OPINION | Curtis Varnell: Arkansas backwoodsman interviewed by Art Linkletter’s show in ’50s wilier than he looks

John Stephens

(Courtesy photo)
John Stephens (Courtesy photo)

Once World War II was over, 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 all the rage and everyone had to have one to watch the newest westerns and programs. Of live talk shows, a few were as popular -- 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. He was directed to the home of 92-year old John Stephens, where he found the perfect candidate.

Stephens 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. He was tough as nails, 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, Stephens 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. When 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. He appeared on the program in overalls and hunting garb and 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."

They asked him about the food he was served in Hollywood, to which Stephens said, "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."

When 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.

He was tight with his money and bought only a whittling knife, a dunking bird toy and a pipe to take home.

Stephens was a hit and was offered an opportunity to return the next week. When offered a new suit for the show, he 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, Stephens 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, he saw 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 be 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."

  photo  Mr. Stephens and wife Josie (Courtesy photo)
  photo  Stephens and Tucker family (Courtesy photo)
  photo  Opinion Arkansas backwoodsman interviewed by Art Linkletter's show in '50s wilier than he looks Curtis Varnell The Timepiece The Art Linkletter show's most popular segment was a live interview called "People say the darndest things." It was always looking for new and interesting people and scouts scoured the country searching for unique people and experiences. (Courtesy photo)

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