By Nick Pernokas
At the height of the Depression, a farm wagon pulled into a gathering at an old crossing on the Red River. Doan’s store marked the spot where only fifty years earlier, millions of Longhorns had their last glimpse of Texas as they headed up the Western Trail toward Kansas. By the Thirties, the biggest excitement there was the annual Doan’s Picnic. The wagon drew nearer the crowd, where a lot of other wagons and a few automobiles were parked. The younger girls in the wagon spotted the brightly painted sign for the sideshow in front of a tent on the side of the field. One of the girls, who was a neighbor to the couple that drove the wagon, had a nickel tied up in the corner of her handkerchief on the slim chance that she needed something at the fair. Coincidentally, the sign promised that great wonders waited on the other side of the faded canvas for five cents. A hawker outside the tent pointed to a huge serpent painted on the side of a tent.
“Come in and see the biggest snake in the world,” he cried.
The little girls were in a dilemma. They both wanted to see the snake but only one had a nickel. The other girl’s parents did not have an extra nickel for her to spend, and there were none to be found dropped in the dirt. As the day wore on, the girls knew that they would have to leave without seeing the snake. They made a pact. The girl with the nickel would go in, and see the snake, and then come out, and tell the other girl what it looked like. Paying her nickel, she entered the tent, and saw before her a fairly small python.
“It was definitely not the biggest snake in the world,” laughs Joyce Whitis, “but my friend was so excited when I came out that I started telling her what a big snake it was. It grew, and grew, and I entertained everyone on the way home that night with the marvels of this huge snake that I’d seen.”
That night was a sign of things to come for the little girl from Chillicothe, Texas. Her story telling would evolve into the career of a writer eventually. She owes much of this to her parents.
“Mother read to me every day, and was better educated than many of the other mothers at that time,” says Joyce.
Joyce’s interest in history also started early. Her parents were history buffs, and her mother’s grandfather had served in the Civil War. Joyce’s mother taught her a lot about the war including many rarely heard songs.
She still has the old Magnolia Motor Oil schoolbook, which we would call a graphic novel today, which pictorially displays Texas history. It was published in 1928, the year before her birth, and was handed down to her by her brother.
“He would sit down on the back porch steps and read it to me. I was fascinated by it, and that’s where I started learning Texas history, before I ever started school.”
In the fourth grade, Joyce wrote a poem about the Alamo that was based on this book. It was published in Children’s Playmate Magazine. She kept writing, and she wrote a story about Gene Autry, who was one of her childhood matinee cowboy heroes. She sent a copy to Gene, and he replied with a really nice letter, which she still treasures. Joyce continued to write, and in 1945, she wrote the school song for her high school in Chillicothe.
In 1950 Joyce graduated from Midwestern University with a BS in education. She went right into a banking job in Dallas. It was here that she met a handsome banker, Thomas B. Whitis, Jr. They married, and settled into a life in Dallas. A son, Thomas Benton III, was born in 1952. Around this time, the senior Tom was getting tired of his banking career, and he had a yearning to be a farmer. He began to study real estate ads in the Dallas Morning News, and he started visiting farms around Stephenville. He found the place he wanted near Huckabay, and was able to purchase it from the Texas Land Board, using his WWII service in the United States Navy to qualify for the GI Bill.
When Tom decided to move to Stephenville in 1953, it was a culture shock for Joyce. The town was small, and different than the city she’d thought she’d always live in. The road out to the land he had purchased for $50.00 an acre was unpaved and barely a path. There was only an old house on the place, so the couple rented a place in town. Tom went to work building fence and clearing land, while Joyce took a job teaching school at Huckabay. Joyce found a friend just across the street to keep Tommy while she was at school. It cost $1.25 a week for him to stay there, during the day, for five days. They’d decided to go into the dairy business when they moved to the country, so building the dairy barn came first, then buying cows, and eventually building a house. In those days you couldn’t get a loan to build a house in the country so they built the house of cement block, using part of the dairy paycheck each month. They were able to move into the as yet unfinished house on June 6, 1956, which is celebrated nationwide as “D-Day”.
“I have a lot of interests, but I love Stephenville and Huckabay,” Joyce said. “I want to stay in this house and watch cows and horses grazing the Coastal field until they carry me away.”
Joyce taught that first year at Huckabay School. Barbara was born at the Stephenville Hospital the following October, so Joyce stayed at home with the children for a while. In 1957, Joyce returned to teaching. Joyce eventually taught at the Desdemona, Lingleville, and Huckabay schools until 1970. She was on the Huckabay school board. Joyce wrote the school songs for Huckabay and Lingleville. She created school papers for Huckabay, The Pow Wow and Desdemona, Pigs’ Tale. While teaching in high school she was a sponsor for senior trips across the southern part of the United States. She enjoyed teaching Sunday school and Vacation Bible School.
“I wouldn’t take anything for those years I spent teaching,” says Joyce. “You make a lot of friends, and you hope that you have helped shape a child’s life for the good.”
Meanwhile, the dairy business was going strong. In the 1970s, the Whitises showed award-winning dairy cattle. In 1971 Joyce was named Adult 4-H Leader of the year. In 1972, she led the drive to put Stephenville’s famous cow, Moola, on the square. In 1977, Joyce was named National Dairy Woman of the Year by the National Dairy Association in Madison, Wisconsin. She is the only woman from Texas ever so honored.
In 1978, Joyce resumed one of her loves – writing. She began freelance writing for Holstein Friesian World, Hoard’s Dairyman, Country Woman, The Dallas Morning News, and others. This career continues today with articles in the Stephenville Empire-Tribune and Erath County Living.
1978 was important for Joyce in another area as well. She helped organize and incorporate the Erath County Humane Society.
“This was basically my idea, but a lot of like-minded people joined in this effort to take care of homeless animals. We received donations that made it all possible. Without the cooperation of a caring population, establishing a shelter and continuing our work would not be possible. ”
This was followed up with a plan that united the ECHS with Stephenville and Erath County in a policy for the humane treatment of animals. This resulted in the much-needed animal shelter that Stephenville has today.
Joyce began boarding dogs on the farm in 1974. People started asking her to groom them, and a new business developed. By 1984 Joyce had purchased a building in Stephenville for Joyce’s Animal Farm. It was a full-service grooming and boarding facility with a pet store. She found that there was a demand for snakes, especially from male Tarleton students. As Joyce began to purchase and sell snakes, she found that she lost her fear of them. Joyce actually became fond of an albino python, and had a special snake home built for her that included part of a tree stump and a long, sturdy tree limb in it. One day the Stephenville librarian asked Joyce to bring some animals and reptiles to the library for the children to see. Her special python was so popular that soon she was taking her across the county for show and tell sessions. Eventually the snake was sold; by then she was nine feet long.
“It’s very strange, but I really liked that snake. I still think about her. I think it’s funny that you can feel that way about any animal.”
For a time Macaws became popular with the local cowboys. Joyce began selling birds. One day Tom and Joyce were at a bird auction, and saw a baby monkey in diapers riding around on the shoulder of a visitor. Joyce didn’t think that the monkey looked happy with his owner, so by the end of the sale the monkey had a new owner. The little spider monkey rode all the way to Stephenville with his arms wrapped around Joyce’s neck. With no place to put him, he spent his first night sleeping in bed with the Whitises. Joyce named him Elvis. A longtime companion, his ashes now rest on a shelf in the sitting room.
“Those years in the pet shop were exciting,” Joyce remembers. “Friends dropped in for a cup of coffee and to see what was new. First Tom, and then Tommy and Beverley joined me, and their children were partly raised here. Barbara had a business, Kid Klub, just down the street, and her girls dropped in often. It was a great family time for us all, but eventually I decided to sell the business. Tom and I wanted to spend some time traveling.”
Tom and Joyce spent some of their vacations touring Civil War battlefields. They developed an interest in antiques, and a beautiful grandfather clock that was one of their purchases resides in the living room. Plates from each of the states and seven foreign countries that they visited line the walls. A collection of crosses adorns the wall of another room. A front room in her house is dedicated to Civil War memorabilia, and contains an extensive library of rare books on the subject.
Joyce was instrumental in putting the Confederate Memorial Monument up on the courthouse square in 2001. She wanted to make sure the Confederate veterans who settled Erath County were not forgotten. Her son, who has since passed away, actually wrote the inscription on it. Later, as Joyce was a descendant of a Confederate veteran, she was able to join the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and she participates in many of their functions. Joyce is also the president of the local UDC chapter. Joyce’s husband passed away in 2006.
“When you sit down in a rocking chair and retire, you’re done. I don’t ever want to retire. I hate that word.”
That’s probably the reason Joyce keeps going so hard. For all her efforts to preserve history, and benefit the community, she was awarded the Masonic Grand Lodge of Texas Community Builder Award in 2009. Joyce feels that one thing she would still like to get done in Stephenville is having a bronze cowboy statue in the Cowboy Capital Walk of Fame.
“Stephenville needs a bronze cowboy. If we’re the Cowboy Capital, then we need to promote it.”
Joyce knows the cowboys, and counts many, such as Sid Miller and Ty Murray, as her friends. Many of their pictures decorate her walls. Western paintings, and memorabilia fill much of the cedar-shingled ranch house. It’s fitting that she was chosen to be the Grand Marshal of the Stephenville Rodeo parade in 2014.
Joyce’s formerly homeless old poodle and her calico cat sleep in her lap when she reads at night. Her “pet” squirrel checks in on her from the front door. Her Great Danes, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee, watch over her. Will Rogers once said that you could tell everything you needed to know about a person by the way they treated their dog. There are a lot of animals out there that know Joyce, and would agree.
Photos provided by Joyce Whitis and Miller Studios