March 2010 Issue
King of the Buckeyes
A legendary cowboy’s dream began in southern Ohio.
When I was a child in the 1950s, my favorite toys included a pair of figurines, cast in rubbery white vinyl, of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. They came with a “Mineral City” playset, manufactured by Louis Marx toys, that I received for Christmas in 1957.
Thanks to eBay, I’m studying these figures again. Although they fit differently in my hand, the King of the Cowboys still wears a dimpled grin as he rests his hands on his gunbelt. The Queen of the West, beaming and holding her hat, is still resplendent in her fringed Western outfit.
These toys remind me of the tremendous appeal of the Old West when I was little. Wearing floppy cowboy hats and brandishing plastic six-shooters, my friends and I transformed our Findlay neighborhood into the make-believe realm that Roy and Dale inhabited each week on TV. On rainy days, my Mineral City playset allowed the Western dream to continue indoors.
When my miniature Roy was popped from its mold at the Marx factory in Glen Dale, West Virginia, the real-life Roy was in his mid-40s and in the final season of his TV show.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my escapes to Mineral City were taking me out of Cold-War Ohio just as surely as the Western dream had taken Roy Rogers out of Depression-era Ohio a quarter-century earlier.
Some 300 miles downstream from the Marx plant, the Ohio flowed just three blocks away from Roy’s first home: a Cincinnati tenement standing on the future site of the Reds’ Riverfront Stadium. When Leonard Franklin Slye was still a baby, the family moved upstream to Portsmouth and lived on a houseboat; when he was 7, they moved to a farm in Duck Run, near Lucasville. Ten years later they returned to Cincinnati, where Len and his father took jobs in a shoe factory. In 1930, the Slyes made the big move: to southern California, where father and son worked in construction and followed the harvests, living in migratory workers’ camps.
At the time, a vibrant fantasy world was growing in the Los Angeles suburb of Hollywood. With Western music booming along with Western movies, Len and his cousin Stanley tried to break into this fantasy world by forming an act called The Slye Brothers. In 1934, Len founded The Sons of the Pioneers, and within a year landed a bit part in a movie. His big break came in 1938, when he re-christened himself Roy Rogers and quickly became a box-office star.
When I was a child, I had no idea that the King of the Cowboys was a fellow Ohioan, or that his sidekick, Pat Brady, was born just 50 miles away in Toledo. To me, Roy and Dale lived in a perpetually sunny realm where everything turned out all right in the end.
After their show went off the air, Roy and Dale spent the next four decades working tirelessly as advocates for the welfare of children and supporters of adoption. Their 50-year marriage ended when Roy died in 1998 at the age of 87; Dale followed three years later when she was 89. In the real world, as opposed to the imaginary West, that’s about as happy as endings get.
Things also turned out all right for the playset figures standing before me. These tiny lumps of rubberized vinyl made it all the way from the Cold War into the 21st century. They remind me of a conviction that I held when I was roaming the prairies and badlands of Findlay: a belief that dreams, even unlikely ones, sometimes come true. Granted, I never became a cowboy. But another Ohio boy persisted in that Western dream and became king of them all.
Jeffrey Hammond, a native of Findlay, is Reeves Distinguished Professor in the Liberal Arts and Professor of English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.