The answer to a legend may have been solved here and it took the deaths of two of the main characters of a popular kid's show from 1922 through 1944 to prove it.
We have always thought and been told by old timers that George McFarland, who was born in Denison, played the part of Spanky, the little fat kid in the “Our Gang” comedy series. Information has surfaced in an article in the Toronto, Ontario, National Post from Dec. 7, 1999, that says Harold Wertz, who was 72 years old when he passed away, was one of several children who played the “little fat kid in Hal Roach's comedies.”
Actually, Wertz was born in Denison on Aug. 2, 1927. According to a posted copy of his birth certificate found by our friend Jim Sears on the internet, Wertz' parents were Harold Eugene Wertz and Thelma Goldston Wertz, who were living at 623 South Armstrong at the time of his birth. His dad was a coach at Denison High School and he was delivered by Dr. Alex W. Acheson.
Wertz played “Bouncy,” the chubby little boy in two reel shorts and was never as well known as some of the other children, like Darla Hood, William “Buckwheat” Thomas, Jackie Cooper and Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer. He appeared in only three of the 221 films that ran from 1922 to 1944, according to the article, although the series was published later as The Little Rascals.
But Wertz had a standard place in the cast as the “fat kid,” following Joe Cobb, then Norman “Chubby” Chaney, who were rotated out of the series as they grew larger.
Wertz's successor became the series' most famous chubby character. George “Spanky” McFarland, who joined the cast as a toddler and later grew into the fat kid role. McFarland proved to be the most durable of the fat kids, appearing in 95 “Our Gang” comedies over 11 years.
McFarland is the kid we thought all these years to have been born in Denison, but the truth according to an obituary published in the Greenville Herald Banner is that he was born in Delta County on March 17, 1931, a son of A.E. McFarland and Evelyn Raye Overstreet McFarland.
According to the obit, he never lived in Denison, but he was the last and best-known of the group. Laura Nieto commented in a Facebook piece that McFarland had a grandmother who lived on Morgan Street and he would visit her. She remembered that her mother, who grew up there on Morgan Street, talked about skating with him when he was here to visit his grandmother.
There still is a mystery about McFarland and when he passed away. The Greenville Obituary said he died in 2018 and the National Post listed his death as 1993. If we have the wrong George McFarland — the one who died in 2018 — there possibly still is a mystery among the characters.
Wertz was raised in Long Beach, California, and was cast in the comedy series in 1931 after his mother heard that Hal Roach was needing a new fat kid as Chubby Chase grew too old. Mrs. Wertz sent her son's picture to Mr. Roach, who had her bring the boy in for a screen test. He won the role over hundreds of other applicants, but he didn't continue in show business. After high school, he joined the Merchant Marines and served during World War II. Back in California, he founded and operated a pipe company in Long Beach that remains a family business.
I received a letter recently from Delmas Northcutt of Denison who was raised in Willis, Oklahoma, on the north side of the Red River. This letter was the second one sent since the first one got lost in transit and didn't make it to my house. After reading about the German Prisoner of War Camp north of Denison, he recalled that there was also a POW camp on the north side of Willis in the Powell community.
He said the prisoners cleared brush and trees by the river where Lake Texoma would cover when it filled with water. He said they were paid for doing the work so it was not “slave” labor. Every weekday he saw two truck loads of prisoners go by his house heading to the bottom land west of Willis. There also was a truck of guards, but the prisoners were trustees and didn't give the guards any trouble.
Both his parents taught school at Willis and his dad got a job working at the POW camp every evening when school was out until well after dark. Delmas would go with him almost every day and play around the camp in the prisoner's compound. He said he got to know many of the guards and a few of the prisoners. His dad worked at a desk in the garage where truck repairs were made. Some of the prisoners worked there and Delmas got to know them.
He said there were around 600 prisoners in the camp. He would attend the USO shows and other entertainment. He took his bicycle with them and when his dad was working, he rode it all over the camp.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at email@example.com. She has been a longtime contributor to the Herald Democrat with her columns. The views and opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.