Not a lot of people remember this but there was a time when reindeer roamed wild in Texas and spread cheer and wonder to children all over the state, and beyond.
Okay, maybe the reindeer weren’t wild. Maybe they were here because of Grady Carothers, a traditional Texas rancher who one day decided he wanted to see reindeer in Texas. Carothers’ son planted the notion by asking his father why Texas didn’t have its own reindeer.
Grady got to thinking about it, and he too started wondering why Texas children didn’t have their own reindeer to see and admire. He set about getting Texas its own reindeer, despite the guffaws of neighbors and friends. Instead of listening to them, he wrote a slew of letters to postmasters and various Chambers of Commerce in Alaska, but without so much as a reply from the Great White North.
Encouragement came from an unlikely source. The manager of a local department store told him that the Alaska Native Service managed Alaska’s reindeer for the Eskimo, and that his best bet would be to get in touch with the service. The service told him “No” three times but Carothers was persistent – even ornery and stubborn at times.
Finally, the Alaska Native Service allowed Carothers to buy six reindeer steers. Carothers and his older son went to Nome, Alaska, and from there another 100 miles east to Galvin, where Carothers bought six reindeer for $50 apiece. An old, wise Norwegian wrangler persuaded Carothers to leave the reindeer with him in Seattle until fall – it was summertime in Texas.
The Norwegian helped Grady break the reindeer, but there was a problem. The Norwegians and Alaskans trained the reindeer to pull a sled. Carothers wanted them to drive a line. He eventually figured it out, and in the process learned just how ornery and stubborn a reindeer can be. But he kind of admired them for that – maybe because he was a little ornery and stubborn too.
Then there was the matter of feeding the critters. Texas was woefully short on reindeer moss — there wasn’t any at all — but there wasn’t a lot of the stuff in Alaska either. Carothers taught the reindeer,
or they learned on their own, how to like cultivated food. But Carothers got some of the moss, when he
could find it, and brought it back to Texas as a treat for the reindeer, which Carothers appropriately, if not originally, named Dancer, Prancer, Donner and Vixen and the like.
These naturalized Texas reindeer wore identifying red harnesses and pulled Santa in his sleigh from Thanksgiving through Christmas for more than 40 years. Carothers contracted with local chambers of commerce, shopping centers and schools, putting on three shows a day and transporting the equipment in vans from town to town and state to state. It took three men, including Santa, just to handle the reindeer.
Early on the reindeer performed close to the Carothers ranch in Mills County, but their popularity eventually extended into 39 southwestern and central states. Sometimes as many as six teams of reindeer were on the road at one time. Carothers and his reindeer pulled Santa in a rose-covered sleigh in the 1955 Tournament of Roses Parade. In time, Rudolph, a fawn with a red nose, joined the team and learned to travel in front of the harnessed deer. Rudolph had his own harness with his name and little bells, and was quite the star of the show.
Carothers made 16 trips to Alaska to get more reindeer, including some females so he could have his own replacements, ones that were native Texans to boot. Carothers kept the reindeer on his ranch in Mills County until Carothers and Son Enterprises moved to California and exhibited the reindeer at Santa Claus Land and in fall parades. He sold the reindeer and equipment in 1984, and drove the stagecoach at Knott’s Berry Farm.
“It wasn’t easy, but nothing ever is,” Carothers said of his reindeer operation.
Carothers died in April 25, 2004, one day after his 98th birthday in Gonzales, County, California. He is buried back home in Texas, at Senterfit Cemetery near Lometa, where reindeer no longer roam.