my day to read to fourth graders I walked into Mrs. Stehling's classroom
looking for a copy of Old Yeller. She handed me a well-worn
and appropriately dog-eared hardback from the shelf behind her desk.
This was no ordinary copy of an American classic. It was signed by
the author. Twenty-five years later I still remember holding that
treasure in my hand and thinking this was as close as I would ever
get to Fred Gipson, the writer and one of my heroes.
Gipson's parents, Beck and Emma Gipson, came to Mason
County from deep East
Texas in a horse-drawn wagon. Before leaving the Piney Woods,
Beck Gipson carefully packed an alligator egg in a wooden chest. The
egg hatched not long after the family reached the Llano
River - what must have been the first and maybe the only alligator
hatched in Mason County.
was born in Mason County
in 1908. He didn't care for school, but like his father he had an
uncommon curiosity about the natural world. He liked to fish and
hunt with his dogs. He heard old-timers tell stories about Mason
County and developed a remarkable understanding of the Hill
Country and its people.
from Mason High School in 1926. He studied journalism at the University
of Texas but left after 3 years to work as a newspaperman.
Then in the 1940s Fred Gipson took a giant leap of faith. He quit
his regular job, and the regular paycheck that went with it, to
write magazine articles and fiction.
He made $150 his first year as a freelancer.
"If I knew then what I know now," he told a friend, "I would not
have had the nerve to have tried writing."
But daring and persistence paid off. Beginning in 1946, Fred Gipson
published a string of successful books including Fabulous Empire,
Hound Dog Man, The Home Place, Cowhand, The Trail Driving Rooster,
Recollection Creek, Big Bend, Old Yeller and Savage Sam.
Gipson wrote a gentler style of fiction than most modern-day Texas
novelists. Walter Prescott Webb compared Gipson to Mark Twain. Both
men wrote stories with universal appeal.
J. Frank Dobie doubted Gipson's talent, but Dobie came around.
Gipson wrote Old Yeller, his masterpiece, in 3 months. The
coming-of-age story of a young man, an old yeller dog and little
Arliss swimming naked in the drinkin' water was an instant best-seller.
Yeller bronze sculpture by Garland Weeks in front of Mason County
Barr, March 2018
For years Old
Yeller sold more copies than any book written by a Texan. It
is a rare and authentic story that continues to entertain and touch
hearts over half a century after Gipson wrote it.
Four of Gipson's books became movies. The movie "Old Yeller," produced
by Walt Disney and starring Dorothy McGuire, Fess Parker and Tommy
Kirk, premiered in San
Angelo in 1957. The story takes the audience on an emotional
"We blubbered through the whole dang thing," said Kerrville
cartoonist Ace Reid after seeing the movie. "Six people drowned
in the first three rows."
and financial success did not bring happiness to Fred Gipson. His
life wasn't easy. With each new book he worried he might never be
published again. His son died tragically.
Gipson in 1959
to Scotch to comfort a broken heart. He was always ornery and opinionated,
but when he drank whiskey he was really hard to get along with.
His first wife left him. His friends and neighbors shunned him.
Alcoholism, depression and lack of confidence haunted him the rest
of his life.
It is sad and ironic that this man who brought so much joy and meaning
to my life spent his last years bitter and alone.
He died August 14, 1973 at his Recollection Creek Ranch on the Llano
River. He is buried on a hillside in the State
Cemetery in Austin
next to his friend Walter Prescott Webb.
I still remember the thrill of holding that autographed copy of
But the real treasures Fred Gipson left us are his timeless stories
of West Texas. They
are hilarious, heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful.
March 15, 2018 Column
"Fred Gipson's Eulogy," Mason County News, August 23, 1973.
"Fred Gipson's Biography By Mike Cox Released by Publisher," Mason
County News, October 23, 1980.
Mike Cox, Fred Gipson; Texas Storyteller (Austin: Shoal Creek Press,
"Gipson: Pride of Texas," The Garden City Telegram, October 4, 1994.