Mason author Fred Gipson’s primary works – Hound-dog Man and Old Yeller – have positioned him on the top shelf of Southwestern literature.
Hailed by Eastern book critics, honored by peers and sought after by Disney movie producers, this native son of the Hill Country remained loyal to his Texas roots – for it was in the sandy, red soils and muddy riverbanks that he found his inspiration.
Born in 1908 to humble, farming parents, he grew up with a brother and four sisters (Stella also became a writer). His hardscrabble upbringing never embittered him because he knew a fellow could always retreat to the natural world of creeks and critters.
Gipson left home to attend the University of Texas at Austin where he encountered folklorist J. Frank Dobie, yet he quit school before graduation to become a reporter for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.
He moved to San Angelo where he worked at the Standard-Times and soon married Tommie Wynn. Also, he had begun selling short stories to pulp Westerns and slick magazines such as Collier’s and Look. Newspaper work was never his forte, but it greatly increased his pool of personalities for later use.
The Gipson family soon included two sons: Mike born in 1940 and Beck in 1945.
His first book, The Fabulous Empire, was a moderate success when published in 1946, but it would be Hound-dog Man, released a year later which established his reputation in literary circles.
Five more books would be released before Old Yeller (his favorite) was published in 1956. Disney’s film version starring San Angelo native Fess Parker, Tommy Kirk and Dorothy McGuire followed the next year.
Gipson resented his time in fast-paced Hollywood working on the movie’s screenplay; however, he and Disney saw eye-to-eye on numerous issues including the story’s realistic, sad ending.
His writing habits had been to compose and type during the morning hours and work outdoors on the land in the afternoons. Tommie would correct and retype the manuscript which often benefitted from her editing and organizational skills.
(Left) Gipson rolls a smoke while being interviewed in 1968. He was a sought-after subject during his writing heyday. Photo courtesy of the San Angelo Standard- Times archives
Ultimately, he wrote 12 books, several screenplays and hundreds of short stories. Yet words from his manual typewriter came with difficulty. Like other creative personalities, he was often burdened with depression, frustration and a serious lack of self-confidence.
Gipson drank and smoked heavily, and his oldest son’s suicide in 1962 brought shock, grief and a worsening level of despondency. He and Tommie separated and ultimately divorced in 1964.
On a brighter note, his son Beck had married and presented Fred with his first grandchild, Benjamin, in 1970. Gipson’s final years were spent enjoying little Ben, conserving the land, writing occasionally and visiting with old friends who stopped by his ranch home near Mason. He died in his sleep of a brain hemorrhage in August 1973 at age 65.
Gipson’s granite marker at the Texas State Cemetery reads simply: His Books Are His Monuments. He rests near fellow literary luminaries Dobie and historian Walter Prescott Webb.
Now, new generations of readers continue to discover the antics of boys, hunting dogs and midnight varmint hunts in the moonlit, serene Hill Countryside.
Mason’s Eckert Library has a display of Gipson’s published works, his writing desk and personal photographs. At its entrance is a life-size bronze sculpture of Old Yeller and his constant companion, Travis.
Normally Mason pays tribute to Gipson each September during an event which includes an Old Yeller film showing at the Odeon Theater. Due to the coronavirus, this year’s fete has been canceled, but is scheduled to return Sept. 25, 2021.
The remainder of Gibson’s memorabilia – including manuscripts, correspondence and financial records – is housed at the Harry Ransom Center at UT-Austin.
Eckert Memorial Library
410 Post Hill Road
Mason, TX 76856
Harry Ransom Center
The University of Texas at Austin
300 W. 21st St.
Austin, TX 78712
Texas State Cemetery
909 Navasota St.
Austin, TX 78702
Dee is a semi-retired journalist residing in San Angelo with her husband, Jerry. She has enjoyed communication careers at West Texas Rehabilitation Center, Angelo State University and San Angelo Standard-Times.