Monday, April 18, 2016

Tom Mix: Cowboy of the Silver Screen

Grave of Tom Mix
Forest Lawn Memorial Park
Glendale, California
Armed with vague directions, I stepped out of the car into the warm weather of Southern California. I was definitely not missing the snow and arctic winds that where terrorizing those back in Pennsylvania at the moment. I was surprised when my mother stepped out of the car.

“Who are we hunting for?” she asked. I merely stared. “Don’t look at me like that. Somebody has to do the work for you.”

I didn’t argue. We spread out over one of the many hilltops of Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. The cemetery was a maze in itself and I was glad for the directions and help, no matter how vague they were.

“Guess who I found!” I heard my mother call out. I looked up from the marker I had paused at – the grave of Theodore Dreiser, who wrote Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy (which is based on the 1908 murder of Grace Brown in upstate New York).

I sighed as I crossed the short distance to where she stood above the marker of the most famous native of Mix Run, Pennsylvania. “That’d be him,” I agreed though inwardly I knew I would never live down the fact that she had been the one to “discover” his resting place.

Arcade card featuring Tom Mix
From my personal collection
Thomas Hezikiah Mix was born January 6, 1880 in the small grouping of houses known as Mix Run. Though this may not be the case – he may have been born in Dubois but Tom always insisted he was born at Mix Run. Tom was the third of four children born to Edwin and Elizabeth Mix. It is known that shortly after his birth, the Mix family was living in Dubois where his father worked for John Dubois, the town founder. His father worked in the stables and it was here that Tom learned to love and care for horses.

When Tom left Pennsylvania, he adopted his father's name, Edwin, for his own middle name. In all of his movies and appearances, he went by the name Tom E. Mix.

Tom joined the army at the age of nineteen, and rose to the rank of Artillery Sergeant, but in 1901 deserted the army, a fact he kept a secret until his death. The reason for his desertion was to marry the first of his five wives, Grace Allen. The marriage only lasted a year before it was annulled.

The next couple of years he held odd jobs around the mid-west including, a cowhand, a bartender, a sheriff, a performer in a number of Wild West shows, and a drum major in the Oklahoma Cavalry Band.

In 1910, he was hired by Selig Pictures to be a horse handler and that same year appeared in his first picture, Ranch Life in the Great Southwest. The next twenty five years he was writing, producing, and appearing in almost three hundred movies. Sadly, most of these movies have been lost or destroyed and very little remains of his movie career.

In 1929, Tom served as one of the pallbearers for Wyatt Earp’s funeral, a piece of trivia that was popularized with the movie Tombstone.

Postcard featuring Tom Mix
From my personal collection
By 1935, he had left the movie industry due to his age and the introduction of "talking pictures." Tom appeared in a handful of "talkies" but soon returned to his first love, the Wild West shows. He had continued the Wild West show circuit between movies, but he now devoted his full attention to his favorite past time, and would form the shirt-lived Tom Mix Circus. With his horse, Tony, he showcased his riding and shooting skills.

But for most, it is his strange death that Tom is known for. He had spent October 12, 1940 in Tuscan, Arizona visiting friends. He was headed north on Route 79 near Florence, Arizona when he came upon barriers placed by a work crew fixing a bridge that had been washed out. He slammed on the brakes and the car swerved into the gully. In the back seat he had a large suitcase balanced on top of a pile of his belongings and when the car went into the gully, it slid forward and hit him, breaking his neck and killing him instantly.

Pennsylvania Historical Marker
Along Route 555
At one time, there was a museum dedicated to Tom and his career in the collection of houses known as Mix Run. Early one morning I set out to find the place I had heard about on a PBS special that had played on our local station. 

I passed through the community of Castle Garden and crossed Bennett's Run. No sooner had I crossed the creek and the pavement ended and I was on a poorly maintained back road. Deeper and deeper into the mountains I drove until close to four miles after crossing the creek, I found the birthplace and museum.

Parking in front of it, the buildings appeared to be abandoned. I figured I’d take a couple of pictures and then I'd come back another day when it was open. I snapped a couple of pictures of the old museum (which boasted to have “Tom Mix’s Original Outhouse”) and a Pennsylvania Historical Marker before heading back to  "civilization."

When I started looking up the museum’s hours, I discovered that it had been sold a couple weeks before I had stopped to visit. I do not recommend visiting the place of his birth because nothing remains at the location to celebrate Tom Mix anymore. The building that was once a museum with the picture of a cowboy on it has been painted over giving no hint that the building once held a collection of Tom Mix memorabilia. Even the historical marker is gone from this remote location; the state moved the historical marker to a pull-off along Route 555 that over looks Mix Run..

“You ready to continue on?” mom asked, bringing me back to reality.

“Yeah,” I replied – I knew we had a lot of places I wanted to visit and very little time to get them all in while here. I paid my respects to my fellow Pennsylvanian before we quietly walked back across the top of the hill, leaving Tom to rest among the pines of the cemetery.

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