What’s going on with Lum and Abner down at the Jot ’em Down Store? The Traveler’s Story.
June 29, 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: The weathered old front porch over at the Jot ’em Down Store is empty – scribbled, whittled, and spit on – but empty. Squire Skimp doesn’t drop in anymore to use the wall telephone. Grandpappy Spears hasn’t bought any mysterious Sights Liniment – a “cure for aches and pains, the removal of warts, corns and calluses,” and a healer of “partial deafness” – since he grew sick and tired of being sick and tired. Cedrick Weehunt got bored with making deliveries after everyone moved away, and there’s no one left to jump the last checker, inside, beside the dusty pot-bellied stove, back where it all began so many years and years ago.
During the days when mountain folks knew they shouldn’t gather pumpkins, okra, cucumbers, and melons until the apple trees bloomed, the Jot ’em Down Store of Pine Ridge was the center for all news, gossip, accusations, denials, and rumors originating in Western Arkansas. News had a habit of spreading through the Ouachitas sometimes even before it happened and always before it grew stale or cold or scrupulous.
“Miss Effie Lotts just got back from Little Rock,” you would have heard. “She’s been takin’ vocal lessons.”
“The whole darn family’s talented that way.”
“Look at her brother, Luke. He won the hog callin’ contest at the county fair last year.”
Someone would whisper confidentially, “I guess you heard that the long-distance romance Sister Simpson’s been havin’ with that feller from the Matrimonial Bureau fell through.”
“When she first started writin’ him, she found out that his name was Ed Simpson.”
“That’s the name of her first husband.”
“She got a picture from her mail-order love last week.”
“What does he look like?”
“Her first husband.”
“That’s what you call hard luck.”
“It will be when she finds him.”
In 1936, in Pine Ridge, back in the high country, back down a back road that led to the back side of a backward town, that was news. In 1936, perhaps, more people heard more news from Pine Ridge, Arkansas, than from any other corner of the nation, big or small. It was nothing more than front porch gossip warmed up around a pot-bellied stove, polished around a checkerboard. and spit out on radio by a couple of good old boys who claimed they hung around the Jot ’em Down Store in Pine Ridge, a pair of down-home, mountain-top philosophers the world knew as Lum and Abner, but could never make up its mind whether those backwoods drawls belonged to friends, neighbors, or kinfolks.
Lum and Abner weren’t comedians. They merely looked with human eyes on the human side of life and saw the wit, the wisdom, and the folly of it all. Their advice was simple: “Never put your faith in seed catalogs. That thing with the double barreled name always turns out to be radishes.”
Their admonitions made sense in a folksy sort of way: “Getting mad is a lot like using a shotgun. The danged thing always goes off when you don’t know it’s loaded, and when you’ve got a reasonable excuse to really use it, the barrel is generally so full of old wads that the dadgummed thing only sputters.”
They said it all in front of the microphones out in Hollywood. There was no way they could have broadcast their daily, fifteen-minute radio show from within the old, weather-shellacked walls of the Jot ’em Down Store. It had no electricity, no hope of getting any, and no interest at all in plugging itself into that new-fangled luxury that turned night to day with the flip of a switch.
Yet, without the Jot ’em Down Store, Lum and Abner would have had little, if anything, to say at all. The fussy little general store had been built amongst the Ouachitas back in 1904 to stock the needs of the Waters Community, filling its shelves only with those goods a mountain farmer couldn’t grow, swap, barter, finagle, or make by hand, which meant it was heavy on patent medicines, high-top shoes, snuff, and something to spit it in. It became Dick Huddleston’s store. He became the Kingfish of Waters. His Jot ’em Down Store became the political, social, economic, and philosophical center of the community, an almanac of good times and bad ones, a purveyor of lies and guarantees and half truths, only nobody ever knew which half was the truth.
To the Jot ’em Down Store in the late 1920s came Chet Lauck and Tuffy Goff, sons of a couple of well-to-do Mena, Arkansas, businessmen. What they did best was chase rainbows, looking for a time just a shade better than good, even if they had to make it up themselves, which they did as often as not.
Mena had suffered a severe flood, so the community put on an amateur show to raise money for those left homeless and destitute by the high, turbulent waters. Chet and Tuffy climbed inside a cardboard box on stage, where no one could see them, and created a down-home radio skit – just voices because that’s all folks knew about radio anyway.
The crowd howled. It went wild. So did KTHS, a radio station in Hot Springs. The manager invited the boys down for an audition. Chet Lauck and Tuffy Goff arrived at the station that morning, ready to hit the airwaves with another blackface routine. After all, Amos ‘N Andy were doing all right, and Amos ‘N Andy were as white as Chet and Tuffy.
“There’s too many blackface comedians on the air already,” the manager told them. “We’re looking for something different.”
The boys hadn’t prepared anything different.
Five minutes before air time, they decided to build their show around those country friends who sat huddled around the pot-bellied stove in Dick Huddleston’s Jot ’em Down Store over in Waters, the ones playing checkers and spouting sage advice to anyone who wanted it, and nobody ever did.
“What’ll I call you?” asked the announcer as he walked toward the microphone.
Chet Lauck and Tuffy Goff had no idea. They hadn’t had time to think about it. “Just introduce us as Lum and Abner,” one yelled. That sounded homespun and country enough for rural America. Nobody would remember after one show anyway.
They still had those jobs in the sawmill and grocery business waiting on them, and the jobs might not be waiting much longer, even if they did have understanding bosses, which happened to be their fathers, who were quickly losing patience with the boys and their oddball ideas about talking out of a box, usually when they had nothing to say and said it anyway.
The Lum and Abner saga continues tomorrow.
Chapters of Other Voices, Other Towns: The Traveler’s Story, are published daily.
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