This installment of Giles Paths takes a look at the life of James R. Puryear through a letter I submitted, as chairman of the Wales Boat Ramp Committee, to State Rep. Clay Doggett.
It is requested the new boat ramp on Richland Creek at Wales be fittingly named The James R. Puryear Jr. Boat Ramp, in honor and memory of World War II veteran James R. Puryear Jr.
Puryear’s name has been synonymous with Wales for almost 100 years. He was born at home on a farm in Wales on Little Dry Creek July 30, 1922, the only son of James Robert Puryear Sr. and Mamie Madray Puryear.
The house where he was born is still occupied. He attended Wales School, first through fifth grades. His sister, Nell Puryear, even taught there when she was just 17, having already completed the two years at Martin College. James’ mother also graduated from Martin College in 1913 when it was a girls’ school.
James grew up hunting doves, squirrels and rabbits (sometimes groundhog and coyote or bobcat). He often rode his bicycle throughout the area. He loved to play baseball and, as an adult, was manager of the Wales baseball team and later the Pulaski Independent Team.
He attended Martin College in Pulaski and Tennessee Polytechnic Institute in Cookeville. He played on both the baseball and tennis teams at TPI. One of his professors at TPI taught him how to play chess and he became quite good at it.
He was drafted out of college by the U.S. Army into World War II in 1944. He was stationed in Germany with the 94th Infantry Division and spent many nights in the frozen wilderness wondering if he would ever see his beloved Wales again. When WWII ended in 1946, Corp. James R. Puryear was honorably discharged and immediately returned home to Wales.
He became the postmaster at Wales and also operated a general store there for almost 30 years. Puryear’s Grocery quickly became the center of the Wales Community. Residents in the area loved to hang around the ole potbellied stove in the back of the store, chew tobacco and tell tall tales. When the heavy rains fell and Richland Creek rose by leaps and bounds, folks would call the store to see if the Richland Creek bridge was underwater, which it was numerous times before the new bridge was built.
James was often fondly referred to as “the Mayor of Wales.”
Once, in the early 1950s, two trains collided on the tracks behind the store, something to do with the track switching. People called from as far away as California to ask about it. It was an Associated Press release and stirred up a lot of interest. There were no injuries, just train delays and a lot of excitement in this rural area. He was there when 13-year-old Frank Kimbrough and his young friend decided to cross the swollen Richland Creek near the bridge only to have the young friend drown in the attempt. He was there when a local farmer caught his arm in a corn picker and held on to life for several hours before he could be found and helped. He lost his arm but survived. He was there when a little lady sat down at the train depot on a cold night and froze to death. He was there when anyone in the community needed help and always responded.
He was there when the George White house less than a mile down the road caught fire and Mrs. White called the store for help. He quickly locked the store door and rushed to the scene, climbed the ladder to the second-floor roof and doused water on it until more help could arrive, helping save the structure, receiving some burns to his arms and hands.
James was an avid hunter and actually got one of the first deer in Giles County during the first deer hunting season after deer were released into the countryside. He fretted he might have curtailed the population of deer by so doing, but laughed about it years later as Giles County became overrun with venison on the hoof.
James had the honor of being the model for the bronze veterans sculpture located in Sharewood Park, created by Pamela Sue Keller. He designed and made the wooden Uncle Sam figure on the Pulaski Square. He also designed and developed a Giles County Trivia Game which he donated to the Historical Society.
He authored two books: a collection of short stories titled “Potbellied Potpourri” and a novel titled “The Way it Was,” centered around life in the Wales community.
Even in his waning years, James still thought about Wales. To him it would always be home and his heart would remain there forever. He loved the land and the people, the simple lifestyle, the basic honesty of being connected with nature and the challenges it offers. Almost every afternoon until his death, he would ride to Wales with his wife and reminisce about the times spent there and how this is God’s country.
James R. Puryear Jr. was peacefully laid to rest Jan. 29, 2020. He was 97 and-a-half years old.
He married Barbara Hardy in 1962 and they have a daughter, Trish Puryear Crist, who is the executive assistant to the CEO of the Frist Art Museum.