BY STEVEN ROSEN/ LOS ANGELES TIMES/ JUNE 39, 2009
Reporting from Kenton, OH.
During last weekend’s Gene Autry Days festival here, a prominently displayed photograph showed the singing-cowboy movie star standing outside a local factory, surrounded by the proud employees.
It was taken on Aug. 8, 1938 – famously remembered by locals as the day Autry came to pay his respects to this small city in northwestern Ohio, about 75 miles south of Toledo. Kenton Hardware Co., a key employer that made cast-iron toys but was struggling to survive the Depression, had that year introduced the new Gene Autry Repeating Cap Pistol.
An immediate bestseller to young cowpokes worldwide at 50 cents per gun, a million had already been manufactured by the time Autry arrived to visit. For licensing his name and allowing a mold to be made of his own gun, Autry became the hero who saved the town’s main employer — and yes, he also got a cut of revenue.
That same day, Autry with his horse Champion did five performances at downtown’s Kenton Theatre. Some 4,500 people attended, according to contemporary accounts.
Kenton Hardware is long-gone, its factory shutting down in 1952 as America lost interest in cast-iron toys. But Autry’s impact on the city of 8,300 lives on via the festival. It just concluded its 16th year at the Hardin County Fairgrounds – not far from the still-standing but vacant factory. It’s a salute not only to The Cowboy but to a slice of American history that seems both similar to our own age (tough economic times) and very different (making toys in a Midwest factory).
Among those the event attracted this year was 70-year-old Richard Dzwonkiewicz, from Grayslake, Ill, a retired military careerist dressed as a white-hatted cowboy Autry for the festival’s look-alike contest.
“As you participate in this, that long-ago event becomes more meaningful,” he explains, as visitors come over to take his picture. “It’s still being remembered today, and all of us are part of that memory.”
The festival, run by the Hardin County Chamber & Business Alliance, started as a way to help pay for a new Community Building at the fairgrounds. Autry, still alive in 1994, approved it. (He died in 1998, at age 91.)
As a remembrance of him, Kenton’s event certainly isn’t as high profile as Los Angeles’ Autry National Center of the American West. It is a relatively small, mostly indoor affair where visitors can buy Autry and other Western-related collectibles and hear singers such as Paul Belanger (The Oklahoma Yodeling Cowboy) perform songs associated with Autry, like “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine” and “Back in the Saddle Again.”
The festival also offers an opportunity to teach and celebrate the way Kenton’s manufacturing past once intersected with pop culture. The history museum, for instance, had a booth with photos and other information about Autry’s 1938 visit. One of the vendors and festival organizers, 77-year-old Bob Bailey, can recall meeting Autry in 1938.
For the many older attendees, Autry represents a vanished aspect of pop culture.
“His movies were wholesome and had moral values – the bad guys didn’t win,” says 72-year-old Richard Gearhart, of nearby Bucyrus. He had come to the festival and then went downtown to snap photos of the five-year-old civic mural showing a waving Autry, on his rearing horse Champion, in front of a vibrantly red-brick Kenton Hardware Co.
Vendors at the festival were eager to show off and discuss the changes and additions that Kenton Hardware made over the years to its line of Autry repeating cap guns. For instance, Autry’s signature initially was only on the frame, but it soon was added to the red- or pearl-covered grip. In 1951, after it lost the Autry contract, the company briefly made a non-endorsed cap gun known as the Lawmaker.
Today, some models can bring hundreds of dollars, although vendors say sales have slowed in this economy. Also of value – and offered for sale at the festival – were the cardboard boxes the guns came in. They had Autry’s picture on them and noted that the gun was patterned after “the original six shooter of Public Cowboy No. 1.”
“The price is going up on mint guns in the box,” says vendor Joe Krock, 77, also a member of the Gene Autry Days Committee. “They’re hard to find in a box. These were meant for kids to play with, not put away.”
Kenton isn’t the only small American town still honoring Autry.
In September, there is a festival in Gene Autry, Oklahoma, which changed its name from Berwyn after he purchased a ranch there at the height of his fame. He came to that town on Nov. 16, 1941 to celebrate the name change. But just three weeks later, World War II started and he enlisted. Afterward, he sold the ranch but the town kept the name.
And also in September, this year’s Walk of Fame Music Festival and Induction in Richmond, Ind., will be dedicated to Autry. Very early in his career, he recorded for the city’s Gennett Records, a now-defunct but historic record label whose heritage city leaders want to promote.
Born in rural Tioga, Texas, Autry first found fame as a singer and performer on Chicago’s WLS Barn Dance radio show, branching out in the 1930s to movies while still keeping active in radio, recordings and personal appearances. He later became the owner of the California Angels based in Orange County.
“He always put across this man-of-the-people, everyman vibe that people picked up on,” says Holly George-Warren, author of the Autry biography “Public Cowboy No. 1” and a past attendee at Kenton’s festival, in a phone interview.
“And during the Great Depression, someone with that reassuring presence, who had become successful but still had a plainspoken and conversant tone, really got to people.”