The following story is from the National Compendium of 4-H Promotion and Visibility on the National 4-H History website at
While it perhaps wasn’t as easy for rural youth to get into town to see the latest matinee performance of their favorite western idols at the local movie theater as it was for their big city cousins, they were true fans nonetheless. And, the western movie stars of the 1940s and 1950s seemed to be well aware of this. For many of the western stars, if not most of them, there was a direct connection with 4-H. Some grew up on farms or ranches. Some had been 4-H members. All of them made regular appearances at horse shows, state fairs and county 4-H fairs.
A few of these western idols and their 4-H connections are documented below:
- Roy Rogers
Roy Rogers was a huge star during the 1940s and 1950s, known as the “King of the Cowboys.” He was one of the singing cowboys which was prominent in western movies at that time, appearing in over 100 films between 1935 and 1984.
Rogers (born Leonard Slye) was born in Cincinnati but grew up on the family farm in Duck Run, Ohio, having a pig as a 4-H project. The April 1957 National 4-H News, p. 18, has a photo of Roy Rogers w/alumni plaque awarded as state 4-H alumni winner in Ohio. He was honored as a national 4-H alumni recipient in 1958.
Roy Rogers appeared in a 1984 promotional film, “4-H is More,” creating public awareness for 4-H. He also assisted National 4-H Council through a national direct mail letter over his name which went to alumni as a fund raising appeal in 1985. Roy Rogers (and his wife, Dale Evans) attended National 4-H Congress in Chicago several times. Their famous theme song, “Happy Trails,” was written by Dale Evans.
- Gene Autry
Gene Autry was known as America’s favorite singing cowboy. “Back In The Saddle Again” was Autry’s signature song which he co-wrote with Ray Whitley. “Here Comes Santa Claus (Down Santa Claus Lane) was written and originally performed by Autry.
Gene Autry was one of the top money-making western stars in film history. Autry’s film and recording careers, along with wise investments, made him extremely wealthy. Gene Autry sponsored national 4-H scholarship awards at National 4-H Congress for several years during the 1950s. He entertained at National 4-H Congress in 1945 as part of the WLS Barn Dance Show for the Congress delegates.
- William Boyd (Hopalong Cassidy)
The small town of Hendrysburg, south of Piedmont Lake in Ohio, is the birthplace of William Boyd who portrayed Hopalong Cassidy in western movies during the 1940s and 1950s. Hopalong Cassidy was one of the “good guy” western stars to dress in black. Boyd made 66 films as Hopalong Cassidy. Unlike the other two major western stars of the 1940’s-50’s, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy’s character did not sing and, in fact, Boyd disliked Western music. Like Rogers and Autry, however, Boyd licensed much merchandise supporting the Hopalong Cassidy brand, a wise move which made all three stars extremely wealthy.
Hopalong Cassidy attended the Thomas E. Wilson Day dinner at the 1955 National 4-H Club Congress in Chicago where he entertained the delegates.
- Duncan Renando (The Cisco Kid)
Duncan Renando was an American actor best remembered as The Cisco Kid in films in the 1950’s and the TV series, “The Cisco Kid.” He attended the 1955 Thomas E. Wilson dinner at National 4-H Congress in Chicago, entertaining the 4-H Congress delegates at the height of his popularity.
- Rex Allen
Rex Allen was a film actor, singer and songwriter born on a ranch in Mud Springs Canyon, Arizona. He became a rodeo rider and then headed to Chicago where in the 1940’s he was a performer on the WLS program, National Barn Dance (with 4-H Congress delegates as one of his audiences). Beginning in 1950 Rex Allen became a film star for Republic Pictures in Hollywood, making 19 Western movies, becoming one of the top 10 box office draws of the day.
Rex Allen starred in Universal Pictures 1961 4-H film, “Tom Boy and the Champ,” produced in honor of 4-H Clubs across the country. Allen also entertained 4-H delegates at the National 4-H Congress in Chicago in 1945 at the Thomas E. Wilson Day banquet.
- Johnny Western
Johnny Western (born Johnny Westerlund) is an American country singer, songwriter, musician and actor. He was born in 1934 in Two Harbors, Minnesota and began recording at his local 4-H Club singing Gene Autry’s “Riding Down the Canyon” and other songs. He was in several movies and performed with Gene Autry and was part of the Johnny Cash Road Show for a 40 year period. In 1958 Johnny Western wrote and performed the theme song, “The Ballad of Paladin” for the CBS television program “Have Gun – Will Travel” with Richard Boone. Through the shows 225 episodes, and reruns, the show has technically never been off the air. Western’s last tour and performance was in 2013, the 4-H alum retiring from show business except for doing one or two planned projects a year.
- Tom Mix and Clayton Moore (The Lone Ranger)
Tom Mix was the first movie superstar and was paid an enormous salary. He established the form of the western movies for decades to come by making western movies flamboyant and action oriented. He appeared in 291 films between 1909 and 1935… mostly silent.
Clayton Moore was an American actor best known for playing the fictional western character the Lone Ranger and it became his life-long occupation. In addition to a number of films, “The Lone Ranger” TV series became the ABC network’s first true hit program.
Both Tom Mix and Clayton Moore exemplify the western stars who appeared over the years at country events at state and county levels including many 4-H fairs and horse shows.
Randolph Scott, Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, Henry Fonda, Joel McCrea, Lee Marvin, James Arness, Walter Brennan and dozens more all made western films during this 1940s-1950s era but are also known in a much broader context than the “cowboy movie stars” listed above.
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