Local Treasure

He may have made a name for himself as a collector of rare automobiles, but at 89, Shelley Cleaver has become a luminary in his own right.

Story and photos by Laura Mellett


I was still making my way across the soft bed of East Texas pine needles that blanketed the driveway when the door to the unassuming white house opened, and I was ushered inside.

The scene unveiled was an antique pickers’ dream featuring rare collectibles and memorabilia. Dressed for the occasion in a vibrant collared shirt that looked like a Texas flag, Shelley Cleaver wasted no time grabbing a “Shamrock Shelley” statue fashioned in his likeness and diving straight into a tale of how he got the nickname. 

“I went to the old Shamrock Hotel back in high school and came back here telling everybody about it,” the retired Cherokee County mechanic said of the now-demolished Houston landmark famous in its time for being the largest hotel built in the 1940s. “I guess I outlasted it.”

TCDRS has visited Shelley twice since his retirement. In our Spring 2006 issue of Connections, we interviewed Shelley to discover how a man in deep East Texas came to acquire two rare Ford Edsel automobiles, which were famous for flopping shortly after their release in the late 1950s.  

The car was named after Henry Ford’s son and was billed as “the smart car for the younger executive or younger family on its way up.” It featured state-of-the-art push-button gear shifts and self-adjusting breaks. Shelley bought two — including one from the local dealership in Jacksonville. “I went on my honeymoon in a ‘58,” he said. “I like to say so I could shift gears with my left hand and keep my arm around my bride with my right.”

In addition to his beloved Edsels, Shelley has an entire “green room” filled with trophies and relics, including hundreds of photographs, artifacts and rare collections of Texas flags, uniforms and weapons. There are pictures of Edsels, of Shelley at the Berlin Wall and of that time he won “sexiest man” on a cruise ship. 

“I’ve had an interesting life,” he said. “Some people start forgetting stuff as they get old, and I’ve been blessed my mind hasn't failed me yet.” 

From Car Enthusiast to Book Author 

Left: The rooms of Shelley’s home are brimming with collectibles. Right: Shelley shows off his treasures.


The conversation was lively that morning at the Jacksonville Brookshire Brothers, where Shelley goes each morning to stay up on all the latest local news. 

“Of course, I had to go up and find out all about the Superbowl,” he said, noting with pride that Superbowl LVIII’s game-winning quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, was from nearby Whitehouse. There, Mahomes played in the “Tomato Bowl”, the local high school football stadium named after the fruit that famously grows well in this area.  

With a daily routine that includes breakfast at the Whataburger and often, a ribbon cutting or two with the Chamber of Commerce, Shelley stays on the move. In recent years, he decided to start writing. He has now published four “Lonestar Lick Skillet” cookbooks and is working on his fifth. Each features stories and recipes from his childhood in Lonestar, now just a ghost town but where his great-granddaughter lives, making seven generations in the Cleaver family. 

The next installment in the Lick Skillet series will tell the tale of how Highway 21, commissioned by the King of Spain in 1691, is likely one of the oldest roads in the country. “It’s got ain’t no telling how many historical markers are near it,” Shelley said, noting that a few were due to him and his work with the historical commission over the years. After losing his wife 21 years ago, Shelley accepted an appointment to the commission, which allows him to stay busy doing something he loves. 

“If you just sit down, you’ll waste away in life,” Shelley said. “You gotta keep your mind focused on what you are going to do next. Think about your next day. Don’t just sit down and don't go nowhere or do nothing.”

Cherokee County’s Biggest Cheerleader 

Shelley may not drive his Edsels as much as he used to, but he still rides in style.


Antique car enthusiasts agree that, in addition to its short lifespan, the Ford Edsel stands out for the legendary horizontal horse-collar grille, which folks joked at the time looked like a toilet seat or an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon. 

Cherokee County Judge Chris Davis said Shelley is also famous for sporting some unique looks. “He’s got these sunshades in the shape of Texas and another pair in the shape of shamrocks,” Judge Davis said. “We don’t have any event in Cherokee County where he’s not dressed as a cowboy or Colonel Cleaver. He has got to be the most photographed person in our county.”

Indeed, Shelley was just named Mr. Personality by the Jacksonville Daily Progress and appears in most issues of the Cherokeean Herald for one reason or another.  

“He’s our county’s biggest cheerleader,” Judge Davis said. Judge Davis, also a member of the TCDRS Board of Trustees, said Shelley is also a cheerleader for TCDRS. Shelley often praises the fact that he can count on a guaranteed benefit payment for life because it keeps him from having to worry much about finances. “It’s a darn good retirement plan,” Shelley said with a laugh. 

Though Shelley’s legs don't move like they used to, he has many people inviting him to lunches and dinners, asking for help on historical preservation projects and just checking in on him. It isn’t lost on anyone how lucky they are to have a local treasure like Shelley Cleaver. 

“He’s our go-to on everything,” Judge Davis said. “He’s got a lot of people that love him, and bless his heart, we are going to take care of him as long as we can.”


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