The Sunflower Wrangler, as Ernie Margheim was known, was born in a small town in western Kansas, Wakeeney.
It's a best west of Hays, Kansas along today's Interstate 70. Ernie isn't afraid to
say that maybe he was more of a want to be singer and performer than perhaps those
that were fortunate enough to 'make it'. Ernie considers his music career
to be an exciting period and experience in his life.
Ernie took voice lessons,(which included breathing exercises), guitar lessons,
piano lessons, played bass viol in concert band, and also played violin in
the concert orchestra.
As many young aspiring singers would do back then, Ernie entered all the amateur
shows and contests where performers were judged by the audience responses.
He notes, he wanted to be PREPARED when his opportunity came.
He auditioned at various radio stations. He also appeared with various medicine shows
that were common in that era.
We asked Ernie about his experiences with the medicine shows of those days.
Ernie did not travel with those shows. Whenever they came to town,
they welcomed local talent and gave them an audience.
He tells us he never tried the "cure all tonic" that was peddled for a
dollar a bottle. He was still a student at Hoisington High School in Kansas
at the time. Some of the shows would make him an offer to gravel with them,
but his family thought he should finish his education.
Ernie tells us that they hawked that product
like an auctioneer would do - and promised to cure everything under the sun. The perfomrers would
work their way through the audience, holding the tonic bottles as they went and touting
all the ailments and illnesses it was supposed to cure. Folks in the audience would
indeed buy it.
But Ernie steadfastly tells us - he never tried the stuff. The "tonic" was bottled
in Wichita, Kansas, by the promoter, and probably was a concoction that was partly alcohol.
Ernie says he never knew what was in it. He thinks it was probably illegal
by today's standards. Or maybe all medicine shows had their own label put
on a professionally manufactured and bottled health and Vitamin TONIC,
as they called them in those days.
They came around to all the small western Kansas towns and regularly pitched their
tent on an empty lot, and promoted their show up and down main street with loud
speakers on a car top, telling local residents of performances they would see.
Traveling with the acts and shows that came through town was not something he
could do as much as he wanted to. Although he did not travel with the shows
that came through the area, they knew who he was and was asked to work
with them every summer they came through the area. He notes he used his
National Duolin (Steel body) Guitar - perhaps feeling a bit lesser than the
stars who were using and Martin and Gibson guitars, but Ernie said he still
felt pretty good.
Ernie recalls he sang and yodeled (in the Wilf Carter/Montana Slim style - who was Ernie's idol
and hero). He also included tunes from the Blue Yodeler, Jimmie Rodgers repertoire.
The songs he heard over the Border Radio also had an influence on him as
they were going strong in those years. He would take in stations such XEPN and XERF.
Some of the acts he recalls include Cowboy Slim Rinehart, Dallas Turner (he recalls
high-powered commercials during his shows), the Carter Family, Nevada Slim, the
Monroe Brothers, Jesse Rodgers as well as numerous religious programs.
Ernie told us of his memories of Roy Faulkner (the Lonesome Cowboy), who worked
with one of Border Radio's legends, Dr. J. R. Brinkley for several years. Roy
knew many songs from memory, including "...umpteen verses" of the tune Abdul-The Bul-Bul-Lameer.
Roy later moved to Topeka, Kansas where he joined the other folks on WIBW and their
In 1940, after he had graduated from high school, he enrolled for a stint with the
Civilian Conservation Corps. He then hooked up with radio station KGVB in Great Bend,
Kansas and Harry Wright, another Border Radio star known as the "Lone Star Yodeler".
Ernie relates, Harry came to Great Bend with a traveling medicine show one year
and decided to stay and got Ernie to join him on the air as part of his show. Ernie
includes many details in his recollections - such as the fact that Harry played
a mahogany Martin guitar and his theme song (every act had one in those days) was
The Old Oaken Bucket.
At the same time, he began his career as an accountant with
the Thies Packing Co. - a career that would last some 54 years. But in 1942, he was
drafted into the U.S. Army.
But try as he would in the late 1930s and early 1940s, circumstances just did not
provide him with the opportunities he was trying to find. World War 2 had arrived
on the American scene, the military draft was put in place, medicine shows were
dwindling. His personal life also saw him getting married on July 9, 1943.
Four years later, they were raising twins that were born in November of 1947.
But alas, Ernie and his wife divorced 1949, with Ernie having custody of the babies.
Live radio at that time was being taken over by networks, such as Mutual Broadcasting.
Publishing organizations ASCAP and BMI were in turmoil.
During that time, Ernie relates that stage shows at movie houses and
dances were how the local acts gained exposure.
He found himself appearing at all the VFW, American Legion, Eagles, Elks Halls; the
Honky Tonks, townsend clubs, organizational picnics which enabled him to earn
appearance fees. At times Ernie and his band had three gigs in a week.
Sleep was at the bottom of their lifestyle - they caught up when they could.
Ernie married his second wife on March 18, 1951 - they were married for 46 years; she
passed away in February 1997.
For a time, Ernie worked with radio station KVGB in Great Bend, Kansas, a town
southeast of Hays, Kansas. He would be on the Farm Hour show at 6:30am in the morning
that included Commodity and Livestock market reports direct from Kansas City.
The old cars they used back then did not help either as they had to deal constantly
with leaky radiators, low on gas, low on money which would then mean postponing a
few meals. It all came with the territory Ernie says.
But with all these entertainment engagements, Ernie and his group all still
had an 8 to 5 job and a family to go back to at home.
They were fortunate that their employers back then were flexible enough
to allow them some slack for their personal appearance commitments.
Ernie notes in his Blog that for a brief time he was a part of Cal and Alta Lee
Shrum's show and did personal appearances at such venues as movie houses as an "in person"
appearance to coincide with the showing of their B- Western movies.
The Smoky Valley Boys—1937-1953
Ernie told us of some the groups of entertainers he worked with. One group
was the Smoky Valley Boys. The band did weekly dances Ellinwood, Kansas on Wednesday
night at the Mannicure Hall. On Friday nights, they appeared
at the Woodman Hall in Great Bend, Kansas. The band would do occasional
programs over KVGB, but apparently not the full band would appear, perhaps
only a fiddle group, a total of five musicians.
Band members included Alex Ehrlich on fiddle and saxophone. He was
also the leader of the band. Johnnie Ochs was on the saxophone.
Ben Ehrlich did vocals, harmony fiddle and the saxophone. The band had
a piano player; Ernie can't quite recall his full name, thinks his first
name was Barnie and appeared with them only at Mannicure Hall in Ellinwood.
Ernie Margheim (Sunflower Wrangler) was on lead guitar and doing vocals.
George LaOrange was the band's drummer. Occasionally, Melvin Vink
joined them on guitar.
He recalled some other vivid memories associated with that band as well.
WHen the Smoky Valley Boys played at the Mannacure Hall in Ellinwood, Kansas,
the band often had a local high shool student play the whole dance with
them, playing his trumpet. He used no charts or music when he played with them.
Ernie doesn't remember his name but does recall that the student did
get paid as one of the band members.
At other times this high school trumpet player would bring a band member friend of his
with him and also play with the Smoky Valley Boys, just for the experience
of playing with a band, even if it was without getting paid.
And again, the other students wouldn't use any charts or sheet music when
they accompanied the band. The dance crowds liked the Smoky Valley Boys
for that gesture, letting the local kids participate. They would sit in on
full three hours the band performed.
The Smoky Valley Boys would play popular songs the students had practiced at home
and could join us for the dance number. The group might have to play in B-flat
or E-flat to help them once in a while. But, Ernie says again, it went over big with
Ernie notes, Ellinwood is a small town, where "everybody knows everybody".
But for their dances, they drew from three surrounding counties — Barton,
Stafford and Rice counties. The dance hall
also had other bands play other nights of the week as well.
The dance hall was a local attraction.
People did not have television in those days, so a dance with a good band, drew
people out of their quiet evenings at home to enjoy the entertainment the bands
offered. Those were good rural folks, Ernie says he did not notice much
drinking among the crowd back then. Some came just for the entertainment, not caring
to get up on the dance floor.
Ernie paints a picture of what he looked like when he was on-stage back then.
When he was the Sunflower Wrangler, he wore a
gold color satin western shirt with trim, accompanied by a wine colored cowboy
neckerchief, cowboy boots, and of course, a large ten gallon silver-gray cowboy
hat, as shown in the Cal Shrum pictures you accompanying this article.
He was six feet tall and about 155 pounds back then.
Morning Farm Hour (KVGB) — 1940-1941
The "Morning Farm Hour was heard daily over KVGB at 6:30 AM.
During the show, the music would be interrupted once in a while
with market information from the Kansas State Network, which they
were wired into from possibly Kansas City. The performers on the "Morning
Farm Hour" inlcuded Harry Wright, the announcer for the show as well
as guitar. Ernie was on lead guitar and did vocals.Norton Ross played
the clarinet and occasionally they would also have an accordion player
join them, but Ernie doesn't recall his name. The band did personal appearances
in the area, usually within an 80 to 100 mile radius.
KVGB with Ray Beals
Ray Beals, program director for KVGB had a daily show
that was on from 4:00 to 4:30pm. Ray would play the piano on the show
and was accomnpanied by comedian Sammy Duck (when Sammy wasn't entertaining folks,
he was a member of local police department) who did animated voices with Ray as
well as jokes and other comedic routines. Ernie notes that Ray was
an accomplished pianist and played mostly piano solos and occasionally a good
guitarist accompanied him, whose name he can't recall. They played mostly
popular music of the day.
Looking back on those days, Ernie today feels he was in the WANNA BE, category.
He notes, that the Lord did not have him cut out for the entertainment business,
but rather his career was to be a career accountant at a meat
packing plant and be with his family. He retired from
the John Morrell Company in 1996 after 54 years - all at the same
Ray Beals Orchestra
Ray Beals also had a ten to 14 member swing band orchestra.
They would appear for special occasions at Municipal Auditorium dances.
Ernie was a guitarist with the orchestra and did some lead numbers.
The orchestra was made up of local musicians including school band members and music
directors. Ernie states, Ray Beals was a local FIXTURE.
KVGB — Sunflower Wrangler
Ernie also had his own 15-minute radio program that aired over KVGB on Saturday afternoons.
This show was on the air when Ernie was just in high school. It was a solo show
where he accompanied himself on guitar and did vocal and yodeling numbers
that were popular in that era.
The Sunflower Wrangler — The Entertainer
We asked Ernie what folks got to hear when they saw the Sunflower Wrangler in person.
If you recall, Wilf Carter was his idol and one of the favorite tunes Ernie did
was one by Wilf called Swiss Moonlight Lullaby along with an echo yodel.
When folks heard Ernie on the radio, he used to do a lot of Jimmie Rodgers tunes.
He notes, the radio songs they played back then were mostly cowboy songs. Tunes such
as Little Joe the Wranger or Strawberry Roan were the type he would do.
The audiences would certainly applaud those tunes he notes, but the dance crowds were a
different audience. They wanted to hear and dance to the jukebox songs of the times.
So, he and the band would do tunes that were made popular by folks such as Webb Pierce,
Carl Smith, Al Dexter and many others that were popular in the Nashville / Grand Ole Opry genre.
Ernie could "play by ear" and in that line of though, he remembers
before a dance the band might stop in a cafe for coffee or a beer and hear a
a new song on the juke box that sounded like something their audience
would want to hear. Ernie would write off the words in Gregg Shorthand. The
melodies were so basic and thus, easy to learn, they would sing and play that new
tune for the dance that night and unrehearsed! Bob Wills was big at the time,
so western swing numbers made popular by Bob and the Texas Playboys were a
part of their show as well.
Ernie was emphatic about Bob Wills - EVERYBODY REALLY LIKED THEM AT THAT TIME.
Dancers would often come to the stage and request a Bob Wills Song, some even
gave them a $5 bill to do it as a dedication for somebody's birthday, or some other
occasion. At some dances (for local church reasons), they tried to wrap up things at midnight
on Saturday night. But some dancers were under the influence of what they had been
imbibing during the evening, gathered up a few $20 bills and asked us to
play another hour. Management of the hall said it was OK with him so the band
played until 1:00AM at times. Once in a while they wanted them to go beyond 1:00am,
but that's where they drew the line; no deal Ernie says.
The members of the band had to go home, get some sleep, and attend church and Sunday
School in the morning. Ernie also taught a Sunday school Class at 9:00am.
His wife taught 4-year olds for 34 years; Ernie taught junior high or senior
high youngsters for 30 years.
There were times when the musicians had to drive 150 miles to play a dance.
Instead of driving his car, Ernie would ride in the back of someone's pick-up truck
with a topper but it had just a plain steel bed. Just Ernie and his guitar and
speakers. Sometimes, two of them rode that way. They would take a blanket
and sleep on the way home, catching a few extra winks. They would get home around 3:00 or 4:00am.
He fondly laughs at those memories. Fortunately, he says, through-out his career,
he never ran into any booze problems, Nobody drank in the bands he worked
with and he did not either. I was a well behaved Christian boy.
His memories start coming back a bit more as he recalls other times.
One year they had a Friday night dance he said, "Boy howdy, let me tell you, when
it was Good Friday, I Prayed for God to forgive me and not let it be Judgement
Day while I was away from home." During Lent, the group had a Wednesday night dance
somewhere but first he had to sing in the 7:30pm Lent Service with the choir.
He wore his choir gown over his cowboy attire, without the neckerchief
and cowboy hat, and sang during the service. After the service, he took off the gown
and headed over to the dance, about ten miles away where the entertainment started
For their closing dance number, they usually ended with Home Sweet Home
or with some bands, Goodnight Irene. I don't know what song it is
a part of but I also remember the phrase "Goodnight Ladies, Goodnight Ladies.
We are going to leave you now".
Rounding Up The Memories
Ernie is mostly retired with MEMORIES (and he emphasizes that himself). He visits
with long ago friends when they come to town. But he notes he has not had
his D-18 Martin or my ES-150 Gibson, and F-5 Ibanez Mandolin, and his trusty fiddle,
out of their cases for a couple of years now.
He had a Gibson guitar speaker as well; it was the 150 model that had
three input jacks, two instruments and mike. It was and is LOUD, He still has it.
He notes he has not touched his
Hohner Marine Band Harmonicas in years as well. He gives us more insight of
what it was like back in that era as he tells us that like all rural farm boys,
he carried a harmonica in his pocket along with his red handkerchief
as far back as he can remember. Before he could afford the Marine Band harmonica though,
he had what they called "STAND BY" (which cost all of 35 cents) was known as
the cheaper Hohner.
In those bygone years, he used to think MUSIC was his middle name.
During his high school band and orchestra days, he had the band director
help me with HARMONY books he checked out of their library. He simply did
not want to be just a three-chord country picker.
So the folks did laundry and ironing for their music teachers to pay for the lessons
the kids took — piano, voice, guitar. His sister became a piano teacher;
his son is a church organist at a large Methodist church in El Paso and
teaches public school music to elementary grade kids.
But Ernie notes, ole Grandpa brings up the rear with a few cowboy songs.
The Sunflower Wrangler still enjoys his memories of those years he spent
in the hillbilly music business and still provides readers with tidbits
of those memories in his online Blog. He currently resides in Colorado
where his daughter Becky is able to help him deal with the foibles one
encounters in old age. Ernie did celebrate an unusual occurrence this
past summer - celebrating his 88th birthday on the 8th day of the 8th month, August.
Credits & Sources
- Hillbilly-Music.com wishes to thank both Janet McBride
for letting us know about Ernie aka the Sunflower Wrangler and to Ernie
himself for providing us with more details as we passed along our inquiries.