Wheaton native returns with book of stories
Jimmy Lewis to have book signing Sunday at Wheaton Museum
A special reception will be held from 1-4 p.m. on Sunday at the Wheaton Depot Museum for author Jimmy Ray Lewis, who has written the bug "Listening to the Jar Flies: Growing up in Wheaton and Rocky Comfort."
A Wheaton High School graduate in 1957, Lewis retired from a distinguished journalism career.
"I thought it would be a shame, in an era with electronic factoids flying all around us, to let these colorful old stories and interesting people get away," he said.
Lewis wrote the book through his own eyes as a child viewing the landscape and people of his native area.
"I put into the book incidents and character descriptions about a lot of people I knew as a boy, growing up on a farm three miles west of Wheaton and going to church in Rocky Comfort," Lewis said.
The great basketball rivalry between Wheaton, and Rocky Comfort brought back stories for the book, as well as how Wally Fox, editor for the Wheaton Journal from 1925 to 1967, campaigned for construction in 1947-1948 of the school gym still used in Wheaton. Fox rallied the community to volunteer labor. Using lumber salvaged from Army barracks in Salina, Kan., and Camp Crowder, townspeople finished the gym for $20,000.
Lewis recounts the Great Banana War of 1953, when Wheaton's three grocery stores cut prices to compete and drove the cost of bananas down to 2 cents a pound, when bananas in Monett sold for around 12 cents a pound. Lewis weaves that story around his buddy, fellow teen Barney Calane, the Methodist preacher's son who, like Lewis, went on to graduate from the University of Missouri and have a career in journalism. Calane ended up on the East Coast, working for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.
"One of the characters I described is an old man who died when I was 10," Lewis said. "I called him Uncle Newt. James Newton Kelly was a cousin of my maternal grandmother and a neighbor. He was a horse trainer and a mule trader. He was always telling my dad he was going to teach me how to cuss. I was vaguely aware he spent times in the West.
"When I researched it, I learned he had been a foreman on a ranch near Baggs, Wyo., in the 1890s to 1900. In 1900, he got into a knife fight in a saloon with Tom Horn, the fellow played by Steve McQueen in the 1980 film. Uncle Newt cut Tom Horn's throat, but didn't kill him."
Lewis describes other characters in Wheaton, such as Little Charlie Keeling, "the one-man church" who tried to convert people while carrying around a 4-foot bull snake slithering on his shoulders. He also fits Albert E. Brumley, the gospel music writer from nearby Powell, into the narrative as a friend of newspaperman Fox, who printed many of Brumley's music books.
Lewis also explores the legacy of the Missouri and North Arkansas Railroad, which established Wheaton by creating a stop in a wheat field, and how the unreliability of the MNA got it the nickname of "May Never Arrive" Railroad.
He details accounts of the railroad strike in 1922 and 1923, reported in the Wheaton Journal, that showed how the strike turned into guerrilla warfare. Many bridges were burned between Wheaton and Neosho, and one railroader was hanged in Harrison, Ark.
Lewis will return for the annual Wheaton Fire Department barbecue on Aug. 29 and use that visit for a public presentation at the Barry County Museum.
After graduating from the University of Missouri in 1965, Lewis worked for a year at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, then worked for the Sacramento Union in California for seven years, then two years in Washington, D.C., before a 14-year stint at the Sacramento Bee. He retired in 2008 but spent two more years as a staff reporter in Sacramento, where he still lives.
Lewis' book is available from Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com.