The National Guard Armory
Sikeston, MO

Postcard of the National Guard Armory in Sikeston, MO

The National Guard Armory at 300 South Main Street in Sikeston, Missouri was built in 1938 with funding from the State of Missouri and the W.P.A (Works Progress Administration). Until 2005 it was home to the Missouri Army National Guard's 1140th Engineer Combat Battalion, Company C.

The Stage at the Sikeston National Guard Armory
Photo © Tony Stuchbury

The Armory features a large assembly hall /auditorium with a stage that in addition to the needs of the Guard is also used for various civic and social functions by the local community.  Sikeston is located about 145 miles north of Memphis, straight up Highway 61.

On January 21, 1955 Elvis, Jim Ed and Maxine Brown, and Bob Neal, traveled just across the Missouri border to Sikeston to perform at the Armory. Before the show, Elvis dropped by KSIM radio and was interviewed by up-and-coming country singer Onie Wheeler, a regular entertainer at the station.1

Ozark Cowboys(A.J. Nelson, Ernie Thompson, Onie Wheeler, Doyal Nelson)
Photo courtesy Onie Wheeler's MySpace

Wheeler had formed the Ozark Cowboys in 1950 with Ernest Thompson and brothers A.J. and Doyal Nelson. Lefty Frizzell reached the Country Top Ten in 1954 with Wheeler's Run 'Em Off. By the mid'50s, his repertoire began to lean toward rockabilly.Onie would say, "I knew from the very start that Elvis was absolutely the most talented and different entertainer I had ever seen. And I think I was one of the first to tell him so."2  Afterward, according to Floyd Presley of Sikeston who was the brother of Elvis grandfather, J. D. Presley, Elvis dropped by for supper, which was prepared by Floyd’s wife, Mary Etta.1

Rosella Presley, who was never married, had nine children. She was the grandmother of both J.D. and Floyd, making him first cousins with Elvis' father, Vernon. Floyd said when he was about 10, he moved to East Tupelo, Miss., to live with his uncle because his mother had tuberculosis and went to a sanitarium for treatment in Booneville, Ark. His uncle's house was within walking distance to Vernon Presley's house where Elvis grew up. Floyd said he spent lots of time with his cousin Vester, who was Vernon Presley's brother.  Floyd said he knew Vernon and Elvis, although he didn't see them often. In Elvis' early years, Elvis made trips to Sikeston to visit his family members.4

The 8:00 p.m. show at the red brick National Guard Armory in Sikeston was billed as the Jimmy Haggett jamboree, and was a benefit to raise money for the local Guard unit. Haggett was a deejay on KBOA radio in nearby Kennett. Tickets for the show were $1.00 for adults and 50-cents for children, and each act received $50.00.1

Stage door entrance at the National Guard Armory
Photo © Tony Stuchbury

Elvis arrived at the Armory in Sikeston while Earl Wade and Lloyd Johnson, two members of the Missouri National Guard, were putting up folding chairs for the evening show. Elvis, who was unknown to the two men, knocked loudly on the Armory door until he was allowed in. He was in an obvious hurry and asked if he could use the rest room. As Lloyd showed the way he asked the young man if he knew if Elvis Presley was a white boy or black. The stranger told Lloyd, “He’s is a white boy who just sounds black.” A few minutes later, the young man went back outside and soon returned carrying a large Piggly Wiggly grocery sack. He asked Earl and Lloyd where the dressing rooms were.1

Scotty, Elvis, DJ and Bill at the Sikeston National Guard Armory - Sep. 7, 1955
Photo by Earl Wade courtesy Lee Cotten's "Did Elvis Sing in Your Hometown"

Lloyd, who was the talkative one, replied that the dressing rooms were for that Presley boy. Elvis said, “I am that Presley boy."
When Earl later realized the significance of their earlier conversation, he laughed so much it hurt. He took Elvis to the dressing room where Elvis turned the grocery sack upside down.  Out plopped a pink silk suit. Earl said he had never seen anything like it. Elvis told him he got the suit in Memphis, on Beale Street.

Byron "Barney" Caldwell of Sikeston was also working for the National Guard when Presley visited. "I rented a piano for $15 for him so he didn't have to rent one," Caldwell said about the first visit. "I watched him perform and it was a small crowd. I didn't think too much about it."5

Elvis was a huge success, although there are reports that the crowd was on the small side. According Charlie Terrell, the show’s promoter who also managed Onie Wheeler, “the crowd was amazed by Elvis’ talent and charisma." Wade remembered a few parents not being impressed by some of Presley's moves.  "Some of the mothers took their daughters out when he started doing the hoochy-coochy stuff," said Wade.  Caldwell called Presley a regular fellow.  "It was just people weren't familiar with the type of twisting and hadn't come around yet. He probably did more of that on 'The Ed Sullivan Show,'" said Caldwell.5

Caldwell's most memorable moment of Presley's visit was when he left after his first performance. "The first time he was here in an older car that didn't run good and he parked it behind the Armory," Caldwell said. "When he left, some of the fellows had to push him to get him started, and I remember him turning back and waving to us as he drove out of town."

Afterward, according to Doyle Nelson of Onie Wheeler’s band, everyone went to the Lakeview Inn, a small nightclub around the corner and a few blocks away from the Armory, to hear Wheeler perform. Elvis and the Browns joined Wheeler on stage as part of the evenings merriment, and Elvis even played the drums while Wheeler sang. Scotty and Bill didn’t stay at the Lakeview long, preferring to drive back to their Memphis homes. Elvis remained in Sikeston and spent the night with his great uncle, Floyd Presley.1

Scotty, Elvis, DJ and Bill at the Sikeston National Guard Armory - Sep. 7, 1955
Photo by Earl Wade courtesy Lee Cotten's "Did Elvis Sing in Your Hometown"

On September 7, 1955, Elvis, Scotty and Bill made their second and last appearance at the Armory in Sikeston.  By now DJ was a regular with the band. Johnny Cash also appeared and attendance topped 1,100, with some even turned away at the door. This time Presley was dressed a little better and arrived in a pink Cadillac, Wade said. His parents, Gladys and Vernon Presley, were also along.5 The Pink Cadillac though was probably driven by Scotty, Bill and DJ, because by then Elvis was driving and pictured with a recently purchased yellow 1954 Cadillac Eldorado convertible.

"He's just a young kid full of energy and didn't have an ounce of fat on him. I remember he couldn't be still. He was always jumping or jerking, and his hands were always sweaty. I remember shaking his hand and feeling wetness. I'll never forget it. I overheard him say he didn't drink, didn't smoke and his biggest weakness is women," Wade said.

Elvis with his '54 Cadillac convertible at the Sikeston Armory - Sep. 7, 1955
Photo by Earl Wade courtesy Lee Cotten's "Did Elvis Sing in Your Hometown"

Right before Elvis left the second time, Wade captured a photo of Elvis in front of his Cadillac.  "I could tell he was going somewhere. The younger generation liked Elvis and he would cut up a lot during his shows. He was kind of a clown," Wade said.  Caldwell recalled returning home to his wife following one of the Presley's performances. She had asked him who performed that night at the Armory.  Caldwell told his wife: "Well, he was a man named Elvis Presley and I've never heard of him, but I'll say one thing, he's different. We're transitioning into something different, and I'm not sure what it is -- only time will tell." 5

Elvis, Bob Neal, Jimmy Work and Onie Wheeler - Mar. 9, 1955
Photo courtesy Charlie Terrell and Lee Cotten's "Did Elvis Sing in Your Hometown"

Not long after the first appearance in Sikeston, Bob Neal started booking Onie Wheeler and starting in March, he shared many dates with Elvis, Scotty and Bill. Beginning in 1957, he had several sessions for Sun Records with one single released in 1959. In 1983, Wheeler died suddenly while performing on stage with the Grand Ole Opry, with Jimmie Rodgers Snow.

The National Guard Armory in Sikeston, MO
Photo © Tony Stuchbury

Rear of the National Guard Armory in Sikeston, MO
Photo © Tony Stuchbury

Today, the Armory is still in use and also used regularly to host variety civil and social functions. In 2005 under restructuring of the Missouri National Guard, Charlie Company (Company C) of the 1140th became a detachment of the 1221st.6 As of January of 2006 the Armory in Sikeston became the new home to the Missouri National Guard unit, Detachment 2, 1221st Transportation Company.7

Earl Wade holds a picture he took of Elvis Presley performing at the Armory in 1955
Photo courtesy Sikeston Standard Democrat

Earl Rice "Junior" Wade, married in 1957 and had two sons and a daughter. He served as Sgt. 1st Class for over 13 years with the 1140th Engineering Battalion and earned expert medal awards for Carbine, Rifle, Rocket Launcher, Machine Gun and Driver. He passed away on August 3, 2007 at the age of 76.

Floyd Presley's family still lives in the Sikeston area where they run the family heating and refrigeration business, Presley Sales & Service.

page added September 9, 2009

Special Thanks to Tony Stuchbury for the use of his pictures.

1 excerpt from "Did Elvis Sing in Your Hometown" by Lee Cotten
2 excerpt courtesy "All Onie Wheeler by John Bush
3 excerpt from Karen Wheeler Music - My Dad
4 excerpts from "Elvis on display at Depot" by Leonna Heuring Sikeston Standard Democrat - Jan 11, 2007
5 excerpts from "Elvis visited Sikeston in 1955" by Leonna Heuring Sikeston Standard Democrat - Jan 21, 2005
6 according to "Sikeston's 1140th changes to 1221st", The Sikeston Standard Democrat - April 26, 2005
7 according to "New Missouri National Guard unit is calling Sikeston home", The Sikeston Standard Democrat - Jan. 9, 2006


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