the rambling boy
Texas eccentrics and mavericks
By LONN TAYLOR
I recently picked up a book that is so good that I was tempted to lift several chapters from it for my columns. Instead I decided to write a column about it. It is Mavericks: A Gallery of Texas Characters, by Gene Fowler, published by the University of Texas Press in 2008.
Mavericks is a book of 34 chapters, each chapter dealing with one or more Texas eccentrics. One chapter is about Commodore Basil Muse Hatfield, who devoted the years of the Great Depression to advocating a Trinity River Canal that would make Dallas a leading seaport. Another is on O.T. Nodrog, a bewhiskered resident of Weslaco who combined an interest in flying saucers with the Book of Revelation to proclaim his home the Armageddon Time Ark Base and himself the Earth Coordinator of the Outer Dimensional Forces who would, on the appointed day, effect a 6-degree shift in the Earth’s axis and turn the Lower Rio Grande Valley into the Garden of Eden. In the meantime, Nodrog sold honey and avocado plants at Weslaco’s flea market.
My favorite chapter is about O.L. Nelms, the Dallas millionaire who in the 1950s plastered the city with signs saying “O.L. Nelms Thanks You For Helping Him Make Another Million.” Nelms’s eccentricity once got me out of a tight spot. One of his daughters is a close friend, and in 1980, when I was working on an exhibit about cowboys for the Library of Congress, I told her that the one thing I needed for the exhibit and could not find was a B-movie cowboy costume from the 1940s, when movie cowboys dressed in semi-military style, wearing pants with piping on the pockets and shirts with rows of buttons on the cuffs. “I think I have just what you want,” she said, and produced a pair of green trousers with white piping on the pockets and down the legs, a gabardine shirt with cactus blossoms embroidered on the yoke, rows of pearl snaps on the cuffs, and a shoulder patch bearing a map of Texas with the letter “T” imposed on it and the words “Texas Trader” underneath, and a pair of green cowboy boots with the red map and “T” motif scattered over the uppers. “These were O.L.’s,” she said. “You’re welcome to use them in the exhibit.” “What in the world did he do with them?” I asked. “He wore them on business trips to New York,” she said. “People would stop him on the sidewalk there and ask for his autograph.”
Fowler told me that he was somewhat disappointed when the book came out that the reviewers tended to dismiss his subjects as “weird.” “I see them as performance artists,” he said, “people on a level with the outsider artists whose work is shown in art galleries. Their lives are their art.” Fowler explains this idea in a long introduction to the book, in which he quotes neuropsychologist David Weeks, theatre critic Michael Kirby, and performance artist Joseph Beuys.
Fowler is something of a performance artist himself. Although he earns his living as a free-lance magazine writer, his roots are in show business. His father was a bandleader who had a theatrical booking company in Dallas, and Fowler’s first sniff of greasepaint came when he and two of his high school friends worked as rent-a-hippies, being sent by his father’s agency to Highland Park parties where they recited poetry and strummed on guitars.
Fowler has always been fascinated by the world of vaudeville, circuses, medicine shows, traveling phrenologists, and snake-oil salesmen. In 2002 he and Bill Crawford published a book that combined all of these elements, a history of the radio stations that operated along the Texas-Mexican border in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, stations with transmitters in Mexico that were so powerful that June Carter supposedly said that you could pick them up with a hairpin from a barbed wire fence in Kansas. The book was a great hit, and he and Crawford turned it into a presentation they called the Nuevo Vaudeville Documentary Performance, a 2-hour, 6-person show with a band that included the music heard on border stations, commercials for Crazy Water Crystals and Hillbilly Flour, and a revival sermon that was a combination of all of the put-one-hand-on-the-radio-and-the-other-hand-on-the-afflicted-part-of-the-body sermons ever heard on the Big X stations, as they were known from their call letters. Fowler’s favorite part of the show was letters from historic Texans requesting songs. Davy Crockett, who said he was playing fiddle in a cantina in Chihuahua City, wanted to hear “San Antonio Rose,” and East Texas oilman Dad Joiner requested Slim Willet’s “Tool Pusher From Snyder.”
Crawford has gone on to other interests, but Fowler still does an abbreviated version of this production, called “Border Radio”; when I talked to him a couple of weeks ago he had just returned from Del Rio, where he did it as a one-man show, accompanying himself on the guitar.
Perhaps the most engaging character in Mavericks is Henry Ralph Wooley, known as Oil Field Willie or sometimes as Governor Willie, the Chief Executive of the East Texas Oil Field. Wooley’s specialty was waging mock political campaigns by giving street-corner speeches in double-talk. Wooley appeared in Kilgore in 1931, at the height of the East Texas oil boom, and declared his candidacy against Ma Ferguson for governor in the 1932 election (although he never formally filed). His platform was “ten dollar oil, ten cent beer, bigger dance halls, shorter skirts, and free roses for the ladies.” He was immediately adopted by Kilgore’s oilmen, who opened accounts for him at local cafes and cigar stands and supplied him with suits and shirts from Kilgore’s finest haberdashery, the Hub. Wooley flourished on the sidewalks of Kilgore until his death in an automobile accident in 1940. In his last campaign he ran for an office of his own invention, public suspecter, whose occupant’s job was to keep an eye on all public officials. His slogan was “No grifters, no grafters, no insects in the rafters.”
Fowler reports that two strangers to Kilgore were listening to one of Wooley’s sidewalk orations when one said to the other, “Let’s go, he’s crazy.” Wooley turned on him and said, “I may be crazy but you don’t see me walking to work in the rain carrying my lunch in a tin syrup bucket.” He was a performance artist in spades.
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Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.