New life for Earl Bunyan
New Town’s cowboy statue being restored
NEW TOWN – Sixty-three years ago, the late Fred LaRocque built a statue of a cowboy on the east side of New Town. LaRocque built the approximately 19-foot-high statue to honor the “Old Time Cowboys of the Open Range.”
The statue of Earl Bunyan, “Cowboy of the Plains,” was dreamed up by Fred and his wife, Berd. Fred had made up a story that Earl Bunyan was the brother of his more famous brother, Minnesota’s lumberjack Paul Bunyan, to go along with the statue. LaRocque narrated the story for a comic book in 1961.
The tall cowboy statue became a landmark for the community. LaRocque family members and 50 Years in the Saddle Club members made repairs needed to the statue over the years but now the statue had not been maintained for many years.
The project to restore the statue is being financed by a $10,000 Mountrail County Jobs Development Authority Horizon grant with the New Town Chamber of Commerce providing matching funds.
Bogdan Chivaran, a contractor from Plaza, was hired to restore the giant cowboy. Originally from Romania, Chivaran worked with his family’s business in California restoring statues. He began work on the statue about two weeks ago. The work is scheduled to be completed this fall.
The base area of the statue is an official cemetery. Fred and Berd LaRocque’s ashes are there. Fred died in October 1961 and Berd died in January 1965. Their son, Jene LaRocque, of Ronan, Mont., got his wish when he died in September 2003, to also have his ashes placed there. His wife, Velma, died in July 2011, and her ashes are there. Ashes of Jene and Velma’s granddaughter, Tammy Appelt, daughter of Renee and Ernest Appelt, who died in June 2021, will also be placed there. Multiple wagon wheels serve as monuments at the site.
Renee Appelt, who lives in Polson, Mont., and Sun City, Ariz., visited New Town in late August and early September, when she met with New Town Chamber of Commerce and City of New Town representatives, and the contractor about the renovation of the statue.
Appelt and her three sisters own the statue and its land.
The statue of Earl Bunyan and its origination goes back several decades.
The late Jene LaRocque recollected how Earl Bunyan came about:
“At New Town, Fred got the idea of building Earl Bunyan. At the time, the oil boom was going strong across the river and a lot of roughnecks would spend a lot of time at the bar. The welders and other men helped put Earl together. Earl’s arms and legs were built from discarded drill stems. Wagon tires were used for his chest and hips. And other metals were used for his framework. Chicken wire encased the whole thing, then a good coat of cement (stucco) over that.”
He also explained how Earl Bunyan’s measurements were determined when the statue was built: “Earl is three times the size of a 6-foot, 6-inch man. The man that was used as a model for Earl was Earl Forman.”
Appelt said the story in the comic book about Earl Bunyan’s brother, Paul Bunyan and his Babe the Blue Ox. “Earl Bunyan had a fight and that’s how all the lakes of Minnesota were formed from their footprints,” she said the story tells.
A copy of Jene LaRocque’s “The History of Fred LaRocque” is located at the site of the Earl Bunyan statue. Chivaran has offered to redo the current display of the history – the history on paper and under glass.
Earl Bunyan holds a branding iron in his hand but originally the cowboy statue held a fishing pole and a couple fish “because he supported the fishing in the lake going down the road beside it,” Appelt said. “When we repaired it one time he had a lariat rope.” In his other hand the cowboy holds a walking stick.
Appelt said she and her husband were married in 1972, and his family brand is Bar E B “And that’s the brand of Earl Bunyan. Tell me the likelihood of that happening?” she said.
A large circular plaque made of concrete stands by the statue and reads: “Dreamed up by Fred and Berd LaRocque, Earl Bunyon, ‘Cowboy of the Plains,’ Built in 1958.” Bunyan was spelled incorrectly on the plaque.
Ranching and being a cowboy was part of Fred LaRocque’s life. He worked on ranches, then owned ranches in Montana and North Dakota. He then owned a bar in Sanish with his son, Jene, and Charles Stewart, Jene’s father-in-law. Fred operated the bar until the Garrison Dam flooded the town land. The partnership dissolved in 1954 and Fred built the S & L Bar which included a restaurant, gas station with bait shop and museum just east of New Town. He also built a small house nearby for he and his wife, Berd.
The theme of the museum centered around the life and times of cowboys.
Appelt said her grandfather was also known for his veterinarian services on livestock and sheep, and kept several beehives for the honey. She said her grandmother did a lot of work promoting the library in town.
Appelt said the buildings that once housed her grandparents’ businesses and their house have been torn down.
While living at Sanish, Fred LaRocque was one of the founders of the Sanish Rodeo and was one of its first board of directors.
He and the late Angus Kennedy founded North Dakota’s 50 Years in the Saddle group. LaRocque was its first president and Kennedy was the first vice president.
The first meeting of the organization was held in Fred and Berd LaRocque’s house near the Earl Bunyan statue, according to the late Manfred Signalness of Keene, a longtime member of the 50 Years in the Saddle organization. The organization continues to meet.
In the 1990s the cowboy statue was included in the Inventory of American Sculptures database in Washington, D.C., a project of the National Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian Institution and the National Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Property. It is among a number of outdoor sculptures in North Dakota listed in the inventory.
She said she had made queries if anyone could take on the project of caring for the statue. Then on June 8, 2021, the same day her daughter died, she said she received an email from the New Town Chamber of Commerce telling her they agreed to do the project and the funds would be donated to fix the statue.
“I couldn’t believe it. It was just like a miracle,” Appelt said.
Bill Wilber is the Chamber’s representative for the project.
Earl Bunyan’s current facelift once again will give the tall cowboy a new life on the prairie.
Appelt is planning to make a trip to New Town to see the newly restored Earl Bunyan.