nut is not enough
story of Wham and Petey takes the James family beyond 'the world's
|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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
“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
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
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
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.
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
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
The effect, he says,
is to lower expectations. “I’ve
seen people look around and think, ‘What
am I getting myself into here?’”
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
|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
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
While inspired by
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
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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.