Lon Megargee: Arizona’s first cowboy artist was a creative character
Arizona’s first cowboy artist was a creative character.
I first became acquainted with the art of Lon Megargee back around 1950. A beer truck loaded with A-1 Pilsner wrecked just outside my hometown of Ash Fork. Cases of beer were scattered all along Route 66, creating a mass exodus of locals bent on filling their refrigerators with the spoils.
The truck was also carrying a load of Lon Megargee’s colorful posters advertising Arizona’s own A-1 beer. There was the notorious outlaw, Black Bart, sitting in the barber’s rocking chair with his feet propped up on a stool, six gun resting in his lap, while a nervous barber holding a straight edge razor stood over him. These were grabbed up along with the beer and were hung in the homes and businesses around town.
I remember seeing Black Bart hanging in O. B. Farmer’s Barber Shop on main street. During a haircut, Old Man Farmer tried to convince this 11-year old boy that the barber had cut the outlaw’s throat and that Black Bart was actually dead.
“Why isn’t there any blood?” I asked suspiciously.
He tapped me lightly on the side of the head with his scissors and said sternly, “It’s just like in the movies kid, they never show the guy bleeding.”
To this day, when I look at Black Bart, the thought crosses my mind as to whether or not the barber slit the outlaw’s throat for the reward money or, at least, was pondering it. And, I can’t help but wonder how many of those collector’s items are still hanging around Ash Fork. I became a great fan of Lon’s art and many years later hung my two favorites, Serenade and Saturday Night Bath in classrooms where I taught Arizona history.
Little did I know at the time, sitting in O. B. Farmers Barber Shop, that 50 years later I would be playing Lon Megargee in a melodrama to raise funds for the restoration of some of his works.
Alonzo Mergarge (he added the second “e” later) was born in Philadelphia in 1883. Details of his life remain elusive due to the fact that for various reasons he tended to re-invent himself from time to time, and he never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
In Philadelphia, the youth devoured the popular shoot-em-up pulp westerns and when he attended Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, became hooked on cowboy life. Soon after, he hopped a train for Phoenix, arriving in 1896. Once here, he worked at various jobs including milking cows and mending fences. Other jobs included fireman, policeman, and stud poker dealer. But Lon wanted to be a cowboy, and he realized his dream when he took a job punching cows and bustin’ broncs at a ranch near Wickenburg. He also got in the show business side of the trade as an exhibition roper with Arizona Charlie’s Wild West Show. He learned first hand what it was to be a real cowboy. During the next few years he worked on a number of Arizona cow ranches and “won his spurs” as a cowhand.
His first taste of fame came when Governor George W. P. Hunt commissioned him to decorate the state capitol building shortly after statehood in 1912. He and the governor became friends but at times, Lon’s escapades put that friendship to the test.
Like the colorful, carefree, devil-may-care cowboys he painted, Lon liked to have a good time. He was careless and footloose with his money. Throughout much of his career Lon was broke and in debt, scheming ways to fund his artistic projects. Arizona writer Oren Arnold wrote, “Lon Megargee has had a good time in life, no matter where he happened to be.”
Lon was typical of the cowboy or western artists and illustrators of his time. His colorful landscapes, Native Americans and cowboys depicted more of the romantic myth of the West much the same as Hollywood’s “Oaters” and pulp western magazines. An incurable romantic himself, he painted the West the way he saw it and the way he liked it. Over the years he spent time in other places, including New Mexico, California, and New York, but always considered Arizona his home. Once, he even listed his birthplace as Tombstone.
Although he had some training in New York as an artist, Lon was mostly self taught. He had a lot of natural talent and during his career, was good enough to work as an illustrator for newspapers. He also headed the art department at Lasky-Paramont Studios in Hollywood.
Lon was ruggedly handsome and women found him irresistible. He had an artist’s eye for feminine beauty and loved painting them. They extended him favors and he acquiesced, if only for a short time. His affairs were numerous and short-lived. Like many of his genre, Lon was a rogue and a bold deceiver, marrying at least seven times and leaving a string of broken-hearted women and angry husbands in the wake. His free-spirited lifestyle left at least six wives in its wake.
I found Lon to be a complex and very interesting character. He wasn’t gregarious, but friendly to those he liked. He enjoyed gags, jokes, and sharing a bottle with friends. He was always fun to be around and there was never a dull moment. Like many artists, his disheveled personal life was Bohemian, yet he was a rugged, self-made cowboy from his boot heels to the top of his hat. Unlike many of his genre, Lon didn’t just paint western life, he lived it.
Every great artist desires to leave something behind that will grant him and his works immortality. Megargee’s is The Last Drop From His Stetson. This American icon is forever identified with Stetson hats and the image still graces the inside liners.
His sense of humor as illustrated in Serenade, Cowboy Saturday Night and the A-1 Pilsner posters is reminiscent of some of the works of the legendary Charles M. Russell. I’m sure the two great cowboy artists would have had much in common and would have enjoyed each other’s company.
He lived in Cave Creek, then Sedona where he died.
Lon Megargee was Arizona’s first cowboy artist. He was a free spirit and certainly had his faults, but we are very forgiving and understanding when it comes to creative souls who inspire us with their talent. He deserves to be placed up there alongside the great western artists.
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