Carving a place in history

Sunday, January 9th 2005, 4:00 pm
By: News On 6

GENE AUTRY, Okla. (AP) _ Like the singing cowboys before him who inspired a legacy, Elvin Sweeten has carved himself a place in history.

While the strains of a Gene Autry ballad wafted through the corridors of walls lined floor to ceiling with framed movie posters and lobby cards, Sweeten took guests on a tour of the Gene Autry Oklahoma Museum in Gene Autry.

``The school closed (in 1989) and there were several of us who didn't want to see the building destroyed,'' Sweeten said. ``The town being named Gene Autry, we thought it would be a good place for a museum dedicated to the singing cowboys, especially Gene Autry himself.''

With Sweeten at the helm, the museum has flourished, with memorabilia from top to bottom and in every nook and cranny of every room in the old schoolhouse, including the auditorium, which has become a gathering place for fans of the singing cowboys.

While he's quick to give credit to others involved in the project, Sweeten's passion and dedication to the museum caught the attention of the Oklahoma Arts Council. Sweeten received a Community Service Award which recognizes individuals for significant contributions to the arts in specific Oklahoma communities in the areas of leadership and volunteerism.

Not bad for a retired coach with a little time on his hands.

Sweeten coached basketball, track and cross-country. He retired from Plainview and coached at Healdton.

``When you retire, you have to find something to do,'' he said. ``I'm here nearly every day when I'm not busy with pecans or something like that.''

Sweeten and his wife have lived in Gene Autry for close to 20 years now.

``My wife graduated from here and moved out here when her father passed away,'' he said. ``We like it here, and we didn't want the school to be forgotten.''

Sweeten said the museum started with a single poster. From there, individuals have donated, loaned and sold memorabilia of singing cowboys and cowgirls past and present to fill the museum. Much of the material was purchased by Sweeten himself.

``I did it because I wanted to,'' he said. ``We started with one poster and went out and started gathering whatever we could find. Nowadays, most people call me and tell me they have something for sale. We have a lot of stuff stored away.''

Traveling room to room through the museum, Sweeten pointed out various features and explained the hundreds of displays, including a series of paintings done by Mr. Chero, a Cherokee from Clovis, N.M., who died recently.

The wagon-wheel furniture designed by Gene Autry in the 1940s was sold by either Montgomery Ward or Sears, according to Elvin Sweeten, who owns the Gene Autry bedspread and rug that complete the bedroom display in the museum.

In one room, there's a display from Kenton, Ohio, where the Gene Autry cap guns were made.

There's also a display from the company that made the Gene Autry boots, and other products endorsed by Autry.

In the community room is a display of painted ponies and photos and paintings of all the Carter County sheriffs.

Displays cover all the singing cowboys, past and present, including Les Gilliam, a Gene Autry native dubbed ``The Oklahoma Balladeer.''

``He's a very good entertainer and he comes and entertains every year at the Gene Autry Music and Film Festival,'' Sweeten said.

Other displays include Dale Berry, Steve Mitchell, Ernest Tubb, Lonnie Roonie _ a grand champion cowboy who was Gene Autry's foreman, Tex Terry, Sunset Carson, dobro player Tom Swatzell who died in 2004, and Blanchard native Jody Miller.

Then there's Ken Maynard, the first ever singing cowboy, and John Wayne, who most people might not remember started as a singing cowboy, though not very successfully.

``He really wasn't any good,'' Sweeten said.

Monte Hall, the last of the singing cowboys who is still alive, has his own display, along with Herb Jeffries, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Rex Allen, Jimmy Wakely, Tex Ritter, Ben Johnson, Hopalong Cassidy, Tex Hill, Jimmy Hawkes and Tom Mix.

The old school auditorium is decorated with huge theater posters.

``These came from a gentleman in Florida,'' Sweeten said. ``Nobody wants these (posters in) three sheets because you can't display them unless you have a big wall like we have here.''

In a glass case in another room is a display of three items that are Sweeten's pride and joy _ Gene Autry Flying Westerner bicycles. The girls' bike came from Kansas, given to the museum by its original owner. The boys' bike came from Louisville, Ohio. Between the two sits a complete tricycle that is a rare find.

``That's my favorite thing,'' he said. ``That is the only complete tricycle that we've ever heard of. It came from Brownsville, Wisc. A gentleman had that and finally parted with it and let me buy it.''

There are singing cowboy games, clothing, musical instruments, furniture, comic books and just about anything you could imagine.

``We have one of the original sticks of gum that Gene Autry used to give away,'' Sweeten said. ``We've got several of the different labels that he recorded on. There's some 20 different labels and I got as many of them as I could.''

Besides simply enjoying the museum itself, every year on the last weekend in September _ in honor of Gene Autry's Sept. 29 birthday _ visitors come to the Gene Autry Oklahoma Film and Music Festival.

Here they watch movies featuring their favorite Old West balladeer and meet a variety of singers, musicians and movie actors. Movies are watched on the big screen that descends from the ceiling, and performers entertain audiences that annually gather here.

``We have from 10,000 to 15,000 visitors per year, but they're all scattered out,'' Sweeten said.