Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Giant Cowboy at the Curio Shop

A weathered Tex Randall.
Tex Randall, Big Texan

 July 14, 2016  Canyon, Texas
In 1959 Tex Randall began life as what was then called "Texas' Biggest Texan" -- and he was.

Tex in better days (1999). 

The 47-foot-tall slouching cowboy was built of cement and steel by William "Harry" Wheeler, a high school shop teacher, for Wheeler's Western Store on US 60. The store -- which despite its name was not owned by Harry Wheeler -- sold Western clothing, so the seven-ton cowboy was outfitted with a real Western-style shirt and an enormous pair of Levi's jeans, courtesy of a local tent and awning shop. The galoot's lanky frame was supported by an ingenious network of steel struts and cables, anchoring him to the ground.

Decades passed. The Texas Dept. of Transportation rerouted US 60 through an underpass, cutting off Wheeler's drive-by traffic and driving the Western Store out of business. Panhandle winds shredded the cowboy's canvas duds. A semi crashed into his left boot, and the cigarette was shot out of his right hand.

Local leaders rallied for a "Save the Cowboy" campaign in 1987. The no-longer-fashionable cigarette was replaced with a spur. The cowboy was given a new face with a mustache, a new set of painted-on clothes -- and a new name, "Tex Randall," in honor of his home in Randall County.

More decades passed. Panhandle winds again ravaged Tex, sandblasting away large portions of his skin and clothes. His fiberglass fingers crumbled. A local businessman bought the cowboy but gave up when he learned it would cost $50,000 to move him. Local boosters mounted an internet fundraising campaign, but the amount needed to save Tex seemed beyond their reach. Time appeared to have run out for the big cowboy.

Then an unlikely hero rode to the rescue: the formerly villainous Texas Dept. of Transportation, which in late 2013 set aside almost $300,000 to turn the land around Tex's boots into a park. Keith Brown, chairman of the Canyon Main Street Program, raised enough money to "re-skin" the statue (Tex even made a cameo appearance in the 2015 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue). Repairs began in the summer of 2015, and the new Tex -- who will look more 1959 than 1987 -- should be unveiled sometime in 2016.

Although no longer the "Biggest Texan" -- that would be Sam Houston -- Tex Randall has lassoed the hearts of his hometown and his namesake state. "He's an icon; he's something we can be proud of," said Keith. And despite Tex's battered appearance, the cowboy has been studied by engineers and found to be perfectly capable of handling yet another makeover. The shop teacher built him right. "He's stood in this part of the country for over 50 years without blowing over," said Keith. "He's not going to."

Our photos were taken before the abandoned Western Store next to Tex was demolished in preparation for the park.
My grandmother lived at the edge of Canyon, Texas, just half a block behind the giant cowboy.  I grew up with him in the picture a lot, because I used to get parked at my grandmother’s place anywhere from a few days on up to a year or more.  My mother would go off husband hunting and leave me there. 

Catty-corner from my grandmother’s was the Wheeler home, where little Johnny Wheeler, a tubby, spoiled brat held sway.  

Before the big cowboy was built, there was a smaller one – about half the size of his replacement.  When they tore him down and built the bigger one, they used pieces of a wrecked plane for ballast. 
I still remember the curio shop next to the cowboy.  I bought a rubber snake there once.  The floor of the shop was creaky wood, and it had a peculiar smell.  Next door was a gas station, and the other way was The Cowboy Café, where my great-uncle Lee worked, washing dishes.  Sometimes I’d go over to the café to see uncle Lee while he was on his lunch break.  He got a free meal every day he worked, usually fried chicken.  He could eat green peas with a butter knife faster than most folks could with a spoon.

The Cowboy Café had heavy, beige-colored china with cattle brands in brown around the edge of the plates.  Those plates weighed about four pounds apiece, and had the head of a Longhorn with a ring in his nose in the middle.  They had huge black and white photo murals of herds of white-face cattle down in the canyons.  I used to sit and look at them, envying the cowboys, because they had horses.



from:  November 4, 2015   By Tracey Panek, LS&Co. Historian 

What do the best dressed 47-foot cowboys wear? Levi’s® jeans of course—in the tallest size you can get your hands on. In the late 1950s, Harry Wheeler built a soaring giant cowboy, later dubbed “Tex Randall,” to draw visitors to his motel and curio shop. In a recent interview with Wheeler’s daughter, Judy (pictured below), I learned the unusual connection between Levi Strauss & Co. and one of tallest roadside attractions in Texas.

Billed as “Texas’ Biggest Texan” when it was erected, the giant cowboy took a year of hard work and loads of steel and concrete to assemble. Wheeler built the cowboy to tower above his shop in Canyon, Texas, just outside of Amarillo. Hundreds of Americans took to the roads in the 1960s following President Eisenhower’s authorization for an interstate highway system in 1956 and the development of new freeways. Road trippers drove for miles to see the giant cowboy and other roadside curiosities. A growing number of travelers, especially teens, took to the roads dressed in Levi’® 501s® jeans, White Levi’s® jeans or our popular zippered 505® jeans.

By the mid-1960s Levi Strauss & Co. opened several plants in nearby Amarillo to keep up with the baby boom demand. Manufacturing kept pace with soaring sales of Levi’s® jeans and other products. With Texas’ Biggest Texan soaring prominently just a few miles down the highway, the local Levi Strauss plant in Amarillo offered Wheeler a pair of jeans for the giant cowboy. It was a tall order to fill, but LS&Co. was up to the challenge.

A yellowed newspaper photograph Judy saved shows her father adjusting the lengthy Levi’s® jeans as they hang from a crane. Wheeler crafted the frame and then covered it with special crack-resistant cement, painting the hands, boots, and face. “He made snap buttons and a belt buckle by himself,” she boasted. Judy’s enthusiasm for her dad is infectious. “Dad was a genius,” Judy concluded. “Levi Strauss provided the jeans, but dad sewed them up by himself.”

Tracey Panek is the Historian for Levi Strauss & Co. where she manages the day-to-day workings of the Levi Strauss & Co. Archives as a key corporate asset, answering historical questions, assisting designers, brand managers, executives and other employees whose work requires historical materials in the Archives.

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