The Family Business — And All The Cast Members
“You see that man over there. Whatever you do, don’t talk to, bother or even get near that guy.”
Although Mike was no more than 10 years old, he could tell that his stepfather, who he called Kenneth, was deadly serious. As Kenneth nodded his head from side to side and in the direction of a one-armed man standing near a flatbed truck, his softly spoken whispers further explained his original cautioning.
“His name is Jack and he’s killed at least two people that I know of in Oklahoma.”
Mike stared at the man but didn’t utter a word or even the slightest of sounds as Kenneth walked toward the man with the missing arm. “Hey Jack, how’s it going?” “OK Ace, let’s do some business.”
Mike’s stepfather married Donna Lee Poyner when Mike was 5 years old. Kenneth Asa Meador, known to most as “Ace” came by his middle name naturally as his father was named Asa. The family lived in the small Southwest Missouri Ozark town of Noel where employment opportunities were few and far between; therefore, Ace and Donna Lee decided to go into business with another couple, Olen and Mary Lou Ritter.
The foursome negotiated a deal with Guy Cox and purchased a business located on the outskirts of Noel. The liquor store, smoke shop and gas station were called “Elk River Tobacco.” The business prospered and, not long after its opening, a liquor company salesman told Ace that the business was thought to be the largest liquor store, at least in terms of square footage, in the state of Missouri. Four gas pumps stood in front of the building and, while paying for the gasoline that filled up their pickup trucks, locals could buy a candy bar, a pack of Pall Mall smokes or a few cans of Edelweiss beer — seven cans for a dollar.
The one-armed man had driven his modified 1950 Mercury to the liquor store and, like so many others from Oklahoma, came to McDonald County, Mo., to buy liquor.
The town of Noel was a welcome retreat for summer tourists who basked in the hot Ozark sun while swimming in and floating on the waters of Elk River. While the tourists’ dollars were welcome, some in the Noel area found another and far more profitable means to support their families. Those entrepreneurs sold liquor to enterprising men who covertly transported the whiskey and gin to Oklahoma where the sale of such intoxicating beverages was illegal.
The illegality of liquor sales in Oklahoma did not, however, dampen the thirst and demand for the alcoholic beverages. Men like Jack found the profits from the sales to thirsty Oklahomans made the risks acceptable. Flatbed farm trucks laden with bales of hay routinely came to the rear of the store. There, older gentlemen dressed in coveralls shook Ace’s hand and smiled as helpers removed the bales from the wooden plank constructed truck beds.
Men climbed onto the beds of the trucks and pulled handles revealing trap doors that, when opened, uncovered secret compartments. Ace and others loaded box after box onto the trucks, after which the overall-clad men carefully placed the boxes of Ten High bourbon and Gilbey’s gin into the secreted storage areas. Prior to leaving, handfuls of cash were exchanged, followed by handshakes.
In the year 1959, Noel was a great place for children to grow up. On weekends and after school, kids could be found playing near the river’s edge, meeting and talking with school friends on the sidewalks of Main Street or, on Friday nights, catching a movie at the Ozark Theatre. However, the residents of Noel were hardworking people and every family member had chores. The Meador family was no exception.
Ace and Donna Lee worked in the liquor store, as did Olen and Mary Lou Ritter. In 1959. the foursome built the “Dairy Land” ice cream business which was located directly across the road — rural Highway 59 — from Elk River Tobacco. While the Meadors worked at one of the two businesses, the Ritters worked at the other, switching job locations every other week or so.
Although Dairy Land was moderately profitable, its revenue could in no way compete with that of the liquor store. Help was needed with the Oklahoma sales and that need created a job for Mike.
Mike waived to his friends and schoolmates each day as the yellow school bus pulled away. When the hours of class time came to an end, Mike would exit the bus in front of his family’s business, Elk River Tobacco. Mike knew the routine very well and, as he entered the store each afternoon, his mother’s voice was heard asking the same question, “How was school?”
“OK,” Mike answered, often without offering even the slightest glance in her direction.
Mike’s job was a simple one. He would remove the bottles of whiskey and gin from the original boxes and, using sheets of thin brown paper, wrap each and every bottle. The 11-year-old boy carefully — carefully because broken bottles were worthless — wrapped each fifth of Ten High whiskey and returned the bottles to their original cases.
The wrapping paper was thought to be an insulator of sorts, minimizing the chances of breakage during the trip back to Oklahoma. After all, the cases of liquor were tightly packed within the false compartments of those flatbed trucks and the pothole-filled, dirt backroads were rough.
Working at the family business did have benefits. There were the free Hershey chocolate bars and complimentary soft drinks, and there was the ice cream business located just across the street. Although Mike didn’t work at the Dairy Land, he did have access to the inside of the store and the inventory within.
There came a time when the Meadors and Ritters decided to dissolve their partnership. When the dust settled, the Ritters assumed ownership of the Dairy Land business while Ace and Donna Lee kept the Elk River Tobacco shop. Over time, the federal government became increasingly more interested in the business of transporting liquor to Oklahoma and eventually those transactions became much more difficult. In May of 1959, the people of Oklahoma eliminated the need to buy Missouri liquor when they voted to end the era of prohibition in the state.
When Mike talks about wrapping those bottles of whiskey, those men with the hidden compartments in their trucks and the ice cream sundaes, he smiles. It’s a smile born of memories about Kenneth, Donna Lee and a different time. It seems like ice cream was thicker and creamier back then, and Hershey bars had more chocolate in them. That smile remains while Mike recalls his mother working at the cash register, her afternoon week-day question and, above all, he remembers his brother Gary who passed away on the fifth day of January in the year 2016.
All the cast members of this story, save one, have passed on. Kenneth and Donna Lee are buried in the Noel Cemetery, while Olen and Mary Lou were laid to rest in Benton County Arkansas’ Lee Cemetery. But what about the one-armed man named Jack. Our memories of seemingly insignificant events and people seem to defy explanation, as is the case of Mike’s recollections of Jack.
How clever Mike thought of Jack’s head patting. Jack, the homicidal maniac, was making nothing more than a shallow attempt to conceal his true diabolical nature. At least that’s the way a 10-yearold boy perceived the actions of the one-armed man from Oklahoma.
Mike and his wife Linda now live in Grove, Okla.