GATESVILLE — Quick, what do Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Pancho Villa have in common? They both have a pair of spurs on display at the Coryell Museum and Historical Center in downtown Gatesville.
The former first lady’s spurs are a dainty set with leather straps worn for English riding. Pancho Villa’s rugged pair features large steel spikes, called rowels, in the Mexican tradition.
These artifacts of horsemanship and history are two pair out of about 10,000 spurs (and counting) collected by Lloyd Mitchell, former Gatesville High School history teacher and coach. The museum is home to about 6,000 spurs. (The remainder are with the Mitchell family.)
Folks here say the Mitchell collection is the largest of its kind in the world. No one has yet disputed that claim. Even the politicians in Austin agreed the spurs needed some recognition. So in 2001, the Texas House of Representatives designated Gatesville the “Spur Capital of Texas.”
Born in 1907 in Itasca, Mitchell began collecting spurs as a young buckaroo. In the 1920s, he was working on a Wyoming ranch and found a lone spur in a pasture. Although he never found the mate, his quest spurred a nascent hobby into a lifetime obsession.
Mitchell’s son-in-law, Grayson Wetzel of Goldthwaite, recalls what it was like courting one of Mitchell’s daughters. After an initial visit, Mitchell said he was OK with his daughter, Charlotte, dating Wetzel, but he had to tour the spur collection, then housed in a large steel building out back, and sign the register.
There was an additional condition to the relationship.
“He said, you’re welcome to visit anytime, just bring a spur with you,” Wetzel said. “He was quite a character. He knew every spur in there, every detail. He spent a lot of time in that building.”
Family members said Mitchell’s wife, Madge, showed the patience of a saint waiting for her husband at auctions and ranches while he bargained and bartered.
“Daddy would trade for anything,” daughter Charlotte Wetzel said. “Every time he got a spur he would be so excited.”
Touring the spur collection actually starts outside at the sidewalk display windows. A wooden sign greets visitors with these words: “Creeks quit running, crops failed, water well dried up. Reckon we could make a pair of spurs from the windmill blades.”
The sign hangs from a large pair of ornamental spurs made from — wait for it — windmill blades.
Back inside, a dozen assorted sizes are mounted on a hitching post to allow onlookers to run a hand across the rowels. In the same room, glass cases, barbed wire strands, and wooden wall racks show off spurs that span centuries and oceans: A 17th century pair from Italy that looks like an old-fashioned can opener, a German 19th century military pair and a Russian lady’s spurs from the province of Georgia.
One popular and distinctive style takes on a little sexual connotation. They’re called gal leg spurs. In 1887, an Oklahoma blacksmith named J.R. McChesney got the idea after hearing cowboys bragging about their women. With a little paint and polish, the shank, which already has a little bend in it, takes on the look of a shapely female leg. The Mitchell collection has a pair of gal legs outside in the display window.
When a professional basketball team moved to San Antonio in the 1970s and changed its name to the Spurs, Mitchell collected caps and bumper stickers. But he was not impressed with their logo. He wanted something authentic.
“They need some real spurs down there,” he said.
In February, the Mitchell family loaned about 60 spurs to the AT&T Center in San Antonio where the Spurs won another NBA championship last week. In glass display cases near the southwest entrance, fans can find a large Mexican spur with a rattlesnake etched into the heel band, a 2½ pounder, and numerous others that are more than a century old.
Although Mitchell died in 1991, Wetzel said the man who received mail from across the country addressed to Spur Mitchell “would have been tickled to death.”
One of Mitchell’s five children, Mary Catherine Mitchell of Gatesville, said her father was a benevolent coach, teacher and father who looked after youngsters who came from homes with little means. Collecting spurs and western memorabilia was a passion, but not the true measure of the man.
“During World War II, when we first came here (Gatesville), a lot of school boys did not have a father because their father had gone off to war,” she said. “So Daddy became not only their coach and mentor, but a father. I thought they were my brothers. We shared food with them. We shared clothes, shoes. He loved each one and taught each one equally. If the bus had already run, or they (football players) couldn’t get home after practice, Daddy would bring them to the house. That’s how I grew up. That’s Mamma’s and Daddy’s legacy, to share.”
The museum, open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, is one block from the Coryell County Courthouse at 718 Main St., in a 110-year-old building. Visitors also can view numerous exhibits that celebrate Coryell County history.