THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

FRED HARMAN: Cowboy Cartoonist

Leslie Fred Harman (1902-1982) was an American artist and cartoonist best known for his creation of the Red Ryder comic strip.  The strip was so popular that at its peak it ran in 750 newspapers and reached forty million readers.

Harman was born in St. Joseph Missouri in 1902, but when he was just two months old, his parents moved back to Pagosa Springs, Colorado.  It was there in that scenic setting that he grew up on a ranch and among horses.  His formal schooling ended after just seven years and he never received any formal art training. However, it must have been a natural talent that required little or no training since his two younger brothers also became cartoonists.

Beginning at age twenty, he worked as an animator at the Kansas City Film Ad Company.  Among his co-workers were his two brothers, Hugh and Walker, and a fellow by the name of Disney.  In fact, Harman and Disney decided to go into business for themselves, but their company, Kaycee Studios, folded after a year.  It was then that Harman headed back to Pagosa Springs.

The following years saw him working at various jobs including advertising.  He and a partner formed their own agency but it failed after a few years.  He did marry musician Lola Andrews and they had a son in 1927.  Six years later the family moved to Los Angeles where he began a Western magazine that – you guessed it – failed.  Only three issues were published.

Bronc Peeler

From 1934 to 1938, he syndicated a Western cartoon strip titled Bronc Peeler, but not many newspapers were interested.  His luck began to change when he moved to New York in 1938.  There he met Stephen Slesinger, a merchandizing genius who helped him in the evolution of Bronc Peeler into Red Ryder.  The redheaded cowboy first rode the range in November of that year.

Promoting Red Ryder as “America’s famous fighting cowboy,” Slesinger began doing what he did best, which was merchandising and licensing.  What followed were Big Little Books, novels, a movie serial, a radio program, and twenty-seven feature movies and numerous merchandizing promotions including, of course, the Daisy Red Ryder BB gun, still produced to this day. Not only that, it holds the longest continuing license in the history of the licensing industry.

In 1941, Fred and Lola bought a spread in the Blanco Basin.   They named it the Red Ryder Ranch.  Harman’s studio was located on the property in a small building near the main house.

In 1964, Harman retired from the strip and devoted more time to painting.  But that wasn’t the end of the Red Ryder strip.  It was continued by his former assistant, Bob MacLeod, and others.

Harman died in 1982.
The Red Ryder Round-up is held every year as a July the Fourth event in Pagosa Springs, which is also the home of the Fred Harman Art Museum.


Friday, October 10, 2014

THE BORDERLAND: A Novel of Texas by Edwin Shrake

The Borderland is an old-fashioned, thoroughly researched, skillfully written, not to mention entertaining, historical novel set in Texas in 1839. The author, the late Edwin “Bud” Shrake, a native of Texas and one of its bigger-than-life, legendary writers, knew the history and geography of his state and through exhaustive research, he also became acquainted with the people of that bygone era. As a result, he was able to intermingle fact and fiction and to intertwine historical and fictional characters without the story becoming stilted, as is often the case with historical novels.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

THE BRANCH AND THE SCAFFOLD: A Novel of Judge Parker by Loren D. Estleman

I stumbled onto Loren D. Estleman years ago when I checked out "This Old Bill" from my local library. I had never heard of the author but since the book was a fictional treatment of Buffalo Bill, I couldn't resist it. I followed up that one by quickly reading two more of his historical westerns: "Aces & Eights" (Wild Bill Hickok) and "Bloody Season" (the Earps). By then Estleman had become one of my favorite authors of western fiction.

He is not only a prolific writer, but also a somewhat unusual one, in that he specializes in two genres: westerns (especially historical westerns about real people) and crime novels. Since the appearance of his first novel in 1976, he has now written 40 crime novels, 24 westerns, two works of non-fiction, and three short story collections (one western and two crime). If you are keeping score that is 69 books in 34 years!

In "The Branch and the Scaffold" Estleman covers the same ground as the late Douglas C. Jones, who also specialized in historical westerns (and a favorite writer). It is the story of Judge Isaac Parker, the so-called "hanging judge," who battled to bring law and order to the Western Arkansas District and the Indian Nations (later Oklahoma Territory). It is an episodic novel that does not include a single fictional character. The characters, even the minor ones, were real people. That was not the case in his other historical westerns. In those stories, he created fictional characters in order to enliven the historical events.

Judge Isaac Parker
"The Branch and the Scaffold" is not my favorite Estleman novel. That may be because I have read much about the people and the events that are covered and since Estleman does nothing to embellish the story -- it reads almost like a work of history rather than a work of fiction -- and I am already familiar with that history.

But to those who do not know much about the life and times of Judge Parker and the lawmen who rode for him or the famous and infamous outlaws they brought to justice, the novel will be both entertaining and informative.


Loren D. Estleman