Today is the birthday (1911) of Leonard Franklin Slye, better known by his stage name — Roy Rogers. He was a U.S. singer and cowboy actor who was one of the most popular Western stars of his era. I was certainly a fan as a boy. He was known as the “King of the Cowboys” and appeared in over 100 films and numerous radio and television episodes of The Roy Rogers Show. In many of his films and television episodes, he appeared with his wife Dale Evans, his golden palomino Trigger, and his German Shepherd dog Bullet. His show ran on radio for nine years before moving to television from 1951 through 1957. His productions usually featured a sidekick, often Pat Brady, Andy Devine, or George “Gabby” Hayes.
Leonard Slye typifies for me the U.S. cowboy singer/actor. That is, he was not born in the West, nor worked as a real cowboy. The cowboy of movies and television bears little resemblance to real cowboys of the Old West. Slye was born to Mattie (née Womack) and Andrew “Andy” Slye in Cincinnati, Ohio. The family lived in a tenement building on 2nd Street, where Riverfront Stadium would later be constructed (he would later joke that he was born at second base). Dissatisfied with his job and city life, Andy and his brother Will built a 12-by-50-foot (3.7 m × 15.2 m) houseboat from salvage lumber, and in July 1912 the Slye family traveled up the Ohio River towards Portsmouth, Ohio. Desiring a more stable existence in Portsmouth, they purchased land on which to build a house, but the Great Flood of 1913 allowed them to move the houseboat to their property and continue living in it on dry land.
In 1919 the Slye family purchased a farm in Duck Run, near Lucasville, Ohio, about 12 miles (19 km) north of Portsmouth, and built a six-room house. Andy Slye soon realized that the farm alone would provide insufficient income for his family, so he took a job at a Portsmouth shoe factory, living in Portsmouth during the week and returning home on weekends bearing gifts following paydays. A notable gift was a horse on which young Len Slye learned the basics of horsemanship. Living on the farm with no radio, the family made their own entertainment. On Saturday nights, the family often invited neighbors over for square dances, during which Len would sing, play mandolin, and call the square dances. He also learned to yodel during this time.
After completing the eighth grade, Len attended high school in McDermott, Ohio. After his second year in high school, his family returned to Cincinnati, where his father began work at another shoe factory. Realizing that his family needed his financial help, Len quit school and joined his father at the shoe factory. He tried to attend night school, but after repeatedly falling asleep in class, he quit and never returned.
By 1929, after Len’s older sister Mary and her husband moved to Lawndale, California, he and his father quit their factory jobs, packed up their 1923 Dodge, and drove the family to California to visit Mary. They stayed for four months before returning to Ohio. Soon after returning, young Len had the opportunity to travel again to California with Mary’s father-in-law, and the rest of the family followed in the spring of 1930. The Slye family rented a small house near Mary, and Len and his father found work driving gravel trucks for a highway-construction project. In the spring of 1931, after the construction company went bankrupt, Len traveled to Tulare, California where he found work picking peaches for Del Monte. During this time he lived in a labor camp similar to the ones depicted in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath.
After 19 year old Len Slye’s second arrival in Lawndale, his sister Mary suggested that he audition for the Midnight Frolic radio program, which broadcast over KMCS in Inglewood. A few nights later, wearing a Western shirt that Mary had made for him, Leonard overcame his shyness and appeared on the program playing guitar, singing, and yodeling. A few days later, he was asked to join a local country music group called The Rocky Mountaineers. Len accepted the group’s offer and became a member in August 1931.
By September 1931, Slye hired Canadian-born Bob Nolan who answered the group’s classified ad in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner that read, “Yodeler for old-time act, to travel. Tenor preferred.” Although Nolan stayed with the group only a short time, he and Len stayed in touch. Nolan was replaced by Tim Spencer. In the spring of 1932, Len Slye, Spencer, and another singer, Slumber Nichols, left the Rocky Mountaineers to form a trio, which soon failed. Throughout that year, Len and Tim Spencer moved through a series of short-lived groups, including the International Cowboys and the O-Bar-O Cowboys. When Spencer left the O-Bar-O Cowboys to take a break from music, Len joined Jack LeFevre and His Texas Outlaws, who were a popular act on a local Los Angeles radio station.
In early 1933, Len Slye, with Bob Nolan, and Tim Spencer formed a group called the Pioneers Trio, with Slye on guitar, Nolan on string bass, and Spencer on lead vocals. The three rehearsed for weeks refining their vocal harmonies. During this time, Slye continued to work with his radio singing group, while Spencer and Nolan began writing songs for the trio. In early 1934, fiddle player Hugh Farr joined the group, adding a bass voice to the group’s vocal arrangements. Later that year, the Pioneers Trio became the Sons of the Pioneers when a radio station announcer changed their name because he felt they were too young to be “pioneers”. The name was received well and fit the group, who were no longer a trio.
By the summer of 1934, the popularity and fame of the Sons of the Pioneers extended beyond the Los Angeles area and quickly spread across the country through short syndicated radio segments that were later rebroadcast across the United States. After signing a recording contract with the newly founded Decca label, the Sons of the Pioneers made their first commercial recording on August 8, 1934. One of the first songs recorded by the group during that first August session was “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” written by Bob Nolan. Over the next two years the Sons of the Pioneers would record 32 songs for Decca, including the classic “Cool Water”.
From his first film appearance in 1935, he worked steadily in Western films, including a large supporting role as a singing cowboy while still billed as “Leonard Slye” in a Gene Autry movie. In 1938, when Autry was demanding more money for his work, Slye was immediately rechristened “Roy Rogers.” Actually, there was a competition for a new singing cowboy, and many western singers sought the job, including Willie Phelps of the Phelps brothers who appeared in early western movies. Slye ended up winning the contest and became Roy Rogers. Slye’s stage name was suggested by Republic Picture’s staff after Will Rogers and the shortening of Leroy, and he was assigned the lead in Under Western Stars. Rogers became a matinee idol and U.S. cowboy legend. A competitor for Gene Autry as the nation’s favorite singing cowboy was suddenly born. In addition to his own movies, Rogers played a supporting role in the John Wayne classic Dark Command (1940). Rogers became a major box office attraction. Unlike other stars, the vast majority of Rogers’ leading roles allowed him to play a character with his own name in the manner of Gene Autry.
The Sons of the Pioneers continued their popularity, and they have never stopped performing from the time Rogers started the group, replacing members as they retired or died (all original members are deceased). Although Rogers was no longer an active member, they often appeared as Rogers’ backup group in films, radio, and television, and Rogers would occasionally appear with them in performances up until his death.
When Rogers died of congestive heart failure on July 6, 1998, he was living in Apple Valley, California. He was buried at Sunset Hills Memorial Park in Apple Valley, as was his wife, Dale Evans, three years later.
The Roy Rogers is a very simple non-alcoholic drink which I won’t spend too much time on. You’ll need a bottle of Coca-Cola, some grenadine syrup, maraschino cherries, and a glass of ice. Add a dash of grenadine to the ice, pour in the Coke, and garnish with a cherry. Done.
Let’s get a little more serious about cowboy cooking. I’ll state point blank, as an historian, that I don’t think there is any such thing as authentic cowboy cooking. It’s as much of a romantic fiction as Roy Rogers is. Sure, cattle drives needed a chuck wagon and a cook. But, did these cooks have special recipes and recipe books that they followed once they were out on the trail? Spare me. What we should remember is that in the 19th century cattle drives had most of the limitations of sea-going vessels when it comes to the basics of the larder, but they did have live meat on the hoof. Chuck wagons would have carried the obvious staples such as dried legumes, rice, and flour which would form the basis for stews and breads. Perishables such as fresh vegetables and eggs would have been in short supply. If an animal died on the drive it would have been eaten – pure and simple. The slow and sick would also have been disposed of in short order.
More to the point for me is the nature of the cooking equipment. When you look at old photos of cattle drive makeshift kitchens you see a lot of cast iron pots – skillets and ovens. Cast iron is eminently practical on a cattle drive because it is durable. For over 30 years I had two cast iron skillets which I used just about every day. One I had inherited from my wife’s grandmother, and one I bought new. After 30 years I couldn’t tell the difference. New cast iron pans have to be seasoned so that they do not rust. This is really only the start of a very long process. They take years to season properly. As it is, there is a great deal of false information doing the rounds about cast iron skillets. For a start, well-seasoned skillets are NOT non-stick. Preheated properly, and lightly coated with oil, they will resist sticking. But take it from me – they stick. They are not Teflon. Second, they do not heat evenly. They do, however, retain heat very well. Third, you do not have to worry about cooking acidic sauces in them. The seasoning remains just fine. In fact acidic sauces combine with a tiny bit of the iron to provide you with extra dietary iron. Fourth, you can clean a cast iron skillet with soap and water just as you do any other cooking pot.
Seasoning is not complicated. The simplest way is to clean the skillet thoroughly with soapy water and a stiff brush. This removes any oil that it was coated with to prevent rust. Dry the skillet thoroughly and then wipe it with fat or oil so that it is completely covered. Place it upside down on the middle rack of an oven heated to 350°F with a pan under it to catch drips. Let it bake for at least an hour, then turn the oven off and let the skillet cook down in the oven. It is now minimally seasoned. Cooking with it for 10 years will finish the job. If you see an old skillet in a yard sale going cheap, snag it.
I’d say that the simplest “cowboy” recipe is beef and beans, and would have been very common on the trail. No need for a detailed recipe. Soak a pot of dried beans overnight. In the morning drain them and add fresh water to cover. Also add stewing beef (preferably on the bone) and simmer for at least 2 hours. You can add whatever spices come to mind. I’m sure trail cooks had their favorites. Hot paprika is enough for me, but I like cumin as well. The main trick is to simmer very slowly for long hours so that the meat is falling from the bone. The starch from the beans will thicken the sauce as it reduces. This is as about as simple as it gets and I am sure is very close to what cowboys ate a lot of the time.