Closer Look

Renaissance-man experiences presented in legacy book

Jim Steeley home
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Jim Shope

How does one describe a guy like Jim Steeley? Likeable, well read, knowledgeable in many areas, a ham radio buff, an author, a historian, an accomplished oil painter, and an unrepentant rebel – just an all-around interesting person. Jim, 88, was reared in the deep south, around Birmingham, Ala., and has led a most eventful life, much of which ended up in his book, “The Chicken Peddler Memories; Colony to the Space Age by Art and Word.”

Jim Steele photo
JIM STEELEY and his wife, Sarah, live in a cabin in southern Macon County.

I had the extreme pleasure of Jim’s company for a couple of hours on a recent Saturday morning at his mountain home in southern Macon County, high on the east side of the Nantahala Range. We were less than a half-mile north of the Georgia line. This is where Jim and his wife of 70 years, Sarah, built their “cabin in the woods.” 

Clearing began on the five-acre plot in 1979 and construction later in the 1990s. The cabin is unpainted and weathered by design on the exterior. Jim invited me into his home, which revealed a tastefully modern interior. Wood floors and walls dominated the “old part” of the cabin. The “new part,” built in 2005, is drywall, with a very special wood floor. More about that later.  And the paintings! Does Jim ever have paintings! Not all, but most, are his own work, and as he said, “These are stories; I paint stories.” 


The oil painting subjects are varied. Jim prefers painting people over landscape scenes and many of the works show an incident or situation in his family history. One, in particular, depicts two horse-drawn wagons approaching each other on a dirt road. A cemetery is in the background and one wagon is leaving the burial ground, while the other is entering. 

The story goes that both of Jim’s grandparents had died; the wife first and the husband the next day. The time was in the late 1890s and embalming was not available, hence the quick burial. The deaths were so close together that the two funeral parties crossed paths on the road to their final resting place. It is an old family story, now captured in oil, because as Jim says, “Someday my children and grandkids will want to know.” 

Jim’s early life around Birmingham was typical for the times.

 “We were dirt poor. My father was a house painter and never made over $20 per month.” 

He credits his mother with keeping the family together and has a painting of her hanging in the home. 

Jim says he quit school in the 10th grade, after repeating several years in elementary school. Eventually he asked the school principal to help him get into a trade school. This placement better suited him. After trade school, Jim enrolled in Southern Technical School in Atlanta and graduated with an associate degree. 

Then came the U.S. Navy. In 1954, Jim signed up for a four-year hitch. Much of his service involved shore duty, but he did serve aboard ship for about nine months. The USS Askari was a World War II-era LST (landing ship tank), converted to a repair ship for the fleet. Jim says he got his start with the ship’s electronic repair crew. 

On June 30, 1956, a tragedy happened in the air over the Grand Canyon that directly affected Jim’s future. Two commercial airliners, a Douglas DC-7 (United Airlines Flight 718) and a TWA Lockheed Super Constellation (Flight 2) collided in what was an uncontrolled airspace termed “off-airways.” The 128 passengers and crew on both airplanes perished, making this the deadliest airline crash of any kind on U.S. soil up until that date. This accident reflected the state of mid-1950 air traffic control. The resulting congressional hearings and public opinion demanded action. The hearings clearly indicated that air traffic control was still using 1930s-era technology. The lack of real-time flight data was determined by the CAB (Civil Aeronautics Board) to be a major factor in the accident. At the time, technology was available using military surplus radar to provide this data.   

Change was coming. The newly formed FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) selected the Jacksonville, Fla., commercial airport to become the test site for the modernized air traffic control using the revolutionary IBM 360 computers. Because Jim was trained in electronics, he was chosen as a good fit for the project. He soon began work for the FAA, installing and maintaining the equipment. He settled down with his wife in Folkston, Ga., just a short distance from Jacksonville. There, Jim made a home for his family and became active in the community over the next 40 years. 

Camping trips into the mountains of Western North Carolina and North Georgia whetted his love for the area. He and his wife purchased their North Carolina land in 1979. They began clearing, and by the time Jim retired in 1994, the original house was started. In 2005, Jim sold the Georgia property and began the large addition to the North Carolina house, which had become their full-time residence. 

book cover

While getting the tour of Jim’s cabin, I was particularly intrigued by the wood floors in the new addition. Another story! Between Selma on up to Centre, Ala., runs what is known as the Cotton Railway. The railroad crosses the Coosa River at a place near the home of Jim’s brother, Joe. One of the “story” paintings on the walls of Jim’s cabin is of the original wooden bridge over the Coosa at this spot. In the early 20th century, this bridge was dismantled and a new, modern steel bridge erected. In the dismantling of the wooden bridge, the construction crews left the wooden pilings in the river standing and did not attempt to remove them. 

Fast forward to a visit in the 1990s by Jim to his brother’s place and their hike down to see the steel bridge. Sometime prior to this visit, the State of Alabama had deemed those wooden pilings to be a navigation hazard on the Coosa. Brother Joe was hired to remove them. While Jim and Joe were down at the bridge, Jim saw the pile of 11 or 12 large logs. Joe told him they were the original wooden bridge pilings and he planned to dispose of them. The story goes that Jim convinced his brother to give them to him. They were then transported to North Carolina by another brother who happened to be in the trucking business. A local sawmill cut them into usable boards. These old bridge pilings became the new floor in Jim’s addition.   

This tidbit, and so many more aspects of Jim’s life, is included within the pages of his 276-page book, “The Chicken Peddler Memories; Colony to the Space Age by Art and Word,” is part actual story-telling and part visual memoir. In fact, the book is an assorted collection of original oil paintings, photographs, and short stories tracing his family’s road from colonial times to the 21st century. Included is Jim’s 60-year quest to discover and document his roots. 

He shared that he is not so much interested in leaving a personal legacy but rather a unique memorial in print and art for his family. 

To communicate with Jim about his book, his paintings, or just his life in general, email him at [email protected].

Jim Shope is the author of “Tales from Skeenah Creek.”