Ken Maynard: Vevay’s most famous cowboy; wanted to be from the West

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Kenneth Olin Maynard came into this world, the first of five children, on July 21st, 1895. For a long time, Vevay’s most famous cowboy tried to hide the fact that he was born here. He didn’t want to hide it because he disliked like Vevay or Indiana. But at least for a time, he just wanted people to think he was born in the West.

After all, Ken Maynard was a really important movie star. He was the very first of the singing cowboys, and he dominated the cinematic range during the early decades of the 20th century.

“I liked for my fans to believe I was a westerner by birth,” Ken once told journalist Gene Fernett. “Who in hell wants to hear that a movie cowboy was born in the East?”

Ken’s brother, Kermit, while as not famous as his older sibling, was a renowned stuntman and, like Ken, starred in hundreds of movies. Kermit once explained that “motion picture cowboys were supposed to come from the West.” And so for a time, both he and Ken gave Mission, Texas as their place of origin.

The truth was, however, that the birth really happened in Vevay and in the house which, according to a local newspaper article, was occupied in the 1930s “by Mr. and Mrs. Adolphus Leap, on Liberty Street.” His mother, Emma May, a “small and feminine” woman, according to one account, came from Illinois. His father, William H. Maynard, was from Kentucky.

William was described by one of his contemporaries as “large, dark and blustery with a large walrus mustache.” He was considered a master carpenter, was employed by local developer John Pattie, and, according to the Reveille of August 26th, 1934, “built many fine residences in Vevay.”

HORSES AND TENT SHOWS

William H. Maynard also loved horses, rodeos and circus, and that love may have been what lay the groundwork for Ken Maynard’s cowboy career.

“My father liked horses and he liked tent shows,” Ken once said. “I guess that why when I was about 10, I ran away from home and joined a shabby little wild west show.”

That shabby show was Doc Clayton’s Medicine Show, from which, Maynard added, “my dad ‘rescued’ me a short time later.”

By the time he was old enough to run away, the Maynard family had moved to Columbus, Indiana. Some reports have the family leaving Vevay in 1898, but others say it left in 1904.

The 1904 date makes the most sense to local resident, Phyllis Bush, who says that her grandfather remembered playing with Ken Maynard.

“My grandfather, Walter Rollin Buschmann, was born on Liberty Street,” said Phyllis Bush. “He played with Ken Maynard when they were just little bitty boys. That’s how I first knew Ken Maynard was from Vevay. My grandfather always talked about him.”

ROPING AND RIDING IN A VACANT LOT

Ken Maynard never liked school, and while Kermit apparently did well academically (and actually graduated from high school, attended the University of Indiana, and played halfback with Indiana against George Gipp and Knute Rockne’s great Notre Dame team), both boys loved horses and rope tricks more than anything else.

A Columbus columnist, Wayne Guthrie, remembered watching Ken practice being a teenage cowboy:

“I watched with envy and awe as he learned the hard way — by experience — and trained himself to become one of the greatest trick and fancy riders and ropers and crack rifle shots of that the halcyon era of the old time cowboy.”

Lucile Perin, who knew the Maynards when they first moved, said that she remembered both Ken and Kermit “riding their ponies in a vacant lot at 10th and Reed Streets. They did tricks and put on shows for the children.”

When Ken Maynard was 16 years old, he knew he had to follow his dream. He convinced his parents to let him join a carnival that was passing through town, and after that, it was all show business for Vevay’s cowboy.

He worked for the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus — the first of his many circus jobs — as well as for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Kit Carson’s Buffalo Ranch Wild West Show, and Pawnee Bill’s Troup (which was run by Indiana native, Major Gordon Lillie).

ON TO HOLLYWOOD

By the time he was 25 years old, Ken Maynard’s practice with roping and riding in a vacant lot had turned into a solid vocation.

He graduated from circuses in 1923 and went to Hollywood to begin his rise to fame in first silent and then talking pictures. Usually riding his golden palomino, “Tarzan”, (which he bought in 1925 for $50), Ken Maynard starred in more than 300 movies during the 20 years of his greatest popularity.

While many silent movie personalities were unable to make the transition to talking movies, Ken Maynard, who loved to sing and could play several instruments, became the first singing cowboy with his 1929 film, “The Wagon Master”.

His career blossomed in the 1930s (“Red Raiders” and “Strawberry Roan” were two of his most famous films), and he won the top moneymaker award for the western genre in both 1937 and 1938. He introduced John Wayne to stunt riding; and even got Gene Autry — who eventually replaced him as the most successful singing cowboy — into the movies.

Among his many fans, former King Sihanouk of Cambodia, once said, “He was my idol as a cowboy ‘dispenser of justice.’ He had an incomparably beautiful ‘white’ horse who was as intelligent as a man and behaved like an angel.”

THE ‘ROMANTIC AND SENTIMENTAL’ TRICK RIDER

Ken Maynard’s personality was as wild and theatrical as so many of his movies.

He could be “romantic and sentimental,” wrote one historian. He could also be “tyrannical, uncompromisingly demanding of himself and others…. He was powerful, impetuous, undisciplined, stormy, brash, sarcastic, belligerent, had a hair-trigger temper and an ego that made even the largest white 10-gallon Stetson a tight fit.”

Like Kermit, he had dozens of rope and horseback riding tricks that he enjoyed showing off. He could pass under the belly of his galloping horse, “Tarzan”, and come up on the other side. He could lean back and then out and grab a man right off the ground. And his exciting, daredevil riding betrayed what one writer called, “an edge of darkness in his nature, something short-fused and explosive that zinged the nerves with danger.”

THE INDIANA LEGACY

More is made of Kenneth Olin Maynard’s Hollywood adventures than of his life in Indiana. Still, several descriptions of his visits home provide a glimpse of the star as he appeared to other Hoosiers.

Jack Bridwell from Bedford, Indiana, wrote: “Maynard regularly made trips back to Columbus to visit his parents and cousin. At times the visits were like a one-man circus — Maynard walking down the main streets of Columbus, children of the city close on the cowboy star’s heels He knew people here by their first names and would walk from store to store and say hello.”

Ron Freese’s memories create a similar impression: “I met Ken Maynard when I was about 14 and he was back in Columbus visiting. He was driving a Pontiac convertible with steer horns on the front of the hood. He shook and held my hand for a very long time and acted like he was happy that he still was remembered. Seemed like a very nice guy.”

In spite of all his fame and early fortune, Kenneth Maynard died penniless in March of 1973 and was buried in California.

Vevay, however, has not forgotten him. Twenty years after his death, with the help of J.R. Curtis, a group of local residents honored Maynard with a sign in front of the Liberty Street residence reputed to be the place of his birth. Thanks to Curtis and many others, a considerable archive of memorabilia and information about both Ken and Kermit Maynard was brought together at the county library, the museum and the visitor’s center.

A KEN MAYNARD DAY?

Should Switzerland County celebrate its most famous cowboy even more? And what would that entail?

Phyllis Bush, who works at the Switzerland County Visitors Center, suggested that further celebration might not be such a bad idea.

“They ought to have a Ken Maynard Day in Vevay,” she said.

— Bill Felker