KENTON — It’s been 75 years since the singing cowboy Gene Autry rode into Kenton to save that town’s industry from demise, but that act is something local folks haven’t forgotten. To mark the occasion, they host the annual Gene Autry days, now in its 20th year.
“We try and build this every year as a way to keep our local heritage alive,” said Annetta Shirk, director of the Hardin County Chamber and Business Alliance.
Because most people don’t remember the singing cowboy, promoters of the event tie it in to the popular "Toy Story" movies, as they promote toys like the ones produced at the Kenton Hardware Co.
“We try to educate the kids on who Gene Autry was. We have a fiberglass horse that looks like Gene’s famous Champion, and more and more people recognize that,” Shirk said.
In fact, when Autry visited the limping Kenton Hardware Co. in August 1938, his line-up of celebrity guests included Champion. And that one-day visit was enough to rejuvenate the cap gun which was tied to Autry’s name.
The Autry Repeating Cap Gun, a Kenton-produced toy that sold more than 6 million guns in its day, is now among the collector’s items that draw toy collectors to the event.
“There is a big market for antique toys, cast iron like the ones made by Kenton Toys. That place had such a good reputation that even today when you mention Kenton Toys, collectors know it,” Shirk said.
But old toys aren’t the only thing featured at this weekend-long event.
“We are bringing back the best-0f-the-best as far as our entertainment goes. Those entertainers that the crowds have liked were invited back,” Shirk said. That list includes everyone from Les Gilliam, the Oklahoma Balladeer, to humorist Paul Belanger.
But there’s more.
It’s western look-alikes, contests, a cowboy church service, and horse and carriage rides.