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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Frontier Times

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

In the fall of 1923, with the Old West still very much alive in the memory of many who had lived it, a peregrinating newspaperman named J. Marvin Hunter started a monthly magazine called Frontier Times.

The first issue appeared that October. Hunter matched the typography of new the magazine to its subject, choosing type fonts and a layout that gave it the appearance of a 19th century publication. Vol. 1, No. 1 offered 13 stories ranging from a piece on Texas Ranger John Coffee Hays to an article on the folklore of madstones. As its masthead proclaimed, the magazine would explore “frontier history, border tragedy, and pioneer achievement.”

With occasional typographical errors and some stories that needed better editing, Hunter’s yellow-covered monthly was not flawless. Even so, its content—old-timer recollections, reprints of newspaper stories and excerpts from scarce or out-of-print books—generally made up for any editorial lapses. Mostly a one-man operation, the magazine was a labor of love.

“After you read a few issues,” a future publisher of the magazine would write, “you’ll get to where you even treasure the flaws—a line left out, a typo here and there—all human failings by a man who lacked the capital to hire enough help. Hunter drew his own covers, set his own type, ran them through the press, and mailed them. At 2 a.m. in a little western town with nobody still awake but a sleep-eyed publisher and a coyote or two up on the hill, who wouldn’t pick up the wrong piece of type once in a while—or forget to number a page!”

That “little western town” was the Hill Country community of Bandera, where Hunter settled in 1921 after publishing weekly newspapers all over West Texas as well as a few sheets in Arizona and New Mexico. In all, his name had appeared on the masthead of 16 newspapers at various times, but the Bandera New Era (which he published from 1921 to 1935) and later the Bandera Bulletin (1945 until his death in 1957) were his two longest-running newspapers.

Six years after its first issue, Hunter’s magazine had only a thousand subscribers. But they were dedicated readers, and after the Depression readership increased.

“I claim that it is the only magazine of its kind in the world,” Hunter said in an interview with the Houston Chronicle published Feb. 2, 1929. “The contents are more thrilling than the product of modern authors who write ‘wild and wooly western stuff. Frontier Times prints...the real frontier history, untainted with fiction.”

Among his subscribers, the publisher continued, were the “leading schools, colleges and universities, libraries and prominent individuals. . . . They all tell me that I am doing a great work, and I hope I am.”

He had reason to wonder. Frontier Times was Hunter’s third try at publishing a non-fiction Western magazine. The first was the short-lived Hunter’s Magazine (1910-), followed by Hunter’s Frontier Magazine in 1916.

“Frontier history has always been my hobby,” Hunter told the Houston newspaper. “My mission in life is to preserve this history.”

For nearly thirty years, Hunter “got out” (to use the language of the lead type days) his monthly magazine. In 1952, his son, J. Marvin Hunter Jr., took over. A year later, the magazine went quarterly and in 1954, only one issue appeared. In all, the Hunters published 344 issues.

Meanwhile, Austin writer and magazine publisher Joe Austell Small started a magazine called True West. His publication was similar to Frontier Times in that it featured authentic stories of the old west, but there were major differences. True West hit the newstands in a standard 8.5- by 11-inch format with attractive four-color covers and black and white drawings and photographs inside. With articles by name writers like Walt Coburn, J. Frank Dobie, Fred Gipson and Walter Prescott Webb, Small’s magazine quickly caught on.

In the fall of 1955, Small bought Frontier Times. He initially suspended publication of the magazine, but brought it back to life as a quarterly in the winter of 1957. Fueled by quality writing, good editing and the boom in television Westerns, Small’s publications grew in circulation and developed a national reputation that spawned several imitators.

Small’s success did not make him reluctant to try new things. In 1972, he decided to begin reprinting the early issues of Hunter’s Frontier Times.

“We know people who would pay $100 for certain single copies of the originals!” proclaimed a True West house ad announcing the reprint series. “In these extremely rare copies of a magazine conceived a half-century ago you can relive the Old West in accounts written by actual participants in the daily struggle with Indians, outlaws, and forces of nature which people entering the West neither understood nor anticipated.”

Small continued with the monthly reprints of Hunter’s magazine as well as quarterly publication of new issues of Frontier Times until 1979, when he sold his magazines and retired.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" July 27, 2013 column

Related Topic:
Old News

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