In Dewey, Tom Mix and the Wild West Live On
By CHARLIE CANTRELL
Editor at Large
HERE COME THE LONGHORNS: Modern day cowboys drive a heard of longhorn cattle out of the Tallgrass Prairie onto the main street of Dewey, Oklahoma, in celebration of Western Heritage Days, to be held in September.
Courtesy Tom Mix Museum
It was that hat that set him apart. It stuck up like a water tower on the tallgrass prairie. It was common for early day movie cowboys to proclaim their good intentions by donning white hats, but in the case of Tom Mix, his absurdly tall, white hat seemed to be saying he was not only a good-guy cowboy but perhaps the good-est of the good-guy cowboys by virtue of that big headpiece.
A good argument could be made for that claim. This Pennsylvania born easterner was no drugstore cowboy. His father taught him to break horses at an early age. He learned to simultaneously twirl and shoot two pearl handled pistols, trick ride on the back of a galloping steed, lasso and tie anything that moved, and then do magic twirls with that same rope. But the big hat gave fair warning to movie bad guys and silent moviegoers alike: This lawman was not to be trifled with. Underneath that big cowboy hat was an Oklahoma legend.
A one-hour drive due north of Tulsa on U.S. Highway 75 is the community of Dewey, Oklahoma. To call it just another small rural town would not do it justice. It is a unique, tight-knit community of Wild West aficionados who embrace and celebrate Dewey’s storied past in a special way. But we’ll get to that later.
Tom Mix arrived in Dewey in 1907 to serve as the town’s night marshal. With him was Kitty, his second of three wives. At 27, he’d already lived more lives than anyone twice his age. He’d done a stint in the army, ending abruptly with desertion. He’d tried his hand at boxing and baseball, taught physical fitness to school children, and broke horses at Oklahoma’s famous 101 Ranch. He’d tended bar at the Blue Belle Saloon in Guthrie, Indian Territory, and served as marshal of a rowdy little company town in Kansas, called Independence. But his restless nature, his infatuation with “The Wild West” and a love of horsemanship eventually led Tom Mix to Dewey and from there to cinematic stardom.
Nearing the turn of the 20th century, the “manifest destiny” driving pioneers west into the Great Plains had succeeded in filling out the borders of the United States of America. The migration of restless pioneers settled on fertile soil, creating farms and enormous cattle ranches all across northeast Oklahoma.
Much of the tallgrass prairie of the mid-western plains had become cattle country, serving a beef hungry nation and featuring the American cowboy. They drove giant cattle herds north along famous trails like the Chisholm and the Great Western to market-destined rail lines like the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe; and the Union Pacific. Eventually, additional rail lines were built south into cattle country, bringing an end to the need for the great open plains cattle drives.
The end of the cattle drive era didn’t bring an end to the American cowboy. Their skills were still very much in demand to tend cattle on massive spreads of ranch property.
Large tracks of Green Country were claimed, purchased or leased and cordoned off by enterprising families to form giant ranches covering hundreds of contiguous acres. The gentle rolling hills of carpeted grassland stretching across northeastern Oklahoma were perfectly suited for raising cattle and became the site of many vast land holdings.
Some of the cattle-herding, range-roaming cowboys, romanticized in published literature of the times, adapted to the corralled life of large ranch operations. But young America wasn’t finished with its Wild West romance nor with its celebration of the untethered freedom of the western cowboy. Perhaps it was national pride steaming from the conquest of a vast expanse of land or the urge to celebrate the individualism, courage and ingenuity required to settle untamed land. Whatever the reason, America’s infatuation with the Wild West and the American cowboy gave rise to a uniquely American form of entertainment, the Wild West Show.
William Frederick Cody, known to history as Buffalo Bill, is credited with starting it all. He named his show Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and it eventually earned him the mantle of the “the greatest showman on the face of the earth.”
It was a huge undertaking involving hundreds of performers, including cowboys, Native Americans, sharp shooters, and equestrian acrobats pulling off amazing feats of daring, skill and frontier drama before tens of thousand of spellbound, adoring fans. There were reenactments of famous frontier events like the infamous Battle of the Little Bighorn, also known as Custer’s Last Stand. The aim of the first of such shows, as Buffalo Bill put it, was to give audiences a “real life adventure” into the Wild West. He also wanted a show that celebrated and preserved the life he had lived.
However, great liberties were taken in the depictions of historic events to make the entertainment more palatable to spectators and to not offend anyone. The result was a romanticized version of western frontier life that filtered out its less desirable realities, creating the elements of a fictional world where good invariably prevailed over bad. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, and all the many similar Wild West shows to follow, provided the model for early day western movies.
At the time of Mix’s arrival in Dewey, the town was bustling, primarily due to the good fortune of two rail lines running through it, making it a transport hub for cattle coming from the surrounding ranches. Seventy-some miles west of Dewey was one such ranch, Oklahoma’s historic 101 Ranch, proudly the largest working ranch in the United States. It was where Mix sometimes found work as a cowboy, and out of which came the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Show, featuring iconic wild-west notables like Buffalo Bill, Hoot Gibson, Pawnee Bill, Geronimo, Will Rogers and African-American cowboy Bill Pickett, who earned fame as the originator of the Wild West show stunt, “bulldogging.” The 101 Ranch provided talent and backdrop for many silver screen westerns in the early days of silent movies, and it was where Mix found cinematic stardom.
Living in the heart of Oklahoma ranch country while possessing the skills of a genuine cowboy paved the way for Mix to become one of the first iconic stars of a uniquely American genre of motion picture entertainment: the cowboy western. In his lifetime, he starred in well over 300 silent movies, where he was forever the indefatigable, cowboy protagonist, thwarting evil at every turn. He was the first King of the Cowboys, long before Roy Rogers claimed the title.
The folks in Dewey are proud of their heritage, proud of the role the town played in the evolution of the American West and in Oklahoma’s vibrant history. To illustrate this, they have gone to great lengths to restore and reclaim their storied past with an annual extravaganza that harkens back to the era of the Wild West shows of the early twentieth century. It’s called Western Heritage Weekend, a two-day celebration of western history.
On Sept. 23, the Tom Mix Festival will feature a Long Horn cattle drive through downtown Dewey, a 5k benefit run called Miles for Mammograms and other family-friendly events. On Sept. 24 is the Wild West Show, a spectacular event in the tradition of those amazing shows of old, with equestrian trick riders, ropers, rodeo clowns, a bank robbery reenactment and other western style entertainment. The event draws visitors from across the country and around the world.
As in the past, Dewey’s Western Heritage Weekend promises to be an event for the whole family, full of uniquely western style entertainment mixed with American history—a Green Country gem just a one-hour drive away.