Glenn Balch: A Biographical Sketch
by Alan Virta
When Glenn Balch was asked which of his books was his favorite, he invariably answered "Tiger Roan." [i] Written one winter in the Sawtooth Mountains of central Idaho, Tiger Roan (1938) was his second novel. His first, Riders of the Rio Grande (1937), was a cattle-rustling mystery, a story of men on the Texas range. Tiger Roan, on the other hand, was the story of a wild mustang; a mustang captured and abused and transformed into a man-hating rodeo bronco, but ultimately redeemed by the love of a kind master. In this second novel, Balch was able to write about the relationships between humans and animals, particularly the love and affection that can develop between them. This kind of story was more to Glenn Balch's liking, and it accounts for his preference for Tiger Roan. "I was born.with a love for horses, dogs, and the outdoors which I have never outgrown," he wrote a full quarter century after Tiger Roan was published.[ii] That affection is evident in Balch's writing, and it helped make him one of Idaho's most beloved authors.
Glenn Balch is usually classified as an author of juvenile literature, but that is not the full story. He was also a talented essayist whose articles on hunting and the outdoors appeared in Field & Stream and other outdoor magazines. But it is his stories and novels for younger readers that are most remembered. "I didn't start out with the intention of writing for children only," he recalled. "Everyone was welcome. But of course they had to like my stories and my style of writing." And that audience proved to be children. "The publishers and I had the same goal, which was to corral as many readers as possible. What kind of writer they called me, then and now, is not very important. The story was the thing." [iii]
Stories, almost as much as dogs and horses and the outdoors, were an important part of Glenn Balch's childhood. Born on December 11, 1902 in the small town of Venus, Texas, he grew up reading Western adventure stories. While visiting his grandparents in Cleburne, Texas, he discovered Captain Wyn Roosevelt's Frontier Boys series in a local bookstore, and was hooked. "Whenever I got a new book, I would start at the first of the series and read them all again."[iv] But he came to horses even before he came to reading. His first recollection was of being placed on the back of Nellie, "a sorrel mare who was the boss and senior matron of my grandfather's corrals.. To keep me from underfoot, I was unceremoniously tossed aboard, and where Nellie went, I went, my small fists locked in her mane."[v] He was given a horse, Old Red, when he was young, and also a dog named Trix. "Perhaps the most potent and absolutely shattering grief I have ever known in my whole life was when my first dog, Trix, died," he recalled.[vi] He was nine years old. The empathy he shared with horses and dogs became an important element in his writing years later.
Although his early aspiration was to be a cowboy, Glenn Balch went away to college at age 16. A year later he submitted his first story for publication. It was about college basketball, but it was rejected by every magazine he sent it to. Athletics occupied much of his time while in college, but he also found time to work on the college newspaper. In between school terms, he worked on ranches in west Texas. He spent part of his collegiate career at North Texas State Teachers College before graduating from Baylor University in Waco, Texas, in 1924.
When it came time to consider a career, Balch wanted to work outdoors, so he decided to pursue a career as a forest ranger, for it seemed like steadier work than the life of a cowboy. He wrote to the Forest Service in Washington, D.C., and eventually received an offer to be a fire guard in Garden Valley, Idaho. In 1925, with a new bride, the native Texan moved to the Gem State.
Balch worked as a fire guard one summer in the national forests in Idaho, sleeping under the stars and spending days alone in the wilderness. At the end of the fire season he rode horseback from Garden Valley to Boise to apply for a newspaper job. He was hired by the Idaho Statesman and sent to the small town of Gooding to work as the paper's southern Idaho correspondent. He spent the next five years as a roving reporter, traveling about the state, combining hunting and fishing expeditions with his newspaper work. He also was able to write occasional articles for outdoor magazines. But what he wanted to do most was devote full time to his own writing. So, divorced and once again single, he gave up his job as a roving correspondent and relocated to Boise.
The Statesman did not want to let Balch go, so they offered him a position as a night telegraph editor, leaving his days free. He tried that work for a while, but found it still distracted him from his own writing and also interfered with another passion: polo. Polo was popular in Boise in the 1920s and 30s, so popular that tournaments featuring teams from Boise and other Northwest cities drew large crowds to the polo fields on the east side of town. With his love of horses, horseback riding, and athletic competition, Glenn Balch wanted to be part of the polo scene. In the Spring of 1931 he enlisted in the Idaho National Guard and became a member of its Boise polo squad. But he found he could not edit for the newspaper, write on his own, and play polo too. He quit the newspaper job and became a freelance writer.
"It seemed easy enough," Balch recalled in a short biographical sketch issued by his publisher many years later. "During the first week of his newly acquired freedom, he managed an article a day. But rejections were more numerous than acceptances, and [he] was frequently forced to turn to publicity and advertising work for money with which to eat-and buy polo bits and mallets."[vii]
Success and recognition soon came, however, when The American Boy magazine published a story he wrote in its August 1932 issue. Entitled "Hide-rack," it was the story of a collie in Idaho's Salmon River country. The story was popular with the magazine's readers, and Balch was asked to write more Hide-rack stories. The American Boy published more than a dozen Hide-rack stories over the next ten years as well as longer, serialized tales. He also found an outlet for hunting articles in Field & Stream. Balch took full advantage of the freedom of movement freelance writing offered him. He spent the winters of 1935 and 1936 in the lodge of a friend on Petit Lake in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains, where he skied, snowshoed, hunted, trapped, drove dog teams, and wrote. In 1937 he enrolled in a writing class as Columbia University in New York, where he met Elise Kendall, a fellow student from Florida. She became his second wife, and together they spent the next winter in her home state, far from the snowy expanses of Idaho. On their return to Boise in 1938, they bought a house, settled down, and began raising a family. Balch had one daughter, Betty, from his first marriage to Faula Mashburn, and three more children-daughters Mary and Nikki and son Olin-with his wife Elise.
It was while he was enrolled in the writing class in New York that the Thomas Y. Crowell Company published his first novel, Riders of the Rio Grande. Crowell published the second, Tiger Roan, a year later. There was some debate within the company whether to market it as an adult or children's novel. The question was settled when Robert L. Crowell suggested a few changes to the story line that would make it more attractive to young readers, particularly boys twelve to fifteen years old.[viii] The novel was then serialized in Boys' Life and released in book form shortly thereafter. Crowell was not so much molding Balch's story as he was banking on a proven marketable commodity, given Balch's success with the Hide-rack stories. He felt a novel by Balch about a horse would find a natural audience in the same age group. His business sense was right, and so was his editorial judgement about Tiger Roan. The book was reprinted more than a dozen times and remained in print for decades.
Balch's third novel, Indian Paint, the story of an Indian pony, was published in 1942. In the meantime, he supported his family by combining writing with political work. He was employed in the campaigns of 1938, served as an aide to Idaho Governor C.A. Bottolfsen, who was elected that year, and then lived for a time in Washington, D.C., as an assistant to U.S. Senator John Thomas. While in Washington he acquired an Arabian stallion, one of many shipped to the U.S. from Europe at the outbreak of World War II. Balch stabled the horse in Idaho at a ranch in Owyhee County. During his frequent visits there, he became familiar with the rugged terrain of that wild country and developed an admiration for the wild horses that inhabited it.
When the United States entered World War II, Glenn Balch entered active duty as a captain in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He served as a public relations officer and motion picture producer for the Army, both in California and overseas. He was commanding officer of the 10th Combat Camera Unit in the China-Burma-India campaign and was awarded the Bronze Star.
Balch resumed his career as a freelance writer after the war, supplementing his income with occasional promotional and political work. In 1947, another novel, Wild Horse, was published, followed by Christmas Horse in 1949. They were the initial offerings in his popular "Tack Ranch" series, set in Idaho's Owyhee country. For the next two decades, he produced a steady stream of novels, most of which were published by Thomas Y. Crowell. Most were children's tales of wild horses, dogs, and Indians. He did depart from his usual pattern by writing two adult Westerns, Blind Man's Bullets in 1953 and Grass Greed in 1959. Several of his books were translated into foreign languages, and two were illustrated by acclaimed illustrator Ezra Jack Keats. In 1965 his novel Indian Paint was made into a motion picture starring Johnny Crawford and Jay Silverheels.
Throughout this period, Balch and his family lived in a home on the bench above Boise. The house was built as a stable for thoroughbred horses and converted into a home in the late 1940s, when the neighborhood was being developed. Asked in a 1949 newspaper interview why he lived in the city, Balch responded, "I'm a writer, but not a rancher. Being a rancher is a 16-hour-a-day job, and there wouldn't be much room for sleep if I squeezed in eight hours of writing, too." [ix] He did maintain his military connections, however. During the 1950s he reentered active duty with the Army, serving as public information officer and assistant director of the Selective Service System in Boise from 1951 to 1957. He retired from the Army National Guard in 1963 with the rank of Colonel.
Glenn Balch's 34th and last book was Buck, Wild, published by Crowell in 1976. It was the story of a mustang. He settled into retirement on his small spread on the outskirts of Boise in Meridian, Idaho, but remained active, appearing frequently at schools, libraries, and writers' forums, usually wearing his trademark cowboy hat. Glenn Balch died on September 16, 1989, of injuries sustained in an automobile accident. Two of his books, Wild Horse Tamer and Christmas Horse, were reprinted a year later as part of Idaho's statehood centennial commemoration.
Glenn Balch's stories were popular not only because their subject matter appealed to the young people who were his audience, but also because of their authenticity. He wrote about what he had experienced: ranch life, horses, horseback riding, dogs, the rugged mountains, and the dusty plains. In 1987 he told Boise journalist Tim Woodward, "I had to write, and the stories I wrote were the ones I knew. It's worked out pretty well."[x]
[i] For example, "An Idaho Writer Writes About His New Book, Idaho Librarian, April 1969; "Top Banana of the Book Bunch," Idaho Statesman, 13 June 1976; "Writer from the Range," Idaho Statesman, 2 January 1989; "Glenn Balch, 1902-1989," by Tim Woodward, Idaho Statesman, 24 September 1989.
[ii] More Junior Authors (New York: H.W. Wilson, 1963), 8.
[iii] "The Juvenile Writer," Idaho Librarian 34 (October 1982), 150.
[iv] Hansen, Judy Grigg, "Writer from the Range," Idaho Statesman, 2 January 1989.
[v] "An Idaho Writer Writes About His New Book," Idaho Librarian, April 1969.
[vi] "The Juvenile Writer," 152.
[vii] Glenn Balch (promotional booklet published by Thomas Y. Crowell), ca. 1951 (Contained in the collection, Box 1 Folder 1)
[viii] Tiger Roan editorial correspondence (Box 9, Folder 2)
[ix] "Christmas Horse House, Home of Boise Writer Was Built From Barn," Idaho Statesman, 25 December 1949
[x] Woodward, Tim, "Glenn Balch-50 Years of Books," Idaho Statesman, 5 November 1987