Jim Whatley was early merchant, timberman

By Jack M. Willis
Journal Correspondent

James M. "Jim" Whatley was born on November 15th, 1860, on the homestead of his grandfather William Whatley, which was inherited by his father Phinias W. Whatley, and like all of the heirs of Phinias, Jim was brought up in a regimen of hard work, remaining with his parents as long as they lived, and was thirty-five years old before he married and founded a home of his own.

Opportunities for Jim Whatley to obtain a proper education were few and far between, with book learning being confined to what was taught by local schools; however he did not require as much tutelage and training as other people might have needed, because Jim possessed a natural knack and flare for business. He enjoined his first commercial enterprise when he was only fourteen years old, when he and his brother Phinias went into the mercantile business on their own, so well did the brothers understand business procedures that they proved formidable competitors to their father. This was a tremendous undertaking for the two brothers at their age, because their father owned stores in both Eden and Summerville, but the brothers operated their store under the name of P.W. and J. M. Whatley.

They had continued this partnership for over twenty years, when suddenly they agreed to disagree, and dissolved the partnership with each going into business himself in 1879.

Meanwhile, they had purchased the old homestead from their father that the heirs of J. M. Whatley still retain today, but the residence in place replaces the original one that was destroyed by fire. J. M. "Jim" Whatley built the newer store across the road in 1879, with the building that is still stranding opening officially to transact business in the fall of that year.

Both the house and store with the original shelving and counters still intact, are located on Highway 774, just off Highway 8 in the Eden community, with the building not being wired for electricity until a renovation in 1986. When first built, the mercantile consisted of four rooms with wings added to the sides, and the rear extended to accommodate bulk items such as animal feeds and seeds and fertilizers.

People who recall shopping at the store remember that it also contained the Eden Post Office, was used at times as a voting precinct, and that one side of the main room featured items of wearing apparel; the other side, food.

Some merchandise, such as leather goods hung from the ceiling, and while strolling through the main interior of the store, a typical customer's nose was treated to a variety of pleasant smells, ranging from the aroma of fresh milled flour, leather goods, and green coffee beans, to pungent home remedy whiffs of camphor and turpentine.

According to old store ledgers dating back to 1897, people could purchase thirty pounds of flour for $1.00, twenty pounds of bacon for $1.60 and twelve pounds of coffee for $2.00. Drugs could be bought here, as well as furniture and musical instruments.\par }{\plain Fifty years later, in 1929, on the occasion of the celebration of his fiftieth year in business, J.M. Whatley offered Sugar, good granulated, 10 pounds for 58 cents, Pure ground coffee at 20 cents per pound, 45 pounds of lard for $5.25, and a 24 pound sack of flour for .85 cents.

Customers paid their bills by cash, by work (Mr. Whatley paid 50 cents a day or $10.00 a month for labor), or trade. Ledger entries show the major source of payment as seed cotton, with Mr. Whatley owning and operating his own gin. One of his sons, Henry Grady would lose a hand and portion of his forearm in an accident relating to the gin's operation, and this would not be the only tragedy to befall this young man.

When the customer's cotton crop came in and was ginned, Mr. Whatley would apply the cotton crop's worth against the farmer's yearlong bill at the store. Ledger entries show that one customer was credited $5.50 for a yearling, and another $22.00 for sixteen hogs.

From his youth up Jim Whatley had bought and sold timberland, owning at one time over 50,000 acres, and the Whatley Heirs still retain over 3,500 acres in their possession. When the Buchanan interests started building the Louisiana & Arkansas rail line into the Jena area to service their sawmills at Trout and Good Pine, he did all he could to promote its construction, even donating a house in Jena for the engineers to use as a residence and engineering offices until its completion. He was one of the original sponsors of the organization of the Town of Jena, helping J. Bing Wright organize the Bank of Jean in 1910 while serving on its original Board of Directors. He also served as President and a member of the Police Jury.

Besides serving in political and monetary capacities, being engaged in business endeavors in merchandising and timber, Mr. Whatley was also a very able farmer. A corn crop was grown in a field next to the store, and Mr. Whatley always wanted his crops to look especially productive. Mr. Burly Corley, who at one time, was employed by Mr. Whatley relates the following tales. When the corn crop was beginning to come up they would fertilize, and "lay the crop by" when the corn was about 14 inches tall. Then when it was about waist high he would have his field hands add additional fertilizer to about a half dozen of the rows nearest the road, causing these rows to look as high as an elephants ear, and loaded with ears of corn, conveying the appearance that the whole field was like that, and the sight always impressed passers-by.

Mr. Corley also recalled that there was a salesman named Mr. Dean who would call on Mr. Whatley for orders for merchandise with which to stock his store. Mr. Dean had apparently rubbed Mr. Whatley the wrong way relating to some past transaction, with the result being that Mr. Whatley told Mr. Corley not to order any more merchandise from Dean under any circumstances, but Mr. Dean knew how to get back in Mr. Whatley's good graces. On his next call to Eden, he drove up in front of the store and got out of his car. He immediately walked over to the fence in front of the cornfield, climbing up on the fence where he could peer out over the field of corn, and declared loudly to Mr. Whatley and Mr. Corley, who were sitting on the store's front porch, "If I could raise corn like that, I wouldn't waste my time running a store, I'd go to farming full time." That statement had the desired result.

Jim Whatley ordered over $1,000.00 worth of groceries from the salesman that very day.

In the spring following the Fiftieth Year celebration tragedy struck two of Mr. Whatley's sons. An emergency airfield had been built the preceding fall in the Tall Timber Community, adjacent and east of the Tall Timber Lumber Company housing by Tall Timber Company employees Allan Brown, Jack Schneider and Ed Ford.

An itinerant "barnstormer" pilot, probably a refuge from World War I, had flown in from Alexandria, and was giving the locals airplane rides with the pilot's name being W. J. Davidson and hailing from Wharton, Texas. The plane in question was a Curtiss Travel Air 2000, fairly new and probably a 1927 model, and had the distinction of being the first airplane to land at the newly completed field.

The plane was a two seater, bi-wing and resembled a Fokker d. VII of World War I vintage. This particular plane had been modified to haul two passengers instead of one, had a Curtiss OXX-6, 100 hp, Vee engine, with a cruising speed of 85 mph, powering it, and was considered one of the best aeroplanes at the time, because its principle designer was J. Walter Beech, who, aided and abetted by Clyde Cessna and Lloyd Stearman, who would go on to be immortalized in aviation history. Later, the pilot would maintain that he had been licensed three weeks ago in Texas, and the plane had been fully inspected at that time also.

On this particular day the pilot had been taking paying passengers up all day and into the afternoon on ten-minute flights. Lewis Humphries, a Jena resident, had gotten off work at the Melba Hotel, owned and operated by Bill Benton, Sr., and headed for the air field to catch a ride. He and his boyhood friend Theo Walden got in line, but didn't have the proper change with the pilot's cashier telling them they'd have to go get change for a $20 bill. As they left, Jim Whatley drove up with his two youngest sons Grady and Lamar, and having the right change, they readily climbed aboard the plane and got strapped in.

While the pilot was revving the engine prior to take off, a gentleman who would become one of the Jena area's top mechanics was standing there watching the plane's take off preparations and as the plane lifted into the air, he turned to a by-stander and said "That plane's engine isn't running right."

The pilot had essentially completed the junket with the two Whatley brothers aboard, and was circling to land, when the engine coughed and died, with the plane going into a spiral and crashing. In a matter of seconds the plane exploded and the Whatley brothers, unable to free themselves, were cremated on the spot with the pilot making one futile attempt to set them free, but because of the intense heat and burns he had already suffered, was unable to do so. He was carried to Alexandria where his wounds were treated, and not considered life threatening. The Whatley brothers were well known, as was the family, and their tragic deaths cast a vale of gloom over the entire countryside.

Sometime later a sense of normalcy returned to the Eden community, with Mr. J. M. "Jim" Whatley continuing to operate his many enterprises, merchandising being the principal one, because making money to him was serious business.

One story told was that a woman came in to settle up her monthly bill. She lacked a nickel having enough to settle the bill entirely, and he generously told her, "That's all right, I'll just carry it over to next month's bill."

Jim Whatley always wore a white shirt, dark trousers and a hat if he went out of doors. He would open the store early every morning, but would shut and padlock the doors at twelve noon, and t then stroll across the street to his country home for lunch. Mrs. Whatley never knew how many to expect, as he often brought salesmen or paying customers home to eat, consequently Mrs. Whatley had three women that helped her with the cooking and management of the huge house.

The Whatley House was, and still is something to behold in its elegance.

It is described as L- shaped, with door transoms, balusters, 15 rooms, 11/2 stories, three hip dormers on the front, columns, extended eaves, encircling porch and a central hall.

After lunch, Mr. Whatley would sit on the front porch of the house so he could watch the store. If a customer came to the store he would walk across the road and open up, but if no one came, he stayed on the porch.

James M. "Jim" Whatley concluded his final transaction on this earth on June 11th, 1941, with his gin still operating, and over 100 hands employed on his farm. His heirs shut the doors on the store shortly after his death, never to open up for business again. James Monroe "Jim" Whatley probably would NOT have liked that...