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Biting this bronc’s ear to saddle him, a very cowboy way to quiet a wild horse

When I first stepped into the room at the top of the narrow and somewhat treacherous stone stairway and saw the brightly painted murals and plaque honoring Will James, the famous cowboy artist and writer, I immediately was struck with a flash of recognition. I grew up reading his work–my great-grandmother and grandmother being huge fans of his illustrated fiction. Although they were east coasters through and through, they were enchanted by his tales of cowboys and the west–and any story starring a horse or pony had a great advantage for them since they were avid equestrians.

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Walking in through the side gate

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Looking from base of the stairs into the courtyard, photo by Timothy O’Hara

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Detail of the hacienda, photo by Tim O’Hara

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Murals & books in the Will James room

James stayed at the Gallagher while writing his autobiography Lone Cowboy  and copies of his work were made to adorn the walls. The ranch has a long and storied history dating back to 1833. it was established as a military supply depot in the heart of what was then Indian territory.  Peter Gallagher, an Irish stonemason, was commissioned to build a fort to withstand frequent attacks by Apaches, Penateka, and the Comanches.  Many years later after being a working ranch and a dude ranch, it was bought by Amy Shelton McNutt and while it remained a working cattle and dude ranch it also attracted various jet setters–Orson Wells, Grace Kelly, the Ziegfeld Girls and the King of Sweden Gustaf VI Adolf to name a few–as well as the famous cowboy artist and author Will James.

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Will & Alice

His life was as much of a fiction as the work he wrote. Originally born Joseph Ernest Nephtail Dufault in Canada in 1892, he was a Canadian cowboy that fled to the US under the new name William Roderick James after being accused of cattle theft. Drifting and living the life of a cowboy, he landed a stint in jail (cattle rustling again, this time in Nevada). James seems to have used his time in jail to clarify his ideas of becoming an artist and author. After a short stint in the army, he traveled around the west taking odd jobs and working on his drawing while also creating a fiction for his life story that he was a cowboy born and bred in the American West. Along his way he met and married the sister of some friends named Alice who encouraged him greatly to continue with his artistic work.

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Sketch while in jail for cattle rustling

All in all, he wrote and illustrated more than twenty books and numerous articles. Won over by his talent and myths of the west, he was widely popular with both adults and children. His most famous book is Smoky, which was re-printed 11 times within a year and won a Newberry Award–made Smokey a instant classic of children’s literature. Of note is that the story takes place after the 1910’s and the introduction of the automobile is an integral part of the story, noting how it changed the relationship of people and horses and the American West that had come before. It was even adapted into a film in 1946.

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Poster from the 1946 film

It is thought that James was influenced by the earlier cowboy painter Charles Russell. Although there are similarities, it is clear that Russell’s work is from an earlier era. You can see the more modern sensibility of James as he removed some of the details and really captured movement with a simplicity of line and style, particularly in his pen and ink drawings. Russell created more than 2,000 paintings and is widely considered “the” artist of the old American West, and yet James with much less work to his credit remains in the popular consciousness.

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Loops and Swift Horses Are Surer than Lead (Cowboys in Montana catch a bear harassing the herd.) Charles Marion Russell, 1916

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A pen and ink illustration showing Will Jame’s ability to capture motion with economy of line

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One way that Will James’s name lives on is in the modern world is it is the name of one of the most popular western saddle trees.

Visiting the Gallagher ranch it is easy to imagine yourself in a bygone era, a cowboy culture created in part by reality and in part by the myth that was created and propagated through the creativity of people such as Will James. We have long romanticized the myths of the American cowboy the American west, and they continue to draw and hold people’s attention. As we leave the ranch I notice the wear on the stones from being walked on by countless boots and it connects me with the genuine sense of the continuum of this place–an experience not easily forgotten. The same continuum I feel for my great-grandmothers worn copy of Smokey and always will.

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