Meet Mary Sprugeon
By Charlene Scott
Tourists who visit the 8-foot statue of Wyatt Earp on the Trail of Fame in Dodge City this summer may be surprised to learn that the woman who sculpted the likeness of the famed lawman was 86-years-old when she finished it.
Mary Spurgeon didn’t take up sculpting until she was 72-years-old. She is 91 now. She recently published her first novel,The Will O’ the Wisp, and had enlarged versions of her prize-winning statues Training Two and Cheyenne Courtship produced at a Loveland, Colorado foundry.
“Training Two portrays my husband, Bill, and a friend breaking an Indian pony they brought from the Laguna Reservation in New Mexico, and Cheyenne Courtship shows an Indian extending his blanket to a maiden, who would marry him if she stepped inside the blanket,” Mary explained.
The once wild “No Man’s Land,” the Panhandle of Oklahoma, is the setting for Mary’s book, which tells the story of a teacher in the late 1800s. Mary was a grade school teacher too, riding on horses to the country schools where she taught in Kansas and Wyoming for six years.
When Mary was a child, her first school served eight grades all in one room. “We often sat three to a desk,” she recalled.
“There are some things in my book that happened to me and other things that people related to me,” Mary said from her ranch home near Gate, Oklahoma. “The rest is from my imagination.”
Mary wrote the book over a three-year period “in my spare time, when things were dull,” she added with a laugh. It’s difficult to conceive of any time in Mary’s life when “things were dull.”
Born near Dodge City in the town of Ensign -- the youngest of five girls – she imagined her father, Oscar Johnson, was “disappointed” that she wasn’t a boy. She was determined to accomplish everything a son could do on her dad’s farm. She learned to ride bareback, throw a rope while herding cattle, break horses, and calve many a bawling head into this world.
“I was so proud of my overalls; they were like my father’s overalls,” Mary remembered. She was so successful at working alongside her father that he finally nicknamed her “Bill Charley.”
“My first carving of a horse was made from railroad ties when I was about 12,” she recalled. “My first horse was named ‘Old Dan.’”
Mary rode Old Dan through the notorious dust storms that ravaged Kansas when she was a girl. She still remembers Black Sunday, when she and Old Dan were whipped with flying mud as they struggled to return home.
Mary earned her teaching certificate from Dodge City Junior College in 1938 and graduated from the University of Wyoming, where she took a landscape painting class and began to portray on canvas the beloved scenes of her Kansas childhood. She met the love of her life and married the cowboy Bill Spurgeon in 1944, gifting him with a daughter, Linda, and three sons, Del Roy, Shannon, and James.
The Spurgeon family purchased a 70-year-old abandoned bridge, and Mary drew floor plans for the rustic western home they constructed from the bridge planks in the red hills of the Oklahoma Panhandle, near the sod home Bill’s pioneer grandparents had built.
“Bill died in a riding accident in 1983 at the age of 58, after hitting his head on a tree branch,” Mary related. In the years that followed, Mary devoted herself to her 200 head of cross-bred Hereford and Angus cattle and to her painting and sculpting.
“I attended a workshop in Golden, Colorado and studied with Cowboy Artists of America near Kerrville, Texas and artists at the Bar 20 ranch in West Yellowstone in Montana,” she said.
Among her many paintings and sketches are the famed Oklahoma Indian ballerina Maria Tallchief, the face of Chief Sitting Bull on a buffalo skull, and the branding of calves on the Beaver River. But she became best known for her more than 20 bronze sculptures, which include renditions of Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, and the Cheyenne Chief Dull Knife, whose people were killed in battles west of Dodge City and near the town of Freedom, Oklahoma, which commissioned the chief’s statue from Mary.
Her paintings and sculptures of Indians, cowboys, horses, and cattle were on display in the Governor’s Gallery at the Oklahoma state capitol for several months in 2006. Her work has been exhibited in galleries, museums, and at shows in Colorado,Wyoming, Arizona, Nevada, Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas.
This grandmother of 14 and great-grandmother of 6 children was nominated to the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame (which contains one of her paintings in its art collection). Mary also received a Special Recognition Award at the 2006 Governor’s Arts Awards in Oklahoma City and was honored in 2008 by the Kansas House of Representatives.
“A good artist never stops learning,” Mary said modestly. “My life never has been boring!”