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Collier's
Nov 26, 1938



Local Ghost Makes Good

By Frank Condon


Jesse James made the Ozarks famous, but at great cost to the Ozarks. Returning now as a celluloid ghost to repay the debt, he has made Pineville a prosperous town.

HE WAS generally regarded as a rather wicked little lad and his home community felt ashamed. Local people either hung or shook their heads. Nobody cared to meet him socially, and a few braver ones shot at him. His home town even denied he was born there and tried to shove him off on neighboring communities, and all the while he kept on hell-roaring around the country, killing people, robbing banks, shooting sheriffs, holding up trains and acting rough.

In the end, an old buddy named Bob Ford shot him from behind, and that was the finish of Jesse James. He died hanging a picture, which is probably as good a way as any.

That was back in the 1860s when the North and the South were busy, and it happened down in the southwest corner of Missouri, where you could almost stand on a high rock and spit into either Arkansas or Oklahoma. It was generally understood that Jesse James was born in St. Joseph and was bad all over the Ozark country, and one of the towns where he festered around and hid out nights was Pineville, Mo, a hamlet that never put on airs then and doesn't now.

Pineville looks about the same as in 1865. It's the county seat, with a courthouse and a surrounding fence, and that's how it happened to horn into this motion picture. Yes, they just made a picture in Pineville, about Jesse James. The movies get around to everything in due time, so they swarmed in on Pineville, because that's where Jesse James used to jump his horse off cliffs, hide in caves, rob trains and act sultry about life in general.

They had to pick a town with a courthouse, and Henry King, a movie director, flew around in his private plane, a Waco cabin job, till he could look down and see a town with a courthouse, and that was Pineville. They say Mr. King flew all of 10,000 miles, just looking down for courthouses.

You could have knocked all the Pineville citizens over with one feather when they heard the movie shooters were heading in. It was an incredible windfall, the like of which will not come again, and when Mayor F.T. Drum told the boys there wasn't any doubt, all present looked cheerful, and Mrs. Martin set up the ice cream. It is a known fact, even in McDonald County, that movie companies always carry unlimited bills and spend them like water.

Little old Pineville has an estimated and unproved population of 371, not counting Lump Ward, who has been tight ever since Sullivan beat Kilrain. The local folks are not familiar with movie people, although they have a film theater in town, and it would do all right if the magnates would make silent pictures, with subtitles in printing. They get along without sound in Pineville. It was F.T. Drum, the mayor, who first mentioned the enterprise, speaking to Mrs. Mildred Martin, sole owner and operator of Martin's Cafe.

"I hear," the mayor spoke up, "that these movie people just got into Noel yesterday and are coming right over and set to work."

Noel is eleven miles down the road, and the movie company naturally would land in Noel, as that town sits on the railroad.

Mrs. Martin worked the news around town in about ten minutes, and the next day proved Mayor Drum was right. A soiled-looking youth tore into town on a motorcycle. Following him, some trucks appeared, loaded with fantastic machinery. More trucks rumbled out from the north. Henry King glided in, not in his plane but in a limousine. Actors and actresses, featured and supporting players, stepped from cars. Cameramen started unlimbering their artillery, and Jesse James was back once more in ancient haunts, after seventy years. The big bad wolf of the community had turned in spirit and it goes to show there is some good in the very worst, for here was this train robber back on his native heath -- and him safely dead -- bringing unexpected activity and ten-dollar bills to Pineville and environs.

This was no picayune movie troop, either. This was a husky outfit, described as the largest and most expensive gang ever sent out of Hollywood. It consisted of one hundred and fifty more or less important actors, helpers, extras, technicians, truck drivers, carpenters and electricians. A moderate extra few rolled all the way east in their own motorcars, and one lad beat his way on a freight train, having no job, but hoping.

Before two days had gone by, everybody in Pineville was in the movies-- or at least, everybody who wasn't bedridden. King refused to give the only barber a job, as he was the only barber, and actors needed to be shaved. Money started flowing in a gentle, golden stream, and inhabitants of McDonald County kept feeling in their pockets to see if it wasn't a dream.

A Job for Everyone

This Santa Clausstuff went right along for six weeks and when you dump a golden flood into a town like Pineville for six mortal weeks, the old people get young, the girls get beautiful, and the crows start singing. That's what Jesse James, bold bandit and swaggering outlaw, did for his home community and him nothing but a trace of dust in some forgotten casket.

This shows you one should never judge a man to be all poison, even if he's a train robbing son-of-a-gun. He may come back like a kindly ghost to spread a soothing largesse upon his native land.

And did Pineville need that easy dough! Brother, you're correct . . . Pineville has no factories, mills or business affairs. Pineville is no noisy metropolis of commerce, with wheels turning, and pay rolls spreading cash among the cottages. Pineville is simply 371 people without any railroad station, so far off the beaten path of world affairs that hardly any of them know what the Stork Club is.

In a straight line, it is six miles to the nearest railway, 240 to Kansas City and 130 to Tulsa, Oklahoma. If you happen to be a Pineville citizen and run out of money, you can't step around the corner and get a job, as there are no jobs and very few corners. So you can see what a gift from heaven was Henry King and his celluloid fusiliers.

P.W. Bones of Dog Hollow was the first citizen to snag himself a job. P.W. is a farmer with a stout team of horses, and he went to work in about four minutes, helping get a set ready. Mrs. Mildred Martin of Martin's Cafe stood in her doorway, meditatively looking over the new arrivals, and in the long run it was Mrs. Martin who seemed to cash in most.

Her cafe was on the corner and at once the movie men wanted it for various shots . . . . Only it had to be done over a trifle . . . . The movies had twenty carpenters with them and when they finished with Martin's Cafe, it was practically a new structure, all perfectly satisfactory to Mrs. Martin, as the roof leaked last winter and would have leaked this winter. But not now.

Without untoward delay, the movie gang went to work making Pineville look as it used to look in 1865, which wasn't difficult, as it almost does anyhow. Mr. King required a goodly jag of extras, so he employed everybody in town, neighboring farmers and all the distant ruralists who cared to drive in and climb on the pay roll. About the only adult resident not hired to act as an extra was Lump Ward, the town disgrace, and even he could have had a job if he had been sensible.

When the film folks showed up, Lump was too seriously stewed to act, and after that he was either weaving in the wind or too shaky from drinking vanilla extract, so that he never did earn himself a thin dime amid so much plenty. He was the only citizen who spoke unkindly of the visitors and states: I never liked movies anyhow, and they're all lousy and this proves it and the heck with them."

Lump was the only man who adopted this attitude. The King outfit spent $275,000 right there in McDonald County, maybe some of it going to Newton County on the north and some to Barry County on the east. It is known that they bought a dog in Cassville and a wheel chair in Neosho. But most of the dough was spent in Pineville and Noel, and some of it will be sticking in those rugged ribs for years to come.

On ordinary working days, three or four hundred folks labored as extras and were on the weekly pay roll, and on fat days there would be three or four thousand drawing pay, coming from all over the Ozarks on buckboards, in wagons, on horseback, and in cars. Residents owning front and back yards rented them out as parking space, getting a dime or a quarter, depending on the size of the influx. Pineville was simply astounded with the tourists, sightseers, motorists and visitors who poured in daily to get near the movie actors.

All on a Cash Basis

On Labor Day, they had 52,000 popeyed beholders, all eating and drinking; standing around in town, sitting on the courthouse rail, taking pictures from the roofs of cars and dropping into Martin's Cafe for banana splits and double cokes. Almost every weekend brought in 50,000 spectators, and the license plates showed cars from practically every state in the Union, except Vermont. It may be Vermont doesn't give a hang about such truck.

You can imagine how many shots of soda pop Mildred Martin's cafe dispensed over a hot weekend, and the weather was warmish. As P.W. Bone of Dog Hollow said in his formal statement: "The movie company came in here when most of us were in need of ready cash."

Les Carnell of the Pineville General Store makes formal report: "I sold six times as much goods as in any similar period."

Mrs. Goldie Goodnight, wife of a farmer living on Wash Run: "The coming of the motion-picture people was a fine thing. Even us farmers' wives have got money now."

These and other testimonials go to prove that Lump Ward is just an old reprobate and that there is little truth in him.

No wonder people came flocking into Pineville for a free look. It was the first chance for most of them, and consider that Mr. King brought along Tyrone Power to act Jesse James, and Henry Fonda to be Frank James, and Nancy Kelly, Randolph Scott, Jane Darwell, Brian Donlevy, Donald Meek, Henry Hull, Lon Chaney, Jr., and a covey of lesser lights.

A thin, worn woman with a blue apron around her stood in Martin's Cafe, looking at Tyrone Power while he downed a chocolate ice-cream soda. She just stood there and looked and when he went out to his car, she followed and stood beside the machine. She finally said, "I always wanted to stand close and see a movie star, mister, and now I saw one, and it's a big day for me and who are you?"

For years, Pineville complained bitterly because the roads were unpaved and muddy and last year they howled so fervently that the state finally gave in and used motor-tax money to pave the main street in town. So the very first thing the movies did was to muddy up the road, plastering 3,000 yards of wet dirt over the asphalt. When they finished, you would never know there was pavement anywhere. It took 4,000 wagonloads of nature's best mud, and horses started hauling that hadn't hauled in years. Lump Ward told boys on the corner that they would certainly ruin Pineville before they got through.

The Hollywood Influence

The countryside around Pineville is sort of bleak and unhappy, but it contains rivers and plenty of good cliffs, where Jesse James has to jump his horse overboard and escape the sheriff's posse. It was only six miles to the railroad for the big train robbery and everything worked out nice. Over in Noel, the movie company hired every hotel -- one hotel -- cabin, home, shack, bedroom or whatever could be used for sleeping actors. A few lived in trailers and business jumped to fantastic heights.

In the Pineville telephone office, the calls leaped up to 200 a day. Over in Joplin, the bread company put on extra bread trucks and the bottling company ran its business up to 500 cases a day. While one important scene was being shot, Eddie Howdon sold 33 cases of pop. The editor of the Pineville Weekly disposed of 600 extra copies in one afternoon and both Noel and Pineville began getting fashionable. They changed shop names and called places the Hollywood Cafe, the Hollywood Dress Shop and such like.

The sovereign state of Missouri immediately took notice of the unusual affair in McDonald County and sent over 25 officers of the state highway patrol to keep traffic unsnarled and this little brigade did a right smart job, working on all roads. In no time, the movie gang hired 12 more men in uniform and after that you could work your coupe right into the town . . . . The shooting is all over in Pineville and now you can drive your car for hours, both eyes hut and no cops around, and never nick a fender. The mud has been removed from those pavements and the town shines pleasantly, like any rural village that has been polished up with a mop made of 275,000 one-dollar bills.

Even remote gents who happened to live far away also climbed up on the gravy wagon, and one of these was Luke Cordle, who lived alone in a mountain shack, 23 miles out of Pineville. Luke was just a simple mountain man, living in his leaky cabin with his dogs, whiskers, guns and bacon and often he saw nobody for days. They wanted some shots of him and his dump, as he looked sort of wild and piratical, and Luke told them to go right ahead. They did and it made him a movie actor, so that afterward he was pretty pestered by people coming around for his autograph, just like Garbo or Lionel Barrymore. Luke can't write, but you don't have to write much to comfort an autograph hound.

For movie people, the King gang certainly did some odd things in Pineville. For one, they built a new roof on the old Crowder place, which is an ancient homestead just out of town . . . . What they craved to shoot was an old house with a very old and infirm roof, and that was what the Crowder place had -- an old and leaky roof. It had holes and the shingles curled, but when shot, it didn't photograph old enough, so they rushed in the carpenters, built a brand new roof and then painted it cunningly to look four times older. They likewise constructed a new fence around Widow Crowder's home, painted it to look rickety and added a new gate, as the original gate looked old enough, but squeaked into the sound mechanism.

Among the noises that troubled the sound men was the chatter from 100 guinea hens, owned by Mrs. Werter, long-time resident. Mrs. Werter's guinea hens had always gone about happily squawking when in the mood and nobody complained, but the camera men said you couldn't shoot any Jesse James movies with these confounded hens broadcasting; and Mr. Robert Webb, assistant director, commanded that the hens be chased, captured and silenced. This was done by local boys, and Mr. Webb swung a business deal with Mrs. Werter, buying the fowls at 40 cents a head, putting the lady $80 up on a day.

The film company was not badly stuck, as Webb sold the hens to local merchants who owned eating joints and for a while everybody had to eat broiled guinea hen, whether in the mood or not. It got sort of tiresome and Henry Fonda drove clear to Lanagan in a fit of boredom and also to lay into a New York sirloin.

Only seventy years ago, this same Jesse James was riding into this same Pineville, hiding himself in damp caves and shooting people he didn't like, all within earshot of Mayor Drum's front stoop. They claim that here lived the poor widow woman on her farm, where Jesse hauled up his horse one afternoon, wearied with travel and in search of food. He walked in and demanded a quick meal, which the startled dame provided, and he observed while eating that the woman seemed pretty sad -- that is, sadder than would be warranted by simply serving a bandit coffee and doughnuts. Upon inquiry, he discovered she was sad because a man was coming to foreclose the mortgage and toss her out. The amount involved was $200, which the bandit handed her in cash, directing her to pay off and get a receipt. This she did and the outlaw stuck up the man and took back his money.

The same story had been told of many a tough bandit, and, being a gambling sort, I will lay 8 to 5 it never happened to anyone.

The statistics man for the film people swears that in Pineville nobody is now on the relief rolls, that the depression has been vanquished and everybody is happy. Mortgages have been lifted here and there, new cars whirl down the road, this man has a new windmill and this one a silo or a radio with nine tubes and Chicago shirts are everywhere.

Squaring the Account

One thing failed to come off -- the thoughtful residents of McDonald County failed to sell Henry King the 62 guns with which Bob Ford shot Jesse James. When the company arrived in Pineville, Mr. King already had the gun, obtained from St. Joseph at considerable expense, and was he surprised to see those other 62 guns, all guaranteed authentic?

About 90% of the picture was shot in Missouri and reports show that a small real-estate boom started with people writing the Pineville Chamber of Commerce. The company is now back in Hollywood and the rainy season has had a crack at Pineville, which is all tight and snuggled up for a hard winter.

During the filming, Henry Fonda shot himself in the leg with an old-fashioned gat, Nancy Kelly fell off her horse into a barbed-wire fence and Lon Chaney's horse sat on him.

There is another fable they tell in Pineville about Jesse James and how he galloped into town at the head of the outlaws, craving quick food. He and his men ate at a farmhouse and rushed off with the leader promising to return to pay the farmer. Well, he never did. He didn't live long enough . . . . In a manner of speaking, this little oversight has been corrected, the bandit's spirit has now made good and Jesse James doesn't owe McDonald County a cent. Everybody feels fine, except Lump Ward, and it is a well-known scientific fact that people who drink vanilla extract never feel fine, no matter what happens.

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