From the book about Southwest Missouri, Pie Suppers and Wind Up Record Players
The Jack of All Trades
Submitted by Betty Ellison of Miller, MO
D.J. “Tinnie” Wilson was my grandpa. He told us lots of stories and was even featured in a local newspaper with a few memories that I’d like to share.
At 94, Grandpa was still running the family's pump service business. His son, Levi, and grandson, Richard Wilson, did a lot of the work. He started the business in 1948.
He ran a blacksmith shop for 36 years and saw that electricity was coming into rural areas. He knew everybody would want to get indoor plumbing. They would all need water pumps.
He didn't have experience with such pumps, but he figured it out and has installed 2759 pumps and has sold parts to repair even more.
Grandpa was born in 1899 in Greene County. He says that, at that time, there were still Indians living in Lawrence County at the Devil’s Wash Pan along Turnback Creek. After he was born, Grandpa’s mother had milk fever. The doctors gave up on her, but some people who lived near the Indians told my great grandfather to see the Indian doctor at Devil’s Wash Pan. He did, and the doctor told him that my great grandmother and my grandpa would both die if she nursed me. The Indian doctor told Grandpa’s dad to get a pup to nurse the fever out of her; he did, and she lived until she was 86 years old. The Indians moved from the area in 1906.
Grandpa also talked about living in Aurora as a child.
In 1905, the mines were going. Aurora had 16 mills grinding ore. He could remember events back to 1903, including seeing wagon trains pass through Aurora heading west.
Grandpa carried water to animals when Buffalo Bill Cody brought his circus and Wild West show to Aurora. Grandpa’s father died in 1915. Grandpa worked for $.75 a day and had taken out a group insurance policy that cost him a $1.50 a month to cover four of them living at home. He paid for his father's funeral with that policy.
Grandpa also worked in lead mines in the Joplin area for several years He went to school at Prosperity before he went into the mines. He shoveled ore 350 feet underground. He was working at the Daisy Three mine near Prosperity and remembers one day in particular. They had 100 men in an area shoveling ore. A man from Arkansas was with them. He was proud he could make $12-a-day; that was a lot better than the dollar-a-day possible in Arkansas. At noon that day, he wrote a letter to his brother, asking him to come to Arkansas to join him in the mines. When the men went back to work that day at 3 pm, a big slab of rock fell and killed that man from Arkansas.
This devastating experience left a deep impression on Grandpa. He said, “I have seen the elephant of hard times. It was terrible in 1912. There just weren’t any jobs, and money was scarce. I have cleaned and dug wells, cleaned outhouses and cut sprouts for $.50 an acre to survive.”
He remembered shoeing horses for $1 in 1929. Instead of money, he often got three bushels of wheat for the work. He traded the wheat for 100 pounds of flour at a mill. Grandpa's blacksmith shop was located west of Miller, where he now has the pump business.
Grandpa said, “I shod many horses. In 1933, I even shod a buffalo. A family was going from California across the country and stopped here to spend the night. They had a buffalo they assured me was gentle. I put a half shoe on each of its toes.”
Grandpa recalled when the road passing in front of his shop became Highway 14 and later, Highway 66. The highway was Main Street for travel between Chicago and Los Angeles. The increase in traffic led grandpa to operate a wrecker service for 11 years. That business was just west of the Devil’s Wash Pan area.
The highway had some dangerous curves across what we called “Bloody Pickerel Creek.” Grandpa’s wrecker service handled 19 wrecks by people sliding on the ice one day at the Wash Pan. Drunk drivers caused many wrecks. Grandpa could hardly believe all that happened on the highway.
One thing he remembered among the incidents that remains vivid in his memory is the day a man stopped at his station, saying he was in a hurry to get to St. Louis where his mother was dying. He was nervous and paced the floor while Grandpa worked on his car. Grandpa warned the anxious man several times to take the curve just ahead of him at no more than 35 to 40 mph. The man paid and left, driving as fast as he could. About 45 minutes later, a truck driver stopped and told Grandpa the man had been killed at Pickerel Creek. He didn't listen.
Another day, a man with a woman companion stopped into the shop. There was a submachine gun in the car. The man wanted to trade the gun for a tank of gas and $10. Grandpa told him all he had was $1.50 and that he needed the money. The man then told him he was “Pretty Boy Floyd,” the American bank robber whose criminal activities got a lot of attention in the 1930s. Grandpa filled Floyd's car with gasoline, gave him the money and the gun, and Floyd drove off. Grandpa later sold the gun for $25 when he was hard up and needed money.
Grandpa was 94 at the time that the newspaper article about his life was published. He and my grandma, Birdie Mae, were married for over 66 years, seven months and four days. He lost his wife, but he would have the memories forever.