By: Ashley Kath-Bilsky
“The Old West is not a certain place in a certain time, it’s a state of mind; it’s whatever you want it to be.” ~ Tom Mix
Much as I pride myself on my knowledge of film trivia, I had no idea this man was the first GIANT cowboy star and pretty much the father of western films as we know them. For me, the first cowboy star whose film work I saw on television was Roy Rogers. I have since learned that long before there was Roy Rogers and Trigger, there was Tom Mix and his wonder horse, Tony.
Between 1901 and 1935, Tom Mix made 291 films. Only nine of these films were not ‘silent’. Regardless of whether or not the film was a ‘talkie’, Tom Mix films became the unbreakable cornerstone of the western genre. They provided an action-packed script, a hero that always saved the day (no matter the odds), and despicable villains who made the enraptured audience boo and hiss. Along with fast-paced, exciting action sequences, thrilling horseback riding, and dangerous stunts that Tom Mix did himself, audiences were able to actually see an authentic ‘frontier town’ situated on a 12-acre set.
The authenticity of the set (built by Mix and called Mixville) not only included a town (the layout of which has pretty much been replicated in every western film or television show you’ve ever seen), but also had an Indian village and ranch outside the town, as well as a simulated desert and distant mountain range. How exciting it must have been for those who only read about the Old West in penny novels to suddenly see it come to life on a movie screen.
But who was Tom Mix?
He was part of a time in movie history where stars were given new names and new identities. The studio system (even in its infancy) had their own publicity department. Creating "creative" bios about their actors was an art. After all, what the public didn't know wouldn't hurt them, but the truth might lose the studio money. Thus, targeting their ticket-buying audience, (which often included children and wholesome families) they did everything they could to protect their property and his heroic image, build a devoted fan base, and make films quick and fast while the iron was hot. Hit movies (many of which were serials) resulted in more than earnings at the box office. Lucrative product endorsements and paid personal appearances were also at stake.
Nothing was left to chance. For example, would that little buckaroo in his cowboy pajamas have believed in Roy Rogers so enthusiastically if he knew his larger than life hero’s real name was Leonard Slye and he once worked at a shoe factory? Leonard Slye or Roy Rogers? Hmm. Which sounds more heroic? I think we’d all agree, Roy Rogers.
Well, when it came to Tom Mix, at least the studio didn’t have to change his name. Born Thomas Hezekiah Mix on 06 January 1880 in Drift Run, Pennsylvania, he was the second son of Edwin and Elizabeth Mix. His father was a stable master, thus explaining where and how Tom learned how to train horses and become an exceptional trick rider.
From his childhood, we know that when his older brother, Harry, died suddenly, a then 11-year old Tom (already disenchanted with school), decided to not further his education beyond the Fifth Grade. Although his parents wanted him to continue his schooling, Tom knew what he wanted to be when he grew up. He had just seen Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show.
Before you could say lickity-split, Tom went home and used his mother’s clothesline to practice roping cows. He taught himself how to ride like the wind, to do flying mounts where (much to the concern of his parents) he would grab hold of a running horse and vault onto its back, or stand on the horse’s back while it ran. Concern turned to horror for his parents, however, when Tom started to practice trick-shooting and knife-throwing. Yet even after he accidentally shot himself above the knee trying to dislodge a jammed bullet with a pocket knife, the determination of Tom Mix could not be denied.
It became more and more apparent to everyone that Tom Mix wanted to be a cowboy, to go west and be part of the world Buffalo Bill Cody had brought to life. He even made a cowboy costume for himself. What his mother thought of her young son’s sewing skills is not known, but it prompted her to make him a far better cowboy outfit complete with an embroidered charro jacket and leather chaps. He was now just 12 years old.
Records show that Tom enlisted in the Army the day the United States declared war on Spain in 1898. Although just 18, he lied and said he was 21 – most likely to avoid the requirement of parental consent for someone 18 years of age. Assigned to Battery B Artillery, he was trained in Delaware to operate 50-ton guns, and promoted to the rank of Corporal. However, the war soon ended and Tom found himself bored in the Army. Never having seen battle, Tom was transferred to New Hampshire’s Fort Constitution in November 1898, and promoted to Sergeant by the end of the year.
Together with his wife, he moved to the Oklahoma Territory and settled in the town of Guthrie. Grace found a teaching position, and Tom worked several jobs, one of which was tending bar at the Blue Belle Saloon. He also broke horses for local ranchers. When the marriage failed and Grace returned to her parents’ home in Kentucky, a local rancher named Zach Mulhall asked a now depressed Tom if he would like to be the drum major for the Oklahoma Cavalry Band. Tom had no musical training; neither was he a member of the Oklahoma Cavalry. Still, he got the job.
Wearing a flashy uniform, he marched to the music before the band whilst raising and lowering his Drum Major staff. When the band appeared at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Tom was there and made quite an impression on the crowd. No doubt, the attention he received reignited Tom's dream of being in a Wild West Show. One might say that St. Louis was the real birthplace of Tom Mix, for it was here he began to create a new persona – one that garnered positive attention, pleased his newfound fans, and distanced him from the reality of having been a deserter from the Army.
From this point on, the story of his life begins to transform and become embellished.
Between the tall tales Tom told and what the studio system perpetuated about him, it was difficult to know truth from fiction. Depending on whose version you believe, he served as a scout in the Spanish-American War where he was severely wounded (shot in the mouth, in fact, which explained his crooked smile), and was also a non-combatant horse wrangler who witnessed the final battles of the Boer Wars in South Africa. The truth is, much as he wanted to see the perceived glory of battle, he never left the states.
He claimed to have been a cowboy wrangler in Texas and Oklahoma. He did do this from time-to-time in Oklahoma and Texas. Perhaps to make his cowboy persona more believable, he claimed he was born in Texas. I’m willing to let the born in Texas claim slide since, as most non-native Texans will tell you, “I may not have been born in Texas, but I got here as soon as I could.” Most likely, this was a fib orchestrated by the studio to complement his cowboy image.
Other highlights (fact or fiction) of his life include serving as sheriff of Montgomery County, Kansas, and Washington County, Oklahoma. Another is that he was a US Marshal in Montana, New Mexico, and Arizona, and as a Texas Ranger was twice wounded in gunfights with bandits and rustlers. Whether or not he was a peace officer, sheriff, or US Marshal is doubtful. As for the Texas Ranger claim, although the Texas Rangers (sticklers for accurate record-keeping) have no record of his being one of their Rangers, Governor Allred of Texas made Tom Mix an “Honorary Texas Ranger” in 1935.
Just like Buffalo Bill Cody had often done when writing (and talking) about his life and experiences in the American West, Tom Mix learned the art of self-promotion and embellishment. And as it had with Cody, sometimes the truth, half-truths, and heroic tall tales about a person become blurred over time.
Whatever aspects of his bio may be fact or fiction, it makes no difference now. Just as his films combined fantasy with reality in depicting the Wild West, his identity is a combination of both as well. Perhaps what can be said of this original, iconic cowboy hero was best said by Will Rogers: “Tom is smart, like Henry Ford. He makes what the people want.”
I think the same can be said about him as an individual. Although I don't condone fabricating falsehoods about ourselves, I do believe we all have the potential to achieve our dreams, to be whatever we want to be if we work hard and have determination. We should not be limited by our past, or defined by it. It is our life’s journey and what we accomplish in the time we have that best defines our spirit, and how we should be remembered.
Thanks for stopping by Sweethearts of the West, and I hope you enjoyed this post. ~ AKB
The Amazing Tom Mix: The Most Famous Cowboy of the Movies, by: Richard D. Jensen (2005)
The Fabulous Tom Mix, by Olive Stokes, with Eric Heath (1957). New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc.