Blacksmithing at Romance, Arkansas, 1915
Morning Sun Blacksmith --
Making Horseshoes & Charming Snakes
INTERVIEW WITH J.D. WHEETLEY
by the President of the White County Historical Society
Location: Byrd Haven Nursing Home, 105 South College, Searcy.
Date: 11:30 a.m., Saturday, July 26, 1997
Interviewer: G. Edwin Best Jr.
Others Present: Pat R. Best and Paul Hickman.
I found Mr. Wheetley alone in his room. I had planned to set up for the interview while he was eating lunch, but he declined the meal. The interview was recorded on audio tape and videotape in a small lounge area on the south side of the Byrd Haven complex. Mr. Wheetley was feeble, unable to walk, and had to be transported in a wheelchair.
Im talking this morning to one of the residents of Byrd Haven, Mr. Johnny Wheetley. Is that how youre known ... Johnny?
John. They always call me John. Or J.D. Most call me J.D. John Doyne Wheetley.
When were you born? [I had been told he was 93 years old.]
June 26, 1909.
How long have you been here at the Nursing Home?
About a year.
Where were you born?
Wayne County, Missouri ... just 7 miles out of Piedmont. Just out of St. Louis about 35 miles.
Who were your parents?
John and Sarah Belle Wheetley.
What did they do for a living?
Worked on a farm.
Did you move from that location to White County?
I couldnt tell you what year it was.
Was it before World War I?
Well it was after it started. [Later in the interview, he mentioned several times that he moved in 1916; it was obvious from his description of the celebration in 1918 that he was in Searcy at that time.]
We moved out of Searcy -- out of Higginson. About a mile out of Higginson.
What did your father do?
Farmer and blacksmith. ... sell shoes and put on horseshoes. Thats what I learned to do, by him. I could make anything I wanted to out of steel.
Did you make a pretty good living on that?
Yea, I made a good living...
What time period was this?
1916 plumb up until I was grown. Then after I was grown, I took to making plow stocks n workin in the shop. I had a shop of my own.
I guess there were more horses then than automobiles.
Mules more than anything ... some horses. They rode horses. There were very few [horses] that worked. But mules worked. Horses done the buggy work ... stuff like that.
So you kept all of em shod?
Yeah, I shod everything in the country at that time. I fit em ... I made em.
When did your father pass away?
About 10 or 12 years [ago], somewhere around that.
He was a blacksmith?
Yeah... he was the one who taught me.
How many children do you have?
Nine. Just like Dad did.
Is your wife still living?
Naw, shes been dead about three years.
What was her name?
Willa Mary Wheetley.
Are your children still living?
Yeah, theyre all still living ... but I dont know where theyre living.
Dont you have a son living in Searcy?
Yeah ... naw ... hes out there at my place now. Out there the other side of Morning Sun. He lives there in that trailer. Weve got five trailers there...
How much property do you own out there?
I used to have 40 acres. But now Ive just got an acre of ground and that house. He lives on it. Hes got four or five trailers.
In those days how long did it take you to get from Morning Sun to Searcy?
Well, in a wagon, took around an hour... You didnt trot em. You just let em have their time. If you didnt, they wouldnt hold out ... get so hot.
How often did you go to Searcy?
Wed go about twice a month ... get groceries. Higginson had a store but they didnt have everything youd need. O.D. Walker had a store there then ... and then after he broke up, Louis Love put in one there. Same place.
I guess the railroad was a big deal then.
Oh, yeah. Theyd handle everything. All of our stock. Wed have four carloads of cattle and horses and mules and hogs ... and they came right there and unloaded them. They had a big lot there then. Now they havent got nothin. They aint got even a store there no more.
How big was Higginson in those days?
Well, about as big as it is right now. They never did grow ... and they never did make very many buildings. Theyve got a few new buildings right now.
Were you the only blacksmith?
Yeah. Me and my Dad.
So I guess you could charge pretty much what you wanted to?
Yeah. But it wasnt much. I got a dollar for shoeing a horse all around.
Nowadays its about 15.
Were you living there when World War I broke out?
Do you remember much about that?
Yeah, I do.
What was it like -- were people upset or excited?
No ... they just went and done their duty. There wasnt much talk about it then. Theres more talk about it now than there was then.
When somebody left to go to the war, was it a big event?
Well, they just went ... and that was it.
What about when they came home?
Everybody had a day for that.
A day ... a special day?
Yeah, thats right.
Was it at Higginson?
No, in Searcy ... there at the park ... Spring Park.
Did you know any of the fellows who didnt come back?
Well some of em. Roy Vest -- he went over there and got all crippled up. He couldnt do nothin. Hes been dead for years.
Where did he live?
He lived there not far from me. He was a fine guy ...
When the war was going on -- was it a hardship?
It was for the old people. The young people didnt pay too much attention to it. But the old people did.
In what way?
Well, because they had to go to a war ... and they wasnt implicated in it. But they had to go anyway. People talked about it a lot. And they do yet. You get around a big bunch and they bring that up and have something to say about it. Theyve had a brother ... or theyve had an uncle ... somebodys had to go.
I met one of your friends while I was coming in ... he told me youre a snake man.
I catch rattlesnakes. I find a rattlesnake coiled up, well I tell him "stretch out," and start movin my hand over him like that ... "go on, stretch out now ... come on here now. Follow my hand out here." And hell get out here and then Ill place my hand in behind him, pick him up and hell wrap around me and Ill carry him to the house.
Now how would you do that?
Just charm em.
Just charm em?
Just like a woman. Just like a woman. Theyre more like a woman than anything else.
Who taught you that?
Nobody. I just learned it. I never was afraid of em.
It must have been very frightening the first time.
Naw, I just growed up with em. Ive seen em that big around [makes a ring with his fingers about 4" in diameter]. Weighed 35 pounds.
Were you ever bitten?
No. Never been bitten. I could just motion my hand over him ... tell him to lay down and straighten out. Hed just stretch out just like you were talking to somebody.
Was your dad able to do that?
He wasnt as good as I was. He was bit a couple of times.
Do you think you could go out and do that today?
I deliberately couldnt. Id be afraid of em. I never was afraid of em.
So you lived here from ...
1916 up to today.
You didnt leave?
I went to work in Michigan and Indiana. Its been 8 to 10 years ago.
Worked in tomaters, peaches, apples, anything that came along.
When you were young, do you remember hearing any stories about the Civil War or the Spanish American War?
Ive heard a lot but I forget.
Was your father in any of the wars?
No. He wasnt in it because he had too many children.
What about his father?
I didnt know anything about him. He had a white long beard down like this. I used to have a picture of him. But it burnt up in that fire we had.
Weve got one of your friends here with us. Im going to ask him to join us.
(Continued See "SHOOTING ANVILS ON ARMISTICE DAY")