Davy Crockett was here: At peak of craze in mid-50s, Disney star filmed 'River Pirates' movie scenes in Union County
By FRANK BOYETT, The Gleaner
The crowds went wild for the king of the wild frontier.
Some of you probably remember the Davy Crockett fad that swept the country in the winter of 1954-55. It was hard to miss. Practically every house in the country featured at least one kid dressed in fake buckskin, toting a flintlock rifle replica, topped off with a dead raccoon on his head. An estimated $300 million worth of Davy Crockett merchandise was sold that year.
The fad got started when the Walt Disney Co. hired an unknown actor named Fess Parker to portray the famed frontiersman and filmed a television series that took the country by storm. The first three episodes were later combined into a full-length motion picture in 1955, which was called "Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier."
The next two episodes were released the following year as "Davy Crockett and the River Pirates." The river scenes for that movie were filmed mostly in Union County, with a tugboat and barge provided by Henderson resident Carl Dempewolf. The filming took place right at the height of the coonskin cap craze.
Although director Norman Foster had been making preparations for more than a month, local filming didn't actually begin until Fess Parker arrived on the scene 50 years ago this week.
"He flew into the Evansville airport from Chicago, was greeted by a small but utterly enthusiastic gang of boys and girls -- plus a scattering of adults -- and was driven to Kentucky for a good night's sleep before plunging into a heavy production schedule," The Gleaner reported.
"Parker has a deep humility about him, and in meeting people seemed genuinely grateful for the attention paid him. He was humble.
"Placed in the role of Crockett by Disney a year ago for a series of TV films as the frontier hero, he soared to undreamed heights from a virtually unknown player ... He is 29 years old, six foot five, and Texan all the way through.
"This is my midget partner," he said, pointing at (Buddy) Ebsen, who played his sidekick. "He's only six-three." Ebsen became even more famous a decade later as Jed Clampett, patriarch of the TV show "The Beverly Hillbillies." He was a much more experienced -- and talented -- actor than Parker, and carried the movie in many scenes.
The set-up of the movie is a rivalry between Crockett and legendary river rat Mike Fink in a keelboat race to New Orleans, and then the return trip facing Indians and pirates. The movie is set in 1810, so it's actually a prequel to the first Davy Crockett movie, which ended with the hero going down swinging at the Alamo.
What I find interesting about this movie is that it fictionalizes some authentic bad guys who once operated in this area: the bloodthirsty bandits Big and Little Harpe and the notorious river pirate Samuel Mason, who was probably Henderson's first white settler.
But the movie should not be taken literally, director Foster cautioned during an interview in Union County. The movie may be based on historical characters, but is definitely not history, he pointed out, adding the Union County locations were chosen mainly because of their proximity to Cave-in-Rock, Ill.
"There is a tremendous lore all around Cave-in-Rock, and there is a tremendous lore around Davy Crockett. They should go well together," Foster told The Gleaner in late May 1955.
"But Crockett wasn't here!" exploded the lock master of Dam 49, who was standing nearby. "How can you do this?"
"We know it," Foster replied. "It doesn't make any difference. There is no pretense in this that a single scene will be based on fact -- save that it's Davy Crockett."
Never let facts stand in the way of a good legend is the motto of many a Hollywood director.
I should add two footnotes to this story: One is that the keelboats used in filming the movie were later shipped to Disneyland, where they formed the basis of Mike Fink's Keelboat ride. The other is that a videotape of "Davy Crockett and the River Pirates" is available in the children's section at the Henderson County Public Library.
140 years ago
Black federal soldiers who had been stationed here were shipped to Louisville on the steamboat Morning Star, much to the dismay of their wives, according to an 1865 article in the Henderson Reporter.
"Many negro women of this section have been supported at the expense of the government since the establishment of the camp near this city, and supposed they would accompany their husbands and continue to be supported in the same manner. They were not, however, allowed to go on board the boat."
75 years ago
Plans for what was then the country's largest natural gas line -- from the Texas Panhandle to Indianapolis -- were announced by Gleaner on this date in 1930.
The same day eight railroad cars of pipe were unloaded by the Pearce and Childress transfer company, which obtained a contract to deliver 25 car-loads to this area for helping construct what was then called the Missouri-Kansas Pipeline. The pipeline is now part of the Texas Gas system.
25 years ago
Henderson Fiscal Court agreed in 1980 to adopt a system to provide numbered street addresses to all rural properties, moving away from the U.S. Postal Service's rural route addresses, The Gleaner reported.
The Henderson City-County Planning Commission was put in charge of the project, and it became functional in the mid-1980s.
Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2005 HCH&GS