On the Ashes of My Campfire, This City is Built.”
That inscription has graced a 2,000-pound, nearly eight-foot-tall cement statue of a cowboy for 86 years on Boot Hill in Dodge City, Kansas.
Some old-timers knew the man covered in cement to make the mold for this statue—cowboy Joe Sughrue, who later became the town’s chief of police.
Unfortunately, what most see these days is a statue in terrible shape. It looks like pieces of Sughrue’s face are falling off and the brick base is crumbling. It looks like the iconic statue that stands as a beacon to this legendary Western town no longer matters to Dodge City.
Nothing could be further from the truth. A posse of folks has been raising money to restore the Cowboy Statue. “This statue is very important to our heritage, to our sense of place and our culture,” says Melissa McCoy, project development coordinator for Dodge City.
The Cowboy Statue was crafted in 1927 by Dodge City’s “cowboy dentist,” Oscar H. Simpson, who was related to two cattle trailblazers, John Simpson Chisum and (distantly) Jesse Chisholm. Simpson chose Sughrue as his model because he looked like the “epitome of a cowboy,” McCoy says. Sughrue almost suffocated as he was covered in cement, with rubber hoses in his nose to let him breathe. The hoses collapsed, but thankfully, the lapse was discovered in time.
The statue was unveiled on November 4, 1929, when Dodge City dedicated its new City Hall during its “Last Round-Up” pioneer celebration. By the 1980s, two decades after the city outgrew that City Hall and moved, the Cowboy Statue began deteriorating. The city covered the statue with a slurry to protect the underlying material, McCoy says. But by 2012, when restoration fundraising began, that slurry was breaking off, giving the impression the statue was crumbling. She says it isn’t, but it does need repair, and the town has found a concrete specialist who can do the job.
Other icons nearby also need saving—the Corinthian walkway lampposts, the marker for Ham Bell, the city’s pioneer mayor, and Simpson’s Oxen-Head Trail Monument. The city needs about $39,000 to restore them all—$21,240 for the Cowboy Statue alone.
Last fall, the city reached the statue’s fundraising goal after a shindig chili dinner featuring cocktails from the Boot Hill Distillery that bought the old City Hall. Opening this summer, in time for Dodge City Days, the distillery will make its vodka, bourbon and whiskey using grains grown in southwest Kansas.
McCoy says grants, private donations and city tourism funds have all helped. Winter weather will dictate how soon the statue can be restored. By this summer, though, the oldest cowboy in Dodge City should be back to his original glory.
Arizona’s Journalist of the Year, Jana Bommersbach has won an Emmy and two Lifetime Achievement Awards. She also cowrote and appeared on the Emmy-winning Outrageous Arizona and has written two true crime books, a children’s book and the historical novel Cattle Kate.