The life of a media icon doesn’t last forever.
So, when word got out that The Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum was going to close its door forever, many people were devastated … but not shocked. The reason for its closing, however, was because of a surprising set of instructions he had left behind for his family.
Roy Rogers was the king of the cowboys, but his real name was Leonard Franklin Slye.
He was born on November 5th, 1911 just east of the Mississippi River and spend much of his younger years in the Ohio countryside. But when his family moved to California, he landed a radio job that would set his career in motion.
After recording some songs and staring in a few shows, fate smiled on him.
Republican Pictures offered him a contract as an actor. They wanted a singing cowboy to compete with the popular gun-slinging, guitar strumming Gene Autry. It was then Len Slye became Roy Rogers. He made the best decision of his life when he added a special clause to the contract.
Rogers landed himself as the sole rights-owner to all wares featuring his likeness, voice, or name.
So, years later, when he and the show ran into financial issues, he ended up richer than before. From toys to lunchboxes and comic books, there wasn’t an object that didn’t end up having his face on it.
Rogers was living the high life.
He met and married Dale Evans, who ended writing and co-performing the theme song “Happy Trails.” The show’s popularity soared so high that even a restaurant chain changed their name in an homage. Enter the museum.
It was built Victorville in San Bernardino County’s High Desert.
Even if it was meant for true fans, it still pulled in over 200,000 people per year. There was everything you could imagine. Merchandize examples as well as the flashy costumes they wore on set. One of the more shocking additions was his horse, Trigger.
He and the horse were inseparable – best friends.
So, when the impressive stud died at nearly the age of 30, Rogers couldn’t bear to bury him. Not only did he hide this from his family for over a year, but he also went as far as hiring a taxidermist to preserve the stallion. Trigger eventually became a museum feature.
The same went for his dog, Bullet.
Kids with dreams of walking the dusty trails and nabbing bad guys would point at smile at every item in the museum walls, dreaming it was them in the staring role. So, if he was so popular, why did they close down?
The first misstep happened when they moved everything to Branson, Missouri.
Victorville was a desert setting along the iconic Route 66. It was also close to where the famous couple had lived and retired. You couldn’t ask for a better setting. So Branson ended up the first step in the decline. But it was also Rogers’ instructions that finally sealed the deal.
He had told his family, “If it starts losing money, just shut it down.”
After his wife passed, and he soon joined her, not to mention the ill-fated move to a new location, the family noticed the people just weren’t coming in anymore. Attendance plummeted from thousands to mere dozens.
It was crushing to everyone involved, but there was no other choice.
They closed the doors and sold everything by piecemeal at the famous auction house. Rogers’ son “Dusty” made it clear where he though each piece should go to, but it wasn’t his decision to make. More than anything, he wanted to know what would happen to Trigger.
It was no surprise that the bids on everything far surpassed the initial assessment value.
His first guitar went for $8,750 instead of $2,000. Show scripts flew out the door at x5 the price tag. Even Rogers’ signed baseball memorabilia went for more than expected. But it was RFD-TV station owner Patrick Gottsch than swooped in and “saved” Trigger as well as Bullet.
According to Gottsch, because of phone problems, he had nearly lost the beautiful horse at $200,000 because the person on the other end could hear him yell “Hit him! Hit him!” – meaning up the bid – over all the ruckus.
To this day he still gets emails from fans thanking him for “saving” the golden palomino. But it was the very end that had everyone in tears.
After Dale’s horse and Trigger’s stunt double went to a private collector, and everything was over, the audience spontaneous broke out in song.
Everyone sang Happy Trails one last time. Elkies, the auctioneer, said it was the “most colorful, emotional and sentimental” sale she had experienced in her 20 years at Christie’s.
The long and colorful history of the actor, show, and everything around it was at the hearts of so many kids while growing up.
Even if they are grown with kids of their own, the memory of the golden-tuned king of cowboys will live on.