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Jonah and his Whale of Earthworms E-mail
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Sunday, 02 October 2005
Jonah and his Whale of Earthworms


St. Louis Post-Dispatch

By Kevin Horrigan

Forget the $300,000 fire.  Jonah White says he's still the luckiest man on Earth.  Selling a lot of bad teeth will do that.

It was the noted churchman, the Rev. Mr. Paul D. Frazier, Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church down the road in Hardin, who warned Jonah White that the market for "Billy-Bob Teeth" was likely to be limited.  I said, 'How many people are there who want to make themselves look like an inbred country moron?' " said Pastor Paul, whose wife, Smokin' Joan Frazier, has long sworn her husband is my long lost twin. "I figured he'd sell 5,000, 6000 units, tops."

That was in 1995 or so, several million pair of $10 Billy-Bob Teeth ago, before the gag teeth made Jonah White a wealthy man, before White went to Australia hawking Billy-Bob Teeth and fell in love, before White put Pastor Paul on an ATV and hauled him deep into woods to his deer-hunting tree stand (the three-story one with indoor plumbing and solar batteries to provide electricity and hot water) where Pastor Paul performed the wedding ceremony for Jonah and Renee.

It was before Jonah White bought the 500 acres of Calhoun County woods where he built his dream house, the one made of huge Tamarack logs hauled in from the Pacific Northwest, the one with the tree in the middle with the raccoon on it, the one with the Lucite wet bar encasing the first pair of Billy-Bob Teeth that Jonah and his dentist partner ever made, not to mention Renee's first pair and the kids' first pairs, the ones that came on the first Billy-Bob pacifier. The first vampire teeth are there, too, and the first pair of licensed Austin Powers teeth.

It was long before Billy-Bob Teeth became Calhoun County's largest private employer, which it was until Jonah had to move production offshore to Asia to compete with cheap knock-off hillbilly teeth. It was before Jonah came up with the idea for "Strutz" shoes, the women's pumps with the shock absorbers in the high heels and began selling them on the Internet, while he looks for a production site in St. Louis.

And it was way before Jonah came up with the idea for the earthworm factory, which would have put 60 or 70 so Calhoun countians to work and again would have made Jonah White the county's biggest private employer.  I say "would have" because on March 21, the earthworm factory burned to the ground, which is what brought me 60 miles north on the Great River Road to Jonah White's front door, guarded by a very large Newfoundland retriever named Bear for obvious reasons.

Pastor Paul had sent me the news tip, a splendid story by Maggie Borman in the Alton Telegraph of March 26, which began like this:

"It was a crushing blow to me at first, as we were just in the first week of production, and it isn't every day you take a $300,000 hit," Jonah White said Friday morning. "All I could do was stand there and see 200 million worms go to an honorable death."

Deep in the woods, I found the House that Billy-Bob Teeth Built, made friends with Bear (I gave him one of the homemade doughnuts I got at Royce's Cafe in Hardin, the ones Pastor Paul says are "fried in life-giving lard") and found the unlikely looking entrepreneur, lean and muscled at 35, his hair cut Marine-style, wearing his favorite color (camouflage) and looking massively bummed out.

He had been all set to become the Sam Walton of worms when, at lunchtime on Monday the 21st, a spark from a welding rig ignited three buildings and two tractor-trailers full of dried peat moss -- the stuff that worms are grown in. The worm factory went up in an instant.

"Man, I gained a new respect for these volunteer firefighters here," he said. "There must have been a hundred of them out here, six pumpers, and they worked into the night. It was hot, man. It was like an Alfred Hitchcock movie. I was working there next to them and I looked down at my feet and there was this mass migration of worms crawling for safety."

Sprawled across a leather chair, he sighed, "When I take a hit, I take a monster hit."

His buildings gone, three years of hard work and $300,000 up in smoke, 200 million earthworms toasted to a crisp, Jonah says he's not in the mood to start over. "There's no two ways about it," he said. "Earthworms are not easy. They're hard work."

Something else will come along -- "I'm not afraid of risk," he said -- and in the meantime, Billy-Bob Teeth is chattering along and Strutz shoes are about to take off. "I'll be fine," he said. "The worst thing is the jobs that folks won't have. The county needs them. Me? No one will ever convince me I'm not the luckiest man on earth."

Copyright (c) 2005 The Post-Dispatch

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