It has taken eight years to get the bronze longhorns rounded up for their approach to the Waco Suspension Bridge, but the last two of 25 longhorn cattle and a black cowboy took their places Tuesday at the end of their Indian Spring Park herd, completing the “Branding the Brazos” sculpture project.
For several of those watching city of Waco workers and a crane maneuver the larger-than-life bronzes onto their concrete pads before bolting them in place, Tuesday marked a close to nearly a decade of dreaming, planning, fundraising and creation.
“It’s all together — finally,” exclaimed project organizer Doreen Ravenscroft as the final bolts connecting the 14-foot-tall rider and horse to their pad were tightened. Ravenscroft, president of Cultural Arts of Waco, has steered the Branding the Brazos project from its beginning.
The Branding the Brazos, a $1.65 million project funded in large part by Waco businessman Clifton Robinson, pays tribute to Waco’s 19th- century days as a stop on the Chisholm Trail cattle drives from South Texas to Kansas.
It features three cowboys — one white, one Hispanic and one black — driving 25 head of longhorn cattle to the western approach to the Waco Suspension Bridge.
It’s one of the largest sculpture projects in the state, the creation of 74-year-old Texas sculptor Robert Summers, and one of the most-photographed sites in Waco, said Liz Taylor, director of the Waco Convention Center and Visitors Bureau.
The public’s embrace to the bronze cattle drive has gratified Ravenscroft as well.
“Every time you look here, you see people wandering around (the steers), taking pictures. And every time they take a picture, they take a memory of Waco away,” she said.
Like Ravenscroft, Summers found mixed emotions in the occasion: pride in its completion, yet sadness at its end.
“I always feel that way at the end of a project,” said the hazel-eyed artist, who came down from his Glen Rose studio to supervise the installation Tuesday.
After spending up to 15 hours a day in working on some of the sculptures during the past eight years, Summers says he can’t help but feel attached. When he revisits a sculpture, the memories of creating it often return.
“It’s like visiting with an old friend after 10 years,” he said.
Summers modeled the third cowboy after actual cowboy and bear hunter Holt Collier. The Mississippi-born Collier grew up a slave and fought with his master, Howell Hinds, with the Ninth Texas Cavalry during the Civil War. Collier spent the remainder of his life as a hunter, cowboy and game tracker in Texas and Mississippi. Collier’s time in Texas included working on a ranch owned by Waco’s Lawrence Sullivan Ross, before he returned to Mississippi.
Collier won national attention for a 1902 Mississippi bear hunt by President Theodore Roosevelt. Collier, told to make sure the president got a bear during the hunt, tracked one and tied him to a tree. Mortified. Roosevelt refused to shoot the bear himself, and the resulting media coverage, pro and con, was enough that an enterprising toy maker nicknamed his stuffed toy bear “Teddy’s bear” — the supposed origin of the teddy bear.
Summers gave his bronze cowboy “wooly chaps,” leg coverings made from angora goat hide and whose warmth made them particularly prized. The rider also carries a Winchester .73 rifle and Colt Army pistol, with a rattlesnake’s rattle tucked into his hat’s band.
The inclusion of a black cowboy in the Chisholm Trail tribute visibly pleased Steve Cook, the Cultural Arts of Waco treasurer who, like Ravenscroft, has worked on the project for several years. Cook, who is black, also had a personal reason for his delight: Summers modeled the nose of his rider after Cook’s when he couldn’t get enough detail from his few photos of Collier.
“I’m happy it’s really completed, the path we envisioned all those years ago,” Cook said. Even better, the horseman’s location at the tail end of the drive proved a picture-perfect position, complete with a view of the Brazos River in the background.
“It’s the million-dollar shot,” Cook said.
Several real-life black horsemen were present to watch the final cowboy put in place, the statue a physical reminder of the black men who helped shape the West. Lynn “Cowboy” Anderson and Scott McCreary of the Knight Riders’ Waco-Houston chapter and Dale Cobb of Waco’s Boots in the Saddle say their groups try to keep alive the tradition and history of black cowboys.
“It feels great,” Anderson said, seeing the black cowboy’s inclusion in the bronze cattle drive. “A lot of people don’t know that there were black cowboys.”
Some historians think there is an argument that can be made that black lawman Bass Reeves, who patrolled the Indian Territory in the late 1800s, inspired the story of the Lone Ranger. In the rodeo world, black cowboy Bill Pickens often is credited as the one who invented bull dogging, the technique of wrestling a steer to the ground.
Others at Tuesday’s installation had their attention on the two longhorn cattle, each with familiar initials as brands. The HD on the last steer in the herd spoke to Lucretia Darden, who underwrote its cost as a memorial to her parents, William and Jean Darden, whose Darden Building Materials has been in business in Waco for decades.
“My dad was born and raised in Waco, and I figured this would be a nice way to honor their memory,” she said, noting that the H in HD stood for Hed-rick, her mother’s family.
The second-to-last steer, with DR on its flank, was special to its underwriter, Don and Natalie Risinger, who raise longhorn cattle on their ranch in Coryell County. Don’s great-grandfather, George Hay, in fact, took part in six cattle drives on the Chisholm Trail and shows up in the history “Trail Drives of Texas,” upon which Texas author Larry McMurtry drew heavily — a charitable description, Don said — for his landmark novel “Lonesome Dove.”
Waco District 1 City Councilman Wilbert Austin was among the city officials watching the statues lowered into their places Tuesday. Clifton Robinson, sporting a Santa Claus hat, dropped by the Branding the Brazos installation during his midday jog through downtown Waco to visit with Summers, project supporters and workers who helped see through the project that his $1 million gift had helped bring about.
“It’s a thrilling moment for me, though it took entirely too long,” he said.
Did the final result match the vision he had eight years ago? Robinson smiled. “It’s just a little bit better than I thought.”
Ravenscroft said landscaping around the statues and plates identifying project donors would take about three months to finish, with a formal Branding the Brazos dedication planned for later.
Completion of the work on the Indian Spring Park side of the Brazos River should help pivot attention to another major sculpture project on the river’s opposite bank, the memorial to Waco World War II hero Doris Miller.
“It’s quite difficult to balance the two (projects),” said Ravenscroft, who also is leading the planning and fundraising for the riverside memorial.
Organizers hope the project will be finished by Dec. 7, 2016, and intend to put it on a front burner in 2015.
“We can turn our attention now to the Doris Miller Memorial,” she said.
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