Plains Folk

Cowboy Joe Breckenridge


Sometime when you’re passing through New Rockford, turn off downtown and pay a visit to Hanson’s Bar. It was built in 1913 by a druggist; the present bar was his soda fountain. A fellow named Irvin Anderson bought the building and converted it into a tavern in 1935. Its present owner and operator is Robert Lies, who has a loyal local following and enjoys lying to strangers.

Which is typical behavior for old tavern keepers, but look around the interior, and you’ll notice that the d├ęcor is not at all typical. The walls are filled with lush murals depicting western scenes. Lies produces a ladder and climbs up to locate the signature of the artist: Joe Breckenridge 1947.

What can you tell me about this fellow Breckenridge, I ask? Lies says Cowboy Joe, as he came to be known, was a broken-down cowboy and a friend of his father-in-law, Irvin Hanson, former owner of the bar. Joe was a “small fellow” who painted big. Most of his paint he applied with a 4″ brush. It took him about a half-hour to finish a mural. He was known across the country, even painting movie sets in Hollywood.

I’ve posted some photos of the Hanson’s Bar murals to the Internet here. They are somewhat generic western scenes – blue lakes fringed by green pines, cowboys and campfires, horses and corrals, that sort of thing. There is a lighthearted humor in them. The only local identification in them is the legend, “Hanson’s Bar,” painted above a log building that never existed in life.

Who was this traveling barroom artist, Cowboy Joe Breckenridge? A newspaper clipping from Coeur d’Alene refers to him as Cowboy Joe, “the fastest painter in the world,” a former rodeo cowboy from Montana who took up painting and could do a painting in three minutes.

There must be paintings by Cowboy Joe strewn across the country. There is a bar near Coeur d’Alene called the Snake Pit that displays, along with the obligatory deer heads, its own collection of Breckenridge paintings. Occasional pieces of his work show up in online sales outlets.

Most of his work is to be found in Washington and Idaho; he lived out his later years in Kootenai County, Idaho. A writer from Spokane says during the late 1960s he was a sort of “artist in residence” at Wild Bill’s Frontier Saloon of Post Falls, Idaho. The same writer notes Joe was a Marine Corps veteran and had a considerable thirst (not that those two things go together). Joe boasted of appearing on the television show, You Asked for It, where he finished a painting in 42 seconds. He died in Coeur d’Alene in 1972.

I’ve been in touch with a grand-nephew of Cowboy Joe, Mark Breckenridge, and a grand-niece, Rachel Garrett. They have kindly provided me with information about the family history and sent photos of a young Joe looking dashing, dressed in full cowboy regalia. My thanks go out to Mark and Rachel, and now I ask: Has anyone seen any other bar paintings by this western master? If so, I’d be grateful if you could point me to them. Look me up at Prairie Public, or find me at the Plains Folk page in Facebook.

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