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.
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.