen and Theresa and wet the bed.  Stephen simply tossed his son out through the open window. On another occasion remembered by his children, Jack wanted to use the car on a date even though it was not his turn.  When he came out the door, Stephen was waiting for him with an axe handle and gave Jack a good whipping.  Stephen is also remembered as a person who talked crudely with profanity a routine part of his normal conversation.  
Notes left by Mary Beth Fife, Stephen’s daughter-in-law, say that Stephen and Theresa were members of the Church of Christ. Others remember that if Stephen ever attended church, it was during revival services, held at the community tabernacle (basically a shed, open on all sides).  Sometimes, different churches would work together to hold a common revival, and at other times an individual church would do it alone. Regardless, the big attraction was dinner on the grounds after the Sunday service, which had everyone bringing delicious food.
After Theresa’s death in 1949, Stephen lived alone for a few years, then had a brief second marriage that ended when his new wife kicked him out.  The last several years of his life were lived with his son Haskell, and his wife, Mary Beth.  He suffered from stomach cancer and had four surgeries removing portions of his stomach. Eventually he simply starved to death.   Haskell had to give him shots of morphine every three hours to relieve the pain in the last weeks of his life.  When Stephen passed on, Haskell threw himself on the bed and wept uncontrollably.

Frank Butcher