Jimmy Wheeler (FRC401)
by Henna R. Armstrong, Getzville NY – 18 Dec. 2007
I was tickled to read on the web page about the trip down to Portsmouth to get Jimmy on tape. You see, Jimmy Wheeler was my father’s first cousin. Jimmy’s mother, “Aunt Em,” was a sister to my grandmother, Nell Odell. I was raised in Portsmouth but we rarely visited the Wheelers, and I don’t remember Jimmy and his sisters at all. My dad told me about going there one time after I had left Portsmouth, and Jimmy had a guitar of Bob Dylan’s that he was working on. He let my dad play it a little. Don’t tell Bob.
Jimmy didn’t just repair instruments. He made them also. Jimmy and Dottie and Pearl and Merle came by their “strangeness” honestly. Their father — Uncle Jim — was also strange. For example, he had a pet crow that he had taught to talk. He had a pet raccoon that sat at the table to eat with the family.
Although I knew that Jimmy played music in a dance orchestra and made and repaired stringed instruments for a living, I had no idea that he was an old time fiddler until I googled him a couple of days ago and found your website. When I listen to the sample on the website, it sounds just like my dad playing. My dad played the guitar and fiddle and mandolin, but his best instrument was the harmonica. He called it a “French harp.” In fact, I must have been in my teens before I knew he was saying “French harp” and not “frincharp.” I did know that it was really a harmonica. Daddy played his harp on the stage some, not only in Portsmouth but down in Cincinnati. He used to play with Cowboy Copas, who was killed in the plane crash with Patsy Cline, and with Leonard Sly, a.k.a. Roy Rogers, who was from Duck Run (Otway OH in Scioto County). All this occurred before they were famous. We had other players in our family also, including Bill Odle. (Some of our family spelled their name Odle, others Odell.) I’m now going to quote for you something from an Adams County, OH history book in which Dr. F. Cumming, while touring “the western country,” tells of stopping at an inn run by Timothy Mershon near Locust Grove, OR in Aug. 1807. Timothy Mershon had been a tavern keeper in Hunterdon County, NJ, where he had also served in the militia during the Revolutionary War.
“Mershon is from the Jerseys, he has a numerous family growing up, and is now building a large log house in which he means to keep a tavern. Three of his sons play the violin by ear – they had two shocking bad violins, one of which was of their own manufacture, on which they scraped away without mercy to entertain us, which I would have most gladly excused, though I attempted to seem pleased and believe I succeeded in making them think I was so.”
Timothy Mershon is Jimmy Wheeler’s great great great grandfather. The fiddle-playing sons were Jimmy’s great great uncles and possibly his great great grandfather.
Sadly, Jimmy Wheeler died in 1987 at the age of 69. My dad died in 1990 at the age of 72. Bill Odle died in 1993 at the age of 67. The Wheelers were even strange when it came to their deaths. Once during a phone call with my parents, I learned that they had stopped in to visit Jimmy and Dottie and Merle on Mabert Road, only to learn that one of them had died about six or seven months earlier. I don’t know which one it was. In any event, the survivors didn’t publish an obituary or have a funeral or even call relatives (and there were many right there in Portsmouth) to let them know. I’ve been doing genealogy for the last ten years. This CD is a great find. Just wish there were more of the family left to appreciate it.