He Was a Spectator of Of Cowboys
Bonham Daily Favorite, June 5, 1994
After a winter of study at the Boston Fine Arts Museum for Erwin Smith, he and his by now inseparable companion George Patullo were ready once again to shake off the drear of a Boston season and head for the sunny climes of the American Southwest. In 1909 the two again packed their bedrolls, Smith assembled his camera equipment, and they boarded the first available train heading the direction of their dreams. They got off the train at Hereford, Arizona and cast around for the likeliest cattle outfit to join.
In the area were several outfits responsible for rounding up the scattered small herds into the massive collection to be found on Bill Greene's extensive holdings. The two men spent some time on Greene's RO range, in southern Arizona, and then moved to join with the cowhands working the OR near Sonora, Mexico. Many experts consider the work that Smith did during this sojourn to be among his finest.
As the cattle drive season came to an end the two artists once again returned to Boston. By this time Patullo's writing were in great demand in popular publications, most notably The Saturday Evening Post.
The Spring of 1910 found them again headed west and they spent the better part of the next three years ferreting out the final traces of the vanishing way of life. During this period they spent long stretches with the giants of the American cattle industry such as Charles Goodnight, "Paint" Campbell, Frank Hastings, and Charles Jones. After this more extended period of research and photographing they returned to Boston.
Patullo continued to reap the rewards of this last trip. His stories and articles were snatched up as soon as he could turn them out with The Saturday Evening Post being this best investor.
Smith did not share in his friends' good fortune. After the brief brush with fame in his early days in Boston, tastes and fortunes changed and his work no longer had the interest it once did. Except for the occasional use of one of his photos to illustrate a Patullo story he was unable to gain the support he had sought.
In the autumn of 1911 Smith returned to Bonham and built a studio and dark room in the attic of a barn at the back of the family home. Later he was joined by Patullo who still credited Smith with being the major influence in his success. Patullo decided to rent a place of his own and begin work on a novel in response to urgings from five major publishers.
Smith had extensive land holdings in the northern part of Fannin County which he had inherited from his father. Much of the land had been mortgaged to help finance his studies and travels. His stepfather, lacking the artist's eye for Smith's work, pressured him to take charge of his property and forget the foolish notion of roaming across the western frontier. Smith moved out of the family home and settled on one of his farms near Lamasco.
For the next several years his dreams of becoming a western sculptor of the first rank were pushed aside. He had little sense of business practicality and he struggled to make his land produce with beef cattle and other agricultural products.
Smith rarely turned to the camera during this time except to take photographs of scenes and events in and around Bonham. One set of his prints from around 1913-1914 are of a baseball game being played by the Bonham Blues, one of the teams of the old Texas-Oklahoma League. He also took time in 1914 to document the paving of the first street in Bonham, Main Street near the Texas and Pacific depot.
He still planned from time to time to take off on another adventure. For a period he worked toward a trip to South American to do a photographic essay on the life of the Argentine gauches. He and Patullo also seriously considered traveling to Mexico to cover the Mexican revolution. But none of these plans came to fruition for Smith always failed to consider, at the start of his planning, that he simply could not pick up and walk away from the obligations of his ranching enterprise at Bermuda Ranch.
It was during this time, however, that he once again enjoyed a brief period of fame and interest in his work. The Eastman Kodak Company prepared an exhibit of his work and arranged for an extensive national tour.
For years, as early as 1906, he had harbored dreams of publishing a major book of his photographs. George Patullo, using his fame, was able to persuade senior editors at Houghton-Mufflin Publishing to produce such a book. Smith agreed to the terms of the offer, but before the planning could begin, a turn in the fortunes of his ranch claimed his complete attention and the opportunity for his book passed before ha had a chance to salvage it.
In the early 1920's he printed a brochure offering prints of his "Pictures of the West" which were to be mounted in a leatherlike photo album. An ad offering the books for sale was run in Scribner's magazine in January 1921.
The response was overwhelming with orders coming in from all over the world. Smith looked at the orders and then laid them aside. Finally to his mother's questioning about the unfilled demands, Smith replied, "he wanted to see if people were interested." The response was nice to know but it was too much trouble to take the time to fill all the requests.
Only one or two pieces of Smith's sculpture are known to exist. These are of the earliest days of his training and at this point it is impossible to tell to what extent his talent would have developed. He did wield an influence however for those who were interested life on the range. The silent western movie star Dustin Farnum consulted with Smith on many aspects of his films. Gutzon Borglum, famed sculptor of the Mount Rushmore monuments, sought his help in modeling a group for a proposed work on the old trail drivers of Texas.
The remainder of his life saw Smith tending to his agricultural interests in Fannin County. Occasionally he would photograph a Fannin County Fair parade, a regional horse show, or the like.
Smith died in 1947. His negatives and glass plates were donated to the Library of Congress by his sister Mary Alice Pettis. When nothing was done with his work, she retrieved them from Washington and at her death several years ago had them sent t the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth. In 1953 the University of Texas Press published a book of his photographs entitled "Life on the Texas Plains."
Fannin County Museum of History
One Main Street, Bonham, Texas