Every family has stories that may or may not be true. Dad often told a story about pulling his toy wagon full of sheet music for the woman who accompanied the silent movies at the Broadway theater.
We all dismissed that as his version of walking 12 miles to school in waist-deep snow (uphill both ways.)
Eventually, Mother sent me the obit of the woman who HAD played music at the silent movies. I guess he wasn’t just funnin’ us with his tale.
Dad and the basement boat
I don’t ever recall Dad mention the boat he built in the basement at Themis Street before discovering he couldn’t get it through the door. That strikes me as a story no man would tell on himself.
I was never able to determine if the tale was true, and all the folks I could ask are no long with us.
Then, I ran across a couple of Missourian classified ads from 1944. The one at the top of the page was to sell a new, 12-foot row boat; table top model radio, $25; electric jig saw, $10; and one 4 and one 6 cylinder magneto.
Maybe he HAD gotten the boat out of the basement, and maybe that’s why he was also able to sell the jig saw.
Bicycles for sale
About the same time, he was trying to sell two pre-war bicycles, like new. (And the boat.)
Mother with bikes
Decades later, she still talked about how their legs cramped up from the 36-mile ride.
The first year I started serious biking, I did the 72-mile round trip in their memory. I had quite a bit of long-distance cycling under my saddle by then – including at least one 100-mile day, so I fared better than they did.
Another bike photo
Here’s Dad on a bike. Mother’s dad, Roy Welch, is looking through the screen door in the background.
I think that Advance ride dampened their enthusiasm for long two-wheeled expeditions.
I met David Kelley in Altenburg at the Lutheran Heritage Center and Museum about the time he was helping found the Starzinger Family Research Library in memory of his long-time friend, Margaret Starzinger Wills, whose family was from the area.
I became better acquainted with him when we kept running into each other at Jackson’s Cape Girardeau County History Center, where he was creating memorials to the Talley side of his family.
How would you like to document The Bootheel?
It might have been Director Carla Jordan’s nudging that got him to broach the idea of having me document The Bootheel. I was intrigued, but not sure it was the right project for me.
Unfortunately, Mr. Kelley died of COVID, so he’ll never see the project through (and, to be honest, I’m not sure I will, either, for a number of reasons).
David E. Kelly, Sr. 1930 – 2020
David E. Kelley, Sr. was born on September 13, 1930 in Steele, MO to Pleasant Lafette (Jack) Kelley and Winnie Talley Kelley. He passed away on November 12, 2020 in Mt. Home, AR at the age of 90.
He lived in Steele until 2016, when he retired and moved to Mt. Home, AR.
David was a lifelong member of the Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church in Steele. He was a veteran who served his country as a member of the U.S. Air Force. He had been employed as a teacher, farmer, and insurance agent. He was also a 32nd Degree Mason and a Shriner.
He was united in marriage to Barbara Lennox Kelley on November 23, 1955. She and his parents preceded him in death.
He is survived by two sons: David E. Kelley, Jr., and his wife, Donna, of Mt. Home, AR; Mark L. Kelley, and his wife, Lynn, of Van Buren, AR; five grandsons: Jared, Josh, Jonathan, Sean, and Dalton; four great grandchildren: Kayra, Kendall, Beau, and Noah.
What’s The Bootheel?
I guess it’s as much a state of mind as it is a geographical entity.
A Wikipedia entry defines it this way:
The Missouri Bootheel is the southeasternmost part of the state of Missouri, extending south of 36°30′ north latitude, so called because its shape in relation to the rest of the state resembles the heel of a boot.
Strictly speaking, it is composed of Dunklin, New Madrid, and Pemiscot counties.
However, the term is locally used to refer to the entire southeastern lowlands of Missouri located within the Mississippi Embayment, which includes parts of Butler, Mississippi, Ripley, Scott, Stoddard and extreme southern portions of Cape Girardeau and Bollinger counties.
It starts at the Benton Hills for me
I consider The Bootheel to begin at about MM 82.8 southbound on I-55 just north of Benton. That’s where you leave rolling hills, and gravity takes you down to the flatlands that will carry you all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, more or less.
Mr. Kelley and I drove about 1,200 miles just surveying most of the counties listed above. During that overview, I learned much from his monologues, but shot less than two dozen photos.
I had trouble wrapping my head around the region. It was the very definition of FLAT, with few places to gain any perspective. On top of that, many of the towns and villages had either disappeared or were in major disrepair.
I’m fond of shooting dying places like coal towns in SE Ohio or Cairo, Ill., but there was a dearth of places where I could feel the vibes of those who had passed through.
I can’t figure out how to show what I shot, so I’m going to post a series of random galleries, followed by links to blog posts I’ve done that might or might not put some of the images in context.
Here’s a selection of photos from Pemiscot county. Click on any image to make it larger, then use your arrow keys to move around. Escape will take you out.
Pemiscot county was where Mr. Kelley and his family raised cotton for many years, and it was the place we talked about the most.
He said that when mechanical cotton harvesters came into common use in the 1960s, the county lost about 85% of its population. When the more skilled workers fled to places like St. Louis, Chicago and Memphis, and the lesser-skilled migrated to the smaller regional towns, the stores dried up for lack of customers. When the stores folded, so did the banks and other businesses.
I felt like I had let Mr. Kelley down because I couldn’t paint a portrait of the area like we both had hoped. It wasn’t until I started looking through all the blog posts I’ve done about the region that I realized that I had been working on this for a long time, even before I met him.
Dad built roads in Mississippi County, and I’m pretty sure we had our trailer parked in Caruthersville or Portageville at some point.
When I was about 10 years old, he took me to where they were getting gravel delivered by railroad hopper cars. He let me crawl under the cars with a hammer to cause the gravel to fall out onto a conveyor belt that loaded it on trucks.
He told me to stay under the rail car while a bulldozer pushed the next one up into position. “Just keep low and keep your arms and legs between the rails.” Can you imagine what OSHA would say about that today?
I was curious to see if the arch was still there. We not only saw the arch, but we had a great lunch at the Dixie Pig in Blytheville. I’m pretty sure that the last time I was in Blytheville before that was in the mid-70s, when I wanted to rent a truck to carry a load of Dutchtown lumber to Florida to build a shed in the back yard.
Renting it one-way from Cape was going to cost a mint, but I found out that Arkansas had a surplus of trucks, and they wouldn’t hit me with a surcharge. The only thing was that I had to be careful of the mileage allowed, and renting in Arkansas, loading in Missouri, and driving to Florida meant I had to find the most direct route possible.
I ended up going on some backroads not normally travelled by tourists. When I gassed up at one tiny station, the kid who serviced me asked, “How much do they pay you to drive that-there truck?”
It was obvious that he had never seen a rental truck or understood the concept of one.
Here is an interesting historical nugget about the Arch area: The area around the arch became known as “Little Chicago” because of the type of activity that went on there. A long-time resident of nearby Yarbo, Arkansas, once said of the arch, “It was a good place to go while the wife and kids were in church.”
Once I established that I wasn’t some kind of pervert taking pictures of kids (apparently that had happened not long before), I got a friendly welcome from the folks at the Malden High School’s football game. The mosquitoes gave me a great welcome, too.
I also shot a reunion of people who had been stationed at the Malden Airport during World War II, but I never got around writing about it.
I spent a lot of time in the New Madrid area trying to track down people I photographed being baptized in the Mississippi River in 1967. Unfortunately, the exodus from the area after mechanical harvesters arrived caused a lot of them to leave.
I’m going to put the Baptism gallery at the end of the post because it contains so many images.
This was one of the few small towns I was able to find much to document. I was amused to find that my parked car’s dashcam captured me wandering around the street like I was a loose ball in a pinball game.
That drove Mr. Kelley crazy. He couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t just get out of the car, snap a picture, then head out to the next destination.
That impatience eventually brought an end to our collaboration. I left him in the car while I went to chat with an old man at a mostly-abandoned cotton gin. He was a little reluctant to be photographed, but just about the time I had won him over, Mr. Kelley started honking the horn to tell me I was wasting too much time.
After that, I became a solo explorer.
Most of my time in Stoddard County was spent in Advance, but because we had extended family and friends in the area, I grew up sitting on a lot of front porches hearing and overhearing tall tales about the taming of ‘Swampeast’ Missouri.
My mother and grandparents came from Advance. Dad’s construction company once had an office in the Prather Building, along with Welch’s Liquor Store. For awhile, we lived in our trailer parked in my grandparents’ driveway.
Because of that, I have lots of random stories and photos of the town, including some of its mysteries that are still unsolved to this day.
This was one of the last things I shot before transferring to Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, as a junior in 1967.
Most of the photos I had taken, up until I shot the Smelterville photos and the Baptism, were fairly pedestrian traditional newspaper photos. These two projects were the first time that my “style” started to show up.
I’ve always considered them to be my Missouri “final exam.”
I had hoped to do a Smelterville-type project where I tracked down the people in the photos, but the out-migration brought about by the change in farming methods and markets scattered most of the subjects out of the area.
Mother always asked, ” “Who will put flowers on the graves after I’m gone?” Her flowers were celebrating spring in fine fashion, so I dropped off flowers at four sites on Friday.
My journey took me to the beautiful Pleasant Hill Cemetery near Tillman, just outside Advance, Mo., where my grandmother’s father and mother are buried.
Mother and her grandmother
Here is Mother and her grandmother on the farm near Tillman. After this, the Adkins moved to the big metropolis of Advance, where they opened a general store near what is now Oak Street and East South Street. Mother remembered the store had a parrot that would occasionally use inappropriate language.
Mary Adkins’ Obituary
Mary Adkins’ death certificate attributed her death to acute bronchitis, with a secondary cause of senility. Dr. Reynolds of Advance was the attending physician. I never paid much attention to the family tree, but this obit helps me figure out who some of the names were that I heard in passing.
When I was 14, Bill Hardwick, Martin Dubs and I got on a train in Cape Girardeau that took us all to way out to Philmont Scout in New Mexico. While we were aboard the Santa Fe, I picked up this deck of cards to while away the time. It’s been living in a drawer with a bunch of other decks for 35 or 40 years.
She’s a little worse for the wear, but the box still looks almost like new. I thought using Congress as the Joker might be a political commentary, but I found that it was the name of the card company.
In fact, I recognize the back on these Blackstone cards. I might be able to remember how to play gin rummy, but I have long forgotten the rules to canasta.
Hamilton cards had a Christmas theme
One of the two decks of these Hamilton cards is still in its original cellophane wrapper.
Rider Back Bicycle playing cards
There’s a good reason why these were called Rider Back Bicycle Playing cards
The backs show a winged cherub riding what appears to be a bicycle. This deck’s seal is still unbroken.
Never played bridge nor poker
I’m surprised that I was never drummed out of the newspaper business for not knowing how to play poker. That ignorance probably saved many paychecks.
Bridge was a big deal in Cape Girardeau. Here’s a front page promo for Bridge by Radio.
When I transferred into Ohio University my junior year, dorm space was tight, so I was pigeonholed into a tiny room with two freshmen. One of them was an over-privileged twirp whose obnoxiousness was trumped only by the volume of his snoring.
Fortunately, early in his college academic career he discovered all-night bridge games in the lounge. They were followed by all-day bridge games. The other roomie and I didn’t miss him when he flunked out after the first quarter.
Not much news about card games
With Cape being in the Bible Belt, I figured there would be lots of stories about card gambling. It turned out most of the busts had to do with moonshine, bootlegging, and the “operation of gambling devices.”
Typical of the stories was one in the July 23, 1930, Missourian where “George C. (“Curley”) Norris, who for months operated a notorious roadhouse on the Bend road, was arrested for the operation of a roadhouse, sale of liquor and operation of gambling devices.” Arrested with him when he was apprehended in Poplar Bluff was Edna Conrad, who, the paper pointed out, “admitted they were not married, according to officers.”
Maybe Edna had a salacious twist like the Queen of Hearts in the Northbrook deck.
Revenue stamp dates deck
This unopened deck of Northbrook cards still sports the U.S. Int. Rev. stamp on the package. Those revenue stamps were issued between 1894 and June 22, 1965. That would mean the deck is at least half a century old.
Mother and the slot machine
I can’t let the topic of gambling pass without repeating the story Mother always told about her girlhood.
My grandparents owned several businesses in Advance at one time or another. One was a tavern that had a few slot machines to bring in some extra (if illegal) income. Her parents had to leave one afternoon and left her in charge. She was all of about 13 years old.
It must have been an election year, because the place suddenly filled with law enforcement officers who were going to confiscate the slot machines as being illegal gambling devices. Mother knew that one of the machines was full of money, so she stood up to the sheriff and said, “You can’t take that one. It’s broken. If it doesn’t work, it’s no more a gambling machine than that bar stool.”
They left it behind.
The coy joker
Kings, Queens and Jacks all looked pretty much the same, but Jokers could have some personality.
Northbrook how-to pamphlet
In case you didn’t know how to play cards or take care of them, Northbrook packaged this pamphlet with their cards. Click on any photo to make it larger, then use your arrow keys to move through the gallery.