Leonard Franklin Slye, was born Nov. 5, 1911, in Cincinnati, where his family lived in a block of flats that were put up where the future Riverfront Stadium would be built. The following year, his father and uncle built a three-room houseboat and the family glided up the Ohio River to Portsmouth. There they tied up the boat and lived aboard it until the flood of 1915 enabled them to live high and dry on landmass.
In 1919, the Mr. Andrew Slye bought a farm on Duck Run, located out near Lucasville, nearly 12 miles north of Portsmouth. It was there that young Leonard Sly grew up, and it was there that he learned to hunt and shoot, there that he learned to ride and there that he developed his lifelong love of the outdoors. If you were to drive out that way the old homestead is still there.
The Duck Run farm didn’t yield enough income for the family to live on so the boy’s father took a job at a Portsmouth shoe factory. When Leonard was 17, the family returned to Cincinnati, where his father found work in another shoe factory. Soon Leonard dropped out of high school and joined his father at the factory. But both father and son felt trapped and unhappy in their jobs, so the family pulled up stakes, heading for California and, they hoped, more opportunity. In California, both father and son wandered from one tedious job to another. Len, as he was then known, drove a truck for a while, then worked at an orchard. In later years, he would say he went into show business because it was easier than picking peaches. He could sing and play the guitar and so he headed to Los Angles to try his hand at being a western singer.
After four years of little success, he formed a singing group, the Sons of the Pioneers, which scored big with such songs as “Cool Water” and “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.” At the same time, he started playing small parts in western films, still billed as Len Slye. Then out of the “blue” his big break happened. Gene Autry, one of the biggest stars in the Hollywood of the 1930s, got in a dispute with his studio and walked off the set. The studio, looking for a replacement, gave the role to Len and, in the course of action gave him a new name as well – Roy Rogers.
Roy Rogers and Dale Evans first worked together in Hollywood in 1944 and when they married in 1947 they became one of America’s most popular couples. They were well known for their work on behalf of children charities over the years, Roy, Dale and his trusty horse Trigger starred in countless rodeos and country-western shows, from New York’s famed Madison Square Garden to Huntington’s Memorial Field House, where they appeared on Nov. 29, 1950. In 1982, a group of local Portsmouth residents resolved that Rogers was fitting a special recognition. They collected 10,000 signatures, trussed them in a huge album and sent a delegation with the album to the star’s home in California to meet with him and invite him to a homecoming in Portsmouth.
Rogers accepted the invitation, and on Sept. 6, 1982, an estimated 10,000 people crowded the streets of Portsmouth to witness a parade featuring the legendary cowboy star. Roy spoke at a luncheon, wearing his signature white Stetson hat, red scarf, shiny boots and a fancy gold buckle on his belt. He momentarily recollected his boyhood years in Duck Run and singled out one of his teachers for particular praise, Mr. Guy Bumgarner. Rogers said Bumgarner helped in a pig raising project that led to his winning a blue ribbon at the county fair and a trip to the Ohio State Fair in Columbus — at that time the longest trip he’d ever made from home. “I can’t say enough about him. He was the turning point in my life,” Roy Rogers died of congestive heart failure in 1998. Dale Evans died in 2001. Today, Portsmouth proudly counts Roy Rogers as a native son and remembers him with the downtown Esplanade that was named in his honor in 1959 and the Roy Rogers Festival that’s staged each year. In the early years of television – “The Roy Rogers Show” was a huge success. At the beginning of the show Roy and Dale would sing the song “Happy Trails.” To Roy and Dale we say “Happy Trails” to you – Thanks for the memories.
Reach Bob Boldman at email@example.com