McKissack, Jefferson Davis (1902–1980)

By: Kendall Curlee

Type: Biography

Published: April 1, 1995

Updated: May 17, 2017

Jeff McKissack, born on January 28, 1902, in Fort Gaines, Georgia, the youngest of five children of Jefferson Davis and Beulah (Hill) McKissack, envisioned and singlehandedly built the Orange Show, a unique monument to the fruit he regarded as a pure source of energy. His lifelong devotion to "clean energy" developed from his childhood fascination with the steamboats that passed nearby on the Chattahoochee River, and his father's general store may have inspired McKissack's flair for entrepreneurship. McKissack studied business at Mercer College, where he earned a B.S. degree in 1925. He afterward moved to New York City, worked in a bank, and took graduate business courses at Columbia University. In New York he entered a contest for college-educated men sponsored by Thomas A. Edison. Although McKissack, like many others, failed the test, he had the opportunity to meet and shake hands with Edison, an important experience for him.

McKissack's interest in the orange as a source of nutrients and energy was prompted by his job trucking oranges from the farmers' market in Atlanta, Georgia, through the Southeast during the Great Depression. He served in the army in 1942 and 1943, then worked in a navy shipyard and learned to weld, a skill that proved essential in construction of the Orange Show. He also studied cosmetology on the GI Bill before moving in the late 1940s to Houston, where he worked as a postman until his retirement in 1966. He built a modest bungalow in a residential neighborhood in Houston's East End and opened a nursery on two lots that he had purchased across the street from his home. In 1956, after this venture failed, he obtained a permit to build a beauty parlor. Shortly thereafter he typed on the permit, "Beauty parlors are going out of style. Have a better idea-The Orange Show." In 1960 he wrote and privately published How You Can Live 100 Years and Still Be Spry, a treatise filled with occasionally offbeat nutritional advice that reflected the themes of his "health show."

Over the next twenty years McKissack collected roof tiles, fire escapes, decorations, and other architectural refuse from the sites of Houston buildings that were being demolished or remodeled, as well as steel wheels, turnstiles, and tractor seats. With this material he constructed a multicolored maze that covers about a tenth of an acre. Messages written in tile and displays fabricated from items that McKissack purchased at antique stores and junk shops proclaim that the installation is dedicated to the health benefits of oranges. When asked why he built the Orange Show, he responded with a variety of explanations, including Edison's handshake and his own inability to find the perfect orange juicer. He called his work "the most beautiful show on earth, the most colorful show in harmony and the most unique" and estimated that 90 percent of the country's population would want to visit it. When the crowds did not materialize after the show's grand opening on May 9, 1979, neighbors observed that McKissack withdrew; seven months later he died of a stroke, on January 26, 1980.

The following year a diverse group, organized by art patron and civic leader Marilyn Lubetkin and ranging from Dominique de Menil to the rock group ZZ Top, donated money to purchase McKissack's Orange Show from his heir. The Orange Show Foundation, established in 1981 to restore and operate the facility, also sponsors children's art classes, special events, and tours of other folk art environments, thus ensuring that the Orange Show functions as a fitting monument to McKissack's eccentric vision.

Robert Crease and Charles Mann, "Backyard Creators of Art that Says,`I Did It, I'm Here,'" Smithsonian, August 1983. Dallas Morning News, July 24, 1983. Houston Chronicle, Texas Magazine, February 19, 1978. Joseph F. Lomax, "The Orange Show," in Folk Art in Texas, ed. Francis Edward Abernethy (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1985). William Martin, "What's Red, White, and Blue...and Orange All Over?," Texas Monthly, October 1977.

  • Visual Arts
  • Folk Arts
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Houston
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • East Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Kendall Curlee, “McKissack, Jefferson Davis,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 18, 2022,

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April 1, 1995
May 17, 2017

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