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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Boyce House

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

His name once was a household word in Texas, but only a few aficionados of Texana know it today.

He wrote 17 books--more than J. Frank Dobie. He reported for and edited newspapers, regaled countless civic clubs and Chamber of Commerce banquets with Texas anecdotes, worked in Hollywood as technical consultant for a blockbuster movie starring Clark Gable, ran twice for lieutenant governor, wrote a column that ran in 200 newspapers, had a weekly radio show and was a member of the by-invitation-only Texas Institute of Letters.

Most of his books went through numerous editions with thousands of copies printed. One book sold more than 200,000 copies. Some of his stories appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, the top national magazine of its day.

Chances are, you’ve never heard of Boyce House. But he deserves to be remembered.

House improved the communities he served as a hard hitting newspaper editor, he made a couple of generations of Texans laugh and he offered himself as an unsuccessful political candidate. What he did best, however, was collect Texas stories--folktales, jokes, history--and preserve them in books, articles and newspaper columns.

Born in Piggott, Ark., in 1896 as the son of a country newspaper editor, House lived in Texas for several years and attended schools in Brownwood, Uvalde, Taylor and Alpine. When his father died, his mother moved to Memphis, Tenn., where House graduated from high school. He cut his journalistic teeth as a cub reporter on the Memphis Commercial-Appeal in 1916.

He came to Texas in 1920 because of ill health, but soon recovered. He wrote for or edited newspapers in the oil boom towns of Eastland, Cisco and Ranger and later worked for papers in Olney and Fort Worth.

House covered one of Texas’ biggest crime stories, the so-called Santa Claus bank robbery in Cisco on Dec. 23, 1927. He broke the story of "Old Rip" (for Rip Van Winkle), the horned toad that supposedly survived for 30 years sealed in the cornerstone of the Eastland County Courthouse. This almost certainly was a Chamber of Commerce trick, possibly concocted by House himself, but many folks swore it was true. One thing for sure, "Old Rip" made great newspaper copy and focused national attention on Eastland County and the man who wrote the stories about it.

His newspaper career in Eastland County coincided with one of Texas’ most prolific oil booms. At the height of the drilling activity, $1 million worth of oil gushed every 72 hours from wells around Ranger. House wrote four books that remain excellent sources of information on this wildcat period of early 20th-century Texas history: "Were You In Ranger?" (1935), "Oil Boom" (1941), "Roaring Ranger: The World’s Biggest Boom" (1951) and "Oil Field Fury" (1954).

Books by Boyce House

This expertise in the lore of the oil patch got him a job in Hollywood as technical adviser for the 1940 movie "Boomtown" and the material for another of his books, "How I Took Hollywood by Storm."

After he came back to Texas from Tinsel Town, House started writing a humorous newspaper column as well as books featuring Texas tales and humor. His best seller was "I Give You Texas," a collection of humorous Texas stories.

Soon after House’s “Roaring Ranger” came out, the former boom town declared April 6, 1951 “Boyce House Day.” Following an invocation, speeches, a glowing introduction and music by the 36-piece Ranger High School band, House spoke at the old Arcadia Theater to a packed house.

House’s last book was "As I Was Saying" (1957), a collection of anecdotes mostly centering on the newspaper business. He dedicated the volume to "The Home Town Editors."

Books by Boyce House

Married in 1927, he and his wife, Golda Fay, did not have children, House died in Fort Worth on Dec. 30, 1961. News of his death even made the New York Times. Most of his books had been published by the old Naylor Co. in San Antonio, a firm that went out of business in the early ‘70s. None of his titles are in print today.

Dobie, for a time House’s chief rival for the title of "Mr. Texas," called his fellow writer of Texana "a poet as well as historian and wordwielder."

The six-volume "New Handbook of Texas" offers this assessment of House’s work: "Analysis and interpretation are lacking in House’s scholarly efforts, and he relied heavily on secondary sources; nevertheless, he was a powerful writer..."

Of course his material lacked "analysis and interpretation." House was a newspaperman of the old school. His generation of journalists viewed analysis and interpretation as cardinal sins, worse than using someone’s name in a story without giving the person’s age.

House simply was a reporter who knew a good story when he heard or saw it and how to tell it even better. He left us, not a gasoline-like refined and boring academic product, but good old Texas crude, a body of work that in time will be recognized as having captured the color of Texas’ early oil days before it flared off like so much waste gas into the darkness of time. His collected anecdotes played a significant role in developing a part of the Texas myth.

Maybe Boyce House will be like the tenacious horned toad he made famous— "Old Rip". It’s time for this Texas writer’s work to be freed from the musty cornerstone of literary obscurity and be appreciated by another crop of Texas readers.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
March 19, 2009 column

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