Gunsmokes’ Deputy Festus Haggen Colorado’s Most Famous Cowboy
He's best know as Festus Haggen on television's classic series Gunsmoke, but I will always think of him as Colorado's most famous Cowboy.
Ken Curtis played Marshall Matt Dillon's sidekick for 304 episodes, spanning 11 years, on one of television's longest running live-action primetime series.
Lesser known is the fact that Curtis was an accomplished singer who sang with the Tommy Dorsey Band. He was also the lead singer of the Sons of the Pioneers for many years before there ever was a Gunsmoke.
Before all of that, Ken Curtis was growing up in the state of Colorado.
For starters, Curtis was born Curtis Wain Gates in the small town of Lamar in the southeastern corner of Colorado. He lived on a ranch in neighboring Bent County for ten years on Muddy Creek.
At age 10, the family moved to Las Animas so his father could run for sheriff. The election was successful, and his father, Daniel Sullivan Gates served as Bent County Sheriff for four years. Ironically, his family lived below the county jail, and his mother cooked for inmates in the jail.
If you have a picture in your head of the southern-drawled Dodge deputy on Gunsmoke, this next one may be difficult to imagine. Curtis played quarterback for the Bent County High School football team. He also found time to be musical, playing clarinet in the high school band.
Curtis would go on to attend Colorado College in Colorado Springs. His intent was to study medicine, but he left school to pursue a career in music. You can see in the video below, he definitely made the right decision. He was an extraordinary singer.
After many years of musical success, Curtis landed the role on Gunsmoke that would make him world famous. Before the crime-fighting duo of Andy and Barney in Mayberry, we had Matt and Festus patrolling the streets of Dodge City. Though a lot of people died on Gunsmoke over the years, the Festus character always provided us with plenty of smiles and laughs every week.
Before it was all said and done, Curtis would have one more Colorado connection. After his death in 1991, at the age 74, his ashes were scattered in the Colorado flatlands.
While doing radio in South Dakota, I once had the privilege of meeting Ken Curtis at an autograph signing at a shopping mall in Rapid City shortly before his death.
Today, I'm happy to occasionally catch a few episodes of Gunsmoke, which airs several times a day on INSP.