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Rural Missouri Magazine
A nut is not enough
The story of Wham and Petey takes the James family beyond 'the world's largest pecan'

by Bob McEowen

Bill James, son of Missouri pecan pioneer George James, leads a group of children in song at the Wham and Petey Pop-up Theater in Brunswick. Bill hopes the children’s theater will take the family pecan farm into the future.

Out in the country live a couple who love the creator, love their land and love one another. And so begins “Wham and Petey: The Harvest,” a children’s book written by Bill James, who together with his sisters is heir to one of Missouri’s more unusual agritourism destinations.

The story takes place on the James Pecan Farm near Brunswick, home of “the world’s largest pecan.” The 12,000-pound concrete replica of the Starking Hardy Giant pecan has been featured in magazine articles and on TV programs and even inspired a question in the Trivial Pursuit board game.

But while the enormous nut brought the James family worldwide recognition, it’s not enough to guarantee the continued success of the farm. Instead, the family looks to new icons to take the James Pecan Farm into the future.

The farm has long included a drawing of a hammer and pecan on its signs and promotional materials. Now the characters, named Wham and Petey, have a new look and are the central figures in a children’s book, music CD and live performance.

Sandy Naylor and Bill James stand beside “the world’s largest pecan” at the James Pecan Farm.

The story involves an animated hammer and pecan that are left in the field on the last day of harvest and must find their way home. The idea for a children’s story occurred to Bill two years ago, after he and Sandy took over the farm, which is served by Farmers’ Electric Cooperative.

Their father, George James, was a pioneer in the nut industry and developed several pecan varieties. The Nut Hut, the family’s roadside gift shop, was an archetype for Missouri’s agritourism industry. But over the years the farm lost some of its stature. The gift shop seemed stuck in time and the giant pecan was in dire need of a fresh coat of paint.

George died in 1998. His wife, Elizabeth, entered a senior care facility two years ago. The farm’s board of directors — which includes Bill, his older sister, Betty Knight of Platte City, and younger sister Sandy Naylor — faced the task of carrying on a business that had failed to keep pace with progress.

“We had a loss of vision,” Bill says. “We were doing the same old thing year in and year out.”

Bill introduces the story of Wham and Petey to a group of children before leading them into the theather. The children's story helps introduce a new generation of pecan consumers to the James Pecan Farm.

In an attempt to find that vision, Bill spent time in an old hog house “singing to the Lord,” he says.

While driving to Moberly for supper one night, he began to hear music and words to accompany a children’s story he had been writing. “Those songs just started coming to me as clear as a bell,” he says, adding that he believes his new-found songwriting ability was the result of miraculous inspiration. “I wrote all the way to Moberly. I had three songs completely written and knew the tunes exactly.”

Bill wrote more songs and teamed up with Jamie Page, a local music minister, to record a CD. Steve Yarbrough, an artist hired to paint signs for the farm, agreed to illustrate the book.

Since October of 2005, Bill has presented the story in live performances at a makeshift theater behind the Nut Hut. He lip-synchs the songs and involves audiences in hand gestures and dancing. The performance is set in front of an 8-foot-tall version of the book — the world’s largest children’s pop-up book, Bill says.

That people would drive out to Brunswick to see a giant storybook never seemed implausible to Bill and Sandy, the siblings involved in the day-to-day operation of the farm. After all, people had been coming to see the world’s largest pecan for years.

Wham and Petey discuss their fate in an illustration from "The Harvest," the first James Pecan Farm children's book.

“That pecan sits out there and it’s known all over the country. It was definitely a hit. Folks will go up and see the big goose and then they’ll come down and see the big pecan,” Bill says with a nod to Maxie, the world’s biggest goose, located 20 miles away in Sumner. “We thought, ‘Why not one more big thing?’”

Like the giant pecan, the Wham and Petey Popup Theater carries an element of kitsch. Bill and Sandy’s parents often failed to appreciate the humor visitors saw in the pecan but the next generation actually plays on their audiences’ preconceived notions about rural people.

Entering the theater, visitors pass through a dimly lit passage that resembles part of an old-time nut processing plant — which, of course, it is. “We purposely made it so Farmer James is not necessarily the best decorator,” Bill says.

The effect, he says, is to lower expectations. “I’ve seen people look around and think, ‘What am I getting myself into here?’”

Visitors’ fears are put to rest as soon as they see the quality artwork. By the time the music starts and Bill’s on-stage antics begin the viewer recognizes the backwoods stage craft as just part of the act.

Bill helps each child crack a pecan following his performance in the Wham and Petey Pop-up Theater.

The entire program lasts an hour and includes the Wham and Petey story, as well as a presentation about pecans. Six times during the performance Bill turns a page of the 8-by-8-foot book to reveal a new illustration. Additional paintings pop up in front of the book. At one point, Bill dangles artwork from a fishing pole. Later a black light and sprinkled shredded paper create the illusion of a snowstorm.

“We call these countrified special effects,” Bill says. “We hope people appreciate the charm.” So far, audiences seem to be responding favorably. “We had kids ranging from 9 to a year here today and they all enjoyed it,” says Robin Gebhardt of Salisbury, who attended a performance with a mom’s group. “I thought the illustrations were wonderful and I really appreciated Farmer James and the way he danced and the way he acted out.”

While inspired by Bill’s faith, neither the book nor the performance contains an overtly religious theme. The message is there if you know what to look for, though, Bill says. “There’s a hidden Christian message in this story. There are several little parables along the way.”

Sister and brother, Sandy Naylor and Bill James, share a laugh outside the Nut Hut gift shop.

While Bill and Sandy purposely operate their gift shop and theater as a means to share the gospel message, the James family remains firmly rooted in the nut business.
“We still sell pecans. We don’t want to get away from that,” says Sandy. “We want people to come and have a nice time at the farm. We want to entertain those people and feed them pecan pies, pecan pie cheesecakes and our homemade pralines.”

To this end, the family has repainted the giant pecan, and are sprucing up the family museum and expanding the gift shop. They’ve added an ice cream cart and have converted their parent’s house into a kitchen where Sandy and her husband, Porter Naylor, make pecan-flavored desserts or prepare complete meals for bus tours and other groups with advance reservations.

All of this, Bill and Sandy say, should create a destination with something more than just a bag of cracked pecans. With the opening of the theater last October Bill and Sandy are introducing a new generation to cracked nuts and ensuring that the James family name continues to come to mind when people think of pecans.

“The little kids you see in here are the next generation of pecan buyers,” says Bill, who takes a moment to crack open a pecan with every child in attendance. “When they grow up and they want to go buy pecans, where are they going to think about? James Pecan Farm.”

For more information write the James Pecan Farm, 21474 Highway 24, Brunswick, MO 65236; phone (660) 548-3427; or e-mail nuthut@mcmsys.com.

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