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Saturday, April 20, 2024

Timepiece: Backwoodsman

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By Dr. Curtis Varnell

World War 11 was over and America entered a period of peace and prosperity. The baby boomer generation began, people fled the rural areas, and suburbs of the up-and-coming generations were built encircling the major cities. A chicken in the pot, a car, and a house filled with the newest electrical devices was the dream of America. Television was the rage and everyone had to have one to watch the newest westerns and programs. Live talk shows were the rage and few were as popular of Ed Sullivan or the Art Linkletter show. One of the most popular segments of Linkletter’s show was the live interview called People say the darndest things. Always looking for new and interesting people, scouts scoured the country searching for unique people and experiences. In 1958, talent scout Jack Houston visited Arkansas with the thought of finding a real hillbilly and having him introduced to modern society. Traveling down the newly paved pig trail from Fayetteville to Ozark, he noticed the many rustic cabins and home places. Stopping at Cass, he asked where he could find the oldest resident of the area. Direct to the home of 92-year old John Stephens, he found the perfect candidate.

Stephen’s was a mountain man, a hunter who lived a simple rustic life. His family had moved to the home on Black Mountain when he was eight years old. He grew up without any schooling, he worked on his father’s farm, and spent his free time hunting and fishing. Tough as nails, he knew how to track wild game, find the wild honey trees, and how to survive in the backwoods.

When first approached by Houston about being on the show, Stephen’s was reluctant to travel to Hollywood. “Them planes are dangerous and I’d rather just stay here at home, but I can walk it.” Stephens finally agreed to the trip if the program would take along Walter Harris, a 71-year old neighbor. Offered a shot of bourbon on the plane, Stephens was said to have stated “this stuff has been watered down; ain’t a bit of head in the glass.” Stephens was a known moonshiner.

Appearing on the program in overalls and hunting garb, Stephens was the hit of the show. He was unable to identify a tube of lipstick, an electric razor, or a modern camera. When asked about modern plumbing, he replied, “don’t need any of that, we got the bushes.” Mr. Houston later stated, “Old John captured them with his first remark and kept them in an uproar the entire time he was on stage.” Asked about the food he was served in Hollywood, Stephens stated, “why they served us right in our rooms but I couldn’t eat them butter and eggs. The butter wasn’t no cow butter and the eggs were cold storage eggs.” Asked how he got from place to place without a car, Stephen’s replied we walked. The nearest town was Ozark, 18 miles away. At the conclusion of the show, Linkletter allowed him to reach his hand into a bowl and extract as much money as he could grasp. Stephen’s calmly grabbed a big handful, placed it in a pile, and clipped it to his bib overalls. Tight with his money, he bought only a whittling knife, a dunking bird toy, and a pipe to take home.

A hit, he was offered an opportunity to return the next week. When offered a new suit for the show, Stephens told them he had never had a new suit. “Don’t buy me no tie, I won’t wear it.” Not only did they buy him a suit but presented him with a new shotgun, a TV set, and many more gifts to take home with him.

At home, he told neighbors that the Hollywood people were some of the nicest he had ever meet. He got to see an ocean for the first time, met Rin Tin, seen wild animals at the zoo, and plants he had never seen before. Yet he would rather be at home in the hills, wearing his overalls, and being with his family.

Many in Arkansas took exception to the story and the painting of the state as a bunch of backward hillbillies. It reinforced the ideal that people of the state were simple minded and didn’t know much. Nephew James Tucker explained that Stephens was wilier than he appeared and “acted” out the part well. Even though he didn’t drive, he often hitch-hiked to town, his house had electricity, and he was smart enough to extract a trip and hundreds of dollars from those “Yankees.”

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Tammy Teague
Tammy Teague
Tammy is the heart behind the brand. Her tenacity to curate authentic journalism, supported by a genuine heart is one her many wholesome qualities.
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