This Week in Texas History:
A column by BARTEE HAILE
Apr. 6, 1951 was “Boyce House Day” in Ranger with folks coming from miles around to thank the guest of honor for writing the book “Roaring Ranger” that put the reformed boom town in the national spotlight.
Boyce House was born not in the Lone Star State but at Piggott in the northeastern corner of Arkansas. Noah House, a printer by trade, was editor of the local weekly when his wife gave birth to a baby boy in 1896.
Despite his Arkansas roots, House did much of his growing up in Texas. He went to schools in Brownwood, Uvalde, Alpine and Taylor before his widowed mother announced they were moving to Memphis just a short boat ride down the Mississippi from his birthplace.
House lived in Tennessee’s largest city long enough to finish high school and to find his first job as a cub reporter with The Commercial-Appeal. For a young man in his twenties, however, he was sick a lot, a situation easily remedied by returning to Texas in 1920.
His choice of Eastland County not only improved House’s health but greatly increased his chances of being in the right place at the right time for two once-in-a-career news stories.
The newspaperman witnessed the infamous Santa Claus Bank Robbery in Cisco on Dec. 23, 1927. He watched a local no-good dressed as Saint Nick and three accomplices hold up the First National Bank and shoot to death two lawmen on their way out of town.
In his riveting first-hand account picked up by the wire services, House called it “the most spectacular crime in the history of the Southwest surpassing any in which Billy the Kid or the James boys had ever figured.” He provided an exciting play-by-play of the largest manhunt to date in Texas history that resulted in the capture and incarceration of the culprits.
Two months later, House was present for the coming-out party of “Old Rip,” a horned toad that supposedly survived three decades in the cornerstone of the Eastland County courthouse. He gave the off-beat tale the tongue-in-cheek treatment it deserved and in the process turned “Old Rip” into a celebrity and a tourist attraction.
In the 1930’s, the full-time journalist moonlighted as an oil-boom historian. His books and steady stream of articles on the post-World War I discoveries in and around Eastland County landed him a job as technical advisor for the 1940 motion picture “Boomtown” starring Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy.
Resisting a rumored temptation to remain in Hollywood, House came home and reinvented himself. He combined his natural sense of humor with his love of the Lone Star past to become “King of the Texas Brag.”
“I Give You Texas: 500 Jokes of the Lone Star State” got his new career off to a Roman-candle start. Published in 1943, bookstores could not keep it in stock as Texans bought copies to send to friends and family members serving overseas. Total sales of “I Give You Texas” were said to have exceeded 200,000.
House followed this best-seller with “Tall Talk From Texas” in 1944 and “Texas, Proud and Loud” in 1945. While those two books did not sell quite as well as his initial effort, demand was high enough to necessitate several printings.
Somehow, during those war years, House found the time to campaign twice for lieutenant governor on a populist platform. He managed not to embarrass himself at the polls finishing third in a field of nine candidates in the 1942 Democratic Party primary.
After World War II and scratching his political itch, he began writing a column that eventually ran in 130 newspapers. To his busy schedule, he soon added his own radio show.
In spite of the fact that for a time House rivaled him for the honorary title of “Mr. Texas,” J. Frank Dobie had nothing but high praise for the humorist he considered “a poet as well as historian and wordwielder.”
House’s seventeenth and final book, a collection of his amusing experiences in the newspaper business, came out in 1957. Although he stayed active as executive vice- president of a consumer finance association, the writing well evidently had gone dry.
House suffered a serious heart attack in September 1961 from which he never really recovered. On the morning of Dec. 30, 1961, he bought a paper as usual in the lobby of the Fort Worth hotel where he lived and went back upstairs to read it. Just before noon, the maid found him dead in bed.
During his long reign as “King of the Texas Brag,” Boyce House delighted in disarming out-of-state critics with his distinctive brand of humor. “Texans at heart are really modest,” he once wrote. “But when we tell the plain, unadorned, unretouched truth about our incomparable state, we are accused of exaggerating.”
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San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.
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