Traveler ~ Builder ~ Adventurer

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Traveler ~ Builder ~ Adventurer

Jefferson Davis McKissack

Traveler ~ Builder ~ Adventurer

Most of the concrete facts known about the life of Jeff McKissak are right

here, in the brick, tile and mortar of The Orange Show. With the help of his

family, friends and neighbors, we have discovered more about this unique

man. We present what is known here with the hope that some light

will be shed on McKissack’s magnificent obsession,

and the delightful result that we all share,

The Orange Show.

Documentation of the life of Jeff McKissack

and the process of building

The Orange Show is an ongoing project.

If you have information to share,

please contact

Orange Show Center for Visionary Art

2401 Munger ~ Houston, Texas 77023

713.926.6368

oranges@orangeshow.org ~ www.orangeshow.org

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The Life of

Jefferson Davis McKissack

The life of Jeff McKissack, Jr. began

January 28, 1902 in Fort Gaines,

Georgia, near the Chattahoochee

River on the Alabama/Georgia

border, an exciting place for a boy

to grow up in the last years of the

steam age.

He was the youngest of five

children born to Beulah C. Hill and

Jeff. D. McKissack, Sr. and had three

sisters, Bessie, Winnie and Hope. His

only brother died in infancy. As a

boy, he occasionally helped out

at his father’s general store and

he developed a life-long interest in

steam energy.

McKissack said in later years:

“To build this Show, you’d have

to be born in the steam age,

and then on some river like the

Chattahoochee, near Ft. Gaines,

Georgia, where I was born. And

then you’d have to know about

the control of steam and only a

few men have such knowledge.”

Lent by his sister for this exhibition,

this photograph accompanied

this letter from

Mrs. Winnie Coleman.

I would like so much to come to the

show, March 15. I am 90 years old

and stay indoors all the time. Jeff

was my brother and he was a fine

young man - always busy doing

something. The picture was made

in 1919 when he attended Mercer

University, Macon, Georgia. He

was born 1902, Died 1980 at 78

years old.

Thank you for carrying on for Jeff.

McKissack, Late 20’s

McKissack’s boyhood home in

Ft. Gaines, Georgia

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“I guess I got my inspiration for building

The Orange Show from shaking hands with

Thomas Alva Edison.”

Jeff McKissack told Ann Holmes of The Houston Chronicle in 1979

McKissack attended Mercer University,

Macon, Georgia, graduation in 1925 with

a Bachelor of Science degree. He studied

commerce, and after graduation, he

moved to New York City to continue his

studies at Columbia University. The family

story is that “Uncle Jeff was working on his

Master’s degree and wrote about one of his

professors - so he didn’t get the degree.”

(Davis Coleman McKissack)

He financed his education by working for

a Wall Street bank. Throughout his life, he

maintained a strong interest in the activities

of the stock market. His broker at Paine

Webber remembers: McKissack coming

in regularly to study Standard & Poor’s and

describes as a “careful analytical investor.”

The Big Apple wasn’t really his kind of place, McKissack would later

tell friends, so before the end of the 20’s, he returned to the land where

oranges grow. But before leaving New York, he had the chance to

shake hands with a genius.

After leaving New York, McKissack moved back to Ft. Gaines. First he

opened a dance hall for the young people, then a produce store and

a cafe next to his father’s general store. Davis Gilbreth, his nephew,

helped with the cafe, and remembers “Uncle Jeff made grape fruit ice

cream and everyone loved it.”

During the Depression, he earned his living by trucking

oranges through the Southeast. He paid $50 a load for

the oranges in Florida, then sold them at the Atlanta

Farmers Market. His affection for the fruit, and a belief

that he was a part of the great mission of the orange

farmers of American dates from this time.

In the 1920’s, Edison, inventor of the incandescent

lamp, the motion picture, the phonograph, the

microphone, and nearly 1,000 other things, was

the head of his world famous

laboratories in West Orange,

New Jersey. Periodically,

the newspapers would run

announcements about “Mr.

Edison’s New Contest,” the

method he used to find new

executives. Jeff McKissack

answered one of these ads,

and like the author of this article

printed in The New York Times,

February 11, 1923, came face-to-face with the great

inventor. Each applicant was to answer 150 questions,

and the paper would be scored by Edison himself.

It’s not true Edison was prejudiced against college

graduates (a degree was one of the requirements),

but the test was weighted more heavily with questions

involving knowledge of current events and simple

common sense that “book learning.” McKissack, like most applicants,

didn’t get a job in the Edison Factory, but the memory of meeting the

man he’d looked upon as a genius since childhood, stayed with him

and helped somehow to form his own “great idea.”

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McKissack was a strong man with sparkling blue eyes.

Deeply interested in health and exercise, he had strong

ideas about the care and feeding of the human body and

he followed them religiously.

Each year since 1918, he traveled to Hot Springs, Arkansas

for his vacation. He believed that bathing n the waters

which picked up radium traces as it flowed under the

Arkansas mountains, stimulated growth and performance

of body cells. McKissack often took his mother and a sister

along on these trips.

Collecting odds and ends found in shops

and junk yards along the way became

a favorite hobby of McKissack’s. Wagon

wheels, tractor seats, statuary and even

rocks that were later used in The Orange

Show were collected on this route.

During the 1950’s, McKissack began

to pursue more seriously his interest in

nutrition and longevity. This interest and

“500 hours of research” culminated in How

You Can Live 100 Years and Still Be Spry, a

book he published in 1960. This book is a

compendium of sage advice, folk wisdom

and some rather curious suggestions, and

can be read (in one hour!) as a prose

version of The Orange Show.

4


Jeff McKissack, 74 years old in

this photo, standing in front of

a hotel in which his nephew

was staying. He was dressed

for an evening of dancing.

Photo by Alex Hurst

Jeff McKissack never married,

although he loved the ladies.

His nephew Davis C. Gilbreth

remembers: “He only proposed

to one girl - I mean I only know

of one.” Ty Eckley says, “I’d ask

him why he never married and he

always said “Never had that much

money at one time.”

Dancing was one of McKissack’s

favorite activities. Well into his

70’s, there was nothing he loved

better than getting dressed up

and “tripping the light fantastic” at

Dokey Hall or the Sons of Herman.

Sometimes he went dancing four or

five times a week.

Collecting rare old recordings

of favorite songs was another

hobby. Anyone who ever visited

him at work on The Orange Show

remembers the turntable playing his

favorite dance music.

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