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Clay Coppedge

Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

The Reindeer of Texas

by Clay Coppedge

Not a lot of people remember this but there was a time when reindeer roamed wild in Texas and spread cheer and wonder all over the state, and several states beyond as well.

Okay, so the reindeer weren’t wild. But they were here, all right, thanks almost entirely to the efforts of a man named Grady Carothers, a traditional Texas rancher who one day decided he wanted to see reindeer in Texas.

Carothers’ inspiration was his son who, being a native Texan, thought it mighty peculiar that Texas didn’t have reindeer like some of those places “up north.” Grady Carothers got to thinking about it and decided that other Texas children might like to see reindeer too.

Bringing reindeer to Texas is one of those things, like saving money or starting an exercise program, that is easier said than done. Carothers set about getting Texas its own reindeer, despite the guffaws of neighbors and otherwise good friends. He wrote a slew of letters to postmasters and various Chambers of Commerce in Alaska without so much as a reply from the Great White North.

Encouragement came from an unlikely source. The manager of a local department store told him that the Alaska Native Service managed the reindeer for the Eskimo and that his best bet would be to get in touch with the service. Three times he was told “No” but Carothers was nothing if not persistent; he might even be called ornery and stubborn. Finally, Carothers was allowed to buy six reindeer steers despite the fact that the animals had never been that far south during a heat-brutal August in Texas.

After getting the required permit in the summer of 1946, Carothers and his older son left the next day for Nome, Alaska. From there they traveled another 100 miles east to Galvin where Carothers bought six reindeer for $50 a piece from an Eskimo.

The original Alaska reindeer were interlopers from Norway. They had been taken to Alaska from that country in 1891 to provide food and clothing for the Eskimos. One of the old Norwegians, who was wise in the ways of reindeer, persuaded Carothers to leave the reindeer with him in Seattle until fall, which Carothers did.

The Norwegian helped Grady break the reindeer, but there was a problem. The Norwegians and Alaskans trained the reindeer to pull a sled. Carothers wanted them to drive a line. He eventually figured it out, and in the process learned that reindeer can be as ornery and stubborn as any Texan.

Then there was the matter of feeding the critters. Texas was woefully short on reindeer moss — there wasn’t any at all — but there wasn’t a lot of the stuff in Alaska either. Carothers taught the reindeer, or they learned on their own, how to like cultivated food. But Carothers got some of the moss, when he could find it, and brought it back to Texas as a treat for the reindeer, which appropriately, if unoriginally, were named Dancer, Prancer, Donner and Vixen and the like.

These naturalized Texas reindeer wore red harnesses with their names stitched on them and pulled Santa in his sleigh from Thanksgiving through Christmas for more than 40 years. Carothers contracted with local chambers of commerce, shopping centers and schools, putting on three shows a day and transporting the equipment in vans from town to town and state to state. It took three men, including Santa, to handle the reindeer.

Early on the reindeer performed close to Carothers ranch in Mills County, but their popularity extended all over the state and into 39 southwestern and central states. Sometimes as many as six teams of reindeer were on the road at one time. One of the highlights came when he and his reindeer pulled Santa in a rose-covered sleigh in the 1955 Tournament of Roses Parade.

In time, Rudolph, a fawn with a red nose, joined the team and learned to travel in front of the harnessed deer. Rudolph had his own harness with his name and little bells. He was quite the prima donna.

Carothers ended up making 15 more trips to Alaska to get more reindeer, including some females so that he could have his own replacements, ones that were native Texans to boot. He and his reindeer were profiled in several newspapers and magazines, including the January, 1954 edition The Wide World.

The reindeer were kept on Carothers ranch in Mills County, then Carothers and Son Enterprises moved to California, where the animals were exhibited at Santa Claus Land and shown in fall parades. He sold the reindeer and equipment in 1984 and drove the stagecoach at Knott’s Berry Farm.

“It wasn’t easy, but nothing ever is,” Carothers said of his reindeer operation.

Carothers died in April 25, 2004, one day after his 98th birthday in Gonzales County, California. He is buried at Senterfit Cemetery near Lometa. And the reindeer, like the buffalo and others before them, no longer roam Texas.

© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" December 1, 2008 Column

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