Last fall, when I learned of Joe Duryee’s passing, I thought of two things. One was that Joe will be missed, that he’s always been one of those people who is often mentioned in several conversations, and the other is that he accomplished a lot of things during his lifetime — some are known and some may not be.
As someone who was a contemporary of Joe’s during those years we spent growing up and going to school in Bolivar, there are several memories that come to mind. One, of course, is the “Limburger Cheese on the Bus Radiator” event (which I recently learned he said he didn’t do); another the skunk oil on the radiators in the English teacher’s room — that caused students to be taught in a different room for a couple of days as the scent permeated the entire building.
I’m sure many other people have many other things they remember and those memories could add a chapter or 10 to the story.
When I talked with Joe’s widow, Isabelle, she told me that Joe said he was blamed (and therefore kicked out of school) for a lot of things he wasn’t guilty of doing. She said he just took the punishment anyway. He said nobody would have believed it wasn’t his fault.
Joe’s “claim to fame” — or infamy, as the case may be — raised its head years later when I was teaching. It was a hot, steamy day in May … sixth period … one more to go for that day … school was just about over for the year. Nobody, including me, wanted to be in that hot, un-air-conditioned classroom. And somebody (who shall remain nameless for the moment) poured a vial of skunk oil on my floor. Joe Duryee’s fur shed immediately came to my mind.
My brother worked for Joe in the fur shed and the stories he told would provide enough fodder for another chapter or 10. He liked the atmosphere and the people he worked with, although sometimes the skunks — well, you get my “drift.”
But Joe wasn’t just made of mischief. His first business was Joe’s Body Shop which he built at the age of 22; his second, Joe’s Boats and Motors, and his third, Duryee Furs, “Dealer of Wild Furs.”
At one time, he owned two fur houses in Texas, one in Arkansas and two in Missouri. He sold skins to coat manufacturers as far away as Greece. He traveled, doing business across the United States and abroad. His fourth business was Duryee Farms, where he backgrounded feeder cattle for future sale.
Joe’s daughter, Joy, sent me a wealth of really nice pictures of Joe and catfish, Joe and other fish and Joe and furs. I wish I had room to put them all in this article, but I don’t have the room. I am including the one that impressed me most: Joe with the catfish that was as long as he was tall — and he wasn’t a short man.
Joy also mentioned the reason her dad got into the fur business in the first place.
“One thing my dad did tell me. He had sold a coon for 75 cents,” she said. “That 75 cents paid for him and his two brothers to go to the movie theater, where they all three watched a movie and got Cokes and popcorn. That is what led him to get involved in the fur business.”
As someone who does a lot of research into the lives and activities of Polk County’s historical characters, I always find it fascinating that people who lived their lives here have done so many interesting things within the span of years allotted them. Joe Duryee certainly fits into that category of hometown folk. I just couldn’t let him leave us without a salute for the life he lived.
And if you’re visiting Greenwood Cemetery, well, Joe’s headstone is the most appropriate headstone I’ve ever seen. It’s not often you see one with a beaver and a combine pictured thereon.
Thank you, Joe, for giving us another chapter in the history of Polk County people.
Jean Pufahl Vincent is a “native” of Bolivar and Polk County. She is a retired educator, teaching history at Bolivar High School for 14 years. She is a member of the Polk County historical and genealogical societies.