VAQUEROS IN VENTURA

Fall, 2006 may well be remembered as the “Autumn of the Vaquero,” due to the many events and exhibitions celebrating the original California cowboy that have taken place over the last several weeks. The resurgence of interest in the vaquero ethos, traditions and gear has grown beyond the equestrian world, to those involved with early Californio history and even to the general public.

Anyone wanting another dose of vaquero lore over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend should mosey on down to Ventura, where the Ventura County Museum of History and Art is in the last days of its exhibition called “Saddle Up! Vaqueros, Cowboys and Charros,” on view in the museum’s Hoffman Gallery through Sunday, November 26. While the show ostensibly celebrates Ventura County history and artifacts, there are in fact many strong connections to Santa Barbara.

Examples of braided rawhide gear made by former Santa Barbara resident Luis Ortega (1897-1995) are on view, a rare opportunity for those who do not often visit the Midwest. A large percentage of Ortega’s work ended up at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, where a permanent gallery that one can only wish was instead located in Santa Barbara, showcases Ortega’s intricate techniques.

Luis Ortega, a fifth generation Californian, grew up on a Santa Barbara ranch. He was descended from Jose Francisco de Ortega, who served as chief scout on Gaspar de Portolá’s 1769 expedition into California. At 12 years of age, Ortega began to learn braiding traditions from Fernando Librado (1804-1915), a vaquero of Chumash descent who was 104 years old himself when the lessons began. Librado had worked as a vaquero at the California missions in the 1830s, marking a nearly 200-year span of vaquero traditions known first-hand by these two men.

Ortega spent his young adulthood working as a vaquero at various ranches throughout the West. Then in 1932, he showed his rawhide work to famed Santa Barbara artist Edward Borein, who offered Ortega space in his El Paseo studio. Ortega worked side-by-side with Borein for seven years, before eventually making his way to northern California. In 1986, Ortega was named a Master Traditional Artist by the National Endowment for the Arts, formally recognizing his reputation as America’s greatest rawhide braider.

Fans of Ed Borein won’t be disappointed in the Ventura exhibition, which has several fine examples of etchings, drawings and paintings on loan from the private collection of Roger and Chris Haley. Each of the three etchings on view is decorated with a charming remarque (re-mark), or small pencil drawing that Borein would place in the etching’s blank margin. Often times the presence of a remarque meant that Borein (1872-1945) personally knew the buyer, and these tiny drawings of cattle or horses and riders are highly desirable by collectors.

In 1930, Borein wrote, “I will leave only an accurate history of the West, nothing else but that.” His large watercolor painting “California Vaquero” is especially interesting in that the cowboy depicted appears to be black. The substantial role that black cowboys played in the American West is one that in recent years has been freshly recognized, but obviously Borein was not unaware of their importance.

Another Santa Barbara connection can be found in the silver-mounted parade saddle commissioned by Dixie W. Thompson, who made his fortune in the 1870s and 1880s by raising lima beans at his Ventura ranch, and as an hotelier. Thompson Boulevard immortalizes his surname, even though many people no longer realize that he was the source.

Thompson’s ornately carved 1889 parade saddle, made by Loomis Saddlery in Santa Barbara, is now owned by the Santa Barbara Historical Society. The magnificent silver mounts were made by Edwin Field (1820-1902), who was lured to California by the gold rush. Field had trained in New York at Tiffany & Company, but found his California gold by designing jewelry, fixing broken timepieces, and decorating fancy horse tack with silver mounts. Ed Field was the first of four generations of silversmiths still working in Santa Barbara today.

As the title suggests, the exhibition also incorporates sections on cowboys and Mexican charro traditions. Vaquero, from the Spanish word for cow (vaca), was the standard terminology in California until the 20th century. The exhibit points out that it was the rise of commercial rodeo, Hollywood movies and popular fiction that spread the use of the word “cowboy.” While the horsemanship styles that developed east of the Rockies were very different from vaquero styles, the later nomenclature of cowboy became the more readily and widely accepted.

Until now, that is, since we are rediscovering our California history and the true meaning of the vaquero heritage.