LAMPASAS — Cowboys are known for riding into the sunset never to be seen again. But after a 15-year hiatus, a lanky billboard cowboy that welcomed travelers to Lampasas in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s is back on the job overlooking motorists from a craggy outcropping just east of town.
For about a quarter century, a trip to Lampasas meant driving past this cowboy leaning against a billboard. About 14 feet tall, hat with a three-foot brim, legs crossed at the ankles, thumb casually hanging from his blue jeans’ front pocket, this local ambassador greeted travelers with: “WELCOME PARDNER, TO … LAMPASAS HEART OF THE COW COUNTRY.”
Three identical cowboys and billboards were stationed on major highways into town.
But shortly before the end of the 20th century, the city opted for a more contemporary image to greet motorists at its doorstep. Lampasas County historian Jeff Jackson repainted the cowboys once, back when their colors were fading from long days in the Texas sun. He said the cowboys slowly lost favor with locals.
“I don’t know if we’re the heart of cow country anymore,” he said.
So the three lanky cowboys were told to roll up their sleeping bags and hit the trail.
They were replaced with billboards that feature an image of the Lampasas County Courthouse and tout the city’s thriving downtown and historical district.
Two cowboys have been lost, booted around from one resident to another until nobody knows where they were finally put to rest.
But local businessman Bill Crawford disassembled one and tucked it away in his barn. The cowboy had been snoozing for about a dozen years when Crawford said he needed more space.
“It was in the way,” Crawford said in a deadpan manner. “So I said hell, I touched it up, patched it up, threw it up.”
Crawford made a small modification to the original. The cowboy now sports a Texas A&M belt buckle. No surprise, if you’ve seen Crawford’s front gate — also decorated with a Texas A&M sign.
The cowboy now stands tall on the Crawford ranch, overlooking U.S. Highway 190 east of town, between Lampasas and Kempner. But he stands alone. No billboard. No slogan. Just a tall drink of water almost tall enough to be a water tower.
The Lampasas cowboys originally rode into town in the early 1970s, said Gary Martin, former city councilman, Chamber of Commerce president and restaurateur.
Martin was looking for a way to promote Lampasas, get folks to spend a little time and money in this Hill Country town of 6,700. A local artist, Cliff Cantrell, was a regular customer at his eatery, Martin’s Restaurant. The two got to talking.
“He loved to paint. He was fabulous,” Martin said, describing Cantrell. “He wore khakis, long sleeves, was a regular guy.”
Cantrell built a table top replica and presented it to Martin. Then Martin worked a deal with the phone company for free telephone poles. The city dug the holes. Martin provided the materials. And Cantrell worked his Western magic, painting the cowboys for free.
Cantrell later moved to Houston. Folks in Lampasas said he died several years back. But his art lives on at First State Bank in downtown. Three Western action scenes, bank robbers and dust storms, are hanging upstairs.
Back on the highway to Kempner, it’s common to see people stopping to take pictures of the cowboy. Vision Lampasas President Dianna Hodges recalls the cowboy from when she was a girl.
“I remember the cowboy, too. I was really surprised to see they had one of the originals,” she said. “In the early 1990s, I often drove through Lampasas with my two children, heading to Mills County for camping. Seeing the cowboy was part of our trip up from Austin. So one day, I pulled over, camera full of film.
“My son, Eric, about 5 at the time, photographed me standing before the big billboard. Then I took his picture, trying to pose like the cowboy,” she continued. “When I recently spied the cowboy on the Crawford ranch, my head spun around and my foot hit the brakes. It took two days to find those old photographs, but I returned to Crawford’s with them.”
Crawford just shook his head, looked up at me, shook his head again.
Over at the Martins’ kitchen table in Lampasas, Martin salutes his old friend Crawford for saving the last of the three Lampasas Cowboys.
But Martin proudly displays the prototype and said, “I got the original.”