The story of the wood mosaic & sculpture

We had a 5’ x 6’ space left on the front of the house for some kind of decoration.  We decided to mount a copper sculpture by J.D. Harris to celebrate the history of the Native Americans who lived here for over 10,000 years.  But J.D.’s work needed a background.  So I asked my father, R.H. (Dick) Chiles Jr. about the boxes of wood samples that were sitting around in old musty boxes.  Dick said his father had collected wood from all over North America with each sample cut into 2” x 6” pieces.  With Dick’s permission, I cut a portion of these into 2” x 2” pieces and then shaped them with a sander and band saw into mosaics.  Then I glued them into the pattern you see on the right.  There are 1783 wooden pieces representing 64 types of trees and they are 60-100 years old.   It took almost a month of daily effort to complete. 

R.H. “Dick” Chiles was my grandfather and this work is a tribute to him.  You can read his biography by my brother Jim Chiles below.  

R.H. Chiles, Sr.

Wood Varieties in the Mosaic

Black Oak



Grand Fir


Sweet Birch

Yew Wood


Frasier Fir

Arkansas Soft Pine






East India Rosewood


Red Gum


Engdem Spruce




Philippine Mahogany



Engelmann Spruce

White Spruce

Bass Wood

Aodire or Avodine

Jeffrey Pine


Birdseye Maple

Osage Orange


Box Elder

Red Maple

Portland Red Cedar

White Elm

River Birch

Red Hore

Red Spruce

Red Maple


Blue Spruce

Grand Fir

Frasier Fir

Red Cedar


Curley Maple

One Seed Juniper

White Poplar

Black Gum



White Oak


Black Ash


Chinese Elm

Wormy Chestnut

Soft Ash

Ponderosa Pine



*  *  *


“Spirit” is a whimsical copper sculpture by J.D. Harris, formerly of Springfield and now a resident of Eureka Springs, AR.

David tries “Spirit” to see how it fits on the wood panel

The beginning

That’s me cutting and glueing 1700 pieces of my grandfather’s wood

Before oil


Todd fitting “Spirit” into place

J.D & Cathy Harris shown at their cool studio on Highway 23, just outside Eureka Springs.  Right, Cathy and J.D help unload the new doorbell.

It was the winter of 1935 and we were the lowest we had ever been. We were flat broke and so was everyone else.  My sister Virginia and I had the measles.  Nora Jane had diphtheria. It was tough, a bad winter.  Well,  my father was a great poker player.   He had left Buckner that morning for a poker game in Independence.  My mother never approved of his poker playing, but when he walked in late that night with $350 in cash he won in the depths of the Depression, enough to pay the grocery and doctor's bills . .  We patched up our old Buick and Dick went down to the bank with a smile on his face. An old banker there agreed to back him one more time because he always managed one way or another to pay his bills. We packed up and drove down to Greenville, Texas, where we got back into business. 1

Richard H. (Dick) Chiles was my grandfather. The preceding, recounted by his son (my father) was but one incident in the intriguing life of a Missouri man. It was a full and exciting life of courage, pain, success, financial ruin, and concern.   This is his story. 

R. H. Chiles, Sr., was born in Buckner, Missouri, on June 2, 1898.   He spent his boyhood in that area, the son of very wealthy parents: "His mother and father were very affluent.  They were the royalty, the gentry of that land, and owned thousands of acres."  As a heavy-set teenager, he played football throughout high school; his zeal in the sport, in addition to the curious lack of padding popular in that day, meant that "he was always walking around high school with crutches and had two or three casts on.’ In a game with Lexington, MO, a rival player jumped on his back while he was resting and destroyed one kidney.  

In early 1918 Mr. Chiles followed the lead of thousands of men and joined the U.S. Army Tank Corps, the elite division of the American Expeditionary Forces.   He shipped out to France in late summer and served for a while under Capt. George C. Patton.  They didn't always agree: "In Gibraltar Dick cleared a well with dynamite,  Patton found out about it, and broke him to sergeant."   In addition to documenting sundry injuries and damage to his lungs from poison gas attack,  Mr. Chiles recorded several days of combat in his wartime diary: 

OCT. 11. Left Vicennes for Chippy.   Went over just east of Chippy.  My gunner Hicks got his thru the head with anti-tank fragment -- never knew he was hit. My second gunner Sinphant (?). Still have my horse shoe. Oct. 12. Thought my time had come today.  77 mm. shell hit the turret and simply blew me out.  When I came to I was . . . (unreadable).  So far my luck is good."  

Indeed his luck was good.  In the two times his tank had been hit by shellfire the other man in the tank had been killed. Mr. Chiles escaped with only an arm injury and the loss of hearing in one ear.   Before this incident he had been awarded the French Croix de Guerre for bravery under fire. 

The war ended about a month later and soon Mr. Chiles was back in the States helping his father tend 2,400 head of cattle on the ranch at home. In 1921 he concluded a five-year courtship of Margaret Roth by marrying her.   Affairs looked good.   The cattle business was booming and the nation was settling down to peacetime.  But within two months after their marriage the bottom of the cattle market fell out completely,  with the result that the family was bankrupt: “They had been extremely wealthy. They had no wants whatsoever.   And shortly after they were married they went completely broke overnight.   Destitute.   Several of our relatives never recovered from that disaster." 

From that time on making a living was a constant struggle. However, "I never knew my father and mother to be discouraged." But there was frustration beneath the surface nonetheless: "This probably had something to do with my father's violent temper. Maybe pride." 

Around 1923 Mr. Chiles re-entered the ranching business, this time in western Kansas. The operation, though small, involved hundreds of cattle and a great deal of labor.   They returned to Buckner periodically and children Richard and Virginia were born there even though most of the year was spent in Kansas.  Nora Jane was born later, in 1929.  

The rough life of the ranch led to several incidents which are indicative of Mr. Chiles’ physical courage. His son recalls one:  “Dick loved to break horses.  In those days, you always had horses to break.  Never saw a horse that he wasn’t willing to break.”  One time a stubborn horse threw him upwards and in returning earthwards, Mr. Chiles landed on his chest directly on the saddle-horn, breaking the cartilage of the sternum;  “That injury always bothered him afterwards.“  Another requirement of ranch life was water, which could only be reached by hand-digging a well. Mr. Chiles' hired hand was working forty feet down bricking up the well sides when the sandy soil caved in on him, burying him alive.  Time was of the essence, so “they started started digging a trench from the side down to the hired man. Once they got down there, though, nobody had the courage to dig the last few feet and risk being buried in the bargain." So Mr. Chiles climbed down to the spot, pulled the man carefully out, and started clambering up with the man on his back.   Sure enough, “Just as Dick got out, the whole thing collapsed."

Incidentally,  "It was a peculiarity of his that my father never allowed us to call him anything but Dick.   Not Dad or anything else."

By 1928 it was clear that the depressed state of the cattle market prevented ranchers making a decent living;  the family was broke again.  So they loaded their furniture and faithful milk cow on an old truck and started back to Missouri.  Crossing an old bridge on a Kansas back road, the weight of the vehicle proved too much and the venerable structure crumbled, sending the truck and its contents hurtling into the water.   No one was drowned, but Mrs. Chiles’ dowry – her furniture and cow – were gone;  "We bought another milk cow but it just wasn't the same." 

Several years earlier,  Mr. Chiles was crossing Kansas alone in his old Model T when he stopped and picked up two hitchhikers in the middle of the night.   One got in front. the other in back behind the driver's seat.   Mr. Chiles asked them where they were headed and one replied that the next town would be fine.   Soon a town loomed up in the distance and Mr. Chiles slowed and asked them where they would like to be let off.

"Just keep driving," growled the man in the front.

“Well, how far do you want to go, then?"

“We'll tell you. Just keep moving."

By then, Mr. Chiles knew that the two were up to no good. Not sure if the man in the back had a gun, he formulated a plan. "Tin Lizzies," as they were called, had a faulty steering system that, if not handled correctly,  caused a disturbing vibration in the front wheels.   In a few minutes he allowed this to develop,  commented to the men that a tire must have gone flat and pulled to a stop.  As he got out, he reached quickly under the front seat for the .38-caliber pistol he kept there and directed his fellow passengers to leave the car.   He collected their shoes and socks and left them there in the plains, miles from town.

In the years from 1928 to 1932 Mr. Chiles and his family moved several times.  They tried farming in Butler, Mo., but Mr. Chiles didn't enjoy farming and their house burned down, so they packed what was left and went north to Independence.   After moving to another house in that town, the family returned to their home town, Buckner.

One day in 1932 Mr. Chiles was driving around town alone, and, crossing some railroad tracks, was hit by a train.   His son was nearby: 

I was about eight at the time. I heard the crash. looked over, and saw Dick's car virtually demolished.   I ran down to the car and saw that he was still alive inside. They took him to the hospital, where he was X-rayed and  the doctors concluded that he had miraculously escaped with only a fractured right hand.   That was the thirteenth time that hand had been broken, though the earlier reasons were his football playing and recent fist-fights. A week later he woke up one morning to find himself paralyzed from the waist down. They took another X-ray and it revealed that a neck vertebra had been broken too.

The family was now in rather serious straits,  for it was the Depression and money was scarce.  The doctors said Mr. Chiles would never walk again: “It was awfully pitiful;  Dick couldn't do anything but sit, day after day.”   There was virtually no money for the family to live on, so of course there was no money for treatment.   Mrs. Chiles "gave what little therapy she knew to his feet and legs for a long period of time with no results.  Then, ever so gradually, he came back--first feeling, then muscle control." By the time three years had passed Mr. Chiles had almost total use of his legs,  lapsing back into total paralysis during the remainder of his life only during periods of depression.  "But during those three long years he and Mom never lost hope."

During the last half of that period of comparative inactivity Mr. Chiles had been involving himself in local affairs.  Besides working as a road construction overseer he served a year as deputy sheriff once he started to regain the ability to move around.   He came to know Harry S. Truman,  who lived in neighboring Independence and was much involved in Jackson County politics. The two were good friends, although in political matters they were implacable enemies.

One day in 1934, while working as a deputy sheriff, he and several other officers were called down to the industrial district.  A man had apparently gone berserk in the downtown area, shooting at pedestrians and was now standing on a large pile of coal near the railroad yards surrounded by policemen and curiosity-seekers.  The general consensus was that the man should be shot down before he hurt someone with the gun he was waving. Mr. Chiles protested and received permission to try and talk the man into surrendering peacefully.   So he dropped his gun and started slowly up the coal pile, talking quietly to the man.  Looking into the impressive barrel of the man's weapon,  Mr. Chiles reached the top and calmly told the man to hand over his gun.  Several moments passed and then the gun was placed in his palm.  The man was later examined by a psychiatrist and found to be psychopathic, capable of killing without hesitation.  

By 1935 Mr. Chiles was back in shape and began a career as a road materials contractor in Missouri and Texas.  One of his first contracts was in Rosebud, Mo., where he made the acquaintance of Gentry League, then an engineer with the State Department of Highways.   League later became his superintendent of operations.  Mr. Chiles was soon forced out of the materials business after a sand-and-gravel contract for the Highway #5 bridge over the Lake of the Ozarks was cancelled by Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast.

He started again, but by 1935 business was so poor that the family returned to Buckner, completely broke.   All told,  Mr. Chiles went broke five times in the construction business. Then one winter night he returned from a poker game in Independence with $350 in winnings,  "more than our family had Seen in a year."  Bankers “in those days were giving out hardly any loans. But Dick went down to the bank anyway and talked it into a sizeable loan. He was one of the most persuasive people I've ever met. He had a tremendous personality and could convince anyone that he was in good shape."  His daughter Virginia adds,  "He refused to be defeated.   He was dynamic, flamboyant, a super-salesman: I think that if he hadn't been so compassionate and honest he would have made a superb con-man.” (3)  

So, in short order the family moved down to Greenville, Texas, and set up another road materials business.

On one of his earlier trips to the Oklahoma and Texas areas he stopped at a small northeastern Oklahoma town on business.  A short while before, Pretty Boy Floyd had stirred up local ire by robbing banks and killing people; it so happened that Mr. Chiles and Floyd bore remarkable physical resemblances--they were roughly the same height, both had a powerful build, same color hair and from a distance their faces looked similar--and as Mr. Chiles was leaving town he noticed that a number of people were watching him and noting the road he took.   Not knowing what was in their minds he drove on for a while until he came up to a road-block manned by about five armed policemen.   He stopped, and as he got out of the car he looked around and saw about fifty farmers, armed to the teeth, rise out of the bushes and close in. Very wisely. Mr. Chiles slowly raised his hands and avoided sudden moves.   After checking his identification and scrutinizing his face, the posse returned sheepishly to town: “Dick told me afterwards, though, that “If I had so much as dropped my hand a little they would have filled me full of holes in about two seconds.'"

It was in Texas, in 1938, that Mr. Chiles had his last fist-fight.  He loved fighting and he "would go out of his way looking for a fight.   He was extremely aggressive to the point of embarrassing his whole family.   He'd take on anything or anybody--it didn't make any difference who he was or how big he was, Dick would fight them.   Win, lose, or draw, he didn't care. He was very outspoken: if you disagreed with him you’d better put up your fists.  And his anger came on really fast, explosively.  You could tell when he was really angry because he'd get this smile on his face." The 1938 fight took place on the courthouse steps of Mount Vernon, Texas.  "The fight lasted about half an hour.   The police just stood there and watched.” It concluded when Mr. Chiles hit his opponent so hard that the man fell over backwards and hit his head on the steps:  "They thought he was dead, but he wasn't--just had to stay in the hospital a few weeks.  Dick stayed in bed for a week."  Mr. Chiles had had other fights: he fought a man once for two hours in a Kansas City stockyard.  It was a stalemate for a while because "the man had him cornered in a cattle pen with the sun in his eyes. But then he got around on the other side and beat the man."  Since Mr. Chiles was a short man. "he usually tried to go for the upper stomach,  the solar plexus.  But he didn't always do that;  he broke his hand quite a few times on someone's jaw. But when he broke his hand that way, the other fellow’s jaw broke also."

Mr. Chiles kept in excellent physical condition:  "He was tough.  He always won his fights."  On a ranch one time he demonstrated that toughness by lifting a hundred-pound gunny sack in each hand and hoisting them to his shoulders.   This he did despite the fact that his right shoulder ball- and - socket joint had been destroyed in his football days and the only thing holding the right arm on was muscle.  Not surprisingly, "he was an awesome Indian wrestler.” 

His disposition to violence alienated him from his family at times.   As his daughter Virginia put it, “his temper and the fist-fights it led to were very hard on my mother,  and bothered us children.  But during the last few years he gained control of his temper.   And I will say that I never saw him display his temper before his family." (4)  Daughter- in-law Ellen Chiles observed that he was "always very concerned about his family and was happiest when they were around him." (5).

R. H. Chiles was a man of strong convictions: "When he was right and knew it,  there was absolutely nothing that could I stop him."  In such a confrontation, he concealed his anger behind that previously-mentioned cold smile.  When farming in Buckner one summer, he was looking over his hogs one day and noticed that several were missing.  Puzzled, he looked around and eventually caught sight of them in a neighbor’s yard:

He climbed over the fence and started gathering the pigs up.  The farmer came out with a shotgun in his hands,  pointed it at Dick and told him that he'd better not carry those pigs out.  Dick replied that they were his hogs and he would take them back.   The old farmer advanced a few steps, cocked his weapon,  and told him to drop the animals immediately or he'd shoot him dead. 

Dick replied, “No, I'm going to take my pigs back and you aren't going to shoot me.”

And the farmer didn't. 

In 1942. after Mr. Chiles lost his left hand,  he was stopped on a northern Missouri road by a state trooper who told him that he had been speeding.  Mr. Chiles got out of the car, gave the patrolman a withering stare, and told him in very definite terms that he had not been exceeding the posted limit.  At the time "he had on his artificial hand--steel, it was--and it made a deadly weapon." when the officer persisted,  Mr. Chiles took hold of the man's collar with his good hand, waved the other one in his face, and said that if the trooper didn't leave in a very few seconds he'd kill him. "Dick knew he was right;" it was as simple as that. The state trooper left.

Between 1939 and 1940 Mr. Chiles was employed as the southern district sales representative for the W.R. Grace Manufacturing Company of Dallas. Tex.,  a firm that built asphalt-paving equipment. That summer. he visited most of the major cities of the southeastern and south-central United States. He and his wife went in one car and met with distributors while his son, two daughters and mother followed a day or so behind: "We all enjoyed it very much-—the scenery, the freedom, the excitement."

Throughout all the experiences of Mr. Chiles’ life his wife Margaret patiently endured the trials and tribulations of living with such a dynamic man:

My mother was the greatest;  She inherited a great capacity for laughter.  She was the person that when everybody was down, would bring us back up. She was a great person. 

She didn't enjoy moving around so much, but she never complained. One thing--she never got bored.  We'd come home from school one day and he’d say we're moving somewhere; so we'd move over the weekend.  My mother would always understand.

I was never particularly close to my father.  Oh, we were good friends, but I disagreed with him on his violent temper and the enemies he made.

In the Thanksgiving of 1940. Mr. Chiles and his son were ten miles out of Mount Vernon, Texas, hunting.

I was locking the doors of our pickup and he went on into the brush with his shotgun.  Just as I was leaving the truck, I heard the gun go off and heard a shout following that.  I thought he'd bagged something already- He came out of the brush, his face pale. His left hand had been shredded by the gunshot.

We drove into Mount Vernon and waited on the street corner an hour for the doctor.  Dick had his hand over a bucket dripping blood.  The old doctor finally arrived and put Dick on the operating table.  The thumb was still good but they decided to go ahead and cut the whole hand off.   The doctor asked Dick if he wanted some anesthesia and he said no.  You see, he had been through so much pain before that this didn't bother him.

Mr. Chiles broke a total of fifty-six bones during his lifetime.  "His doctor said he thought that was some kind of record and wanted to send the total into Ripley's ‘Believe It or Not'."

After collecting $10,000 in insurance for the loss of his hand, Hr. Chiles started an enterprise that had always wanted to get into: manufacturing. He started turning out street sweepers but soon decided to close down due to the shortage of steel, bearings, and tires precipitated by the war.  He went up to Washington to see his old friend Harry Truman, now a senator and asked him to get him into the war. 

"Dick, I can't do it," he replied. "Number one, you're too old. Number two, you're missing a hand."

But Mr. Chiles persisted and eventually landed a job in the procurement division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. ”His assignment was to buy and transport construction machinery any way he could to Britain and France under the Lend-Lease program.”  In 1946, the assignment reversed and Mr. Chiles was given the task of disposing millions of dollars’ worth of surplus machinery.   He decided the auction method was the fairest and sold it that way. 

During this period the family lived in Beltsville, Md., except for Dick, Jr,  who joined the Naval Air Corps in 1942.  Their home was about thirty miles from Mr. Chiles' Washington office, in a quiet rural setting.  The house was large with a big lawn and several outbuildings:  "I still remember having to mow that lawn.   One summer we planted ten acres with strawberries.  Luckily, not all came up--I don't know what we would have done if they had."  Driving fence posts on the land one day, a splinter cracked off a post and buried itself in Mr. Chiles' eye.   He lost about 50% of the vision in that eye.

In 1946 Mr. Chiles was offered an Allis-Chalmers construction machinery dealership in Springfield, Missouri.  After much deliberation he accepted and opened up a combination office and machinery shop on Boonville Avenue. In a few years the business was running smoothly. but he was dissatisfied: "Anytime my father got something started, and going well he got tired of it. There wasn't any challenge anymore.   So in 1948 he decided to try something else."  That something else was a ranch at 10,000 feet of elevation in the Wyoming high country.  Relatives and friends managed to talk him out of it,  because “we couldn't see it working.  It was too cold, too much of a struggle.  As I recall, we were going to go into debt about a half million dollars.   It didn't bother him but it bothered everybody else."

Retaining the business, he purchased an 1,100 acre ranch just outside of Cabool, Missouri.  After the grandchildren came along, he would often entertain them there, having them ride horses and play in the yard.

In 1949, the machinery shop burned down, causing about $70,000 worth of damage.  Insurance paid for reconstruction and business resumed.  By about 1952 he let his son take over day-to-day management of the business, for he and his wife preferred to travel.  They went to out-of-the-way places in Guatemala, Mexico, Haiti and Cuba.

In 1954, Mr.  Chiles began an enterprise that was well suited to his love of nature and insatiable wanderlust: the co1lection of hundreds of kinds of American wood from all over the nation.  When his collection was extensive enough he placed ads in magazines offering sets of fifty and one hundred kinds of wood for modest prices.  It was on the return from a wood-collecting trip to California that, on the afternoon of May 21, 1955,  Mr. and Mrs. Chiles were killed in a head-on collision just outside of Lawrence, Kansas.   The college student that hit them was the only surviving witness to the accident, and claimed that they were responsible, so the three children were sued for $78,000.  The claim was settled for $10,000 after the college student was involved in two more head-on collisions before the suit reached court.  Three more people died in those accidents. 

It is likely that Mr. Chiles met an instantaneous, virtually painless death. It took him from a life filled with constant physical pain, the result of his many accidents.  That was the price of an exciting life, a price that he was willing to pay to avoid what he feared most -- boredom. He would go to any lengths to create excitement if it wasn't around before.  This was more than a habit: it was a consuming drive.  Such a man makes strong friends and resolute enemies; while seeking to know the whole world he alienates himself from it by disregarding commonplace people and things.  The world is a quieter and safer place without people like Richard H. Chiles, Sr. It is sadder, though, and not nearly as interesting.


1. Interview with R.H. Chiles. Jr. on April 20, 1973. Ensuing information and quotations is from this source, unless otherwise noted.

3 Interview with Virginia Foote, on April 19, 1973. 

4 Virginia Foote

5  Interview with Ellen V. Chiles, April 22, 1973

A brief biography of R.H. Chiles Sr.  by Jim Chiles.  Written in 1973

See more about Jim and his career as a writer at

The new drum & doorbell at the front of the house