Before reaching its resting place on the grounds of Cheyenne Frontier Days, D. Michael Thomas’ larger-than-life statue of famed cowboy and country singer Chris LeDoux made the trek through Johnson County on a flatbed advertising its oversized load.
A day and a half of travel and a lot of honking and brake slamming from curious highway drivers later, the Buffalo resident and sculptor recalled, LeDoux was lifted by a crane and installed at the Frontier Days fairgrounds, where his likeness sits under a blue tarp awaiting its debut.
Casted in Cody at the Caleco Foundry out of 2,000 pounds of bronze, the statue titled “Just LeDoux It” is life-and-a-half sized, measuring 13 feet tall. The statue depicts LeDoux atop a bucking horse with a guitar nearby, seemingly ready to be strummed at any time.
Minor changes distinguish “Just LeDoux It” and Thomas’ first LeDoux creation, “Good Ride Cowboy,” that resides in Kaycee. In the two statues that sit roughly 250 miles apart, the location of the guitar and LeDoux’s competitor number differs. In his hometown, LeDoux’s number is the same as when he won the world rodeo championship in 1976. In Cheyenne, he will sport the Cheyenne Frontier Days logo and the number 125, a nod to the fair’s 125th anniversary.
“It’s a heartfelt thing, having your artwork in front of so many people,” Thomas said. “And since Chris was a friend of mine, I’m honored too, being the artist honoring him.”
Jimmy Dean Siler, general chairman of Frontier Days, said the board decided to honor LeDoux, because he embodies everything the event — known as the “Daddy of ’em All” — is about: rodeos, music and a good time.
“If you want to pick the one person that’s kind of the hometown hero that covers everything, … he is a world champion cowboy in bareback riding, and he was at the top of all the music industry,” Siler said. “So he covered everything that is basically about Cheyenne Frontier Days.”
And when you are going to create a likeness of LeDoux, Siler said, you go with Thomas.
A year after LeDoux died in 2005 at age 56 of a rare form of cancer, Thomas, who was friends with LeDoux through interactions at Thomas’ feed store, approached his family. Thomas said he told them he knew a lot of sculptors would want to sculpt LeDoux after his death, and he wanted to be the one to do it.
“I showed them kind of what I had in mind,” Thomas said. “They loved it. And I was right, there was a lot of artists that wanted to do it, and (the family) said, ‘Nope, Mike’s going to be the one.’”
For the monument in Kaycee, Thomas modeled Chris’ signature wardrobe — his rodeo tack, his rig and his chaps, spurs, his guild guitar — after the actual pieces that were loaned to him by the LeDoux family.
Capturing LeDoux’s demeanor and spirit was less difficult as someone who knew him. Thomas said LeDoux shopped at the feed store for ranch supplies, where the two exchanged stories of artwork and travels.
“He was running in one circle and I was running in the other, but when we’d meet in the middle, we had a lot of stuff to say to each other,” Thomas said.
LeDoux’s star rose when Garth Brooks mentioned him in his song “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old,” with the line “a worn-out tape of Chris LeDoux” in 1989.
Chris’ son, country singer Ned LeDoux, will open for Brooks at Cheyenne Frontier Days.
LeDoux said his family will attend the bronze dedication ceremony.
“I’m sure he’s up there with a big old grin, pretty proud,” LeDoux said.
LeDoux said he has known Thomas for most of his life, so he is happy that he sculpted his dad. Chris used to call Thomas “the Charlie Russell of our day,” LeDoux said, in reference to the famous American western artist.
“It’s been really gratifying for me to get to know the LeDoux family,” Thomas said.
The statue in Kaycee was unveiled in 2010, after five years of work. From conception to dedication, the bronze for Frontier Days took two and a half years, Thomas said.
To do the sculpting, Thomas rented part of the wool mill because he needed higher ceilings to accommodate the sculpture. The statue is roughly 13 feet tall, he said, but on a pedestal it measures 17-18 feet tall.
Caleco Foundry in Cody produced the mold into bronze, did the finishing, welded it together and added the patina, which protects the metal from the elements, said Bob Goton, general manager at the studio.
“Just LeDoux It” is a bit larger than most of the art the foundry works with, Goton said. On average, most statues weigh in at around 1,300 pounds of bronze and stand at life-and-a-quarter size. The Caleco Foundry’s portion of the project took around a year, Goton said.
Goton has worked at the studio for 19 years and has worked with Thomas just as long. For him and the foundry, it’s rewarding to be part of the state’s most anticipated annual event.
“Everything was done for Wyoming,” he said. “The person it was sculpted after, the sculptor, and it was cast here in Wyoming.”
Back in 1993, when Thomas started sculpting professionally, he could not have imagined his work on such a big stage. His first work that year was for the 100th anniversary of First Northern Bank of Wyoming on Main Street in Buffalo.
At the time, he had to decide whether to pursue his dream of sculpting full time or live comfortably on the steady paycheck from his feed store, which is now MTR Ranch Supply.
With an animal science and veterinary science degree from the University of Wyoming and no art classes to speak of, he took the leap from hobbyist to world-renowned sculptor.
“(It took) a lot of luck,” Thomas said. “It took, on my part, quite a lot of study, but it was a school of hard knocks. I had not a clue what the foundry experience was, where they do the mold, making the castings, the finishing, the patinas.”
The First Northern Bank statue took an entire year of 12-hour days and weekends to finish. Today, his resume boasts multiple awards and accolades, with “featured artist” at Cheyenne Frontier Days now at the top of his list.
“Being successful at it was a lot of hard work, a lot of windshield time and going to art shows all over the western United States and just getting your foot in the door,” Thomas said. “Now, after so many years, it seems like those dividends have paid off.”
Cheyenne Frontier Days runs July 23 through Aug. 1, and Thomas’ sculpture is set to be dedicated on July 23. Smaller versions of the statue are available for purchase through Frontier Days.
The monument, once unveiled, will be visible from both sides of Interstate 25, according to event organizers.