Tehee: Help needed to secure Bob Wills' Fresno legacy

FresnoDecember 4, 2013 

Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys

SPECIAL TO THE BEE

Bob Wills was a rock star. Or, he would have been, if the term had existed in the late 1940s, during his music-making prime. With his band, The Texas Playboys, Wills was a superstar of western-swing, which was the music of the working class until rock 'n' roll took over in the 1950s.

At the height of his career, Wills made more than $1 million a year touring for MCA Records, putting on the kind of show that could draw 10,000 people on a Monday night — larger crowds than for pop-music contemporaries like Tommy Dorsey or Benny Goodman. The Playboys' song "San Antonio Rose" sold 1 million records. In 1940! It is covered by country artists to this day.

And from 1945 to 1948, Wills lived in Fresno, on 80 acres at what is now Clinton and Armstrong avenues.

The Triple B Ranch was the band's headquarters. From there, they did a regular radio show on KMJ while traveling to gigs up and down the Central Valley. Wills had lived in Hollywood, but the rural ranch reminded him of his home state of Texas and was closer to his fan base — many of whom were Dust Bowl refugees. According to his biography, "San Antonio Rose," it was the place he was happiest and where he wanted to retire.

The ranch was mostly a footnote until this year, when the last remaining structure — a one-story wood-framed house where Wills' family once lived — was scheduled to be demolished by Granville. The local development company owns the property and has plans for the area.

The home was saved in a $1 deal that gave ownership to the Central California Music Association, which plans to move the house to Prather and create the Bob Wills Ranch House Museum.

Now comes the tricky part.

Logistically, moving the house isn't easy or cheap. There have been delays, and the CCMA has been granted two extensions. It has until the end of the year, says Lance Tullis, president of the local nonprofit. The house is up on wheels and ready to be moved as soon as the organization can secure the $25,000 that's needed, says Tullis, who has put $6,000 into the project and donated the land for the new museum. You can help by pledging to the group's Kickstarter campaign (search for Triple B Ranch at kickstarter.com), or donate directly through the Fresno Arts Council at (559) 237-9734 or fresnoartscouncil.org.

The project is scheduled for completion by spring at an estimated cost around $90,000 (that includes interior and exterior renovations). The house will get a new roof and foundation and wood siding milled to exactly match the original look. Olive trees from the original site will be replanted at the new site, and the whole thing will be filled with museum displays.

It's a cause worth supporting.

Fresno is a city of hidden treasures, filled with secret histories waiting to be told. Think: The photos of Pop Laval, Chinatown's tunnels or Forestiere Underground Gardens. And now, Bob Wills and the Triple B Ranch.

The Valley has a legacy of country music, and it's not just Merle and Buck down in Bakersfield. Many of the original Texas Playboys stayed in the area making music until their deaths. A museum like this would go a long way in recognizing those contributions.

It would also fill in a crucial, often overlooked gap in the history of country music.

 

The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6479, jtehee@fresnobee.com or @joshuatehee on Twitter and Instagram. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

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