(October 25, 1996)
Storyteller Boyce House Gave Texas ‘Old Rip’ tale
His name once was a household word in Texas, but only a few aficionados of Texana know it today.
He wrote 17 books ¾ more than J. Frank Dobie. He wrote for and edited newspapers, regaled countless civic clubs and Chamber of Commerce banquets with Texas anecdotes, worked in Hollywood as technical consultant for a blockbuster movie starring Clark Gable, ran twice for lieutenant governor, wrote a column that ran in 200 newspapers, had a weekly radio show and was a member of the by-invitation-only Texas Institute of Letters.
Most of his books went through numerous editions with thousands of copies printed. One book sold more than 200,000 copies. Some of his stories appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, the top national magazine of its day.
Chances are, you’ve never heard of Boyce House. But he deserves to be remembered.
House improved the communities he served as a hard hitting newspaper editor, he made a couple of generations of Texans laugh and he offered himself as an unsuccessful political candidate. What he did best, however, was collect Texas stores ¾folktales, jokes, history ¾ and preserve them in books, articles and newspaper columns.
Born in Piggott, Ark., in 1896, the son of a country newspaper editor, House lived in Texas for several years and attended schools in Brownwood, Uvalde, Taylor and Alpine. When his father died, his mother moved to Memphis, Tenn., where House graduated from high school. He cut his journalistic teeth as a cub reporter on the Memphis Commercial-Appeal in 1916.
He came to Texas in 1920 because of ill health, but soon recovered. He wrote for or edited newspapers in the oil boom towns of Eastland, Cisco and Hanger and later worked for papers in Olney and Forth Worth.
House covered one of Texas’ biggest crime stories, the so-called Santa Claus bank robbery in Cisco on Dec. 23, 1927. He broke the story of "Old Rip" (for Rip Van Winkle), the horned toad that supposedly survived for 30 years sealed in the cornerstone of the Eastland County Courthouse. This almost certainly was a Chamber of Commerce trick, possibly concocted by House himself, but many folks swore it was true. One thing for sure, "Old Rip" made great newspaper copy and focused national attention on Eastland County and the man who wrote the stories about it.
His newspaper career in Eastland County coincided with one of Texas’ most popular oil booms. At the height of the boom, $1 million worth of oil gushed from Ranger’s wells every 72 hours. House wrote four books that remain excellent sources of information on this wildcat period of early 20th-century Texas history: "Were You In Ranger?" (1935), "Oil Boom" (1941), "Roaring Ranger: The World’s Biggest Boom" (1951) and "Oil Field Fury" (1954).
This expertise in the lore of the oil patch got him a job in Hollywood as technical adviser for the 1940 movie "Boomtown" and the material for another of his books, "How I Took Hollywood by Storm."
After he came back to Texas, House started writing a humorous newspaper column and books featuring Texas tales and humor. His best seller was "I Give You Texas," a collection of humorous Texas stories.
House’s last book was "As I Was Saying" (1957), a collection of anecdotes mostly centering on the newspaper business. He dedicated the volume to "The Home Town Editors."
Married in 1927, he and his wife, Golda Fay, did not have children, House died in Fort Worth on Dec. 30, 1961. Most of his books had been published by the old Naylor Co. in San Antonio, a firm that went out of business in the early ‘70s. None of his titles are in print today.
Dobie, for a time House’s chief rival for the title of "Mr. Texas," called his fellow writer of Texana "a poet as well as historian and wordwielder."
The six-volume "New Handbook of Texas" offers this assessment of House’s work: "Analysis and interpretation are lacking in House’s scholarly efforts, and he relied heavily on secondary sources; nevertheless, he was a powerful writer..."
Of course his material lacked "analysis and interpretation." House was a newspaperman of the old school. His generation of journalists viewed analysis and interpretation as cardinal sins, worse than using someone’s name in a story without giving the person’s age.
House was simply a reporter who knew a good story when he heard or saw it and how to tell the story. He left us, not a gasoline-like refined and boring academic product, but good old Texas crude, a body of work that in time will be recognized as having captured the color of Texas’ early oil days before it flared off like so much waste gas into the darkness of time. His collected anecdotes played a significant role in developing a part of the Texas myth.
Maybe Boyce House will be like the tenacious horned toad he made famous, "Old Rip." It’s time for this Texas writer’s work to be freed from the musty cornerstone of literary obscurity and be appreciated by another crop of Texas readers.
(October 18, 1996)
So deeply they must have been branded into my memory, nearly 40 years later the words come to my mind still, at unpredictable times and for no discernible reason:
"Paladin, Paladin, where do you roam? Paladin, Paladin, far, far from home."
I hear the words, the tune, and see the black and white image of a man dressed in black, from hat to boots, crouching and pointing a revolver at me, delivering a little soliloquy. I hear the gruff voice, I see the business card: "Have Gun Will Travel."
For those who were not watching television between 1957 and 1962, the words are from the themesong of "Have Gun Will Travel," a television western starring Richard Boone as an educated, well-to-do West Point-trained gentlemen who killed people for hire. But he was a good guy, really.
Boone is long dead, and so, for the most part, is the television western.
Anyone wanting to revisit the era of the small-screen western (essentially the 1950s, with a spillover into roughly the first half of the 1960s) will enjoy reading "Wanted Dead or Alive: The American West in Popular Culture." Edited by Richard Aquila and published by the University of Illinois Press, the 313-page book sells for $29.95 in hardcover.
For Baby Boomers, portions of the book will rekindle a lot of memories. But there is something in the book for anyone interested in how the story of the West has transcended mere history to become a major part of our culture.
Indeed, the chapter on television westerns that so captivated me, Gary Yoggy’s "Prime-Time Bonanza?" is only a part of the book. "Wanted Dead or Alive" is a collection of 10 essays on Western pop culture, from early-day dime novels -- the first Western fiction -- to advertising with a Western theme. Each essay is annotated and features a suggested reading list for more information on the subject.
All the essays in the book are interesting, but just as Marshal Dillon couldn’t go very long before dropping in at the Long Branch to see Miss Kitty, I kept drifting back to the television chapter.
If the theme song from "Have Gun Will Travel" still finds me in the shower some mornings, what effect did those 150-plus television "oaters" have on me, and the many fellow members of my generation? From "Roy Rogers" to "Rawhide," TV Westerns were the staple of prime time television in the 1950s. Did all the shooting make us more violent than those who are growing up watching "Seinfeld" and "Frazier?" Did the Code of the West make it into our own code?
Have I ever single-handedly faced down a badman like Marshal Dillon in "Gunsmoke?" Not with a gun. But did I end up with a little bit of Doc Adams’ cynicism or Chester’s sense of humor? In "Maverick" ("Riverboat ring your bell . . .") brother Bret often invoked the memory of his old pappy and his folksy advice. Don’t I do the same, telling stories to make a point, recalling things my grandfather told me? Just the other day, I tried to make a point at a meeting by explaining the beginning of the short-lived "Mackenzie’s Raiders," in which Indian-fighting Colonel Ranald [CQ -- not Ronald] Mackenzie receives secret orders from the President, orders which will be denied if he gets caught raiding into Mexico.
Well, young Cox should have been reading books instead of watching Westerns, you might say. But I read, too. Somehow, there seemed to be time for both books, television and homework.
So, were you and I being subtly programmed by these Western programs?
Or, were we merely being intertwined, enjoying some escapism in an era when most of us figured we would some day have to try to survive a nuclear war with Russia.
One thing for sure: "Wanted Dead or Alive" will send your mind traveling, looking for connections between 1957 and today. Reading this book will keep your mind off television for a while. "Paladin, Paladin, where do you roam?"
(October 11, 1996)
In the early 1950s, novelist Edna Ferber asked Robert Kleberg Jr. if she could come stay on the King Ranch for a while to do research for a book on "a typical Texas ranch."
Kleberg said no and tried to explain that the King Ranch was not just another Texas cattle ranch. That may or may not have been his only reason in turning her down, but Kleberg and others at the ranch were frequently hit on by journalists who seemed to think the King Ranch was representative of the cattle business in Texas.
Miss Ferber went on and did her book, called "Giant." The novel became a blockbuster movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean. It was filmed near Marfa, no where near the King Ranch.
That bit of literary trivia comes from the foreword of John Cypher's book on the man who said no to Miss Ferber. The 239-page book (University of Texas Press, $27.95), "Bob Kleberg and the King Ranch: A Worldwide Sea of Grass," is a work of non-fiction and not likely to be turned into a movie like "Giant," but it is about a character whose life was certainly colorful enough for the big screen. Kleberg was as atypical as the ranch he ran.
The grandson of ranch founder Richard King, Kleberg ran the King Ranch from late teens until his death in 1974. That involved overseeing an agri-business empire covering more than 825,000 acres in South Texas and various other ranches around the world -- 15 million acres in all.
The author spent 40 years as a King Ranch employee, from 1948 to 1988. He has done a readable, interesting book, but it falls a bit short of being the definitive biography of Kleberg and the King Ranch.
The book, with no bibliography or notes, is more memoir than biography. It is Robert Kleberg as Cypher remembers him. Which is not a bad thing. As Kleberg's assistant, Cypher saw Kleberg at his best and worst. He certainly makes no effort in the book to hide the feet of clay beneath Kleberg's cowboy boots, freely discussing his heavy drinking and fondness for women. (A mild surprise in a book published by an academic press.)
Cypher's book shows how Kleberg thought and how he ran the ranch, but there are omissions in the book a King Ranch cowboy could run a full-grown Santa Gertrudis through. In an afterword, the author says that much of what his longtime boss accomplished in his lifetime has "largely been erased: His efforts to build outside of Texas have been leveled; the ranches into which he put so much of his later life have been sold . . . At home his beloved Thoroughbreds are dispersed, his Santa Gertrudis herds and Quarter Horse band reduced."
In the next paragraph, Cypher says that the ranch no longer has the oil income it once did, royalties for mineral rights that Kleberg had "used as his brick and mortar" in building his empire. If that is the case, if the King Ranch is not what it once was, that is deserving of more than one paragraph.
In 2003, the King Ranch will be 150 years old. For the last milestone birthday, its 100th, the ranch commissioned El Paso artist and writer Tom Lea to write its history. That two-volume work, "The King Ranch," remains in print (it is in its 8th printing) and is a beautifully designed work that is the standard by which any other book on this ranch always will be judged.
Lea talks about his role in this project in a book published by the University of Texas at El Paso Press, "Tom Lea, An Oral History." The 185-page hardback, edited by Rebecca Carver and Adair Margo, sells for $50. Though an oral history, it amounts to an autobiography. The only difference is that it was spoken, not written. With illustrations and color plates of some of Lea's art, this is a solid book on an important Texas artist who could paint pictures with colors or words.
Another perspective on Lea's "The King Ranch" is found in a booklet published by the ranch in 1992 by Bruce Cheeseman, archivist for the King Ranch, and San Marcos bibliophile Al Lowman. "The Book of all Christendom: Tom Lea, Carl Hertzog, and the Making of 'The King Ranch,' is a well-done history of Lea's monumental 838-page book. The 24-page booklet, printed on rag paper left over from the first printing of the Lea book, sells for $15.
The King Ranch isn't the only spread in South Texas, it's just the largest. An excellent overview on the development of ranching is presented in "El Rancho in South Texas: Continuity and Change From 1750" by Joe S. Graham. Published for the John E. Conner Museum in Kingsville by North Texas Press, the 121-page book is available at $10.
Graham's book puts the epic story of ranching into focus, showing that the ranch and the cowboys who make them work have made a major contribution to American culture. And, as Cypher points in his book, the King Ranch and others continue to transform grass into high-quality protein.
(October 4, 1996)
Hermann Seele was happy to see Texas, to say the least.
"Praise and thanks to God," he wrote. "The coast of Texas lies ahead. New land? Homeland? Blessed are you, land, you ground, free ground for my new free life."
And so on.
Of course, Seele had been on a ship for the last nine weeks, coping with seasickness, smelly water and the cold North Atlantic. His gushing excitement can be understood and forgiven.
The coast had been obscured by fog earlier that morning, but about noon the low-lying moisture burned off and Seele finally got to see Galveston.
It was Saturday, Dec. 9, 1843.
Seele’s description of his arrival off Galveston is an entry in a diary he had begun in his native Germany and continued off and on through the Civil War. For years, the approximately 1,200-page diary had languished in virtual obscurity, its German script untranslated.
Now, translated to English by University of Houston history professor Theodore Gish, who also annotated the diary and wrote an introduction to put the work in perspective, it has been published for the first time by the Austin-based German-Texan Heritage Society. The 476-page book sells for $27.50, plus $4.50 postage and handling. It is available from the Society at POB 684171, Austin, TX, 78768-4171.
As a highly-religious youth, Seele decided to come to the Republic of Texas. His diary tracks his thinking as he reaches the decision to travel to Texas, his journey in Germany, and his trans-Atlantic voyage from Bremen.
Seele stayed in Galveston and environs for a time before traveling to Carlshafen on Matagorda Bay and from there up to the new German settlement called New Braunfels. Unlike most German immigrants to Texas, Seele had not come specifically as part of the Verein, an immigration effort put together by a group of German noblemen. But difficulty in adjusting to the Texas-American culture led him to join the Verein.
As he wrote, "A German church, German neighbors, German ways combined with Texas freedom, ties to the fatherland, the guarantee of provisions until the first harvest, and the furnishing of the necessary tools, all these are advantages compared to settling on one’s own."
Seele became one of New Braunfels leading citizens. He taught and eventually became mayor of the city, which for a time in the mid-19th Century was Texas’ fourth largest.
The translation and publication of this diary is an important contribution to Texas history. Unlike many diaries, it is not a brief accounting of events in the author’s life. It shows how he thought.
Also included with the book is "Sketches from Texas" written by Seele as a guide for anyone else interested in leaving Germany for a new home in Texas. He comments on Texas’ climate, methods of farming and its wildlife.
The only problem with this book, and it is minor compared with the overall value of the diary, is its index. The index is of names only, not places, events or concepts. This does not diminish the book’s value as a research tool, but it makes the work a little harder.
The introduction Seele wrote for his "Sketches from Texas," which was intended for family and friends, contains a passage that is a suitable appraisal of his entire diary: "As you evaluate this writing, I beg of you to be mindful of the fact that it is my personal view which you find here. Such a view may not have the quality of a sharply focused observation nor exhibit the experienced powers of judgment which can discern the important connections between everything. But just for this reason, it also might not be lacking in the essential truth of things . . ."