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About The Artist
He was born Alex Zander Combs to his parents, Michael and Agnes (Hacker) Combs in 1883 in Denver, Missouri. He was the youngest of four children. His siblings were William Leonard, Lucy Ann and Adah Rebecca.
He was a military veteran as well. He registered for World War 1 while living in Albany, Missouri on September 12, 1918. He later registered for World War II when he was then living in Topeka, Kansas and with WIBW.
He was born on a farm that his family owned in Worth County, Missouri. Evidently, farming spanned several generations in the family. He said he grew up doing what any farm boy did back then, work all week in the fields and then looked forward to going to town with the family on Saturdays - when they did the shopping for the week.
Farming was a way of life back then where he lived and he got to learn many of the 'tricks' to farming and later on compiled them into a book called "Farmers and Planters Guide" that was quite popular with the WIBW listening audience and was sold for many years. It was first published in 1940 and the Colonel told folks that the guide was "...compiled of information handed down to him by his ancestors who tested it through several generations." He noted in a 1946 interview that he had sold the book to customers in 36 states and Canada and proudly noted that not one copy had ever been returned to him. And like retailers today, he told readers that he was selling twice as many as normal in December 1947 as many were making them Christmas gifts.
In the December 1946 of WIBW Round-Up, the Colonel sat down for an interview with Doc Embree about his life and career. We will weave some of that into this biography.
Mr. Combs told Doc his dad owned a saw mill and he said he was actually running the saw mill by the time he was 14 years old. It had a steam rig which he described as "the most modern machinery at that time."
He said the work was hard, but they were happy times. He noted there was always a bunch of good fellows to laugh and joke with and then when they ate, the cleaned the plates good. He said every home had "heaping plates of chicken" and they made sure there were no leftovers.
After dinner, the entertainment would begin and someone usually got a fiddle out. The Colonel noted he came by his music naturally. He said his mom's family were all old-time fiddlers and his mom taught him many of the old tunes he would entertain the WIBW listening audience on the Dinner Hour and Round-Up programs. They would dance occasionally, but mostly it was playing and singing.
He went on to tell Doc that in those days, the small towns would have an annual celebration of some sort, usually called something like "Old Settler's Day". He enjoyed those as there would usually be a fiddler's contest and he strived to win them. He practiced a lot. But his dad told him to learn a trade of some sort as music may not be the way to pay the bills later in life.
The Colonel was then sent to the "Auctioneering School of Experience" in Davenport, Iowa where he actually picked up the nickname of "Colonel". He then went to work "crying sales" as he put it around Northern Missouri and Southern Iowa. It seemed a natural job for him - as he could talk, mingle with the crowd and when he felt he needed their attention, he'd play a few fiddle tunes.
He told readers in 1951 of a time when he was "crying a farm sale" in the early fall. He said a little boy rode up on an old pony that was just about worthless, but asked the Colonel if he could sell the pony for him after the main sales. The Colonel found out that the boy had no use for the pony and winter was coming on. He asked the kid, "Can you cry?" The kid said, sure but why should I cry? He said to act like he hated to let the pony go in front of the audience and have some tears come to his eyes. The boy rode the pony into the ring, did his pitch and mentioned he need the money to get some clothes to go to school. They got $35 for that pony!
His career took another twist when a new invention arrived on the scene - the radio. It was then his talents at the fiddling contests led to a new stage in his career. One contest was held by Henry Field in Shenandoah, Iowa and he got himself a spot on KFNF. He was only there a short time, but the radio bug had bit. Suddenly, stations were looking for entertainers to fill the airwaves. Colonel Combs got his start on a station out of Grant City, Missouri. Then, after leaving KFNF, it wasn't long before a station in Topeka, Kansas - WIBW recruited him.
In an old WIBW Round-Up article, they note that he came to WIBW on April 1, 1934; seemingly to just play a 3 week stint as an old-time fiddler. Well, they said someone got the better of that April Fool's joke as they said the Colonel just forgot to leave and was still hanging around to everyone's enjoyment.
The Colonel told Doc he would not forget the entertainers he met in 1934 at WIBW. Miss Maudie. Dude Hank was on a program now and then. Don Searle was manager. The announcer was Adam the Farm Hand. He said he was a part of the first Saturday Night Round-Up. Back then it was called "The Crossroads Sociable". And the four of them put on a 90 minute show.
They said Colonel Combs achieved many "firsts" while at WIBW.
The old WIBW Round-Up magazine would often include little tidbits about their performers. In 1946, it was said that the Colonel liked to go by the direction of the wind when he came up with his weather forecasts. The younger folks at the station nicknamed him "Windy". In another issue, they tell readers he would glance at the moon to keep the audience informed of the weather. Miss Maudie told readers he was doing so many auction sales in late 1947, that he did not mention the weather over the air the previous month.
In 1945, he had a 15 minute program where he would enjoy playing the fiddle on Saturdays at 8:45am that was sponsored by Kansas Farmers.
The WIBW publication tells us that the Colonel would often call square dances over the air waves. He knew the calls from memory and exactly what each one meant. Doc Embree noted that while doing his calls, the Colonel himself would often go into his own dance in front of the microphone.
We noted he sat down for an interview with Doc Embree in the December 1946 issue. But that issue also featured a picture of the Colonel on the cover dressed up in a Santa Claus costume. That photo session evidently also had its moments. First, finding a Santa suit proved to be an effort. They ended up calling a local cleaning establishment that led them to the local Sears, Roebuck and Company store. Mr. Cockayne was the assistant manager at that store and helped the station out. Once they had the suit, they went to the local photo studio - Wickers. But discovered they needed a beard as well. They then remembered the local Pelletiers Department Store had a great Santa Claus the previous year and they got their manager, a Mr. Walker to help them out. But Murphy's Law ran amuck even back then. After all that effort, the camera broke on them. But they did finally get the picture.
In the June 1947 issue, they answered one reader's inquiry - he was not married at that time.
In 1949, we learned that the Colonel, though living alone, could brag about the neat and beautifully kept abode he had. He redid his walls, bought new furniture, curtains and rugs. It was said to be spic and span. Then he would often top the gals at the studio when they would talk about some new gadget and he would mention, "You ought to see what I bought for my house today!"
Our research seems to indicate that the Colonel was married twice. His first marriage was to the former Peak Koger in King City, Missouri on October 23, 1904. But she died at a very early age of 27 on September 27, 1912. The 1920 and 1930 census records show he was married to Ida. They had three children, Curtis, George and Martha. But by 1940, the census records do not show Ida and later WIBW publications indicate he was single.
Credits & Sources