Every year, libraries are burning
President, White County Historical Society

The 1998 edition of White County Heritage was dedicated to Ina McBride Leach, former president of the White County Historical Society who died June 7, 1998, at 88. Friends and loved ones filled the chapel in Beebe for her services, which included several poignant recollections from family members.

Ina McBride LeachIna was a fifth generation White Countian who started teaching in rural schools when she was 16 years old and passed the county teacher's exam. Schools where she taught included Millwood, Happy, Walker, Belcher, Mt. Vernon, Kensett and Garner. She also taught in Stockton and Turlock, California. Her career spanned 45 years, and ranged from one-room school to high school to special education.

I have heard it said that when an elderly person dies, it is "like a library burning." This was most certainly the case with Ina. The loss of her wisdom and experience, along with her warm and friendly personality, was a tragedy for us all. As time slowly and relentlessly takes our seniors away, a lifetime of mostly unrecorded White County history goes with each of them. In just one year I saw it happen many times.

During the summer I had the pleasure of meeting a 102-year-old lady who had lived in White County all her life. Her name was Bura Weaver. When a friend told me about her, I went out to the nursing home, Beverly Health & Rehabilitation Center, and introduced myself and asked her if she could spend a little time talking with me. She said she would do it … but only if I came back on Saturday after she had her hair done … and to call first.

I waited until a reasonable time on Saturday morning and called … and was surprised when she answered the phone herself. She said "let's forget it". That's all. I figured she was tired and didn't want company. I told her it wasn't the first time I had been stood up by a lady … and was going to keep trying until she said yes. Well, I didn't keep trying … and Bura left us just a few months later. I still wonder about the things we didn't talk about.

Two weeks before I met Mrs. Weaver, I interviewed a 93-year-old man who had been a blacksmith at Morning Sun. His name was J.D. Wheetley and he was at Byrd Haven Nursing Home. What he told me - about shoeing horses for a quarter a hoof, and charming rattlesnakes, among other things -- was recorded in the 1999 issue of Heritage. [An excerpt was published in Charles Allbright's "Arkansas Traveler" column in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette April 21, 1998.]

What I saw and heard in him, although then very weak and feeble, was a carryover from the pioneer bravado of the early settlers -- a fearless fascination with dangerous things. I dropped John Wheetley a note later and sent him a baseball cap but never got a response. Then in January there was a small announcement in the Daily Citizen. I almost missed it. It was about John. Like Mrs. Weaver, he had left us, too.

At my suggestion, Bob Sallee at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette wrote a story about the "White River Monster", which reportedly has been sighted in the river near Newport several times dating back to the early 1800s. In our White County Historical Society's archives I found a 1976 interview with Jim Overstreet of Georgetown, who claimed to know what the White River monster was or is. I immediately set out to find him.

The interview indicated Jim, who was known locally as "Jimmy Cracked Corn," was born in 1898. I did some quick research and was amazed to find that Mr. Overstreet was still living. At age 100, he was tracked down at Oakdale Nursing Home in Judsonia. I called one evening to see if it would be possible to talk to him. The night operator said I would have to call back and get permission from the director the following day. I was unable to make that followup call - and it was less than a week later that I read in the Daily Citizen that Jimmy Cracked Corn had left us, too.

Ina … Bura … John … Jimmy … were libraries gone in just that one year.

We are not taking advantage of the wonderful stories and information that dwell unrecorded in the fading memories of our senior citizens. Like farmers running through their orchards before a cyclone, we need to grab as much fruit as we as we can before it is gone.
Won't you join us? Grab a tape recorder, camcorder, or a pad and pen and start recording what our seniors have to tell about earlier days. Capture as much of our heritage as you can.