Trusted tools of a traditional trade: Bosque Arts Center temporarily houses W.K. Gordon Museum’s historic spur collection putting on display the legendary pioneer west and the Western lifestyle
CLIFTON – As he rides off towards the barn after a long day in the saddle, the setting sun darkens the cowboy’s silhouette; his sorrel lopes effortlessly, kicking up the sand at the Diamondback next to the well-trodden path. And for anyone accustomed to the western lifestyle, that romantic image comes with so many cowboy-related items in mind, like the type of hat, chaps, the saddle’s embellishments, type of bridle, halters and other tack, and then the boots and spurs.
Those in the know will probably complete the image with the audio of hoofs softly beating the dirt, the squeak of the leathers, the horse’s soft neigh as it smells the fresh hay ready in its stall and jingle of the rowel as it turns, or even the jangle of pear-shaped jingle bobs that enhance the vaquero’s steps.
The Bosque Arts Center atrium’s present exhibit puts the spotlight one of those cowboy tools of the trade. The historic, image-evoking spurs from Tartleton University’s W.K. Gordon Museum in Thurber are beautifully on display during April. This collection of hand-built sculptures of steel and iron – with or without silver and brass inlays – spans over 120 years, with spurs made by Texas artisans. The April display will feature spurs from the early historical period of spur production, while the subsequent May exhibit spotlights modern day spur making.
A single spur found on his father’s ranch outside San Angelo, which lies on the Goodnight-Loving Trail spurred the start of collector Hugh Edmonson’s collection. For collectors, antique spurs tell the tale of the pioneer west and the Western lifestyle of today, wrapped in the guise of a cowboy’s tool. The differences are styles, uses, materials and rowel, whether or not the spur has a maker’s mark or was customized all add to the value and appeal for the collector.
The historic spur exhibit at the BAC roughly spans the period between 1845 to 1970 and includes pieces made by such craftsmen and blacksmiths as Joseph Carl Petmecky, George Bischoff, Robert L. Causey J.R. McChesney, J.O. Bass, the Kelly Bros, B&M - Noble Cicero Browning and William P. August Buermann, Murchison partnership - C.P. Shipley, Chris Hagelstein, Harold “Swede” Strong, John Koenig, Ed Sims, Adolf Schneider, Jess Hodge, Jesus Morales, Brownlee and the Boone family.
For Edmonson, each of the spurs in the exhibit are like friends; each with their own distinct story to tell, whether it be about their maker, the unique design or the way Edmonson found and purchased it. For example, Jesus Morales spurs are rare, because the blacksmith got run over by a drunk driver before he could become prolific. Harold “Swede” Strong worked at a Pecos saddle shop, but learned blacksmithing in the army while chasing down Pancho Villa. He was also a stone mason for the Capitol building in Austin. Of the 250 Bischoff spurs in existence, Edmonson has 28 in his collection. Strong also worked on the Loving Ranch at some time.
Because of the several very rare, museum-worthy spurs, Edmonson felt it was time to consider donating part of his collection to a museum for preservation for future generations. Before entrusting 125 spurs to Tarleton State University, over the course of 20 years Edmonson amassed a comprehensive collection of Texas-style spurs. He roughly based building his collection on the work “Bit and Spur Makers in the Texas Tradition: A historical Perspective” by Ned Martin, Jodi Martin and Kurt House featuring 65 spur makers. Edmonson’s collecting days are not over though, because he wants to find the remaining 10 spur makers mentioned in the book.
At the opening reception April 4, Edmondson and the museum’s director Mary Adams gladly answered questions from the public about this fascinating and unique exhibit. Former Justice of the Peace and rancher Jamie Zander took advantage of their presence to show off a pair of turquoise studded Oscar Crockett spurs in his possession.
Besides a steep learning curve on spurs and spur makers since they arrived on the museum doorstep in 2020 – in plastic tubs, with each pair in its own deep blue-purple Royal Crown bag – the special exhibit presented Adams with some challenges on how to display the spurs in an interesting, engaging way. Several custom-made wooden holders give the presentation a dynamic view of the spurs. The BAC exhibit is Adam’s first time taking the spur exhibit “on the road,” and the presentation works beautifully.
Blacksmiths by trade, early spur makers probably did not consider themselves as artists. They simply made and repaired farm implements, repaired wagons, made horseshoes, and sharpened tools. Spurs and bits were initially created by shaping and molding desired shapes out of hot metal, with craftsmanship being most important. Later all kinds of decorative and non-decorative detail was added to the spurs and bits.
Throughout history, spur makers shared their knowledge and skills with each other, whether teaching apprentices or friendships with other spur makers. To illustrate the interconnections, Adams created a circle with “threads of influence” between 24 Texas spur makers.
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Edmonson pointed out that since most cowboys did not have a lot of cash to spend, most spurs had to be cheap, and therefore less embellished, and certainly did not have silver or gold inlay. Eureka spurs sold for as little as 50 cents to a$1. They were called “Crackle Barrel” spurs because they came to stores in barrels with leathers attached.
Edmonson also explained, that some styles, like the gal leg were more popular than others and many were made of that style. Consequently fewer were made of unpopular designs, ironically making them more valuable and desirable for collectors today. And no matter what, a pair with a maker’s mark will be worth more than an unmarked pair of spurs. Knowing the maker provides an important way to date, authenticate and identify old spurs.
Besides that first discovery – which turned out to be a common Buermann style spur – Edmonson’s most prized pair of spurs on display is a Joseph Petmecky gold silver overlaid card suit pattern, with initials on the mountings. The initials RLR belong to former Texas Ranger, banker and rancher Robert Longmire Russell of Menard. Apparently Russell knew Petmecky personally. Because of this specific history, the pair is valued between $16 and 20,000. A Civil war veteran, gun smith and spur maker Petmecky had a hardware store on Congress Avenue in Austin.
Because spur maker Joe Nance – also Sheriff in Terrell County – primarily made spurs as gifts, his spurs are very rare. And as such are prized collectibles.
The Texas spur is a more utilitarian style as opposed to the more ornate Vaquero or California style spurs; they have smaller rowels, are less ornate and often molded and shaped from one piece.
To the uninitiated to horseback riding or working with horses, spurs might be seen as cruel incentives to get a horse to do its riders bidding, or just being pretentious cowboy bling. Nothing is further from the truth. Cowboys value their horses immensely – they are their work partners – so the thought of inflicting them pain or harm is unimaginable. Just as the reins and the bit, spurs are essential cowboy equipment to signal the horse to take certain action.
When used correctly, spurs are a useful tool to enhance communication between rider and horse; an extension of the cowboy’s heel – the always gentle, slight, soft, rolling pressure is enough to get the horse to execute a certain move. The word “spur” comes from the old Anglo-Saxon “spura, spora, spurnan” which loosely means “to kick or urge on”. The earliest examples were likely made of bone or wood, but later consisted of various metals.
Over the centuries, the “rowel” or rounded toothed-end of the spur changed in size, shape, and number of points, according to custom and taste. Moreover, horseback riders dating back to the Middle Ages in Europe treated spurs like trophies won in contests and worn as high fashion accessories by royalty. In those days, spurs and the metal from which they were made were a mark of rank, hence the expression "to earn your spurs." This tradition of cowboys acquiring more flashy spurs to show off their experience and pride continued through the 1800s and up to this day.
The Spanish conquistadors of the early 16th century brought horses, riding skills and spurs to New Spain. Their horsemanship traditions took root in Mexico, Central and South America, although it was the Mexican vaquero who most influenced Texas and American cowboy gear. After the American Civil War, the manufacturing of spurs and bits took off with the rise of the cattle industry across North America, mainly because of the large cattle drives up the Texas trails to the railway up in Kansas.
The parts of a spur include:
- The “yoke”, “branch”, or “heel band”, which wraps around the heel of the boot. It rests on the heel shelf, or is kept in place with a heel chain.
- The “shank” or “neck”, which extends from the back of the yoke and is the area that touches the horse. Longer legged people tend to need longer shanks, to be able to reach the horse’s side easier.
- The rowel as seen on some spurs, is a revolving wheel or disk with radiating “points” at the end attached to the shank. Rowels can vary in size and number of points. More points on a larger diameter disperse the weight more and are therefore more gentle.
- chap guards on a western spur are small, curved-up hooks on the shank in front of the rowel. They prevent the rider’s chaps from interfering with the spur’s rowels.
- Some have small metal pajados, also known as “jingo bobs” or “jingle bobs,” near the rowel, to create a jingling sound whenever the foot moved. Sometimes that sound alone is enough to get the horse’s attention.
- Western spurs are usually held on by a leather or leather-like spur strap that goes over the arch of the foot. Sometimes the leather is elaborately embellished, held by a Mexican coin or a peacock design on the button.
To this day, ranching remains vital to the economy and lifestyle in Central Texas. Every day you can see horses in the back of the cattle trailer at the local Mexican restaurant. They are all saddled up and ready to step out onto the range with their riders – real working cowboys.
The spur collection on display at the BAC is a comprehensive representation of several different spur features – like card-deck inlays, compound construction or single piece, with or without a chap guard, the gal-leg, goose neck or bottle-opener and all different rowel types. For novices, trying to recognize the different elements enhances the exhibit. For rural cowboys, their functionality and history adds value.
In May, the Atrium Gallery Spur exhibit switches gears to more modern day spurs. Additionally, cowboy extraordinaire and master spur craftsman Wilson Capron offers his insights on modern day spurs. The reception on Thursday, May 4, starts at 6:30 p.m. with the presentation starting at 7 p.m. Capron will speak about his work and spotlight some of his spurs in the exhibit.
One of the best modern day spur and bit creators, Capron transforms spurs into works of art with his attention to detail and the personality he puts into each piece.
Photos by SIMONE WICHERS-VOSS
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