Sometimes those “film cowboys” featured in Westerns in the 1920s-1950s were actually real cowboys. One such authentic cowboy-turned-Hollywood star is Wally Wales (also known as Hal Taliaferro). Wally Wales was born Floyd Taliaferro Alderson in 1895 in Sheridan, Wyoming. His first job was working on a ranch owned by the Wyoming governor and senator, John B. Kendrick, where he slept under a blanket of stars and sang cowboy songs around a campfire. He later moved to Montana with his two younger brothers. Known as “Bones,” “Big Bones,” and “Little Bones,” the three brothers operated a ranch called “Bones Brothers Ranch” near Birney, Montana (now on the National Register of Historic Places). The site was immortalized by a short story in “Nomad’s Land” by Mary Roberts Rinehart, written after she had visited the ranch.
While his brothers continued to run the ranch, in 1915 Wales set off for different pastures. He worked briefly as a stage driver in Yellowstone National Park. He then went to Billings, where he saw a Western being filmed. Highly amused by the film cowboys, Wales decided to head to Hollywood to try his luck at the silver screen. He first worked on the Universal Studios ranch, carrying water to horses. He got a few bit parts, then left for a stint in the Army. He came back to Hollywood, but continued with minimal luck. After years of trying to make it big, he finally moved to Arizona where he got a job as an oil worker. Right at this time, producer Lester F. Scott, Jr. decided he’d like Wales to star in his Westerns. He had to go down to Arizona in person to convince Wales to return to Hollywood. Wales agreed, and ended up making over thirty Westerns for Scott over a three year period. In fact, it was Scott who gave him the stage name Wally Wales – because Wales resembled both the silent film star Wally Reid and the then Prince of Wales (Edward VIII).
Wales ended up appearing in 220 films between 1921 and 1964, successfully transitioning from silent films to sound motion pictures. Around 1936, Wales changed his stage name to Hal Taliaferro.
Wales never lived the true celebrity lifestyle, preferring to stay at home, practice his stunts, and train for his films. He also enjoyed drawing and sketching. He took great pride in his cowboy roots, and although his Hollywood career began by watching and laughing at the “film cowboys,” he feared he was losing his authentic cowboy credibility. After “making it big,” he recalls a conversation he had with an old, “true” cowboy. After proclaiming that he was a former cowboy himself, the old cowboy looked at him and replied that he was “no cowboy…just one of them dude movie cowboys.” Wales said that he would have felt better if the cowboy had punched him in the nose. Wales died in 1980, in Sheridan.
The American Heritage Center has the papers of Wally Wales. The collection contains mainly stills, advertising, and publicity materials for films in which Wales appeared. It also contains photographs of the Rocky Mountain West, including Yellowstone National Park, Thermopolis, and the Bones’ Brothers Ranch in Montana; a diary and sketchbook from a trip he took to the Bahamas; and a make-up kit complete with a mustache drawer. Also included in the collection is a neat series of cabinet card photographs featuring late 19th century stage stars.
The collection is full of fascinating photographs, clippings, and other interesting items documenting the life of this Wyoming native-turned-Western film star.
–Emily Christopherson, Processing Archivist