Cowboy Statue Rejected!

cowboysrGeorge Lane was reportedly tall enough to hook his spurs under the belly of a horse. Born in Iowa in 1856, he came to Alberta in 1887 to run the Bar U for Fred Stimson, manager of the North West Land and Cattle Company. In 1905, Mr. Lane and some backers bought the ranch–1,800 acres, 5,000 head of cattle and 1,000 horses–for $220,000. Mr. Lane kept it until his death in 1925, and meat-packing magnate Pat Burns took over in 1927.

Mr. Lane was one of the top 10 operators in the history of Canadian ranching, says Hugh Dempsey, retired curator of Calgary’s Glenbow Museum. A shrewd businessman, Mr. Lane adopted progressive breeding techniques for his cattle and his herd of Percheron workhorses, the largest in North America. He also stepped out of the box to start the Minnesota Rehabilitation Association. He was also one of the “Big Four” ranchers who sponsored the first Calgary Stampede in 1912.

Bert Sheppard, born on a ranch south of Calgary in 1901, got his first job twisting broncos at the Bar U in 1922. “Although I was getting pretty well shook up from breaking horses,” he recalls, “I stuck with it until I was spitting up blood.” He took over his father’s ranch in 1934 and gradually amassed large holdings of land and cattle. Since his retirement in 1986, Mr. Sheppard has written two books on local ranching history. He never married and has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to various causes as he has sold off his land.

In 1990, Parks Canada, working with a committee of local residents called “Friends of the Bar U Historic Association,” designated the ranch as a historic site. The idea was to restore the main ranch buildings to their original working condition. It opened to the public last summer.

In March 1995, the Friends approached Mr. Sheppard looking for donations to furnish the interior of the visitor’s centre. He agreed, and offered at first to commission a bust of Mr. Lane. He soon developed the more ambitious plan of turning the Russell painting into a life-size-plus-10% bronze. “I made money out of my ranching experience,” he says, “and I would like to honour Lane, the man that taught me the business.”

According to inside sources, the Friends first accepted the statue but changed their minds a month later because the fundraising was not going well and they hoped for a cash donation rather than a statue. “I don’t recall that we said we would take it,” replies Stan Wilson, president of the Friends and long-time area rancher. Last spring, Mr. Sheppard offered the bronze directly to the feds, but in September they too turned it down.

Doug Stewart, Canadian Heritage’s Alberta director, says that park staff and the Friends board together decided that a 15-foot-high bronze was an “intrusion” in a site that is supposed to be as realistic as possible. He adds it would also give too much prominence to Mr. Lane over Messrs. Stimson and Burns. Further, Mr. Stewart suggests that the wolf incident did not occur on the ranch and there is some doubt as to whether a wolf actually attacked the rancher.

Park officials and the Friends also discussed whether it was wise, in this wildlife-friendly society, to present a statue of a guntotin’, wolf-shootin’ range rider as representative of the cattle industry. Mr. Stewart believes the statue would be more appropriate in the George Lane Memorial Park in High River.

Mr. Sheppard feels his mentor does deserve an outstanding place at the museum. “George Lane was the only real cowboy to own the Bar U,” he says. After the buffalo were wiped out in the 1870s predators often attacked cattle. Thus, he says, the statue depicts accurately wolves as one of the early ranchers’ biggest hazards, and is therefore an appropriate subject for a historic site–even if did occur a few miles off Bar U territory. Mr. Stewart replies that the predator issue is addressed in the visitor’s centre.

“We feel badly that we had to turn down Bert’s offer,” says Mr. Wilson, but Mr. Sheppard is not giving up. Rich Roenish, a highly respected western artist, is scheduled to finish the statue next month. The retired rancher says that, if all else fails, he might ask a friend to let him place the statue on land right next to the Bar U site. The Glenbow Museum has also offered to take it off his hands, at least temporarily.

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