In the early 20’s there was no embalmer in the county, but Mr. Brown who had a hardware and furniture store that sold coffins (caskets). Then the families had to load the coffin in a wagon or truck themselves, dress the body and put it in the coffin to be carried to the local cemetery or place of burial. This all had to be done within a day, because there was no embalming or preservation of the deceased. Therefore there was no time for visitation.
J. Ross Blythe (Ruth Dottery’s father), who was an experienced embalmer, came to Sebring from Indiana and went to work at Brown's. After meeting the residency requirement for the state, he obtained a license, and the basis of today’s funeral business was begun. In a portion of the building that Mr. Brown used for the hardware store, he created two rooms. One was for casket display and the other for a preparation room.
In 1924, When J.B. Durrance bought the Brown hardware business he wanted no part of the funeral business so Mr. Blythe who was taking care of it went to work for Gordon and Garrett the paving contractors who constructed most of the original streets in Sebring.
In 1925, Jack Stephenson came to Sebring from Monroe, GA where he had been in the hardware and funeral business. In Georgia, he also was a traveling embalmer, going from home to home in rural areas. He bought the Dodge hearse and eight, pointed-end coffins that Mr. Brown still had, and opened a hardware store called Highlands Hardware Co. on South Commerce St. in the old Roanoke Building. In short order Mr. Blythe was brought in to be part of the business.
During the hard times of the Depression in Sebring, Stephenson & Blythe, the only local funeral directors, never refused funerals but were often paid only as much as possible and often with farm goods, surplus or trade work. When the deadly hurricane hit Moore Haven in 1926, killing many in that area, Ross Blythe, Jack Stephenson, and an embalming fluid salesman who happened to be in the area, went there on the first relief train the following day. Once there, they found a temporary morgue had been established in the post office so they used the desks there for embalming tables.
They worked the rest of that day and all of the night, embalming in knee deep water. On the next day, another relief train brought in more embalmers, so they returned to Sebring. The first 26 bodies were sent to Sebring and buried in the new Pinecrest Cemetery in the section marked Moore Haven Storm Victims. The rest were sent to Ortona, a crossroad 18 miles west of Moore Haven.
In 1927, the hardware store moved to the Nancesowee building in an attempt to get more walking trade and remained there until it was sold in 1936.
In 1927, Fred Bee built and then rented to Stephenson & Blythe a building facing Mango St., which was the Stephenson Funeral Home until 1982 when the present modern facility on Fairmount Dr. was opened. At that time, in 1927, the new building was in three separate rooms with one part used for a real estate and insurance business and the remainder for the funeral business.
In 1929, Stephenson & Blythe expanded and opened a funeral home in Avon Park, using a two-story house with the upstairs being apartments and the downstairs a funeral home. That business is still in the same location, with a completely new building constructed in 1957 and a total renovation completed in 1994. Blythe worked in the hardware store and funeral business until his death in 1932, when Stephenson purchased his stock and changed the name.
In 1948, Stephenson purchased the property on Mango Street from Fred Bee and completely remodeled and air-conditioned the facilities. He later acquired the two lots behind the Bee apartments and the Hoosier Apartments on Center St. and built a new building on that street. In 1973, Chris Nelson, Mr. Stephenson’s grandson was brought into the business as a licensed funeral director after graduating from the School of Mortuary Science Miami-Dade an then completing 2 years of service in the Army. Chris was born in Avon Park before moving to Lake Wales with his family who owned and operated the Marion Nelson Funeral Home there.
Shortly before his death in 1980, Mr. Stephenson fostered, under the direction of Mr. Nelson, the opening of the area’s first crematory, which is located on the premises of the Avon Park Funeral Home. In 1981 the current property on Sebring Parkway was purchased and the construction of the present facility started. During the first few months of operation of the new facility, what is now Sebring Square Shopping Center was a cow pasture, and cows would occasionally greet people arriving for funerals.
In 1982, Mr. Stephenson’s son, G. B. Stephenson who is known as ‘Hap’, retired from the Navy as Captain after 24 years active duty and entered the business with Mr. Nelson.
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