Rediscovering Will James’ Nevada connections
November 30, 2017
A few months ago, I was wandering through a used bookstore and picked up a 1985 publication entitled "Will James: The Spirit of the Cowboy." Produced by the Nicolaysen Art Museum of Casper, Wyoming, the 86-page book was part of a traveling exhibition of the works of famed western artist Will James.
The book offered quality images of James' paintings and drawings as well as an excellent history of the artist, who has a fascinating backstory, by historian William Gardner Bell.
James, who has close ties to the Silver State, was actually born in 1892 in a small village named Saint Nazaire d'Acton in south Quebec Province. His real name was Ernest Dufault and he was the son of French-Canadian parents, who first owned a small general store and later a boarding house.
Apparently, he left home at the age of 15, heading out to western Canada to learn English and become a cowboy. He soon realized the only way to become a real cowboy was to relocate to the American West.
Bell writes that it's not entirely clear when Dufault began to realize he needed a more western-sounding name but as he moved south into the United States, working at cattle outfits along the way, he tried a number of new names including C.W. Jackson, W.R. James, William Roderick James and Bill James, before finally settling on his new alias.
James arrived in Eastern Nevada in 1914 but it was a less than positive experience. He and a friend, Lew Hackberry, decided to rustle a few cows and were quickly caught. James pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a term of 12 to 18 months in prison.
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First jailed in Ely and then moved to the Nevada State Penitentiary in Carson City, James, with plenty of free time, began drawing. A natural talent, his work gained recognition in the Ely Record newspaper.
After his release in April 1916, James drifted in and out of a number of jobs, including cowboying in a line camp south of Carson City and working as a horse wrangler in Hollywood westerns. From 1918-1919, he served in the U.S. Army before returning to Nevada.
In July 1919, he provided the cover sketch for the first annual Nevada Round-up, a precursor to the Reno Rodeo. In 1920, after attending art school in California, James married Alice Conradt of Reno (he had become a close friend of her family, particularly her brother) and by 1925 had begun to experience success as a commercial artist and writer with work appearing in Sunset Magazine and Scribner's.
That year, he and Alice purchased five acres near Franktown in Washoe Valley, where they built a four-room cabin, a barn, and corrals. It was living there that James wrote and illustrated what became his best-known book, Smoky the Cowhorse.
The novel earned a Newberry Award for the year's best literature for children and went through numerous printings during its first year. It would eventually be made into a movie three times (1934, 1945 and 1966).
Bell noted, however, that with success, James began spending money as quickly as he earned it. He purchased property in Montana, leaving behind Nevada for good, and built up a large ranch that soon became a drag on his finances.
The pressure to operate a money-sucking ranch while continually produce magazine articles, books, paintings, and sketches wore on James, who began to drink heavily. His alcoholism eventually took a toll on his work and his relationships (Alice divorced him in 1936).
Bell recounts the sad disintegration of James' personal and professional lives. In August 1942, James, now living in Hollywood and in poor health, died of chronic nephrities and cirrhosis of the liver brought on by his alcoholism. He was 50 years old.
Today, James' Washoe Valley cabin, located on private property, still stands. Additionally, the Northern Nevada Museum in Elko is home to a large exhibit of Will James artwork and books and the University of Nevada, Reno's special collections section holds a large collection of James photographs as well as extensive materials from his early years in Nevada.
Other good sources of information on Will James include: William Gardner Bell's "Will James: Life and Works of a Lone Cowboy," Jim Bramblett's "Ride for the High Points: The Real Story of Will James," and Anthony Amaral's "The Last Cowboy Legend." Additionally, Gwen Clancy's 1990 documentary, "The Man They Call Will James," is worth hunting down.