By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
If any place could be called Eden on earth, it was Sarcoxie, Missouri, in the early 20th century. East of Joplin, its rich farmland the color of cocoa, the hamlet was both the strawberry and peony "capital of the world." Kids made money by picking berries during the summer. Tourists came for the blaze of color, and weddings took place in halls decorated with peonies. Hybrids were named after townsfolk.
The strawberry market dried up long ago, but a local nursery still ships crates of high-priced bulbs for peonies and irises around the world. Dairy cows and horses graze in rolling green fields. Named after an Indian chief, Sarcoxie has maintained a population of about 1,300 for decades. Downtown is deserted, but new houses dot the countryside where people have claimed a few acres of heaven for their own.
It's a conservative heaven. Here and there on the roads around town are admonitions from God. Says one billboard: "Whosoever putteth away his wife and marrieth another committeth adultery! Luke 16:18."
Lyle Davidson was a carpenter and farmer, well-known in Sarcoxie because he remodeled houses. But Alba Davidson was an enigma. On the rare occasions that Alba came into town from their little house in the country, she didn't say much.
Born in 1932, Doyle was the second of their four children and the only boy. Popular in high school, Davidson played sports, joined 4-H and dated a pretty girl with dark eyes named Patti Tinkle. The caption under his senior photo reads: "That certain air...confident...fascinated with sports...that special smile for Patti...eye catching walk."
Davidson often says that he came from a Methodist background. But people in Sarcoxie remember the Davidsons attending a tiny church not far from their farm called the Redwood Holiness Church. Doyle's father and grandfather, in fact, built it themselves. In Sarcoxie, the church was considered extreme. Says one former resident, "A lot of people didn't think too much of the holy rollers."
Lyle knew his Bible, says one resident who hired the carpenter to remodel his house, but "he took it the way he wanted to take it." One of Lyle's core beliefs was that the Ten Commandments didn't apply to believers.
As a young man, Doyle cussed, drank and smoked. Though smart and a hard worker, former classmates say he affected a superior attitude. His father believed he was destined to be a great minister. It was a call he ignored for many years.
Patti and Doyle married in 1952, and he joined the Navy. They lived a while in Japan with their only daughter, Kathy. Back in Missouri, Davidson finished his degree and enrolled in veterinary school at the University of Missouri. He became a full-fledged veterinarian in 1962.
Stanley Lewis, a renowned trainer of Tennessee Walkers who still lives in Sarcoxie, remembers Davidson as a sensitive vet who took his time with horses. But during house calls, Davidson often bad-mouthed his father, Lewis says. "He thought his father had been too hard on him."
Dr. Davidson was soon serving people who owned expensive show horses. "Horse people are very demanding," Lewis says. "They have a lot of money to spend, and they want somebody now." Davidson worked on world champions in horse country from Tennessee to Florida to Texas and earned a good income.
Sarcoxie wasn't big enough to contain Davidson's ambitions, though. He went into business with his brother-in-law, George Jackson, a vet in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. That didn't last long. Truth was, horse people preferred Jackson, Lewis says. "Doyle was kind of proud of himself." His arrogance cost him clients.
He arrived in Texas in the mid-'60s and established a veterinary hospital in McKinney with a partner. But God wasn't giving up. As Davidson tells it, he had a road-to-Damascus experience in 1970 when he checked into a Sherman motel at 3 a.m., walked into the room and saw on the nightstand a Bible opened to Isaiah 30.
His eyes fixed on verse 1: "Woe to the rebellious children, saith the Lord, that take counsel but not of me; and that cover with a covering, but not of my spirit, that they may add sin to sin." Realizing he was a rebellious man, Davidson began studying the Bible in earnest.
God had already told him to sell his veterinary hospital. So Davidson asked his partner, Dr. Rodney Butler, to buy him out. Then God had another order: "Return to the land of your fathers." It seems God was really whipsawing Davidson around.
So when Kathy was a senior in high school, the family moved back to Sarcoxie. Davidson, hoping to get into the breeding business, bought 143 acres of prime grazing land and some livestock. But his champion stud horse impaled itself on a pipe, ending its breeding days, and the cattle turned up sterile. After a year or so, Davidson left Missouri, this time for good.
People in Sarcoxie don't think much of Davidson's preaching career. "I don't believe he's led by God," says Roy Ogle. "I think he's a cult."
Davidson deeply angered his parents before their deaths in the '90s. "He told his father he was going to hell because he didn't believe like he did," snorts one of Davidson's contemporaries. Another says that Davidson infuriated his sisters when his mother got sick by insisting her illness was demons and that she didn't need a hospital. "He called his mother a Jezebel," one resident says. (Davidson, however, says the dispute arose because his sisters admitted his mother to a psychiatric hospital without telling him.)