Tuf Nut In My Pocket,

Gentle Giant On My Mind



n the mid 1930s Heuer’s Shoe Store was located on the south side of Courthouse Square in Searcy.  At one time, they sold work clothing in addition to shoes.  I was pleased when they advertised a “free” pocketknife with the purchase of two pairs of Tuf Nut overalls.  I knew that I had never been allowed to buy more than one pair at a time but I wanted that swell knife and began a strategy for presenting a case to my mother, who bought all my clothes and shoes.  My main selling point was that my aunt Zoe Ellis, Dad’s sister, worked in the office of the overalls manufacturer, Tuf Nut, in Little Rock.  What really decided the issue was that the two pairs of overalls I had were bordering on being threadbare.  I was allowed to buy the two new pairs of Tuf Nuts with “free” pocketknife, which I still have (the knife, not the overalls).  This episode sparked a lifelong interest in pocketknives.  I even picked up several in the Philippines while serving in the Army during WWII.  My collection numbers more than 50 but one of my favorites is my Tuf Nut.  In nearly 70 years of knives I’ve cut myself only eight or 10 times!

            Heuer’s main interest was shoes, of course.  I suppose I did buy some shoes there but mainly I wore Keds tennis shoes bought at Robbins-Sanford Merchantile from George Rogers’ mother or aunt.  Keds had a sole that protruded beyond the upper so as to accommodate clamp-on roller skates.

          Heuer’s Shoe Store, working with International Shoe Company, brought the world’s tallest man, Robert Wadlow, to Searcy at least two times.  On his first trip in 1933 I talked with Robert at length and shook his hand.  I recall he had a soft, pleasant voice and a warm, firm handshake.  The second time I saw Robert, in 1938, he didn’t alight from the flatbed truck in which he was riding, nor did I get to shake his hand or talk with him.   Robert was born of normal-size parents in Alton, Illinois, in 1918.  An overactive pituitary gland caused his amazing growth.  His height of 8 feet, 11.1 inches is still recognized by Guinness as the tallest person in history. At age 18 Robert wore size 37 shoes, which cost $100 a pair – a lot of money back in the 1930s.  Two years later his shoes were provided free by the International Shoe Company.  When he turned 20 Robert traveled for the shoe company, visiting over 800 towns and 41 states.  His father had to modify the family car, removing the front passenger seat so Robert could stretch out his long legs.  The father and son team traveled more than 300,000 miles on their goodwill tour for the shoe company.  Donald Heuer of Batesville accompanied them on many trips through Arkansas.  The Alton, Illinois, Web site has many of Heuer’s recollections, including the following: 

“I met Robert the first time he came to Batesville to visit my dad’s shoe store in the mid-1930s.  Dad advertised with circulars delivered town to town by car with boys riding the car’s running boards, jumping off to put the circulars porch to porch.  The street was roped off from corner to corner for the people, who came by wagons and a few by cars.  Others walked or rode a horse or mule.  They treated him with respect even though a few thought he was not really that tall; perhaps he was on stilts? 

            “Almost all the highways between the small towns in Arkansas were joined by dusty washboard, loose-gravel roads.  For Robert and his dad to travel these roads as much as they did leads me to believe they enjoyed the people in Arkansas.

            “One hot summer day such a dusty road took them to the place the White River and Sylamore Creek meet just west of Mountain View.  There they met my dad’s brother and his family for an afternoon of swimming and to take rides in a Jon boat dad rented for the occasion.  Dad offered boat rides to everyone except Robert.  He was told that if he fell out of the boat there would be no way to get him back into the boat.  The rides continued with fun and visiting taking place until someone noticed that Robert was missing from the group.  They found him on the dusty road, trying to thumb a ride back to Batesville.  If he could not ride in the boat, he would go back to the hotel.   I’ve often wondered about the people that didn’t stop to pick him up.  He was told to come back, and he got his ride. 

            “My dad went with Robert and his dad to Hot Springs, which was at that time a ‘mini-Las Vegas.’  The group went to a nightclub to see a show.  It was required that people attending the shoe wear a coat or jacket.  Robert had neither as it was very hot.  My dad told them, ‘We have a young man with us that does not have a coat or jacket and he is a Big Boy.’  He was told, ‘No problem – we have loaners.’  Dad said, ‘He is a Big Boy.’ ‘No problem,’ they said, ‘we have big jackets and coats too.’  When they saw Robert they said, ‘He IS a Big Boy, isn’t he!’  Coatless, Robert was able to see the show.

            “When he stayed overnight in Batesville the hotel put three double beds side by side so Robert could sleep crossways.”  

As a youth, Robert had enjoyed good health but his large feet had troubled him for many years.  He had little sensation in his feet and did not feel any chafing until blisters formed.  While making an appearance in Manistee, Michigan, in July 1940, a fatal infection set in when such a blister formed.  On July 4, doctors had Robert confined to a hotel bed, unable to find suitable accommodations at the local hospital.  Days later, after emergency surgery and blood transfusions, the infection lingered and his temperature continued to rise.  At 1:30 a.m. on the 15th of July, the world’s largest man passed away in his sleep.  Robert’s body was brought back to his hometown of Alton for burial.  The casket required a dozen pallbearers and eight other men to carry.  Out of respect for Alton’s gentle giant, all city businesses closed for the funeral.  Over 40,000 people signed the guest register.  At the time of his death Robert weighed 490 pounds.  He was only 22 years old. 


(The author is a member of the White County Historical Society.)