A Rye, New York, mother of two sons and wife of an investment banker, advertising copywriter Ruth Woodman (full name Ruth Cornwall Woodman) would create the historic “Death Valley Days” radio and television anthology series for McCann ad agency client, Pacific Coast Borax Company.
“Death Valley Days”, the theme of this year’s Western Legends Roundup in Kanab, Utah, was considered the most successful syndicated television western series and one of the longest-running of all scripted syndicated series. A number of episodes of “Death Valley Days” were filmed in and around Kanab.
The success of “Death Valley Days” would cement Ruth Woodman’s place as the foremost female western series writer of her generation.
Ruth Woodman created the “Death Valley Days” radio anthology series to help sell borax products from Pacific Coast Borax mining operations in California’s Death Valley. Pacific Coast Borax, which subsequently became U.S. Borax after a merger, stipulated the writer of the radio series should have first-hand knowledge of the Death Valley region. For 14 years the Vassar graduate Woodman, a mother of two children and the wife of New York investment banker, William E. Woodman, would travel to Death Valley in the summer to gather material for the series.
On her trips, Ruth Woodman was often accompanied by William “Wash” Washington Cahill, who was literally born into the borax industry, and served as historian for “Death Valley Days”. Cahill’s uncle Ed Stiles was one of the first teamsters on the 20 Mule Teams that transported borax in Death Valley. Cahill’s stepfather was another mule team driver. Cahill would go on to construct the Tonopah & Tidewater railroad to help transport borax and held the title of superintendent for the life of the utility.
Cahill would introduce Woodman to many old timers living in the region; storekeepers, newspaper editors, bartenders, miners and prospectors, and many others.
In a 1962 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Ruth Woodman gave credit to her Colorado rancher father for telling her the stories that enable her to become the best-known woman writer of western scripts in the United States at the time. Woodman’s father fell in love with her mother, an easterner who wanted no part of the west, which forced her father to sell his Colorado ranch and move to New York.
Goodman created “Death Valley Days” as a radio series which began broadcasting on Sept. 30, 1930, and was broadcast until Sept. 14, 1951.
“The Burro That Had No Name”
Ruth Woodman would go on to write all of the scripts for the first five years of the half-hour “Death Valley Days” syndicated television series (which ran from 1952-1975) and also serving as story editor and continuing to write scripts for the series. Because U.S. Borax directly marketed the series as commercial programs to individual TV stations throughout the U.S., no television network was ever given the rights to broadcast the TV shows.
In January 1962, Woodman told the Chicago Tribune she had written every one of the “Death Valley Days” scripts for 31 years, totaling more than 1,000 stories.
An examination of copies of Woodman’s scripts by this writer revealed numerous notes and letters Woodman sent to various folks and institutions in the West to dig for historical information to enable her to produce a single script. “Most people expect me to be some enormous fellow in overalls,” she told the Chicago Tribune, “but once they get over the shock, they tell me wonderful stories.”
Woodman retired in 1959, the same year Wash Cahill died. Cahill had already retired in 1946 after competing 54 years of service with Pacific Coast Borax, which had become U.S. Borax.
In her lifetime, Woodman would become renowned as one of the foremost authorities on Death Valley history and folklore.
Woodman received the “Western Heritage Award for the Best Western Documentary of the Year” for the “Death Valley Days” episode, “The Great Lounsberry Scoop”, in 1961. The series would also win awards from the governors of California, Nevada and Utah and numerous historical societies.
Following a brief illness, Woodman died in Los Angeles County, California, on April 2, 1970.
The newly completed restoration of the “Death Valley Days” television series was shipped this month to Washington, D.C. for archiving in the Library of Congress, which has determined the anthology is historically significant to the nation. The series is broadcast weekdays on the ENCORE Westerns channel.
*Photo Credit: Catalog Number PEO 033A, U.S Borax Collection – Death Valley National Park – National Park Service