Yippie-yi-yo: Wrangling Cowboy Artifacts for a New Exhibition

The legwork is underway to create a 2013 exhibit about one of New Mexico’s favorite subjects: Cowboys. (And, yes, cowgirls.) Guest curators Louise Stiver and Byron Price are sifting through a wealth of material to decide which aspects of cowboy life will be highlighted and how we’ll tell those stories. In the museum’s collections vault, we already have an array of cowboy-related materials, and the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives could make the Marlboro Man weep with the amount of historical photography it holds on ranch life.

Even so, we couldn’t say no to the offer of a clutch of cowboy-related materials from John Egan and the Egan family, who operated Rancho Encantado in Tesuque from 1967 through 1995. Betty Egan, a Cleveland woman who loved Western novels, had a yearning to live in the wide open spaces, and Slim Green told her about Rancho del Monte, a dude ranch owned by Bill and Barbara Hooton. Trivia keepers will want to know this about Rancho del Monte: Barbara Hooton collaborated with Patrick Dennis, the author of Auntie Mame, to create a 1956 novel of city slickers running a dude ranch, which became (briefly) the TV sitcom Guestward Ho!

(Even deeper trivia: The pilot for the TV show, produced by Desilu, starred Vivian Vance, aka Ethel Mertz, but the powers-that-be decided that viewers couldn’t see poor Miss Vance as anything but Ethel. Too bad for Vivian, given that she earned her first acting chops in Albuquerque and would have had a homecoming of sorts with the show.)

The items included in the Egan family’s generous donation have yet to go through our accessioning process, which includes being voted on by the Museums of New Mexico Board of Regents, but we couldn’t resist sharing a glimpse of them with you.

In fact, some of the wise-guys in our office couldn’t resist setting up an exquisite Slim Green saddle as the new desk chair for our director, Frances Levine (at left).

Slim Green is a story unto himself:  Born in 1916 in Oklahoma and soon relocated by his family to Texas in a covered wagon, he showed cowboy know-how from a young age, quickly learning the difference between a good saddle and a bad one. He couldn’t afford the former, so apprenticed himself to Pop Bettis, a renowned saddlemaker in Lubbock.  As his skills advanced, his saddles became hand-tooled works of art that fit every rider’s particular needs.  Cowboys, movie stars and governors have chosen Green’s saddles, and he’s considered a master traditional artist by numerous arts organizations.

Among the other items partially filling up Levine’s office: a Slim Green belt made for John Egan (Betty’s son, and the ranch’s general manager for 18 years); a pair of chaps; spurs; bridles; business ads; two bottles of Rancho Encantado wine; two cattle brands owned by Betty Egan; and photographs from the ranch’s heyday, when it attracted the likes of Robert Redford, Kirk Douglas, Johnny Cash, June Carter, Whoopi Goldberg, Jason Robards, and Frank Capra.

Besides running the Rancho Encantado, Betty Egan financed the construction of the Tesuque Fire Department and was the first female fire chief in the nation.

Rancho Encantado today is the Encantado resort.

As we work on this early stage of the exhibit, set to open in February 2013, we’ve been gratified by the generosity of people like the Egans and the enthusiasm of so many people to share their stories. We promise this: A root-tootin’ good time will be had by all.