Remembering Old Yeller

American Icons, Festivals, People, Traditions
on September 21, 2008
Wendi Poole Mason, Texas, is the home of the late Fred Gipson, author of "Old Yeller" and where they celebrate the book and author annually during the Old Yeller Day Celebration.

Dressed boyishly in denim overalls and a straw hat, Kassie Stagner, 10, wraps her arms around a yellow Labrador retriever, striking a pose that’s reminiscent of character Travis Coates and his devoted dog in the 1957 movie classic, Old Yeller.

“This morning, I rubbed my T-shirt in the dirt, too,” says Stagner, whose efforts won her the “Travis Look-Alike” contest during Old Yeller Day in Mason, Texas (pop. 2,134), last year.

The annual October event honors the late author Fred Gipson, who spent most of his life in Mason, where he penned the beloved dog tale in 1956. The following year, Walt Disney turned Old Yeller into a Hollywood favorite, starring Dorothy McGuire, Fess Parker and Tommy Kirk.

Set in the 1860s, Old Yeller was inspired by a true story told by Gipson’s grandfather and recounts the frontier adventures of a teenage boy, Travis, and his poor family who adopt an ugly “yeller” dog. At first, Travis hates the thieving stray that devours their last chunk of meat. The boy’s heart softens, though, when Old Yeller saves his little brother from an angry bear. The story’s most memorable scene unfolds when Travis, heartbroken but mature beyond his years, must shoot his beloved dog, after it’s bitten while fending off a rabid wolf.

“Oh, yes, I cried at that part, too, but it’s not just about a dog dying,” says Mason resident Catherine Jones, whose yellow Labrador took part in the festival’s pet parade. “Old Yeller also tells about the hardships of living back then. Families had to rely on their children to survive.”

The fearless strength that Travis and his dog shared stands immortalized in front of the Mason County M. Beven Eckert Memorial Library. A bronze monument of the pair “sculpted by Garland Weeks of Lubbock, Texas “was dedicated at the town’s first celebration in 1999. Friends of the Library, a nonprofit organization, since has hosted Old Yeller Day as a fundraiser to purchase books, computer equipment, Internet service and other needs of the library.

Inside the library, the Fred Gipson Exhibition Hall houses wooden display cases filled with Old Yeller memorabilia, including vintage photos of Gipson and his family, movie posters, and Western boots and a felt hat worn by the author. Gipson’s son, Beck Gipson of Kerrville, Texas (pop. 20,425), donated most of the items.

“I still answer fan mail for my dad,” says Gipson, who was among several hundred participants at last year’s festival. “I get about 50 letters a year from across the nation, mostly from students working on a book report or some other assignment.”

As a child, Fred Gipson, who died in 1973, attended school in the two-story sandstone building, which now houses the Mason County Museum and overlooks Heritage Park, the site of Old Yeller Day. Beneath spreading live oaks, some 75 volunteers at the festival hawk hot dogs, homemade pies and souvenirs. On an adjoining grassy field, kids compete in old-fashioned games such as sack races, stick-horse runs and egg tosses. The local animal shelter even brings dogs and cats that need homes.

During the festival’s pet parade, puppies and dogs of all sizes and breeds stroll across a field, led on leashes by kids and adults. Some participants sport humorous costumes in hopes of winning the “Owner-Pet Look-Alike” contest.

Stephen Mutschink, 57, a rancher in Art, Texas, grew up a mile from the Gipson farm and saw the premiere of Old Yeller as a child at Mason’s historic Odeon Theater. Now he has another connection to the author: Cooper, one of his two yellow Labs, won the festival’s “Old Yeller Look-Alike” contest. In 2005, so did Cooper’s mother, Daisy. Mutschink says the dogs resemble Old Yeller in other ways, too.

“When I need them to chase wild hogs, they’re handy,” he says. “But they can be a pain in the neck sometimes, too. Just like Old Yeller.”

Who Was Old Yeller?

Dorothy McGuire and Fess Parker may have gotten top billing in the 1957 Disney movie Old Yeller, but the real star of the show was the dog in the title role.

When Hollywood animal trainer Frank Weatherwax heard that Walt Disney was making a movie based on Fred Gipson’s heart-tugging three-part story from The Saturday Evening Post, he knew he had just the dog for the part. Weatherwax had found Spike, a large, yellow Black Mouth Cur, at an animal shelter. He had “rescued” the dog for the sum of $3, training him to become a well-adjusted, eager-to-please family companion.

Maybe too well-adjusted, thought the casting execs at Disney, who initially didn’t think Spike was right for the role. Raised around Weatherwax’s children, Spike was too easygoing, too playful, and not nearly vicious-looking enough to pass as a scrappy frontier mutt.

Weatherwax lobbied for a few weeks to train Spike to act tougher. When he brought Spike back for a second audition, Disney found its dog.

After Old Yeller, Spike went on to appear in the 1959 movie A Dog of Flanders and also showed up in several episodes of the short-lived 1960 TV series The Westerner, which starred Brian Keith. Spike’s “son” and “grandson” continued their doggy dad’s acting legacy in movies into the 1960s and ’70s, including Island of the Blue Dolphins and Junior Bonner.