It was an imaginary town, but not to the people who lived there. The Traveler’s Story.
June 30, 2013
A VG Serial: Other Voices, Other Towns
The Scene: The town of Pine Ridge, Arkansas, or what’s left of it, dates back to the 1880s when Henry Waters operated a sawmill and gin in the timberlands near the Ouachita River. He added a post office in his small store and named the hamlet after himself. He called it Waters. The town was so small that, for the next two decades or so, the school and the church occupied the same building.
The Sights: In 1904, the McKinzie General Store was built, but it would long be remembered and even idolized as the original Jot ‘em Down Store, made famous by the Lum and Abner radio show. The creation of Chet Lauck and Tuffy Goff became so well known that, in 1936, the council voted to change the name of their little burg from Waters to Pine Ridge, a town existing only in Chet and Tuffy’s imagination and on America’s airwaves. The Lum and Abner Museum now occupies the old McKinzie Store, which is the way it should be.
The Story: Lum and Abner’s voices traveled magically through wires that few, if any, in the hollows of the Ouachitas understood, and America didn’t let them shut up for twenty-five years. NBC Radio snatched them out of the mountains and shuffled them off to Hollywood, paying Lum and Abner twenty-five grand apiece for their trouble. They were making as much as the President, the one in Washington.
The Jot ’em Down Store was real, right down to the cracks in the floor, the pot-bellied stove, and checkerboard in Dick Huddleston’s place. The town of Pine Ridge was mythical. But the characters were authentic, only the names were different. Everyone in the hills around Waters recognized Grandpappy Spears as Grandpappy Wilhite and Squire Skimp as old Doc Hammons. Cedric Weehunt, they said, sure did sound and act a lot like Lester Gobel who worked with Tuffy Goff over in the wholesale grocery firm at Mena.
On the air, only Dick Huddleston got to keep his actual, honest-to-goodness name, and sometimes Lum and Abner gossiped a little about Dick’s girl, Ethel. It was the least they could do. After all, it was Dick’s girl, Ethel, who wrote them once a week, keeping Lum and Abner supplied with choice stories and colorful remarks she collected at barn dances or parties or pie suppers or around the checkerboard at the Jot ’em Down Store, anywhere, in fact, where two or more gathered together and couldn’t keep their secrets to themselves. Dick’s girl, Ethel, kept them in business.
Lauck once said back in the late ’30s, “We’re sort of like Mussolini. We’ve created Pine Ridge and the people in it – the mayor, the justice of the peace, the fire chief, the grocer. We’re dictators by remote control. It’s our town, and we run it to suit ourselves. If we want to pave the streets, we don’t have to pass any bonds.”
They portrayed the honest face of America, and the country recognized itself. The success of Lum and Abner was phenomenal. When they began broadcasting for Horlicks Malted Milk, the company was operating a plant only three days a week, firmly wedged in sixth place in sales among malted milk firms. Within ninety days, Horlicks was running its plant day and night, trying to fill orders for folks who believed anything and everything that Lum and Abner told them, and Lum and Abner were down in Pine Ridge drinking Horlicks malted milk. They were sure of it. Lum and Abner might be guilty of a lot of things, but they wouldn’t lie to those who tuned in at night, then pulled the knobs off the radio so nobody could change stations. A year later, Horlicks even reactivated its plant in Toronto and leaped to first place in malted milk sales. Lum and Abner were not without their dedicated listeners. Only Amos ‘N Andy had more.
By 1936, Waters decided it had basked in the glory of anonymity long enough. The whole country was talking about the Jot ’em Down Store in Pine Ridge, and Waters had the Jot ’em Down Store. It wanted to be Pine Ridge as well. Dick Huddleston would recall, “We sent a petition to our congressman, signed by all the characters used in the Lum and Abner radio shows and fifty others living around here, asking the Post Office Department to change our town’s name to Pine Ridge, telling them to inform Mr. Farley (the postmaster general) that if our request was refused he would be arrested by Grandpappy Spears for neglect of duty and that Lum, our justice of the peace, would sure pour it on him in court. That evidently had its effect, for the change of name was granted.
The Jot ’em Down store at last stood where it belonged, in downtown Pine Ridge. In fact, the Jot ’em Down Store is the downtown of Pine Ridge, still hugging the side of the road, still flaunting the sign that Dick’s girl, Ethel, painted so long ago: “Drive keerful – Don’t hit our young’uns. You all hurry back.”
Even after Dick Huddleston or his girl, Ethel, were no longer around, Pine Ridge made sure that the Jot ’em Down Store looked just the way your imagination said it did back during those days when only your mind was ever able to see past the batteries of a radio. Around the old pot-bellied stove is a dusty checkerboard and barber chair. A radio, God bless it, sits in the corner. Ledgers filled with the scrawled reminders of forgotten, unpaid debts line the shelves along with patent medicines claiming or threatening to cure every ailment from colic to cancer.
On the wall is a Dick Huddleston sign, salvaged by his girl, Ethel, that says, “Notice: Tres-passers will be persekuted to the x-tent of 2 mongrel dogs which never was overly soshible of strangers & 1 dubble bar’l shotgun, which ain’t loaded with sofa pillars. Boy howdy if I ain’t gitten tared of this truble on my place.”
Across the street is a combination general store and post office. Ora Garrett, a straw cowboy hat clamped down over his graying hair, sits out front, near his barber chair. Garrett glances at the Jot ’em Down Store and smiles. It brought him fame, but few knew it. “I was Mose Moots, the barber, on the radio show,” he points out proudly. “There’s only three of us left that Lum and Abner ever talked about. Me, Mousey Gray, and Evalina. And I’ve been here seventy-two years, never lived farther away from Pine Ridge than two miles, never had another address in my life.”
He knows the old timers whose real-life experiences became an integral part of the Lum and Abner Show. He was one of them. Garrett remembers Grandpappy Wilhite: “When Grandpappy went over to Mena, he always sat down on his hat to keep anyone from stealin’ it. It must have worked. Nobody ever got it.”
And he can’t forget Uncle Dow Wilhite. The eighty-six-year-old man was coming across a deer crossing with some friends when their dogs attacked a bear. The feisty old man barked, ‘Make them dogs get back, and I’ll ride that dang bear home and punch him with a stick to make him go.”
The men dragged their dogs back, leaving Uncle Dow to stare, eyeball to eyeball, with the angry bear. The old man simply shrugged and said, “Why, anybody could ride him that wants to, but who in hell wants to.” Uncle Dow walked on home, leaving the bear to walk on home, saving face as well as life and limb for another day.
Such was life in the good old days of Pine Ridge. It hasn’t really changed that much. It’s still pretty loose and easy and uncomplicated. On the door of the Jot ’em Down Store is a sign that says, “If we’re closed and you can’t return Tuesday though Sunday, call 326-4442, and we’ll do our best to open the door.” It’s a town that pretty much lets the weather and the traffic dictate when to close up for the winter. When the weather sets in real bad, and the rain has a chill, the wind has a temper, and a car hasn’t stopped for three days, the fire in the pot-bellied stove is doused, the radio turned off, the lights dimmed, checkerboard cleared, and everybody goes on home.”
Lum and Abner would approve. Abner was the first to leave for good, passing away in June of 1978. During his eulogy, Lum said softly, “I saved the old checkerboard, and I believe it’s my next move.” It came twenty months later. Lum and Abner could never stay parted for long.
Chapters of Other Voices, Other Towns: The Traveler’s Story, are published daily.
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