Please Note: In the mid 20th century the professional wrestler and movie actor Man Mountain Dean (“MMD”, real name Frank Leavitt) lived in Southwest Gwinnett for a number of years. This article is focused on Robert Stevens, who grew up near the wrestler and his family, and was influenced by their friendship.
Gwinnett native Robert Stevens, a graduate of West Gwinnett High School, class of 1959, grew up on the farm in a hollow a few miles north of Norcross. His father, George Stevens Jr. worked for many years as a butcher for White Provisions, a large meat packing plant that was active on the west side of Atlanta for several decades. George and his wife Johnnie sent Robert and his two younger brothers, Harold Dean Stevens and Franklin Sylvester Stevens, to the local schools and all the sons helped tend to the crops that the family grew. The Stevens family lived just east of US 23 (also known as the Buford Highway), near Pittman Circle, adjacent to Robert’s grandparents, George and Ethel Stevens, and his uncle, Roscoe Higgins, and their families. (Buford Highway had been built a few years before Robert was born and was one of the few paved roads in the area at that time.)
Farm life for the extended Stevens family was like that of many in the area in those days. They raised most of the food that they ate, with occasional purchases from nearby retail stores – in their case, from Boss’ store at the top of a nearby hill on Buford Highway, or from one of the several retail outlets operating in Norcross in those days. The Stevens family did not own an automobile until Robert was grown (George Stevens Jr. usually got a ride to work in Atlanta from a co-worker who lived near the Stevens family home), but they did have horses, and Robert and his brothers would ride them in the Beaver Ruin area, and into town if needed. The families butchered their own pork each year when the cooler weather came in the fall, and Robert’s grandparents had a smokehouse where the meat could be stored to cure. When corn meal was needed (it was a staple of farm diets back in those days) Robert would ride with his grandfather to take a wagonload of corn to the Hopkins Mill a few miles away. Robert recalls that the mill personnel would prep the corn for grinding, and it was typical in those days for a miller to retain a small percentage of the output as a fee for the value they provided.
The Hardy family lived near his home, and the sons in the family were playmates of Robert for many years. Together the boys would dam up the branch of Beaver Ruin Creek near them to create a swimming hole for use in the summer. The summer watermelon season was a favorite time of year when Robert was growing up – in those days they would put ripe melons in the “wash hole” for a time to get them good and cold, then take them out and smash them open and eat the center, the sweetest part.
The Stevens family would take any extra produce into town to sell in the summer, but the families in the area canned or otherwise preserved most of the vegetables and fruits that they grew, using the town cannery (on College Street, near the entrance to today’s Lillian Webb Park) to preserve green beans, butterbeans, peas and other crops for consumption later during the winter months. Robert rode a bus to school at Norcross Elementary and then to Norcross High School. And then, after West Gwinnett High School opened in the fall of 1957, to that school. (West Gwinnett stood where Summerour middle school is located today.) Robert’s athletic career started early - he was a speedy guy, and this was recognized by the coach of the football team the first year that the school had an organized squad, and the coach recruited Robert to play. Robert also excelled at track - he finished with third in the state at the statewide meet in Macon when he was a freshman in high school. He also was popular among his classmates – he was elected class president for the seniors in 1959
Robert has many fond memories of people he knew and experiences he had while growing up in Southwest Gwinnett. The family of his classmate Jean Welch operated a restaurant in Norcross (just down South Peachtree from the bank of Norcross, at the corner of Jones and South Peachtree) and he particularly enjoyed the iced tea and vegetables served there. Robert’s uncle, Arch Hamilton, was a brick mason who did work all over the Atlanta area, and Robert worked for Arch in the summer breaks when he was in high school. (One of Robert’s brothers became a brick mason.)
But one thing that stands out in Robert’s mind as he remembers his childhood is the family that lived across Buford Highway from the Stevens home. That substantial house with a winding driveway there was the home of one of the more celebrated individuals of Gwinnett County - Frank Simmons Leavitt, a professional wrestler and movie actor known by all as “Man Mountain Dean”– and his wife Doris Dean Leavitt and her parents Dave and Willie Britt Dean.
In addition to the house their property had a garden, a separate garage and a separate billiards room where the walls were decorated with photos, military service medals and movie posters collected over MMD’s long career. Wrestling mats were also available in case the then-retired sportsman wanted to relive some of the “old days” when he spent time in the ring. The property also had a syrup mill and an outdoor seating area which the wrestler frequented in good weather. Robert remembers it as a beautiful, spotless home, adorned by elephant-themed decorations, a favorite of the wrestler and his wife.
MMD was heavily involved in maintaining the property during his years there, taking on such tasks as painting and mowing the lawn.
Leavitt had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances in show business in that era, due in part to his long career, and in part to that of his father. John McKenney Leavitt, MMD’s father, was for many years the stage manager for George M. Cohan, one of the biggest stars on Broadway and in the movies in the early 1900s. Cohan was a show business Jack-of-all-trades. an entertainer, playwright, composer, lyricist, actor, singer, dancer and theatrical producer. Many well-known entertainment celebrities of MMD’s day had gathered around Cohan in their early days in show business, and likely knew the Leavitts, father and son, due to their connection with the star.
And these folks would on occasion seek out their long-time friend Frank Leavitt to reminisce about their early days in entertainment. Celebrities that Robert remembers visiting in particular include the movie, Broadway and TV actor Ralph Bellamy, the cowboy singing star Gene Autry and the comedienne Lucile Ball. MMD’s wife Doris, who had a personality as robust as that of her husband, was doubtless memorable for the visitors as well – Robert remembers that on one occasion Mrs. Leavitt took the lady who later starred in “I Love Lucy” to the train station in Atlanta so she could catch a train back to New York, and he was invited to ride along on the Norcross to Atlanta round trip – doubtless getting an earful from the back seat as the two ladies talked.
Doris’ family on both sides, the Deans and Britts, had lived in Gwinnett since its early days. Her father, Dave, was an accomplished horseman and veteran of the Spanish-American War, and Robert remembers her mother Willie Mae Britt Dean as an impressive cook.
The well-known Leavitts were very supportive of the farm family across the road, and of the community in which they lived in general. Man Mountain and Doris were known for their entertaining groups at their home, and Robert recalls that there was a high school prom staged there during his childhood, complete with young ladies arriving in their evening gowns. Robert also remembers that the Stevens family did not have a set of encyclopedias, but that he was always welcomed into the home across the road to use the ones that the Leavitts had to help research his school assignments. Another sign of the close connection between the families was that the names of Robert’s two brothers (Franklin and Dean) both included references to the names of the family across the road.
Man Mountain Dean died in May of 1953 at the home on Buford Highway, evidently of a heart attack suffered while he was mowing the lawn. Doris lived for some years afterwards, but sold the property they owned on Buford Highway, and the Stevens family did the same. Both properties have since been developed for commercial activities. MMD (a veteran of both WWI and WWII) and his wife are both buried in the Marietta National Cemetery in Cobb County.
After graduating from high school Robert became a successful businessman and lived in the Atlanta area until his death in in 2022.
Many thanks to Robert Stevens, Walter Freeman, Jimmy Garner and Al Karnitz for their help in preparing this story.