Cottonseed Clark spent his first years in Reno, Texas, in the dusty, cotton-growing heart of the Red River Valley, where his daddy was a dirt farmer and the one and only school teacher – for all eleven grades – in the town’s one-room schoolhouse.
“My real handle is Sim Clark Fulks,” he wrote in the 1945 compendium, “Cottonseed Clark’s Brushwood Poetry and Philosophy,” which included his autobiography and a passel of home-spun prose. “I was foaled April 12, 1909, at Reno, Texas, a farm community of approximately one hundred honest, God-fearing souls located five miles east of Paris, Lamar County, Texas.”
His father, James A. Fulks, became Superintendent of Schools for Lamar County in 1916 (leading the family to settle in Paris, the county seat), as well as a commercial printer and the founding publisher of the local newspaper, The Farm Labor Union Echo, which led to young Clark spending “many years in the newspaper business as printer, linotype operator, ad salesman, reporter” – and, later, the publisher of his own “country weekly” newspaper.
Newspaper publishing was clearly in the Fulks family’s blood – Clark’s older brother, Paul Moody Fulks (1903-1985), published the Wolfe City Sun in rural Hunt County, Texas. He also served as the statewide president of the Texas Press Association, and operated the Texas Tag and Specialty Company in Wolfe City, which converted paper into product tags and labels.
Another brother, Ray Edward Fulks (1911-1978), settled with his wife, Connie, in tiny Buffalo (Leon County), Texas, where he published the local Buffalo Press. Ray apparently pursued other money-making interests: a small “Business Opportunities” classified ad appeared in the back of the November 1953 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine, offering the instructions and formula to “earn big money resilvering mirrors” in exchange for $1 sent to him in care of Box 248 in Buffalo.
Their youngest brother, Eugene Jackson Fulks (1914-1989, known as Gene), originally followed a very different career path: for many years, he managed the Elliott Funeral Home in Abilene, Texas, and was active in a variety of civic and social organizations there before purchasing his own mortuary in Sabinal (Uvalde County) around 1946.
It appears, however, that the familiar scent of printer’s ink was stronger than embalming fluid: early in 1950, Gene bought the Sabinal Graphic and The Utopian newspapers in his adopted hometown, along with their parent enterprise, the Graphic Publishing Company.
Their sister, Eva Jim (1906-2002, named after her mother and father), was absent the publishing gene but followed in her father’s footsteps as a longtime school teacher in Texas and Oklahoma before becoming a highly-respected professor of business at Oklahoma City University.
While in the employ of the rebranded Lamar County Echo – described by Clark as “a darn good weekly newspaper edited and owned by a mighty fine man, and one of our family’s closest friends,” Lon Boynton, who had bought the paper from the senior Fulks in 19251 – Cottonseed married Mozelle Lindley of Sulphur Springs, Texas, in January 1929. “She’s ol’ Bud Lindley’s daughter,” Clark wrote. “Everybody knows Bud … used to run the wagon yard.”
By rough estimate, Clark’s first major foray into “big city” broadcasting also took place in 1929, at WRR in Dallas, where he and the bandleader Paul Wellbaum contracted for a weekly hour of airtime for a “hometown” program featuring local talent from surrounding communities.
“But bad luck was tailing me like an orphan calf tails a stray cow looking for adoption,” he wrote, “for it always rained on the same day our big program went on the air, and instead of hearing their advertising announcements and local talent, the home-towners heard a conglomeration of thunder and lightning condensed to static.”
Despite the failure, he found himself bitten by the broadcasting bug and turned to announcing re-creations of professional baseball games, a task for which he claimed to have “proved satisfactory,” having been a bit of a ballplayer himself.
Through the 1930s, Clark’s radio career took him “from one 100-watter to the next,” before he took on the role of script and continuity director in 1935 for a statewide network in Texas owned by Elliott Roosevelt, the son of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and headquartered at the landmark Amicable Building (a/k/a The ALICO Building) in Waco.
The job lasted until November 1938 “at which time there was a vigorous shake-up of department heads,” he related. “I was one of those vigorously shaken.”
Actually, the job may have lasted a small bit longer than that: a transcribed recording survives from a daily radio serial entitled “Brushwood Mercantile,” a southwestern-style soap opera depicting life in a bucolic – and fictional – Texas town known as Brushwood,2 hosted (and probably written by) Clark and carried via the Texas State Network of radio stations. The recording is dated February 26, 1939:
In 1940, Clark ventured into Texas politics as campaign manager for “the most honest, God-fearing public official the state of Texas has ever known,” helping to get Olin Culberson elected as the state’s Railroad Commissioner.
“All I have to say about that experience,” Clark wrote, “is this: NEVER AGAIN!!!” The campaign took him to all 254 of Texas’ counties, but soured him on public participation in partisan politics for the remainder of his days.
So, from whence did Sim Clark Fulks derive his “Cottonseed” moniker?
“Due to the lengthy narration involved of telling the story,” he wrote, “I will omit same.” Clark downplayed a New York newspaper’s story that it came about when, as a child, he would stuff cotton seeds in various orifices to the “frantic objections” of his parents.
One origin story, perhaps apocryphal – but colorful, nonetheless – accompanied the news in the April 27, 1942, edition of Broadcasting magazine that Clark was headed north to New York City to join NBC’s Blue Network, which would soon be spun off to become the American Broadcasting Company:
COTTONSEED CLARK, formerly production manager of KFDM, Beaumont, Tex., … [has] joined the BLUE production staff. Clark was christened “Cottonseed” by Babe Ruth six years ago when he was broadcasting baseball games in Texas sponsored alternately by General Mills for Wheaties and the Cottonseed Mill.
From the expression “Over the Fence for Wheaties,” employed when a player hit a home run on a General Mills-sponsored game, Clark contrived a new one: “Over the Fence for Cottonseed.” The name stuck to him and he finally adopted it legally, changing from Clark Fulks.
Although only the barest evidence exists as this is written, Cottonseed probably was the play-by-play announcer for the exhibition game at Waco’s Katy Field between the barnstorming Bustin’ Babes (captained by Babe Ruth) and the Larrupin’ Lous (piloted by Lou Gehrig) around 1936. Katy Field, set between Jackson and Webster avenues, was located directly adjacent to the cottonseed oil refinery that is now known as Magnolia Market at the Silos – the cornerstone of Chip and Joanna Gaines’ sprawling Waco-based Magnolia empire.3
(Note that in a 1955 item in the San Mateo Times, media columnist Bob Foster wrote that Clark “picked up the name Cottonseed when Babe Ruth couldn’t remember the rest of his name.”)
Although he may have had high hopes for success in New York City, those hopes failed to materialize for Cottonseed, and he was soon looking for another opportunity – whether that meant going back home to Texas, or taking another shot at stardom elsewhere.
Calling his abbreviated Big Apple experience “worse than Texas politics,” Clark took a gamble on himself and headed west to Los Angeles, where his natural persistence paid off: local CBS radio executives asked him to “build us a western show” to serve as a replacement for Gene Autry’s popular “Melody Ranch” program, in the absence of the legendary singing cowboy (and licensed pilot), who had enlisted in the Army Air Force as a Flight Officer.
After barely ten days of planning, Clark debuted as producer and host of the Saturday night “Hollywood Barn Dance” across the regional CBS Pacific radio network in the western United States on December 4, 1943.
Featuring Foy Willing and The Riders of the Purple Sage as its “house band,” the program remained a staple of the network through 1948, broadcasting from its “barn” in Gower Gulch – which was actually the home of CBS’ flagship station in Los Angeles, KNX, and its network studios at Columbia Square on Sunset Boulevard.
The son of an Assembly of God minister, Foy Willing (born Foy Lopez Willingham) was a fellow Texan with an earlier dovetailed connection to Cottonseed: as a Waco High School freshman in 1930, Willing had his own daily fifteen-minute program, singing popular tunes on Radio WACO in his hometown – the same station at which Clark would later toil. After a period together in Hollywood, they would meet up again later, hosting separate disc jockey shifts at KEEN (1370 kc.) in San Jose, Calif., in the 1950s.
The success of “Hollywood Barn Dance” opened up opportunities for Cottonseed to appear in a couple of movies – “Smoky River Serenade” (1947) and “The Arkansas Swing” (1948) – in which he played himself.
Oddly enough, Clark did not appear in the 1947 movie “Hollywood Barn Dance,” which starred Ernest Tubb and his outfit, the Texas Troubadours, and was only loosely based on the radio program. Tubbs’ manager, Oscar Davis, bought the rights to use the title from Cottonseed, but the script by screenwriter and director Bernard B. Ray didn’t include a part for the man who coined its name.
As television began encroaching on radio’s realm, Cottonseed dipped his pointy-toed cowboy boots in the emerging medium, appearing as a guest or emcee on several programs, including a spot in a December 1947 episode of “Bar-None Dude Ranch,” a “folk show” on the first commercially-licensed TV station in Los Angeles, KTLA (Channel 5).
In April 1949, Cottonseed parlayed his “Brushwood Poet” persona into another venture, recording two of his poems (with “Arlo at the Organ” providing the instrumental backing) for RCA Victor. Released on a 78-RPM shellac disc, the A-side featured “The Day That Pa Played Preacher,” with “Ma’s Galvanized Washing Tub” on the B-side.
Both poems had previously appeared in print in the first edition of his “Brushwood Poetry and Philosophy” soft-bound tome in 1945 but RCA chose to bill him as “Cottonseed Clark (The Country Poet)” for this release.
The print edition of “Brushwood Poetry” was highlighted by a detailed and colorfully folksy autobiography of the author, and included illustrations by the multi-talented singer-songwriter and guitarist Merle Travis, plus a forward penned by Clark’s old Texas pal Woodward Maurice “Tex” Ritter.
Here’s “The Day That Pa Played Preacher”:
And here’s “Ma’s Galvanized Washing Tub”:
While the spoken-word recordings of his poetry couldn’t rightfully be classified as “songs” — although Little Jimmy Dickens did release a bouncy version of “The Galvanized Washing Tub” in 1952 – Cottonseed continued putting pen to paper on a steady stream of tuneful lyrics, including “Time Alone Will Tell” (with Scotty Harrell) and “Tears of Regret,” both recorded by his old buddy from back home, Tex Ritter; “Look Out for the Crossing,” recorded by Jack Guthrie and His Oklahomans; “From Now On” (1947, with Ike Cargill); and “Jack, The Cowboy Rabbit” (1953, with Foy Willing).
Clark found significantly more songwriting success during this period with his authorship of one of the most popular country tunes of the era, “Texarkana Baby,” which became one of Eddy Arnold’s biggest early hits, reaching number one on Billboard’s “Best Selling Folk Records” chart in August 1948, and in the decades since has become one of the enduring standards in Country Music history.
In addition to hosting and producing network shows, Cottonseed also worked as a disc jockey, including a stint on the afternoon shift at little KGFJ (1230 AM) in Los Angeles.
Cottonseed also created and hosted a short-lived, nationally-syndicated (via pre-recorded “transcription discs”) program called “Rhythm Range” for the intrepid World Broadcasting System (WBS), which attempted to create a coast-to-coast national radio network with stars that included Ernest Tubb, Xavier Cugat, Louis Jordan, Maureen O’Sullivan and Ethel Smith. “Rhythm Range” appears to have lasted a total of 26 fifteen-minute episodes in the Fall and Summer of 1945.
During this time, Clark listed the fabled Hollywood movie producer and impresario Maurice Duke as his manager. Among others, Duke also managed Mickey Rooney, and was well known as the producer of such classics as “Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla,” considered by many – including Duke himself – to be among the worst movies ever made.
In 1950, Gil Bond, the commercial manager of the fledgling radio station KVSM (1050 AM) in San Mateo, Calif., took a quick flight to Hollywood, hoping that Cottonseed Clark might take a chance on the tiny daytime-only outlet.
Bond offered Clark the opportunity to not only manage the station, which operated only from local sunrise to sunset, but to also be its primary announcer and advertising salesman.
KVSM, pumping out a piddling 250 watts worth of power, couldn’t compete with the powerhouse network stations located up the Peninsula in San Francisco, but with Cottonseed in the driver’s seat, it quickly carved out a niche as the only station in the Bay Area playing nothing but Western Music.
Capturing an audience of like-minded Okie expatriates, Cottonseed also hosted dances at the original Napredak Hall in Santa Clara and elsewhere around the region, which he promoted on his radio program, which, in turn, led to another opportunity as host of the “Hoffman Hayride” TV program – taking over for Dude Martin – on KOVR (Channel 13), a station licensed to Stockton – just outside the Bay Area in San Joaquin County – but with a powerhouse signal that “KOVeRed“ a vast segment of the region.
The program, re-branded as the “California Hayride,” later moved to KPIX (Channel 5) and KGO-TV (Channel 7) in the Bay Area.
Leafing through old newspapers during this era, without much effort one finds Cottonseed hosting live Hoffman or California Hayride variety shows at the Sonoma County Fair in Santa Rosa; the Fourth District Fair in Petaluma; the San Francisco State College gym; the Redwood City Rodeo; and, of course, at the first anniversary of Jerry’s Famous 19¢ Beefburgers in San Leandro.
“Radio Ron,” posting on the Butcher’s Floor blog, shared his memories of Cottonseed:
He was on KVSM for several years when the station broadcast out of its transmitter building at the foot of the old San Mateo Bridge. Cottonseed was sort of the unofficial “bridge greeter.” Drivers would be tuned into the station and honk their horn and Cottonseed would “wave them on through.”
Cottonseed parlayed his role as the leading purveyor of Western Music in the Bay Area into yet another venture: his own western-themed night spot, appropriately dubbed Cotton’s Club, located on the El Camino Real in Belmont.
The grand opening of Cotton’s Club on December 10, 1953, was a gala event, featuring Clark’s old buddies Tex Ritter and Merle Travis (and his wife, Judy Hayden4) as special guests, along with performances by local favorites Big Jim DeNoon and His Haymakers, Dusty Dale, Marilyn Orlando and Eddie Dean.
The entire event was telecast live on the “Hoffman Hayride” and showed off the club’s large dance floor and “authentic western decorations,” including “some of the biggest sets of Texas longhorns in existence” and displays of vintage firearms, according to a San Mateo Times article heralding the venue’s debut.
The walls of the club were adorned with large photographs of Hoot Gibson, Gene Autry, Will Rogers, William S. Hart, Roy Rogers and other cowboy stars and entertainers from the proprietor’s personal collection. Cattle brands from local San Mateo County ranches and other famous western ranches were burned into the walls and bandstand, “lending a rustic appearance.”
Despite high hopes, the reign of Cotton’s Club was sadly short; it closed in May 1954, barely six months after its splashy grand opening, although Cottonseed reportedly continued doing his KVSM radio shows from the broadcast studio he had installed on the building’s second floor.
After a change in ownership at KVSM at the end of 1954, Cottonseed jumped to KEEN (1370 AM), the popular San Jose station that over the years featured Red Murrell, Cal Smith, Foy Willing, Black Jack Wayne, Cal Shrum and other well-known Western Music entertainers turned disc jockeys.
After a two-year run on Radio KEEN, and with yet another change in ownership at KVSM, Cottonseed returned to the pint-sized Peninsula pea-shooter at the end of April 1957, along with his old Hoffman Hayride sidekick, Eddie Kirk, taking a seat in the newly-remodeled second-story studio — furnished by no less than the trendy designer and former Vaudevillian, Charles “Chic” Sale – upstairs at KVSM’s transmitter building along the San Mateo Bridge toll approach.
“Augie,” also commenting on the Butcher’s Floor blog, noted:
I remember Cottonseed Clark from my father listening to him on the radio when I was a kid in the early ’50s. My Dad was a gardener and worked seven days a week unless VERY sick or Christmas or raining heavily. When I hear Country Western music it still seems like it is raining outside. My Dad listened to radio KEEN here in San Jose. When a car went past they would honk, then Cottonseed would say “Howdy, honker!”
We went to see him in the studio once. It was basically a small concrete shack set way back from the old Oakland Road (13th Street). I remember we walked in the front door and there was an inner door where we could see him and wave from a window in the door. To the left was a baby alligator or crocodile in a big wash tub with a screen over the top.
(Augie’s memory may be very slightly faulty: Cottonseed would holler “Howdy, honker,” to those passing his San Mateo Bridge outpost at KVSM; the KEEN transmitter shack was set far enough off of the road that the occasional car horn could hardly be heard.)
Among Clark’s achievements during this period is staking a claim to being among the first to discover a rising young talent (and fellow Texan) named George Jones. At eighteen years of age, finding himself married, with a baby daughter and very few prospects available to afford either, George enlisted in the United States Marine Corps.
In his autobiography, “I Lived To Tell It All,” Jones related:
So I joined the Marines. … It was steady work. I could make a financial allotment for my dependents, and, best of all, I could get out of Texas and the troubles that seemed to follow me there.
I was stationed in San Jose, California,5 where I met Cottonseed Clark, a nightclub musician and radio personality who let me sit in with his show one night. I did a Webb Pierce song, and Cotton ate it up. He offered me a job for twenty-five dollars every Saturday night. That’s the most I had ever been guaranteed to earn for one night’s singing.
I had duty every other weekend, and I had to finagle my way out of it so I could earn my twenty-five dollars. If I could have worked every Saturday night I would have earned one hundred dollars a month, far more than my military pay.
The early 1960s found Cottonseed back again at KEEN (touted as “one of KEEN’s most popular air salesmen for over ten years”) and hosting a Saturday afternoon music program on Oakland’s KTVU (Channel 2). He also operated an advertising and marketing firm, Clark and Associates, based in San Jose. According to archival radio schedules, Cottonseed remained on KEEN as late as December 1967.
In 1968, Cottonseed moved north as program director and six-days-a-week afternoon host at KZEL AM and FM in Eugene, Oregon – “Big Country Radio For The Emerald Empire.” (The station would later find greater local success when it switched to Progressive Rock a few years later.)
In my research, the creek runs dry somewhere near 1970, and I wasn’t able to find another mention of cousin Cottonseed until the middle of the next decade.
He and Mozelle retired to Van Nuys, Calif., in 1985, and had moved to Thousand Oaks (Ventura County) only a few months before Clark suffered a brain hemorrhage, the complications of which led to his death on January 9, 1992. Cottonseed Clark Fulks was 82 years old.
Mozelle Fulks died on June 6, 1995, in Thousand Oaks. She was 83.
— Text by The Cottonmouth Kid
Special thanks to radio historian Keith B. Farr for information and images from KEEN Radio. Additional images and audio from the collection of the author, who is the great-grand-nephew of Cottonseed Clark’s mother, Evie Jackson Fulks. The author’s own grandmother was born in Reno, Texas; his father in Paris, Texas.
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- After James Fulks sold the Echo – reportedly to go into the furniture business – his sons Clark and Paul stayed on to work for Lon Boynton, who continued to own and operate the paper until his death in 1953 from a brain tumor at the age of 60.
- This was also probably the first public use by Clark of the term “Brushwood,” which is described as “a thicket of shrubs and small trees” in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. He would later crown himself “The Brushwood Poet” and give the title “Brushwood Poetry” to his volume of autobiographical verse.
- The former site of Katy Field – named for the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad (a/k/a “The Katy”) whose Waco depot was catty-corner to the ballpark – is presently a parking lot for visitors to the Silos. The building that houses Magnolia Press Coffee Company is located exactly where Katy Field’s centerfield fence stood until the ballpark was torn down in 1965.
- Her name is misspelled as “Judy Haydon” in the splashy ad for the opening night.
- Actually, after completing his basic training in San Diego in 1952, George’s Marine Corps assignment was at Moffett Field Naval Air Station on the Peninsula, about fifteen miles north of San Jose.