They say that the truth is often stranger than fiction, and this was definitely the case for Western legend Tom Mix. In his case, the truth and fiction have been jumbled together in tales that held listeners and movie goers captive for more than a dozen years.
Thomas Hezekiah Mix was born in 1880 in Cameron County, a rural section of Pennsylvania. His early bios would tell you that he was from Oklahoma or Texas and that he was part Indian, but Tom wasn’t born a Western boy at all. He began his adult life by enlisting in the Army but he never saw any action and soon deserted. Again, his history was often exaggerated, placing him with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and placing him in the center of half a dozen different wars. Rumors that he was a Texas Ranger likely came from his short stay as a town Marshall and deputy sheriff.
Tom’s movie days began when he was riding with various Wild West Show’s in the early 1900’s. One of the local ranches provided cowboys and Indians for the silent movies and in 1910 Tom was hired to work on his first of more than 300 films. Soon Mix was writing and directing and by the 1920’s he was the king of the cowboy stars with the help of his super smart horse Tony (yes, Tony) Mix’s flamboyant lifestyle and thirst for action made him the talk of people in Hollywood and all over the US. He married seven times, made millions in the movies, then lost it all in the Great Stock Market Crash. With the birth of talking movies, Tom’s fame began to fade. He left the big screen and went to work with a traveling circus. It was during one of his stops that he met with an advertising representative working on behalf of Ralston Purina. He signed up Mix with a contract (so the legend says) written on the back of an envelope. The contract gave Ralston permission to use Tom’s name and likeness for Sunday comics, advertisements and premiums related to a new radio series. For this Mix would be paid three payments of 5,000 dollars spread over five years. After that, Ralston would own the rights to Tom Mix forever. The money turned out to be enough for a lifetime since Mix was killed in a freak car accident just months after the last payment was made.
Before the radio show took over the airwaves, Ralston had a test run, announcing Tom Mix’s Straight Shooter Club in the Sunday comics. The feed company was overwhelmed when more than 25,000 requests showed up. They knew they had a hit. Tom Mix premiered on the radio in 1933 with Artells Dickson playing Tom. Over the next 17 years, various people would play Tom with the longest run going to Curley Bradley who had played Pecos Williams earlier in the shows run. The fifteen minute serial ran five times a week on NBC radio and kids and adults alike tuned in each week to hear the exciting chronicles of this western hero.
Like many serials of the day, Ralston offered premiums that fit into the plot of the show. One of the coolest is the Tom Mix Telegraph Set. Tom used his special telegraph to contact his Straight Shooters when the bad guys laid down on the railroad tracks in order to derail the train. (kids, don’t try this at home) For ten cents and a Hot Ralston pouring spout you could have your very own telegraph set, but not quite like Tom’s. The blue box with a telegraph key didn’t actually work. Many kids were disappointed so they didn’t order the new improved red battery powered telegraph offered more than a year later. The red set could be connected to a second box, allowing the child to actually send signals. 60,000 were given away but very few remain.
If you wanted to be a Straight Shooter you could get The Life of Tom Mix and Secret Manual from Ralston. For those into jewelry, you could buy a “24-karat gold plated” ring with your own initial or Tom’s engraved on the front. There were more than a dozen styles of rings offered, including the Magic Tiger Eye, the Siren Ring and the slide whistle ring. To be totally dressed there was the cowboy belt for twenty cents, a Ralston bandanna, a baseball cap and chaps. No good cowboy would be caught dead without his spurs so you could be a Glow-in-the-dark pair or ones with leather straps. Either will run you several hundred dollars today.
For those secret cave expeditions, get the Glow-in-the-dark plastic compass and magnifying glass or gun and the tiny glowing arrowhead whistle to call for help. Even better in the dark was the Tom Mix Bullet Flashlight with Mix’s brand right on the sleeve of the bullet. For those undercover moments, there were two versions of the Mix Make-up Kit. The kits include false beard and mustache, fake cardboard teeth and tins of make-up say Ralston Straight Shooters. A complete kit will run you around 300 dollars.
In one episode Tom bluffed his way out of trouble with a wooden gun. This premium had a revolving cylinder and Tom Mix markings on the grips. Later the item was reproduced with no working parts but all three versions bring in more than 200 dollars.
Incredibly, many toys and premiums have survived these seventy years. Perhaps it was because many were made of indestructible metal, unlike the crop of plastic toys made in the ’50s and ’60s. But perhaps these items survived because of what they represented. Tom Mix was a hero to children, a larger-than-life figure that they all dreamed about while drifting off to sleep. I’ll bet that these rings, and medals, and whistles were loved and cherished and stored in a treasure box with a child’s new penny and favorite marble. I think Tom Mix premiums have survived for the same reason Tom’s memory has survived, because they’re just too cool to loose. For Tom Mix and his horse Tony, round-up time has yet to come.