By Timothy Rawles / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ
He did for the silent Hollywood western what Elvis did for rock and roll and was just as revered for his talents.
His name was Tom Mix, a traveling rodeo showman who entered Tinseltown when it was still called ‘Hollywoodland.’
For motorists traveling down Arizona State Route 79 (formerly U.S. Highway 80) there’s a small roadside memorial in his honor that’s as much a part of Arizona history as it is of Hollywood’s.
Mix was born in 1880 in Pennsylvania. He had dreams of becoming an entertainer at an early age, namely as a rodeo circus star. Eventually, he got to ride in Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural procession and thanks to an ill-written newspaper article was misidentified as one of the Rough Riders. During the Spanish-American war, the Rough Riders were the only volunteer Calvary to see battle.
At the age of 30, Mix did odd jobs around Guthrie, Oklahoma. He spent some time as the town’s night marshal. It wasn’t until he went to work at Miller Brothers 201 Ranch that he got his first taste of show business.
The Miller brothers produced a touring Wild West show of which Mix was a part. With his outstanding horseman and throwing skills, he became the star of the show. It wasn’t long before Hollywood took notice and featured him and his talents in a 1910 documentary titled “Ranch Life in the Great Southwest.”
Mix starred in over 100 films after that before signing a deal at Fox Studios. From there, the star solidified his title as the first real silent western movie star. His signature ten-gallon hat has come to epitomize the early days of the heroic silver screen cowboy.
He even had an intelligent equine sidekick named Tony the Wonder Horse that captivated kids way before Roy Rogers did with his own horse, Trigger.
Mix’s films were popular among youngsters at Saturday matinees in the 1920s. He originated the long-running Hollywood trope of the heroic cowboy dressed in white.
Keep in mind, that the next big western movie stars were still in their infancy at the height of Mix’s career. John Wayne was only 13 years old when Mix was in his heyday. It would be another decade before Wayne would make his big-screen debut.
Mix eventually built a ranch in Prescott Arizona. It was a place to retreat away from Hollywood, although the property was used in several of his films.
During that time, he became close friends with American lawman and frontier legend Wyatt Earp. When Earp passed in 1929, Mix was a pallbearer at his funeral.
The silent movie star would make his last screen appearance in 1935. He reportedly made over $119 million (today’s value) during his nearly 30-year career.
On October 12, 1940, Mix, now 60, was driving north on what is currently State Route 79. After a brief pit stop, he headed toward Phoenix. Just outside of Florence, he approached a washed-out bridge with construction barriers. Not having enough time to stop he tried to swerve away from the obstruction but rolled his car twice ending up in a wash. A heavy suitcase in his car reportedly struck his head during the rollovers, killing him.
Fans of the star were heartbroken at his passing and erected a stone and bronze memorial near the crash site where it still stands today. A metal Tony the Wonder Horse in a perpetual buck rises atop the monument which reads:
“In memory of Tom Mix, whose spirit left his body on this spot and whose characterization and portrayals in life served to better fix memories of the old West in the minds of living men."
Tom Mix’s standing in pop culture became epic. After his death, he appeared posthumously as himself in comic books and mail-order merchandise. He was featured on cereal boxes. And toy replicas of his six-shooter were popular among kids at the time.
His memorial site also includes a small, covered picnic area and rest stop. There are no restrooms.
If you’re driving through the Sonoran Desert via SR-79 and happen to see this landmark, you might take a second to remember this Hollywood legend known as the ‘King of the Cowboys.’