There are a lot of historical roadside attractions in Arizona, but most people either blaze by them in their hurry to points unknown or don't even travel the road where something of interest might be awaiting investigation.
One such road is the Oracle Highway, which passes through Catalina and divides at Oracle Junction forming State Highway 79, the Florence Pioneer Parkway, and State Route 77, which veers right towards Oracle.
At one time the parkway was the main route between Tucson and Phoenix. It was along this road, towards the middle of October 1940, that fate claimed the life of the earliest Western movie star, Tom Mix. And it was high speed and a flying projectile that did him in, not a stray bullet, renegade gangs or a spooked horse.
Making his way from Tucson to Florence, Mix came up on highway workmen so fast he veered into a wash and hit an embankment, with one of his large metal suitcases coming loose from the back of his car and flying through the air, hitting the back of his head and causing him to break his neck; he never knew what hit him. By the time the workmen reached him, Tom was already gone.
Today the wash bears his name and a nearby roadside picnic area honors his departure with a riderless horse with its head down.
Though most Americans today know little or nothing of Mix and the contributions he made to the rise of Western movie lore, there are probably no known actors who can live up to his escapades or shear guts when making a film. John Wayne even got his start as a prop boy on a Mix set.
Tom Mix set the standards that most unions won't allow their actors to follow today, since they were highly dangerous and also would put too many stunt actors out on the street. But as flamboyant as Mix was in his acting career, it turns out he truly was a cowboy's cowboy.
Born not in the West, but in Pennsylvania near the Susquehanna River on Jan. 6, 1880, Mix turned out to be a very unstudious child, though a kid with lots of dreams. Fact and legend has it he longed to go West and began at an early age to ride horses and shoot guns.
To give you an idea of Tom Mix's stamina, when a bullet once lodged in his left leg, the boy attempted to dig it out with his friend's knife. Failing this, he next had his mother dig around in an attempt to locate it. It would be another 25 years before the bullet was finally found and removed.
In the late 1890s the United States went to war with Spain, and so did Mix, sort of. After having lied about his age, his middle name (Hezikiah, not Edwin, like his father) and his birthplace (Driftwood, Penn., not Mix Run, which was named after family ancestors), Mix was assigned to Battery M, 4th Regiment United States Artillery. Instead of heading to Cuba or the Philippines, his unit was sent to guard the DuPont Powder Works at Montchanin, Del. There was apparently fear of sabotage or of the Spanish fleet moving up from the Caribbean to attack the East Coast.
By December 1898 the Treaty of Paris ended the war and Mix missed out on the action, but not the promotions. He was a corporal by this time and within another year first sergeant. He had transferred to Fort Monroe, Va., and once again was not sent over seas, this time to suppress the Philippine uprising.
Mix was honorably discharged from the Army but re-enlisted in hopes of going overseas to help the British fight in the Boer War, which never happened (since our nation never entered the war) and Mix instead married a school teacher from the Norfolk area named Grace Allin. This was in July 1902 and by October of that year Mix was listed as AWOL and by November was listed as a deserter. Now fearing the Army was searching for him (it wasn't), he and now a happy wife headed West to Guthrie, Okla.
It had been his new bride who pressured him to desert and though they both worked in Oklahoma, she teaching English and Mix instructing Physical Education, Grace's father took a dim view of his daughter being married to an army deserter and succeeded in having the marriage annulled.
It was about this time that Mix began his slow climb to stardom.
For the next few years, Mix performed a number of odd jobs, including bartender, but was mostly employed in Wild West shows and cowboy bands, where he met Will Rogers and the two struck up a friendship.
In 1905 he signed up with the Miller Brothers' 101 Real Wild West Ranch near Bliss, Okla. Col. Joe Miller, after a conference with brothers George and Zack, hired the youth at $15 per month, which included room and board. Mix accepted the job wholeheartedly and proceeded to marry his second wife, Kitty, in December of that year and arrived at the ranch in January 1906.
He was now 26, entering into a second marriage and serving as a "dude" ranch host to would be cowboys and cowgirls. Brother Zack thought little of Mix as a real cowboy, but the lad eventually proved himself in more ways than one.
Life on the 101 Real Wild West Ranch was pretty rough for a married couple, since most of those employed were young cowboys lacking civil niceties and single to boot. Life was such that Mix's second marriage ended before it really started.
Besides doing work with the ranch, Mix was also doing small parts with the Miller's wild west show, such as being dragged by horses. By 1909, after three seasons with the 101, Mix was now married for a third time and joined up with Widerman Wild West Show out of Amarillo, Texas.
His fast study with the 101 Ranch had made him a serious contender in the art of rodeo and he was now doing roping acts using a 60-foot rope with a 40-foot reach, far beyond the 40-foot average with a 25-foot reach. Mix even went so far as to open his own Wild West show in Seattle, hiring on 60 performers and doing fairly well, when the weather was good.
It was after this success that Mix and his wife joined up with Will A. Dickey's Circle D Wild West Show. The namesake of this show was under contract with Selig Polyscope Company of Chicago and also very keen with the rising industry of moving pictures.
At about the same time, he also signed up with Company B of the Texas Rangers. He pulled a fast one by stating his birthplace had been El Paso, Texas, a tale the studios years later would weave as fact. Though he did not do this for very long, his duties were carried out in a professional manner and the skills he learned came in handy later during his screen days.
In 1909 he met his first motion picture producer who was at Will A. Dickey's Circle D Ranch Wild West Show and Indian Congress. Mix had been hired to care for the show animals and perhaps "throw a rope" if an animal got out of hand.
But because of his skills and his demeanor, he soon became a regular with the Selig Polyscope Company, which was filming the show. Later that year, Selig made a film entitled "Ranch Life in the Great Southwest" in which Mix was shown doing some bronco busting (at his request to the director). He and the movie were so well received that Mix's life as a wild west show sideline star and stock handler were over. He was now a movie star.
By 1910 Mix was signed on with Selig and making movies, though the 30-year-old had a hard time believing he could make money from something that came naturally to him. During the next three years Mix and his wife began a family and he continued to work not only in motions pictures (taking a year off in 1912), but also continued to take part in rodeos and wild west shows, even participating with the Guy Weadick Wild West Show.
In 1913, Mix signed a new contract with Selig and moved to Prescott to live while filming at locales around the state. Mix even took part in the town's annual "Frontier Days" during the American Independence celebration. By the end of the year Selig moved its operations from Chicago to Hollywood and Mix became a business partner with his own studio and camera crew. But by 1917 the company went belly up and Mix moved on to Twentieth Century-Fox. It was during this same year that Mix divorced for the third time.
In the early days of filming Mix had been using a horse called "Old Blue." But in 1914 Mix purchased a horse called "Tony" and trained him. It would be the combination of these two actors (human and horse) that would put audiences on the edge of their seats. Though Mix was a star in his own right by the middle of the second decade, the adventures of Tom and Tony the horse became a household word before the dawn of the Roaring 20s.
During those early days with Selig, Mix's potential was never utilized or realized for that matter. But under the tutelage of Fox, Mix and Tony proved to be a draw not only for the adult audiences (the segment of society studios originally targeted), but also the emerging post World War One baby boom. By the time Mix hit his latter 30s and early 40s, he was now a true, and well-dressed celebrity with the looks to boot. He owned a mansion on 60 acres in the Hollywood Hills, had a large wardrobe and gun collection and loved wearing 10 gallon cowboy hats as well as a diamond-studded platinum belt buckle and diamond-studded spurs.
The stock market crash cost Mix much of his movie-making fortune, however. Mix had purchased a dream ranch in Arizona, but after the crash he not only lost nearly $1 million in the stock market, but also his mansion in the Hollywood Hills and his ranch in our state.
The 1930s had their moments of triumph for our first celebrity cowboy, but overall they were a rough time for Tom Mix. The silent movie star didn't do as well in talkies, and his celebrity status was supplanted by singing cowboys like Roy Rogers.
Mix also faced several lawsuits from former so-called friends and colleagues and his three ex-wives soaked him for alimony payments.
By the eve of World War II Mix, who claimed he was first and foremost a cowboy and not an actor, seemed somewhat bitter by his latter experiences. Tucson resident Walt Coburn, an old friend of Mix and a writer of Western stories who lived in the Catalina Foothills on a small ranch in 1940, was probably one of the last people to see Mix alive.
He wrote in 1968 that Tom Mix "lived his own legend in real life and on the silver screen, and that legend is destined to live on forevermore." Amen to that.