Want to hear of a full life? Want to hear a non-stop string of great stories? Lloyd McCuiston Jr. is your man.
Here’s one story: In 1938, McCuiston hitchhiked from east Arkansas to Oklahoma A&M. “We were still suffering from the Depression and had no money. So, I schemed a little and thought I could get a scholarship wrestling,” he says laughing. “I took one look and knew better than that. They had three All-Americans whose ears were so messed up they looked about like my fist. I said, ‘Man, I can’t make a living doing any wrestling anyhow.’ That’s how I rationalized it!”
If you’re lucky enough to finagle an invitation, you’ll now find McCuiston in his West Memphis, Ark., home. Under a life’s worth of photographs, paintings and commendations hanging on the walls, he’ll settle back in his easy chair, a gold Pomeranian bouncing at his feet, and amiably tell it all. His grandson, Justin, sits to his left, chuckling as the memories unfold.
“I was born March 18, 1918, in Millington, Tenn., where a WWI airbase was at the time. My father was farming in the area and went broke. He told me he was holding cotton for a dollar a bale and it dropped to a nickel. He had to sell at that point and busted out.
“He quit farming and moved to Memphis to open a hardware store, a filling station, a grocery market and several things. He did well, and most of the transactions were done on credit. They had little ‘doodling’ books where they kept track of everything.”
Depression and clearing land
Then, the Great Depression hit and his father went broke again. “In 1933, we moved into West Memphis to a little house without underpinnings, no lights, no water. I lived there until high school graduation in 1936.
“My father started keeping books for a big operation that farmed all the land from Crawfordsville to Marion. My great-grandmother lived in the area, and my mother was visiting. That’s when my father and mother got together and married soon after.”
His family inherited 80 acres of land outside the little town of Vincent. At that time, “it was big town. Daddy started another grocery store — one of five in the town. There were two gins. Really, for a little town, it had everything.
“He bought some land in the bottoms for about $15 per acre. In the early 1940s, he had to clear the timber and all he had was hand labor and an old tractor — I remember it had steel wheels. They didn’t have any bulldozers, but they had close to 800 acres when the job was done.
“It was some nasty, old gumbo land. It was very tough to clear. They made roads by putting trees down.
“He made a little money farming, but most of it came from the stores. We farmed cotton and usually had sharecropping tenants. They’d work 20 acres each, or so. Daddy farmed the balance.”
One employee, Otto Jeter, “worked for my great-grandfather, my grandfather and also my dad,” says Justin. “He was a constant.”
IT’S FREE! Stay informed on what’s happening in Mid-South agriculture: Subscribe to Delta Farm Press Daily.
Off to school, Central America
McCuiston continues. “I tried to get into the Naval Academy but missed it by just a bit.”
After spending 1937 and 1938 at Marion Military Academy and a wrestling-free stint at the aforementioned Oklahoma A&M, “I headed to the University of Arkansas, where I graduated with a degree in civil engineering. I was offered a job by the U.S. Engineers while I was waiting to get into the Army Air Corps. They were known as the Quartermaster Corps back then. They paid $2,500 a year, and I thought that was pretty good money.
“By then, it looked like we were out of (WWII), and I got a telegram about a job opening in Panama. We were working to help construction of the canal.”
McCuiston’s job was to survey and clear air strips to supply the workers on the canal.
“It was thick and jungly, and I didn’t speak hardly any Spanish. I’d had a semester of Spanish, but it didn’t take very well.
“We were clearing some jungle, and a native came running up all excited about a big snake. I told him, best I could without good Spanish, to go kill the snake. We had to press on, you know? He mumbled around and fussed and finally went in and killed it.
“Later on, I found out why it took so long. He wouldn’t kill that snake with a live sapling. It had to be dead. They believed the venom — this was a fer-de-lance — could travel through a live sapling and get you. Those fer-de-lances are kind of like a copperhead. They blend in so well, and they’ll just lay around a brush pile waiting for prey to come by. The bushmasters move around a lot more and aren’t quite as venomous.
“After that, I was still under contract for a year, so I went up and helped build an air strip up in Costa Rica. They used that strip for fighter planes.”
Contract completed, McCuiston joined the Navy. “After I’d been in for about three months, they took an x-ray and said, ‘You have tuberculosis. We’re going to discharge you.’ I said, ‘The hell you are! I just gave up a good job for y’all. Just wait a second, because I’m going to get well.’ They said, ‘Well, you can try.’
“I wrote a letter to the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery about the situation, and the conditions I’d been working in. Then, I headed home on leave. A doctor in Memphis told me to stay in bed for a year. I came home and stayed in bed for a day and said, ‘To hell with this. I’d just as soon die.’
“I headed back to the Navy and, somehow, they surveyed me back to duty. They sent me to the South Pacific and I stayed there until WWII was over. Of course, they wouldn’t keep me because of the scar tissue in my lungs.”
While he was in the South Pacific, McCuiston was tasked with building a place where sailors could come in and drink beer. “They were allowed two cans. I always kept one little case in reserve. This place was surrounded by coral, and I had to dynamite a place in the reef so the boats could come to shore.
“So, I got two cases of dynamite and headed out towards the reef. We had to change boats, and when we made the exchange, a sailor dropped one of the boxes overboard. I thought, ‘Oh, damn, the officer is going to be worried about that blowing his ship up.’ My next thought was, ‘Oh, man, I hope that wasn’t my beer!” he says laughing. “Luckily, it wasn’t the beer.”
Back to the farm
After that stint, McCuiston traveled back to Vincent and “began farming the 80 acres of land my grandmother had inherited. I picked up some of the gumbo land Daddy had cleared — if there was a heavy rain it would flood out. It was all cotton, but later on we planted soybeans and occasionally milo on some of the sorrier land.
“My daddy had an old combine that shook so hard it rattled your teeth. We could hardly keep it running. But he wanted me to stay and farm. By that time, I was kind of burnt out on Central and South America. So why not farm?
“I ended up farming for 30 years. My son, Justin’s daddy, joined me and Justin came along a little later.”
Justin, a fourth-generation farmer, started working the family operation when he was 13. “We farmed that land until about 1995,” he says. “Then, we bought a farm outside Heber Springs where we raise black Angus cattle. My boys — Ryley, 12, and Colin, 8 — are now helping me. Somehow, we’re passing the traditions down.
“It’s kind of funny how things circle around,” says Justin. “Before selling the (Vincent) land, Granddad planted some of it back to trees. It was bought by a company, Olive Group, out of England, and they do military training there now. They put in a 2-mile road course with big berms. They practice shooting, driving in adverse conditions. There’s even a mini-town to simulate conditions in Fallujah.”
As if he wasn’t involved in enough while farming, McCuiston’s political career was about to begin. “I wasn’t making any money farming, and some fellows came around asking me to run for office, circuit court clerk. They said, ‘It’s a part-time job. Just draw a salary.’ Somehow I got elected and found out what they’d told me was a lot of bull.
“That office was responsible for mortgages that had to be hand-written. The two girls working there had to write those things up all night to keep up. The lawyers and auditors wanted things done quick, quick. I stayed in that position for 10 years.
“That led to a job being JP (Justice of the Peace). There was no pay in that.”
Later, in 1957, McCuiston agreed to run for the Arkansas House of Representatives. “I finished up in 1991 after being in for 34 years. I became Speaker of the House in 1981.
“One of the main things I did while I was working in politics was to bring higher education to this area. We needed a college in Crittenden County. (Orval) Faubus was governor when I first started making noise about that. He said, ‘I’ll do what I can for you. I’ll give you a National Guard facility.’ I said, ‘No sir, we need a college.’
“I was there through five governors and became speaker. At that point, here came the college. Actually, it was a vo-tech first and then became a college.”
Faubus, says McCuiston, “was a good governor. If he told you something, it would happen. He was a good, country boy and wouldn’t back up from a commitment. He was my favorite to work with.
“Bill Clinton was the type of fellow who used to call at midnight wanting help with something. Then, when I’d try to get him on the horn later he wasn’t anywhere around,” he says laughing again.
McCuiston was also in the tractor business, running an East Arkansas Allis Chalmers dealership. “I got into that in 1955 because I needed to buy a tractor and had trouble. I eventually bought into a dealership.
“Farming has always been a tough gig. Prices are rarely good enough to sustain a small operation. It’s the same now.”
When the McCuistons quit row-cropping, “it was right when Roundup Ready crops came out,” says Justin. “One of the biggest problems we’d been suffering from was controlling pigweeds. I wish we’d stayed in and seen how it played out because Roundup crops would have helped us.
“Granddad is still always looking to keep busy. We just got back from the White River trout fishing. He was bass fishing yesterday over at my uncle’s pond in Hernando, Miss.’
McCuiston nods in agreement. “I love fishing. I used to head down to Central America to tarpon fish nearly every year. Tarpon are the best to catch.
“I’ve been down to the Amazon to catch peacock bass. They’re wonderful, beautiful. Unlike most fish, if they miss the lure they’ll come back and hit it again. They fight hard but getting to them was a tough slog. They tell me peacock bass are in Florida now, so maybe that’s where I need to head now.”