Garrett Sullivan was born on Friday, July 27, 1894. He was the eldest of seven children born to Henry Graton Sullivan and Lillie Eliza (Liza’) Smith.
Graton was 23 and Liza was 19 when Garrett was born. To the best of my knowledge, Garrett had no middle name, and he’d never know either of his grandfathers. He was born on the same family homestead that his father was born on, and where his grandfather Michael, an Irish immigrant to Ouachita Parish, had also lived and worked following the Civil War. This made Garrett the third-generation of Sullivans who would work the red clay dirt in the hill country we know today as Calhoun, Louisiana.
The Sullivan land was perfectly perched on the grassy, rolling hills on the Old Arkansas Road. Though not ideal for row-crop farming, they did have a natural spring, open pastures, and a little stream known as “Shooter Creek” could be found nearby. As the eldest, Garrett’s younger siblings ranged from 2 to 14 years his youth, but he’d get three little sisters in a row before the first little brother showed up. Two more brothers would soon follow. He was 2 when Cumie was born, 4 when Vira came along, and 7 when Rosie arrived. He’d be 9 at Roy’s birth, 13 for brother Lannie, and 15 years old by the time his baby brother Hardy was born.
Times were undoubtedly hard in the early days, and Garrett Sullivan would only reach the 4th grade at Drew school, before his family’s care would require him to give up school and commit full-time to their survival. He and his father Graton would find they’d need to to plant “anything and everything those hills would let them grow.”
By the age of 22, Garrett had grown tall, with dark hair and blue eyes, and on December 21, 1916, he married Miss Lillie Leona Sims, the 17 year-old eldest daughter of a neighboring farming couple known by most as “Happy Jack” along with his wife named Henrietta.
His first cousin, Luther M. Neal, served as the primary witness for their pre-Christmas eve exchange of marital vows. But just as Garrett and Lillie began to start their new life together, their country would inch closer and closer with each passing day into joining the fight overseas in the First Great War.
On the morning of July 17, 1917 in Washington, D.C., the Secretary of War began drawing names for a million man draft into military service for the fight against Germany. There were 244 names from Ouachita Parish in this first draw, and Garrett Sullivan’s name was pulled near the top, as the 54th draw. But for reasons not completely known, over the next few months, Garrett would be granted an exception, which excused him from forced enlistment. Good fortune was clearly at hand, but it’s clear God had a say in Garrett’s destiny too. For only three months after seeing his name drawn in that draft, he and Lillie welcomed their first child, Elvie Irene Sullivan. It’s hard to know for sure, but in all likelihood, Elvie’s birth may have allowed him a hardship exemption. Young Garrett was now a young father at the age of 23.
Two years later, Garrett and Lillie welcomed their first son, and named him James Howard. In 1921, just two years later, they’d have their third child, Ivy Houston. Adjacent to Garrett and Lillie’s house were his parents on one side, with nearly all of his siblings still at home, and on the other side of their house, his sister Rosie and her husband could be found living in a place of their own. Only Cumie and her husband Johnny Walker seem to be living elsewhere at this time. Then came the fateful year of 1922, where an unusual and senseless tragedy would unravel the core of this tightly-knit Sullivan family.
It was such a story that even the remote Shreveport Times would broadcast it front and center. One headline read, “Family Fight Has Fatal End.” It was on a Monday morning, February 6, 1922 that all hell broke loose. The events of this day went something like this. Garrett’s father Graton had left his house in a temper-laden rage, heading straight for the home of his neighbor and nephew, Luther Neal. (That’s the same Luther Neal that stood by his young Garrett and Lillie as their marriage witness.)
Garrett’s brother Roy was at Graton’s side, and together, he and his father barreled through the fields and farms that normally give neighbors comfortable distance. As Graton neared Luther Neal’s home with pistol in hand, he yelled out at Neal to “come out on the porch!” The feud had actually begun two days prior, and some believe that it was due in part to the operation of an illegal whiskey still, though that may just be speculation.
Whatever the cause, it quickly reached a fevered pitch. Luther Neal testified later that Graton “emptied his .38 before I (Neal) could even start shooting back!” The shots from Sullivan’s pistol missed their mark, but the buckshot from Luther Neal’s long barrelled shotgun were right on target. Sullivan was hit square in the chest, and Graton Sullivan’s life abruptly ended that day. The Sheriff was quick to tell local reporters some important details of the crime-scene. “Sullivan’s forefinger could still be seen pressed firmly on the trigger, and his pistol’s chamber held the empty shells.” At least two bullets from Sullivan’s gun were found firmly lodged in the front porch of Neal’s home. The verdict of ‘justifiable homicide’ was likely reached before sundown, despite a warrant called out by Garrett’s new young brother-in-law, “Dad” Spillers.
The events of that day would never be forgotten in the Sullivan family, as it clearly changed their lives forever. It would mean something different for everyone. For young Garrett, it soberingly meant that he was now the patriarch of this large Sullivan family. That’s a lot to shoulder for any 27 year old with a family of his own, as he would now have to care and provide for his mother Liza. With the fate of his family’s future before him, Garrett ably stepped up to the task. He would continue to grow a family of his own, relying with religious fervor on their Christian faith, and hard work.
There would be a four year gap between their previously born third child, Ivy Houston, and their fourth child, H.G., who didn’t come along until 1925. But Garrett and Lillie were about to get back in the business of having girls. Next came Anna Lou in 1926, followed by Frances in 1928, and then Mary Catherine by 1930. John L. would come next, born in 1932.
Garrett’s willingness to give something back to his community is visibly evident when he qualifies to run for the Police Jury in Ward 6 of Ouachita Parish in the winter of 1931. Though he didn’t win the election, he did get a job driving the school bus. A bus he would also use on Sundays to carry family, friends, and neighbors to and from the Chapel Hill Baptist Church. Garrett would also be appointed to the Executive Health Services Committee in Ouachita Parish, which focused on the prevention of Tuberculosis and Public Health. In 1934, their eldest child Elvie would marry and move out, but Garrett and Lillie weren’t finished. They’d have another girl in 1934 named Beatrice, while still living on the old Sullivan home place and in 1936, Gladys Joy was born.
In 1936, Garrett and Lillie made a life changing decision that would require the whole family to move away from the only place they’d ever known as home. As the Great Depression ravished the country, those in the the deep south were deeply impacted. It was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s populist New Deal program which offered participation in a unique, experimental, social community that would potentially offer the Sullivans a chance to have much greater opportunity.
Their family would join nearly 40 others in resettling from the red clay hills of Ouachita to the flat fertile grounds of Richland Parish. The Sullivan family would be one of the largest families to make the move to the newly created “Crew Lake Project.” After a few years in a small project house, the large size of their family and a bit of good fortune allowed them to move from there into a much larger “big house.” The house that was previously owned by the Millsaps family, on what was then known as the Millsaps plantation.
The school house at Start, Louisiana, (where Crew Lakers sent their children) would grow exponentially during this year.
Garrett’s brother Lannie made this same move, along with a bustling large family of his own, and it’s been said that the young teenage boys at Start didn’t know just what to make of “all those Sullivan girls, coming out of nowhere!”
The Sullivan guys knew how to make their mark too. Ivy had learned to box while at Drew school, so “he laid it on the local boys pretty good before they caught own.” Elvie was the only child to not make this move to Start. By 1935, the eldest in their home was now James at 15, while young Mary would start first grade the year after they arrived in Crew Lake. Beatrice and John L would soon be old enough as well.
In 1939 came their final two children; twins, which they named Billy Ray and Alice Fay. Lillie was 40 years old when she gave birth.
Sadly, after just three short months, Billy Ray would contract pneumonia, and he died on January 5, 1940. Lillie and Garrett would make the trip back to Calhoun and bury him near Garrett’s father and grandfather in the Butler graveyard. Just 10 months later, tragedy would again bring great sadness. It was a warm autumn morning when Alice Fay, having just learned to walk, uncharacteristically wandered away from their home without anyone seeing her take off. Garrett looked around for Alice but she was gone.
“You better come in here little girl, that scary old trains’ a comin’!” he said as he heard the rumble of a train approaching. Alice Fay had been scared of the train each time it passed, blowing its loud horn and shaking every home as it passed. But on this morning, Alice Fay had tragically wandered onto it’s path.
Her death was heart wrenching, and devastated the family and the entire community. Ivy, who was stationed at Barksdale for basic training when he received the news, approached his officers and said he “needed to go home at once, to help care for our family.” He committed to be back just as soon as he could, and without having him sign a paper, the Army took him at his word.
As promised, he did return, and by September of 1941, the U.S. was once again involved in a great World War. On December 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was attacked, our nation would officially be at war. By 1944, Corporal Ivy Sullivan will have spent time in Egypt, Tunisia, and throughout the Middle East. Corporal James Sullivan was stationed with the Air Corps Radio Division, and Private H.G. Sullivan, at the age of 18, was just finishing up M.P. School. Elvie also joined in the fight, and worked with other women at Barksdale in the preparations needed by the military, and later on, their youngest son Johnny would serve throughout the Korean War. The service of their sons and daughters was undoubtedly worrisome, but fortunately each would safely return home.
Together Garrett and Lillie continued to be active in their new community, and today their descendants are still heavily rooted in Start, LA. In 1951, Garrett was named President of the PTA for the school; a commitment he would give much attention and time towards for the betterment of the community.
In the final years of Garrett’s life, he would be joined by his mother, who came to live with them in Start. She would become known affectionately as “Little Grandma” to almost everyone. She died living there in 1961.
In December of 1966, Garrett and Lillie celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. Families and neighbors would come by on the day of their celebration, bringing laughter and celebration of this marital milestone.
Together, Garrett and Lillie would have twelve children in all, with ten surviving to live relatively long lives. Each would contribute uniquely towards improving the lives of others. Family ties would continually bind this Sullivan family, regardless of where their families would settle.
One of Garrett’s son-in-laws, Dick Taylor, when talking about him to me years after his death, would always reference him with an honest reverence as MISTER Garrett. It wasn’t common for me to hear him talking informally to include a title like that, but it’s something that always stood out to me.
I never met Mr. Garrett Sullivan, or maybe it would’ve been great-grandpa Sullivan if I had, but as I’ve learned about his life and continually watched his many descendants living by so many of the same honest values he possessed, I can’t help but think that the strength of his character, his honest convictions, and his steady hands on the wheel, are still alive in each of us all these years later.
To define him is difficult; but from my perspective, I’ll offer this. I believe Garrett Sullivan was a man of principle and discipline, as well as honest and fair, and that he rightfully expected the same in return. He was someone who greatly valued the importance of both family and community, and was committed to seeing them each be successful. Thrust into great responsibility at a very young age, he was likely pretty protective and at times a bit stern. And when he was wronged, I don’t think he felt it always necessary to get even, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he kept score. Yet throughout his life, it seems clear to me that in both good times and bad, he remained steadfast in his faithfulness to God and to his family. A faithful servant until the end. And that’s the story of who Mr. Garrett Sullivan is to me.
– Luke Letlow (great-grandson)