It’s a desolate, barren landscape - one of chalky, alkaline soil, mesquite, prickly-pear cactus, wind, and sun - lots of sun. Engulfed on all sides by a semi-arid desert is the dusty little town of Jal, New Mexico, population 2,156. The natives there may raise an eyebrow, laugh, or frown if you mispronounce the name of their town, and they will definitely correct you. It isn’t "Jall", nor "Jail". Some visitors to New Mexico, thinking that all "Js" are pronounced as a Spanish "J", will say "Hall". That’s wrong, too. It rhymes with "gal."
In fact, any young lady indigenous to the area might be referred to as a Jal gal. The name was derived from a cattle brand consisting of the initials of a late nineteenth-century cattleman, John A. Lynch. Area pioneer ranchers, the Cowden brothers, purchased a herd and the rights to the brand in San Angelo, Texas. Although there is speculation as to whether or not Lynch was the J.A.L. behind the brand, it is very likely that he never visited or even knew of Jal.
Nonetheless, John A. Lynch’s town sits in the southeastern corner of Lea County , New Mexico, at the intersection of state highways 18 and 128. Geologically, it’s between two large underground oil and gas reserves, the Delaware Basin and the Permian Basin.
It’s a boom and bust oil town. The boom began in the 1930s, centering around the El Paso Natural Gas Company. Jal once boasted a billboard at the edge of town proclaiming it "The Natural Gas Capital of the World", but those days have long since vanished. The oil and gas industry began to experience economic difficulties and a general decline in the 1980s, and when El Paso Natural Gas moved its main offices from Jal in 1985, Jal went bust.
Today, like most small oil boom towns, it struggles to survive, a mere shadow of its former self. Still, it persists, because of the proud, stubborn and hard-working people who live there and refuse to cry "uncle".
Their Molly Brown attitude of "We ain’t down yet" has been especially evident this past year. In January of 1999, Brian Norwood, an artist who graduated from the local high school in 1975, had a vision. His vision was to create a sculpture which would have a major visual impact, attracting visitors and contributing positively in some way to Jal’s future economic growth.
Brian’s vision came into sharp focus after reading a magazine article about a monumental metal sculpture which had been erected in the small town of Hominy, Oklahoma. The Hominy sculpture, created by that town’s local artist, Cha Tullis, consisted of a Native American hunting party - fifteen braves on horseback placed atop a hill overlooking the town. What made these figures unique was that they were a colossal twenty feet tall and were drawing 200,000 visitors to the little Oklahoma town each year.
Brian’s brain kicked into gear. He envisioned a similar work in southeastern New Mexico, but one that would reflect the spirit and history of his hometown before its oil boom years - its cowboy and ranching heritage. His monument would be a depiction of a cattle drive, four giant cowboys on horseback herding thirteen giant cattle toward the old Jal watering hole.
He presented his idea to the local chamber of commerce, and by the end of the month the Jal Cowboy Sculpture Project was born, with Brian’s idea quickly spreading through the hearts and minds of the proud people of Jal.
As it happens, the community was already making plans for a big Y2K reunion to be held on Labor Day of the year 2000. This was to be the biggest and best reunion ever, and would include all the Jal High School graduating classes from the past sixty-three years. The news of the sculpture project, coupled with the reunion plans, ignited the fires of Jal’s collective imagination. When Brian promised to finish the sculpture in time for the reunion, a flurry of activity began.
The locals began a drive to finance the $14,000 project by using the Internet and the existing Jal Panther Reunion Website. Alumni were contacted, informed of the project, and given the opportunity to show their support by sending in donations to the Jal Chamber of Commerce. In addition, local businesses contributed labor, equipment and materials, without which the projects’s cost would have skyrocketed. "Paint the Town" days (about six, so far) were organized to freshen-up and color-coordinate the buildings along Main Street. Massive clean up efforts were organized and are continuing, with the city donating free trash hauling for citizens wanting to clean up their property.
Brian, in the meantime, began working on the sculpture - designing the figures and working out their placement relative to one another. Next came the enlargement of the figures, hours spent working with rolls of brown paper, masking tape, and an x-acto knife, creating templates of the twenty foot tall cowboys which would later be used to trace the work onto the seven sheets of quarter-inch steel used for the project - each 10 x 40 foot sheet of steel weighing 4,084 pounds. The steel was delivered to the sculpture site on September 9th, 1999, approximately nine months from the initial idea’s conception.
By November 27th, all seventeen figures had been cut from the rectangular metal sheets. During this "cutting" phase of the project, Brian had an unusual visitor at the site. Each day a curious roadrunner, the New Mexico state bird, came to watch the work progress from various vantage points in the area. Pictures of the roadrunner, along with photos showing the progression of the project from start to finish, may be found at the reunion website .
At this point Gene Armstrong, class of 1952, and his son, Gooser Armstrong, class of 1982, began the laborious process of constructing the six-inch pipe frames which would be welded to the backsides of the figures, enabling them to be erected on the desert landscape by means of six-foot pipe extensions, anchored in six-foot holes drilled into the hard, rocky ground.
By March 2nd, 2000, all the figures and their attached pipe frames had been completed. All that remained was moving each figure a half-mile to the actual erection site. Norwood laughs, "Imagine seeing a one-ton winch truck dragging a twelve-foot-high cow (with six feet of pipe extending below its hooves) down a narrow dirt road." A crane was used to hoist the largest figures, the mounted cowboys, into place. Twelve cubic yards of concrete were poured into the thirty-four holes, and on March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day, the Jal Cowboy Sculpture project was completed.
Fourteen months after its conception and more than five months before its dedication, the Jal Cowboy Sculpture is already drawing crowds to this little corner of New Mexico nestled against the vast expanses of west Texas.
The completed artwork stretches an impressive four-hundred feet across the horizon and can be seen from five miles on all sides. It’s the artist’s hope that "people won’t be able to resist it." "If people stop to look at the sculpture and take pictures, they’re more likely to want to stop in town to eat, fill up with gas, etc.", says Norwood..
The southernmost silhouette, the lead cowboy, points toward the old Jal watering hole and the town of Jal. The second cowboy is an actual likeness of Henry Scott, obtained from an old photograph. Mr. Scott was one of the original Jal cowboys who worked on the Cowden Ranch, and his image helps to add a special touch of realism and authenticity to the artwork. The other three cowboys were derived from photographs of two present-day locals, Bert Madera and Silvio Cervantes.
If you should have the opportunity to visit this friendly, outgoing community to see these giants of Jal up close, by all means do so. Perhaps you’ll be lucky enough to view this monumental work some late, cool desert evening, with one of the area’s spectacular sunsets in the background and the other-worldly sound of coyotes barking in the distance. If so, as you’re lost in quiet thought contemplating these gargantuan figures - this testament to how one man’s dream evolved into the community realization of an enthusiastic people - you may discover, as I have, that the real giants of Jal are the f
olks who live there.