This blog, published free of charge since September 2007, is a way for me to stay in touch with seasonal bookstore visitors from afar and with all customers and friends when I am closed during the winter. My annual seasonal retirement will begin this year on November 1, and I expect to be back and open again by June 2021. Meanwhile, thank you so much for following Books in Northport and for supporting Dog Ears Books.
Search This Blog
Monday, April 6, 2015
A Star in the Western Tradition
Railroad Street, Willcox, Arizona
I vowed not to leave the
Willcox, Arizona, area without paying a visit to the Rex Allen Museum, and now
I can highly recommend it! Here’s
how to get there:
To reach old historic Willcox
from I-10, take the middle of three available exits and you’ll find yourself on
Rex Allen Drive. Follow that to Haskell and turn right. (On Haskell you’ll pass
the Motel 8, which occupies the site of the old house where Rex Allen was born,
contrary to what you might read in Wikipedia about his being born 40 miles to
the north where, it’s true, his parents did live before moving to Willcox.) At
the intersection of Haskell and Maley, turn left, then turn left again at
Railroad Street, and you’re right there, with a couple of museums and wine-tasting
rooms on your left in the Old Town buildings and a beautiful park on your
right. (Across the railroad tracks are yet more wine-tasting rooms. Willcox
wineries outnumber those of Sonoita.) In the park is a bronze sculpture of Rex
Those approaching from
Chiricahua National Monument on Hwy 186 have only to cross the railroad tracks
and turn right, and there you are.
Intersection of Willcox and Railroad streets
Before we came to Willcox,
David and I were not familiar with the name Rex Allen, but since the name is
everywhere in town, with “Rex Allen Days” the well-publicized high point of the
summer season, we asked one of the first residents we spoke with and were told
that he was one of the mid-century singing cowboys, along with Roy Rogers and
Gene Autry. Well, those names we knew, but the name Rex Allen still didn’t ring
a bell with us.
Admission to the Rex Allen
Museum, which also includes the Cowboy Hall of Fame, is only two dollars. I
want to emphasize this: it only costs two dollars to tour this museum! And so, friends and other
readers, if you’re traveling west to Tucson, take the time to get off the
expressway and detour through the old town of Willcox, because you are in for a
When Roy and Gene read the
writing on the wall and saw that television was the up-and-coming entertainment
venue, they started making their own TV shows, the ones I grew up with in the
1950s. Who else remembers? Besides Roy Rodgers and Dale Evans and Gene Autry,
Hopalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger were favorites of mine. Who else am I
forgetting? My point here is that when Roy Rogers stopped making films, an
opening was created, and it was Rex Allen who filled it. Between 1950 and 1954
he made 19 feature films, all with cowboy themes. The advantage to the studio
was that no one had to teach him how to ride.
his first guitar
He was not an actor needing
cowboy lessons. Starting out from Willcox after high school graduation
(“Willcox, Home of the Cowboys”), he went to Tucson with dreams of being a
rodeo bull rider. He’d worked cows before. His first ride on a Brahma bull,
however, persuaded him to concentrate on his music instead. That’s another thing. Rex
Allen wrote the “Arizona Waltz” when he was only 14 years old, and his
recording of “Crying in the Chapel,” long before Elvis touched the song, went gold.
He recorded “Frankie and Johnny.” He had his own long-running regular radio
show on WLS in Chicago. His recording career with Decca spanned 35 years!
And as for the movies, even
after Western films faded away Rex Allen kept working in the film world. Have
you seen “Charlotte’s Web”? That narrator’s voice is Rex Allen’s. He also
narrated “The Incredible Journey” and many other Disney nature documentaries.
“So,” as the volunteer museum host for the day put it, “even if you’ve never heard
of Rex Allen, you’ve heard Rex Allen.”
David wasn’t sure he needed
the Rex Allen Museum experience, so he strolled around in the park across the
street, admiring the sculpture and looking it over carefully while I went in to
begin my tour. But there in the museum I found a different, smaller, limited
edition sculpture David just had to see ... an exhibit on the making of the
large outdoor sculpture ... and then, capping it all, a photograph with
accompanying note to Rex Allen from the Lucchese boot people! “Oh, my god!” escaped
me at that last one. David could not miss this museum!
(David's boots, not Rex's)
Lucky for me, too, that I got
David into the museum, or I might have missed, in my hurrying to rejoin him
outside, the Cowboy Hall of Fame.
In the parlance of baja Arizona, a “cowboy”
isn’t only a lariat-slingin’ vaquero (although he can be that): he’s any
horse-riding, cow-working rancher or ranch employee. Naturally, I am especially
interested in the women ranchers, and in the book of “cowboy” mini-biographies,
the only one I was in its entirety, with pleasure, was of a “cowgirl.” The guys
and gals pictured here in the Hall of Fame are all the real deal.
When Rex Allen’s horse died,
Koko’s ashes were buried in the park in Willcox. Rex himself, with failing
health, spent his last days in Tucson, but he never forgot his hometown. “He’s
the reason we have a hospital,” the museum volunteer told us. While still
alive, Mr. Allen often came to sit in the front window of the museum bearing
his name and chat with visitors.
I didn’t get the name of that
volunteer at the museum, but he and his spiel were memorable. Born in Tucson
himself, he came to Willcox and taught for 28 years in the public school, and
when he retired, he stayed, because, “Where am I gonna go?” Small town life and
higher elevation climate had spoiled him for city life. When I told him where
we had spent the winter, he told me a personal story, about singing for a
burial at the cemetery in Dos Cabezas. His speaking voice was gorgeous, and I
can only imagine how thrilling his singing voice would have been, out there
under the open sky. Here is a rendition by Vince Gill of “Go Rest High on That
Mountain” to give you a taste of the goosebumps I felt hearing the story.
Even when you feel very much at home somewhere, it's worth taking a day to play tourist. I wouldn't have missed this for the world.