Billy Joe Tatum

Giving a wild flower program, 1985.
There are only a few times in a lifetime when someone has such a profound influence on your life that you are forever changed and made better just by knowing them. Billy Joe Tatum had that kind of impact on my life, my garden and my writing. We met through a mutual friend in 1981 and we quickly became good friends. I liked the things she liked - cooking, foraging for wild foods, writing, eating, and she included me in the events at her and her husband's house, dubbed, "Wildflower" in rural Arkansas.

I spent a lot of time at Wildflower over the years. So did a lot of other people and I met an amazing array of talented and amazing people there. One weekend I fondly remember was at this time of year, almost April. My partner, Josh and I were at Billy Joe and Hally's (her husband), to hunt morels. It was a Sunday morning, we were up having coffee and sitting on the deck overlooking the beautiful wooded valley below. The phone rang and Billy Joe answered. We could hear only half the conversation but could tell Billy Joe was saying no to someone who wanted to visit. I heard, "No, I'm sorry, you can't come. Yes, I know who you are, I've seen your show a time or two. No, I'm sorry." Then a pause while she listened, and finally, "Because it's morel season" and she thanked the caller and hung up.
Billy Joe and Hally at their 60th wedding anniversary, 2011.

Hally asked, "BJ, what was all that about?" She replied, "Oh it was that Charles Kuralt fellow with the CBS "On the Road" program. He wanted to bring a film crew and do a story on me. I told him he could come sometime but not now because it was morel season. I guess next time he needs to call farther in advance." (Evidently he was calling from about 30 minutes away).
Billy Joe and my partner, Josh, cutting up at a dinner, 1985.
Billy Joe's first book, Billy Joe Tatum's Wild Foods Cookbook and Field Guide was published in 1976, just a year after the notorious wild food adventurer, Euell Gibbons passed away. Media types soon learned that Billy Joe was colorful (barefoot and with a feather always in her long, braided hair) and wonderfully witty and intelligent, and made a very good interview. She was on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson several times, and had articles in every major gardening and lifestyle magazine. She never took those serious, just laughing and enjoying the ride.

Billy Joe, on the left, with her wild flower bouquet.
I started hosting an annual Herb Day in May festival at Long Creek Herb Farm and Billy Joe would come and give presentations. She liked for me to collect a big bouquet of wildflowers from the woods and she would pull out one at a time and tell the audience the use, flavor, cautions and tell stories about each one. People would come from many states away for the event, and guests were all in love with BJ and her stories of her family and food. (Here's an example).
Out of print but still the best.

One of those early years, about 1983, I was at Wildflower for the weekend. The event was a fundraiser for Bill Alexander, a Republican who was running for state Senate. Back in those days, politicians weren't as mean-spirited and hateful as they are today, and one of the "helpers" was Democratic Governor Bill Clinton. The party was about a couple hundred invited guests with Alexander the guest of honor. I was there as cook's helper, for one of Billy Joe's famous wild foods dinners. I saw a car drive up in the driveway and Billy Joe opened the door and gave Bill Clinton a welcome hug. She turned to me and introduced us, then turned back to the Governor and said, "Bill, here's the broom. I want you clear the furniture out of the living room and sweep the floor. We're having a square dance." Without hesitation, he thanked her and went off to do her bidding. Next to arrive was Republican Win Rockefeller. We were introduced then I heard BJ say, "Win, here's a can of wasp spray. Go upstairs to the walkway over the living room. There'll be kids watching the dancing from up there and I saw several red wasps in the windows." He, too, followed orders. I was stunned, one of the richer men in Arkansas and the Governor of the state, on opposite sides of the political spectrum, cleaning house for Billy Joe. This was one powerful woman!
Billy Joe came to visit and we canned.

Over the years, Billy Joe came to Long Creek Herb Farm and we'd can things from the garden. Once she gathered and canned a dozen pints of lamb's quarters - still my favorite greens. I'd go to Wildflower and she'd take me "botanizing" as she liked to call it. We'd tromp through the woods, sometimes just us, sometimes with the likes of Lee Allen Peterson, of Peterson Field Guide fame. She introduced me to plants I'd never found before, to people I could not have met otherwise. I once asked her if I could be her biographer because she led such an interesting life. "No," she said without hesitation. "I'm not that interesting and anyway, you know way too many stories about me."
Billy Joe last year, telling wonderful stories on her and Hally's 60th anniversary.

Billy Joe wrote for The Ozarks Mountaineer for many years and it was that magazine that eventually led to the publication of her books. She stared out life wanting to be an opera singer, she told me. Instead, she became a rural doctor's wife and created her own career out of the love of her surroundings and became nationally famous for being herself. She is remembered by hundreds, maybe thousands of people beyond her own close and loving family. Like her amazing books, Billy Joe is now out of print. I truly thought she would live forever. Rest in Peace dear friend. It's hard to imagine life without you in it.


Terra said...

What a wonderful gal and friendship you describe here. Those friendships that roll along for years are specially sweet. I like how she told Charles Kuralt to call back another day.

Anonymous said...

What a most wonderful story Jim. My heart goes out to all that knew her and mourn her loss, family and friends. Sounds like she was an amazing woman and unique soul. Going to do some research to learn more of her. Hugs.

Ivy Jean's Farm Talks said...

Dear Jim,
What a fantastic story on a wonderful woman, Billy Joe Tatum.
While visiting your farm in January I asked you about her because her book, which I love, came up in the conversation. What a treasure she was. I'm so sorry to hear of her passing. I'm glad you have alot of great memories, inspirations and stories of her.
Thank you for letting us all know by the weave of a fine story.
Cyndi of Ivy Jean's Ozark Farmstead

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful story Jim. I'm sorry for your loss. I've felt the pain of losing those who have served as mentors and friends, but you will always have the cherished memories of the times you were together.

BrandonMoeller said...

To being out of print! Thanks for sharing this story with us!

Sharon Lovejoy said...

Ah, Jim dear, what a wonderful tribute to an amazing and REAL person. Where is my old copy of her fabulous book? I adored it and everything I knew of her, but of course, most of what I knew came from YOU. Like the story of her big diamond ring getting lost. Oh well.

Honey, is that JOSH boy a killer handsome dude? And you? Wowow. Fabulous.

I loved reading this. It means so much to me to catch up with you every week.

Love to you and Josh,


P.S. If we drive we MUST see you, have a meal, play Chi Chi around the table. XX

Marian Welch said...

I knew Billy Joe in the 70's when I lived in Mountain View Arkansas. I took some of her classes and spent time in her lovely home. I remember her showing me all the road kill in her freezer! I loved how she wore a Turkey feather in her hair. Her knowledge of wild plants was amazing and I enjoyed learning from her. Thank you for your post about her.

Angel said...

Hi Jim, Thanks for this beautiful remembrance of my mom. Folks should know that her book is easily available through Amazon. I know the 2nd edition is and probably copies of the 1st edition as well.




Hello Jim!
I am writing from my home in Melbourne, Arkansas. My husband and I had the honor of knowing the Tatums for these past few years, and they are an incredible couple! and Family ! YOUR words cover the bases for admiration, and love for Billy Joe. Thanks for blogging about her here. She was a hoot!!
MJ Jordan


Marc Scroggs said...

Great story Jim. Billy Joe Tatum sounded like she was a very interesting person. You were lucky to have spent alot of time with her.


Jim Long said...

This weekend, the day before Easter, was the memorial service for Billy Joe with family & friends at the house after. As I walked down the lane to the house, I wasn't sure I could finish the walk. I stood in front of the house, under the smokebush tree. I just couldn't bring myself to go in, knowing she wasn't there. Geoff Cho, her son-in-law, put his arm around my shoulders and we talked. Others stopped and we hugged and cried. Everyone supporting everyone else, and so many stories of how BJ changed all of our lives. It was a beautiful evening, honoring a beautiful soul.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim, I've just begun reading your blog and what I've seen so far is wonderful. So sorry for you & Josh's loss of BJ. She sounds like a wonderful, interesting character. Take care, Mary Collins (a Linked friend)