The sneak peak into Elise Griffin’s playhouse in Winnie on Saturday, June 9, gave kids from Buckner Children and Family Services, and Boys’ Haven and Girls’ Haven of Beaumont, members of the local media, and family and friends of the savvy 7-year-old a fun time. New toys caught the eyes, ears and hearts of the attendees and left them with a hope of returning soon.
Brightly colored bounce houses, exciting carnival rides including a merry-go-round and a child-sized Ferris wheel, a train rollercoaster, bungee jumping, climbing walls, a mini golf course, bumper cars and other things to explore were put together by Elise’s grandfather, Jerry Nelson, who wanted to create a safe and fun atmosphere for kids in Southeast Texas.
Older children and adults were drawn to the remote-control car racetrack, the bowling lanes, and the bigger and faster go carts, as well as pool tables and table tennis.
“My granddaughter is almost 7 years old, and for the past few years, Beverly and I have had to look for things to do with her. The area just didn’t have that many safe and fun places for kids that age to play and explore,” said Nelson, or “Big Daddy,” as Elise calls him. “Nonnie,” the name Elise assigned to Beverly, her adored grandmother, quickly agreed. Nelson, ever the dreaming entrepreneur, began buying kid’s carnival rides, bounce houses and other attractions that fit his vision. He already had the space for it in the 42-acre entertainment complex often used for concerts and rodeo events that he owns on Highway 73 in Winnie.
To really understand Elise’s Playhouse, you have to take the time to get to know Jerry and Beverly Nelson and the strong sense of family they share. The couple married when Jerry, a local Beaumont boy, was 19 years old and Beverly, originally from Cuero, was only 17. Jerry has always been a hard worker and credits a great part of his work ethic to his maternal grandmother, Ocie Maye Vick, who lived next door to the home he shared with his mom, Joyce; a brother, Vick; and sister, Sylvia Andel. Jerry’s father was a professional baseball player and on the road for much of the young boy’s childhood. The parents later divorced, and both are still living today. Jerry’s father lives in Florida, and his mom, 77, still comes by his office every day to clean and visit. Jerry was a student at Peach Elementary, McArthur Junior High, and South Park High School, all in Beaumont.
“I had a good sized paper route when I was 12 and I cut 73 yards in the south end of Beaumont to make what money I had,” said Jerry. “I’ve always worked and wouldn’t know to do with myself if I didn’t.” He went to work for a company in Houston for about a year and soon realized that the oilfield supply business was one way he could make more money, and so he created Maverick International, a company that makes and sells valves and other parts worldwide. His brother, Vick, has been with him in this business for many years and the company has realized international success. Nelson’s son, Gerald Joseph “Bubba” Nelson III, works for him and soon will be taking on more duties there. Nelson still goes into the office every day and works a full shift. As his business expanded, so did his other interests.
While coaching both his daughter Candice’s Little Dribblers Basketball teams and that of his son, Bubba, he met and became friends with John Ackel, who was in the cattle business and owns the old Pipkin ranch in Hamshire. “I started messing around with cattle. I liked what I did and little by little, I bought a few cows and then I got a little more serious with them. I learned as I went and decided that there was money in producing livestock for the various rodeos,” said Nelson.Frontier Rodeo Company was born, and many will tell you that it is the No. 1 livestock producing business in the state of Texas and beyond. Nelson has won many awards in this industry and is credited by many rodeo hands as having the best stock out there. He had a bull that was named No. 1 in the world and this last year broke another huge rodeo record. Don Gay, eight-time world champion bull rider, said that Nelson had both the No. 1 bareback horse and the No. 1 saddle bronc horse. No producer has ever held both those records in one year, Gay said.
Nelson is technically Gay’s boss since the famous bull rider has worked for him for many years in the rodeo business and as his pilot. Nelson’s travels for business were requiring too many hours on the road and in the air, so he bought a plane in 2002 and hired Gay as his pilot. As they travel many air miles, the two can discuss rodeos, stock, bull riding, and whatever else is on their plate at the time. Gay laughs and claims to be Nelson’s valet. “He’s the greatest bull rider of all time,” said Nelson of his pilot. “No one has ever won eight world championships. Some have won three, but not eight.”
The Nelsons live in Hamshire and Jerry came up with the idea of using his land to build an entertainment complex, but like he does most things, he wanted it big and easy for the people to enjoy. The name Nutty Jerry’s came to him because he knew of a place just outside Austin called Nutty Brown’s. He said it was out in the sticks, not near anything really, but people came to see and hear singers, musicians, and just to gather together and have fun. Jerry may be a lot of things, but nutty is not one of them, according to Beverly and anyone else who knows him well. He has managed to bring in entertainers to please the large audiences that fill the seats and buy the tickets. Next on the docket are Kenny Rogers and Merle Haggard.
“When he comes up with these new ideas, I sometimes wince and roll my eyes and point out that this could go wrong or why it might not work, but in the end, he does what he wants to do, and most of the time, it all works out wonderfully well,” said Beverly, who is very excited about Elise’s Playhouse. Elise is Nelsons’ granddaughter, the daughter of Candace Nelson Griffin and Michael Griffin.
Our fun interview turned serious and grew quieter as Jerry looked over at Beverly. “She went to church for 14 years and prayed every day that I would go with her,” said Jerry. “I had become disillusioned with formal church doings and just stopped going. Every Saturday night, I would ask her what she was doing tomorrow and she would say, ‘I am going to church. Do you want to go with me?’ And, I would say, ‘No, not this time.’”
One Saturday night, Beverly said when he asked the question, she gave her usual answer and he surprised her by saying, “Yes, I want to go with you. Be sure you wake me up in time to get dressed.” Nelson’s aunt and uncle, Don and Dorothy Rao, were members of the small church, Bolivar Peninsula Church of Christ, where Beverly had been attending. His Uncle Don was the song leader, so they knew a few folks that attended the church.
The two visited the church and Nelson said he was very impressed: “Jerry Valentine did not belittle anyone. He did not talk down to anyone. If you’d drunk a bottle of beer out in the field the night before, he did not remind you that you’re probably going to hell. He preached Jesus and the love of Christ for people of all walks of life. That Sunday, he preached on the prayer of Jabez and I got that. I had always read my Bible and I knew a good many scripture verses, but I got serious about serving the Lord that day and attended for seven years under Jerry Valentine’s preaching.”
That’s probably a good thing since the church called Jerry Nelson to be the interim pastor after Jerry Valentine fought a valiant battle with cancer and died.What’s next for Nutty Jerry and his family? Nelson said that the complex is currently not on city or county water or sewer, but that the Trinity Bay Conservation District is currently working on that and he hopes that by August, those amenities will be available. “I am thinking about a water park here,” he said. “Kids love water and it is hot in Southeast Texas. We have the space, so why not?” After all, along with Elise, Jerry and Beverly have a new 6-week-old grandson, Bubba’s son, and surely he’ll have to have something of his own, too. Southeast Texans are just happy that the family has been taught to share.
Elise’s Playhouse will be open Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. Entry will be by way of a four-hour armband and wearers can ride, play and enjoy everything in the playhouse during that time. Refreshments are also available in the concession stand. Elise’s Playhouse is at 18291 Englin Road, Winnie, TX 77665. Call (409) 296-2406.
Brenda Cannon Henley can be reached at (409) 781-8788 or at brendacannonhenley [at] yahoo [dot] com.