GENE AUTRY — Can you imagine a town renaming itself in honor of a celebrity?
Maybe Tulsa could be Bill Hader. Henryetta could be Jim Shoulders or Troy Aikman. Checotah could be Carrie Underwood.
On Nov. 16, 1941, the name of an Oklahoma town — Berwyn — was changed to Gene Autry. A singing cowboy, Autry was one of the biggest movie stars of the era.
Only 227 people lived in Berwyn at the time, according to published reports. But there was a temporary population boom because an estimated 35,000 people (some arrived on special trains) rolled into the Carter County village to lay eyes on the guest of honor during festivities to change the town’s name.
Jimmy Brock was a face in the crowd. Brock, who will turn 89 in December, was 10 years old when his hometown became Gene Autry. He recalled the biggest day in the town’s history during a recent phone interview.
“They were supposed to have a parade, but they never could get the people off of Main Street so they just called it off,” Brock said. “There were people everywhere.”
Singing cowboy craze
Why are we talking about this decades later? Ken Burns.
The documentary filmmaker’s latest epic is a 16-hour deep dive into the history of country music. The documentary is being shown in eight two-hour chapters. The documentary shows that country music has many branches, including cowboy music. Autry, who sparked a singing cowboy craze in the 1930s, is among spotlighted artists in the second episode, scheduled to air at 7 p.m. Monday on PBS (OETA/KOED channel 11).
The Berwyn-to-Gene Autry name change is mentioned. Maybe folks who watch it will get motivated to take a drive to the town (it’s near Ardmore) and check out a link to the past — the Gene Autry Oklahoma Museum.
At one point, the museum was closed for several months, according to Glenn Smith, president of the Gene Autry Historical Society.
“But two or three guys kind of got together and got with the city and they were able to get it opened back up,” he said. The museum, which operates on a donation basis, is open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
Brock said it would be a dirty shame if the museum (“there’s a world of stuff in there”) had closed permanently.
The museum needs to be open, said Smith, “because this is history — as you walk through here and look at all this, this is stuff that most kids today have no clue about.”
Important distinction: This isn’t the Gene Autry Museum. It’s the Gene Autry Oklahoma Museum. That means you can find plenty of artifacts related to you-know-who inside (did you know a Gene Autry line of bicycles were equipped with horseheads?), but you can also be enlightened by exhibits related to local history and other Western-themed entertainers. A framed picture in a display devoted to the town’s history shows young Brock standing on a platform with classmates during the name-change ceremony.
“I didn’t have a belt, so I wore my dad’s Army belt from World War I,” he said. “Times were pretty hard about that time. People were just getting over the Depression.”
Times were good for Autry.
The year before the name change, only Mickey Rooney, Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable were ahead of Autry on Hollywood’s cash-cow list. From 1938-42, Autry was the most bank-able star of Western movies.
“I grew up going to Gene Autry movies every Saturday,” Willie Nelson says during the country music documentary. “Gene was my hero.”
If you need context for why a town would proudly swap its name for a celebrity’s name, there you go.
Was there any resistance to the name change? Brock said his father signed a petition in favor of the switch. The Oklahoman reported 98% of voters signed the petition. Carter County commissioners signed off on a name-change resolution two weeks before the big day.
Though Autry immediately became a favorite son, he was not born or raised in Berwyn. He was born in north Texas. His family later lived near Oklahoma map dots like Ravia and Achille.
How did Autry get connected to the town that would eventually share his name? Pre-fame, he worked as a telegraph operator near Berwyn, which was a rail stop. While in the same line of work in northeast Oklahoma (Chelsea), he was “discovered” and encouraged by Will Rogers.
Autry became a radio star (he was labeled “Oklahoma’s yodeling cowboy” at KVOO), a recording star and, eventually, a movie star.
In the summer of 1941, Autry made headlines when he made a deal to purchase a ranch near Berwyn from an Ardmore merchant. The Flying A Ranch was intended to be the home base for a traveling rodeo show — and maybe the foothills of the Arbuckle Mountains could be used as a staging ground for movies?
“He was going to make some films out here,” Brock said. “They were going to make some of those shoot ‘em ups where they don’t ever run out of ammunition.”
Leading up to the change
Two months before the name change, Autry performed five shows in four Oklahoma cities (including Tulsa) to drum up support for U.S. savings bonds. “I’m against war, and I’m not a fighting man,” Autry said. “But I firmly believe our country should be prepared for an emergency, and I appeal to you to support this drive.” At that time, Autry’s manager said he expected Autry’s approximately 1,000 fan letters per day would be directed to his Oklahoma ranch.
On Nov. 8, 1941, eight days before Berwyn’s name change, a fire ravaged Autry’s ranch home in California. The assumption was the tragedy would expedite Autry’s plan to build a permanent home at his Oklahoma ranch.
Oklahoma Gov. Leon Phillips invited governors of neighboring states to be his guest at the name-change ceremony. He offered to send Highway Patrol escorts to meet them at state lines. Autry’s camp publicly announced guest invitations. Among names on the list was Lloyd Rust, head of Republic Pictures.
An Oklahoman story said someone could have rolled a cannonball down Berwyn’s Main Street without hitting a soul the weekend before the name-change ceremony. But on the day Autry came to town (he did a radio show on-site), the newspaper said 35,000 people “crammed and jammed” into a space large enough for 25,000. Five people collapsed from the heat. Many others were hot on Autry’s trail.
Said the Oklahoman story: “The avalanche of Autry fans followed their hero everywhere he went, kept him hemmed in from all sides and besieged him with scores of requests for autographs and picture poses.”
Happily ever after? The world changed 21 days later. Pearl Harbor was bombed.
Autry joined the Army Air Corps in 1942. According to bio information on geneautry.com, Sgt. Autry ferried fuel, ammunition and arms in the China-India-Burma theater of World War II and flew over the Himalayas, a hazardous air route known as “The Hump.”
Autry resumed his movie career after the war and, moving on with life, sold the ranch to Roy Greenland.
The ranch is all but gone now, but the museum is still around to remind people like Brock, who has spent all but 10 months of his life in Gene Autry, that his hometown has a story unlike any other town in Oklahoma.