Times Past

The 'Compton Cowboys' show Wyatt Earp and Tom Mix weren't the only type of Old West legends

"Compton Cowboys" pick up some friend chicken.
"Compton Cowboys" pick up some friend chicken. The New York Times

“That feller Hamlet was a talkative man. He wouldn’t have lasted long in Kansas.” Wyatt Earp knew what went down in Kansas. He was arrested there at least three times and served briefly on the Wichita police force.

By the mid-1920s, the hero of “the gunfight at the O.K. Corral” was advising silent filmmakers in Hollywood and paling around with early Western stars William S. Hart and Tom Mix. They ate lunch at Hollywood’s legendary Musso & Frank Grill and Al Levy’s Tavern, known for hosting some of America’s greatest writers in their backrooms where liquor flowed freely throughout Prohibition.

Amid the literati, Mix felt that the trio should become cultured. He bought a volume of Shakespeare, and the trio read Hamlet together.

Growing up, Mix was my hero. He died in a crash in his Cord Phaeton several months after I was born. Nevertheless, the age of radio kept him alive.

Starting in 1933, the Ralston-Purina Co. sponsored a three-night-a-week radio series called “Tom Mix Ralston Straight Shooters.” Mix, reportedly because of a bullet wound to his throat, didn’t have a voice for radio. He never appeared on the show. Joe “Curley” Bradley played Mix through most of the later years of the show. The series carried on for a dozen years after Mix’s death in 1940.

I was a “Tom Mix Straight Shooter,” always asking for Ralston Hot Wheat and later Wheat Chex cold cereal except when my loyalty briefly shifted to the Lone Ranger after meeting Brace Beemer, who played the masked hero on the radio.

I sent in Hot Wheat box tops and a dime to receive a Tom Mix periscope to help detect Nazi saboteurs. It arrived after the Nazi surrender in May 1945.

My other connection to Mix was living next to Compton. He had used the stables at Alondra and Santa Fe avenues to launch Tom Mix’s circus in 1936, prior to traveling to San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles and then on to a “Pacific Coast” tour. Local legend was that Mix’s horse, Tony, died in Compton out of grief following his owner’s death.

Tom Mix with Tony at the Circus.jpg
Early Western movie star Tom Mix with his horse Tony at the circus. Courtesy

There was another Compton link for me. Famed L.A. County Sheriff’s Capt. Sewell Griggers’ Aero Squadron was based at Compton Airport. Griggers was a crack pistol shot and could shoot the band off a cigar, leaving the cigar intact. Porter Griggers, my childhood friend, was his nephew. Sewell thrilled us at the Sheriff’s firing range by demonstrating Mix’s Thompson Submachine Gun. Mix had been one of L.A. County Sheriff Eugene Biscaluz’s “honorary Sheriffs,” so he could legally own the weapon.

These memories came back to me when I read a New York Times article, “For the Compton Cowboys, Horseback Riding Is a Legacy, and Protection.” In one of the most violent cities in America, a group of childhood friends came together in a horse posse. They could only afford auctioned horses that averaged $200. Usually, the horses suffered from neglect, abuse and malnourishment.

The “Compton Cowboys” don’t just rehabilitate animals, they help correct a false image of the Old West.

There were, in fact, many African American “cowboys,” most notably Jim Beckwourth, who discovered the San Miguel Mission murders, and Nat (pronounced Nate) Love, who once suffered 14 bullet wounds and was nursed back to health by the Pima Indians and released near Gila Bend, Arizona because the Pimas respected his mixed heritage.

Bill Pickett invented the rodeo art of “bulldogging,” and Herb Jeffries, the “first black singing cowboy,” was also a lead singer for Duke Ellington’s orchestra. The famed “Buffalo Soldiers” of the 9th and 10th Cavalry garrisoned the forts of the American West, the San Francisco Presidio and Yosemite and Sequoia national parks.

The modern-day Compton Posse likes to think that, by their riding and roping, they are continuing the effort to overcome a stereotype that black people can’t be cowboys.

The posse feels secure as they ride from the stables at Richland Farms in rural Compton, safe both from street crime and police. "Compton Cowboy" Anthony Harris says, “They don’t pull us over or search us when we’re on the horses.”

The Tom Mix I knew through a radio script would have been proud that the posse was helping a town where Tony once roamed.

This column is by Dan Krieger. Professor of History, Emeritus at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is past President of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.