Last month, I shared the first of a two-part series about one of America’s cowboy heroes — Gene Autry. When we left off, Texas-born Autry was setting off for the Big Apple in hopes of getting his official start in the music business.
Unfortunately, Autry found the trip disappointing. He met with the Victor Talking Machine Co. (Victor Records) and was turned down — not because of his singing ability, but because the company already had two similar singers under contract. A Victor executive advised Autry to start singing on the radio, gain some experience and then return for another audition.
Autry returned to Oklahoma with that advice and landed a slot on Tulsa radio station KVOO, where he performed as “Oklahoma’s Yodeling Cowboy.” When he signed with Columbia Records and moved to Chicago to appear on “America’s Barn Dance” in 1929, his native Texas grew more distant than ever.
Over the course of his career, Autry recorded nearly 650 songs. Of those, he wrote 300, including one of his most widely played tunes, “Back in the Saddle Again.” His popularity boomed across the nation, and Autry’s record sales numbered in the tens of millions. He outsold the likes of Bing Crosby, a star who appealed to every region of America, and he turned out the first-ever gold-certified record.
While Autry built a wildly popular career on radio, diversification turned him into the huge star he became. After achieving stardom, he went into the movie business and was wildly successful, starring in “B” Westerns that appealed more to small-town America than big-city markets. Of course, Autry realized that in the 1930s, more people lived in small rural communities than big cities.
Autry played along sidekick Smiley Burnett and guest-starred with his horse “Champion” in low budget films debuting at the rate of seven per year. By 1940, he could command more money per film, and his name became a marquee drawing card in cities and rural communities alike. Autry productions grew in budget as much as they did popularity.
In the 1940s, when kids caught the cowboy “bug” and Western films offered an entire generation the means of escaping the trials of childhood and schooling, Autry not only appeared on screen but also released 39 hit records. All those songs peaked in the Top 10 on US Country Charts, and nine became No. 1 hits. On screen, Republic Studios promoted Autry as “King of the Singing Cowboys.” His drawing power reached immense proportions and carried an entire generation of stars including fellow Texan Bill Boyd, born just a county east of Autry in Ladonia, Texas. Autry soon called the shots in what rapidly rose into a lucrative career.
After his contract with Republic Studios ended, Autry moved to Columbia Pictures. At Columbia, he mesmerized audiences nationwide with his ballads, surrounded by Western plots, on the movie screen. The change also took him back across the country, again bypassing his native Texas to land in California. The “Monogram Ranch,” purchased in the early 1950s, became the filming site of many of Autry’s and other Western stars films and television shows, including “Gunsmoke.”
By the end of the 1950s, Autry was one of wealthiest Hollywood stars and claimed a spot among the richest men in America. He later built the Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles, a display of countless Western artifacts accumulated over a lifetime. In 1961, he purchased his own major league baseball franchise, the California Angels. He owned the team he until his death in 1998.
Autry also got into the rodeo business. He purchased a ranch adjacent to Berwyn, Oklahoma, owned stock supplying rodeo promoters throughout the West. He also starred in his own line of comic books and earned royalties from toys ranging from pistols to guitars. He even owned a Los Angeles television station. While he may not have made his riches in Texas, he certainly earned them in the true Texas way — diversity coupled with ingenuity and a recognition of good investments over bad.
Looking back to 1936, when Autry was only a few years into his career, the city council of Tioga took up a proposal to rename itself “Autry Springs.” Although newspapers reported Gene Autry played no role in the campaign, they also documented a plan to turn Tioga into a resort community, much like Mineral Wells west of Fort Worth. Tioga claimed mineral waters of its own, and it seems Autry, or at least his supporters, had eyes on using his fame to turn the town into both a tourist attraction and a money-making machine.
On Jan. 6, 1937, Tioga held a community-wide vote on the issue, and Tioga’s 600 or so citizens overwhelmingly declined the change by a margin of 2:1. A number of reasons for the ballot issue’s failure were reported, most notably that the older citizens of the community voted against the proposal. Another story, unconfirmed, claims one of Tioga’s prominent citizens — a doctor, who attended Autry’s birth — spoke loudly against the name change, claiming Autry’s parents never paid their bill.
Regardless, Autry Springs was left without a home, and the tourist attraction never came to fruition. Still, when Autry’s true birthplace passed on its claim to the singing cowboy, an Oklahoma town stepped in.
Although Berwyn, Oklahoma, couldn’t market itself as the home of Gene Autry, the community could claim that it served as the springboard for launching Autry’s career. After all, had the young singer not spent his shift in the local telegraph office, singing and playing his guitar, he might have never met Will Rogers or taken a shot at the recording business. And when Autry purchased land for his ranch adjacent to the community, Berwyn saw an opportunity to capitalize on its neighbor’s name.
In 1941, bolstered by the efforts of a local deputy sheriff, citizens of Berwyn claimed Gene Autry as their own, not out of genuine right but from association. On Nov. 16, just three weeks before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Gene Autry, Oklahoma, was born. A crowd of 35,000 turned out for the ceremony, which concluded with Autry performing his nationwide radio show, “Melody Ranch,” on CBS live from a flat car on the railroad tracks.
And so, that is the story of the man who should be remembered among Texas’ most popular native sons — the only entertainer to have amassed five stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. While Oklahoma may have stepped in and taken Autry’s Texas valor, he will forever remain a Texan by birth.
Since retiring from a career as an outdoor recreation professional from the State of Arkansas, Kris Rutherford has worked as a freelance writer and, with his wife, owns and publishes a small Northeast Texas newspaper, The Roxton Progress. Kris has worked as a ghostwriter and editor and has authored seven books of his own. He became interested in the trucking industry as a child in the 1970s when his family traveled the interstates twice a year between their home in Maine and their native Texas. He has been a classic country music enthusiast since the age of nine when he developed a special interest in trucking songs.