There is no entry in the Handbook of Texas for John Hayward Randolph, nor was he ever elected to the Texas Institute of Letters, but he was a Texas author who probably did more than anyone else in the latter half of the 20th century to shape the popular conception of Texas. Randolph was the originator of Texas Brags, a series of booklets that sold close to a million copies between their first appearance in 1944 and Randolph’s death in 1972.
Each edition of Texas Brags consisted of 64 pages bound in a stiff cardboard wrapper with each page devoted to a different Texas topic. The booklets were profusely illustrated with colored drawings by Houston artist Mark Storm. Topics included Texas geography, agricultural products, natural resources, demography, history, customs, food, vocabulary and humor.
The tone was boastful (“If all the hogs in Texas were one big hog, he could dig the Panama Canal with three roots and a grunt”), but the statistics were fairly reliable (“There are more sheep in Texas than people in Massachusetts. Over five million of them produce twice as much wool as the next ranking state and nearly 25 percent of the U.S. total.”). The jokes were terrible (“I went to Amarillo but came home broke.” “Why?” “I’m a soft touch for Panhandlers.”) Texas Brags is an abbreviated, lighthearted, and wonderfully illustrated version of The Texas Almanac.
The later editions have a self-mailer on the back cover that includes this boxed notice: “Postmaster: Take time out for laughs and education. This parcel may be opened for postal inspection whether necessary or not.” Clearly John Randolph had a flippant attitude toward the formalities of publishing.
I got my first copy of Texas Brags at the age of seven, a gift from my Fort Worth grandmother, and she sent me a new edition every year all the years that we lived away from Texas. I loved it. It taught me how to be a Texan while living in foreign parts. The inside back covers of the later editions offered merchandise created by Randolph, which I had to be restrained by my parents from sending off for: Texas passports, citizenship certificates, flags and even stock certificates in “a famous Texas oil well.”
Several years ago I decided to try to learn more about John Randolph, and I made a small collection of copies of Texas Brags ranging from the first 1944 edition published in Houston by the Anson Jones Press to the “new, revised, Space Age edition” published in Tomball in 1968. The content does not really vary much over 24 years.
John Randolph proved to be a hard man to learn much about, and I still do not know as much about him as I would like. In fact, one of the reasons I am writing this column is the hope that someone who does know something about him will read it and get in touch with me. My first clue about him came from the online Library of Congress catalogue, which I was consulting in order to learn how many editions of Texas Brags had been published. I noticed an entry there for another book by Randolph called Marsmen in Burma, a history of a military unit that Randolph had served in during World War II.
Then I stumbled on a short article about Randolph by Terry “Tex” Toler in the January 1986 issue of Texas Monthly. Toler is also a Texas Brags fan and has treasured from childhood a Texas Brags map depicting Texas as stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts and lapping over into Canada and Mexico, one of those items advertised in Texas Brags that my parents would not let me buy. Toler had corresponded with Randolph’s widow, Ruth Moore Randolph, and learned that Randolph had conceived Texas Brags while stationed in Marfa with the 124th Cavalry Regiment at Fort D. A. Russell in the winter of 1943 – 1944.
The 124th Cavalry was a Texas National Guard unit that Randolph, a Houston advertising man, had joined in 1942 at the age of 34. The regiment was federalized when the war broke out and became the last unit in the United States Army to be mounted on horses and mules. According to Randolph’s widow, Randolph was bored stiff with guarding the Mexican border from Marfa and got to thinking about a bus placard advertising campaign he had done for Jax beer before the war, a series of ads he had called “Texas Brags and Drinks Jax Beer.”
He wrote his wife and asked her to send him his files from that campaign, and the manuscript for the first edition of Texas Brags was the result. He worked on it in off-duty hours for four months and sent it to his wife just before his regiment was transferred to Fort Riley, Kan., and then shipped to India to become part of the Mars Task Force charged with clearing the Japanese army off the Burma Road.
Before he shipped out he arranged for his Houston friend Mark Storm, a graphic artist for the Humble Oil Company’s magazine The Humble Way, to do the illustrations and for the Anson Jones Press to publish the results. By the time he came home from the war in 1945, the first edition had sold 160,000 copies.John Randolph, a native Floridian, was in business promoting Texas for the rest of his life.
by Lonn Taylor
Lonn Taylor is a historian who lives in Fort Davis, Texas and writes columns about Texas history for the Marfa Big Bend Sentinel and Texas Monthly magazine. For 20 years, Taylor served as a historian at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. He lived in Round Top from 1970 to 1977 when he was director of the Winedale Historical Center. This piece was originally published in the Marfa Big Bend Sentinel on August 18, 2016.