Buckingham cowboy rides into the sunset
Buckingham County lost a local hero Monday, April 27, when New Canton resident and founder of the Tom Mix Rangers, Robert “Bob” Toney, passed away.
However, the local legend will live on through his extensive community service and long career as a real-life cowboy.
Toney was born in 1931 and grew up during the Great Depression. His boyhood hero was none other than silent film-era actor Tom Mix.
Mix, according to Toney’s son Mitch, was in most people’s mind the first Hollywood “king of the cowboys.” Mix became one of the biggest box office draws during the early 1900s by starring in hundreds of Western films and playing a key role in establishing the genre.
“The story was that there was a kid that was bullying Dad on the school bus, and one day Dad kind of took up and had enough and decked the kid,” Mitch laughed, recalling his late father. “And the bus driver told my grandmother, his mother, ‘You should have seen him. He looked like Tom Mix.’”
Pretty soon, all the kids at school were calling Toney “Tom Mix,” and the nickname stuck.
An accident in early childhood left Toney with only two fingers on his left hand. The injury would later prevent him from entering any branch of the military, although he was desperate to serve his country alongside his brothers.
Mitch said he had heard a little bit about Mix during his childhood, but the famous cowboy was a little before his time. One day while trading comic books with a friend, Mitch stumbled upon a comic about Mix and brought it home to his father, who was elated to rekindle the memory.
Mitch said his family learned of a Tom Mix festival in 1987 that was to be held in DuBois, Pennsylvania. The family attended the festival, which inspired Toney to create something similar at home.
Toney and his family, who already owned horses and a significant amount of land, pulled together friends and community members to form their very own horse club in 1988. Thus, the Tom Mix Rangers were born.
The group’s community efforts, according to Mitch, began with trail rides and pony rides. The Rangers would gather at local schools, nursing homes, hospitals and other locations to offer $1 pony rides. The proceeds were then donated back to churches, schools, charities, etc.
“I think in the first five years of the club we had raised like $20,000 in donations just off of $1 pony rides,” Mitch said.
The Rangers became extremely popular in the area. Locals enjoyed watching the club members dress up in costumes, ride horses, shoot blanks and stage Hollywood reenactments of famous shootouts. The shows were particularly enjoyed by area children.
“The good guys always won and crime didn’t pay. We gave them little lessons about how to do things the cowboy way.”
Toney and his fellow cowboys began doing two horse shows each year. In what was perhaps the group’s most well-known activity, the Rangers began to stage mock train robberies. For three weekends in the spring and three weekends in the fall of each year, the Tom Mix Rangers began “robbing” the Buckingham Branch Railroad. Riders delighted in experiencing the mock hold-up. For many, the show was theatrical, exciting and felt like an old Western film brought to life.
Through the cowboy reenactments, Toney’s family and friends became involved in other events both local and at a national level. The Sons of Confederate Veterans asked the Rangers to bring their horses to do headstone dedications for Civil War soldiers.
The group also started putting their horses in movies and TV shows, such as Mercy Street, Turn and Legends & Lies, and even went on two mounted search and rescues. Suddenly, the Hollywood-style cowboys were becoming real-life heroes, all the while led by Toney.
The family founded the state’s first “Cowboy Day” celebration, and Toney’s life quickly became a star-studded adventure, his work drawing in names like Donna Douglas of “The Beverly Hillbillies,” Dale Berry of “Walker, Texas Ranger,” James Drury and Randy Boone of “The Virginian” and many more. Toney became good friends with many famous cowboys and cowgirls.
Toney and the Rangers even rode in the inaugural parade for two previous Virginia Governors, George Allen and Jim Gilmore.
The Rangers continued their adventures by appearing in countless televised parades, opening up a World Championship Rodeo in South Carolina, and participating in Tom Mix Festivals across the country.
Unfortunately, Toney experienced difficulties in the last few years of his life after an accident left him badly burned on his legs and hips. He spent many months in a hospital and rehab facility before returning home, although his injuries kept him from riding horses. He was with family at his home when he died Monday morning, April 26. He was 88.
Toney is survived by his wife of 61 years, Mildred Wingfield, his five sons, Kevin, Mitchell (Mitch), Robert, Raymond and Travis, 14 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren.
Toney was buried at the family’s cemetery Thursday, April 30. His friends and family hope to have a bigger celebration in later months and perhaps do a trail ride and have some Western movies shown at the county’s historic village.
“When you’re a kid your old man tells you to be a good man,” said fellow Ranger Jamie Day. “Well, Bob Toney is the man you want to set that model after. He was a good man.”
“He was one of the truest cowboys that I’d ever met in my life,” Ranger Shane Grissom added. “He’s been like a father to me.”
Grissom recalled a time he had seen Toney get trampled by three horses and spring back up like it was nothing. “You know, he walked his walk with a lot of pain as it was, but he never complained about nothing. We would go out and do a show and he would come back home after a full day and unload the horses and the saddles and then get right back in the field and cut hay. My saying was, ‘I wish I could be half the man that you were.’ He gave a lot of his heart to people.”
“You couldn’t help but love the man. He had so much love for his community and the kids in the community,” Amber Slovek said. “He was all about doing for other people.”
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