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National Cowboy \& Western Heritage Museum
James Earle Fraser with a clay maquette of "End of the Trail," circa 1910.

It drove James Earle Fraser crazy. But Gene Autry kept doing it.

As the finish to his rodeo act, Autry and his horse, Champion, would strike a pose, shoulders hunched, heads bowed, as the cowboy crowed to the crowd that they were portraying Fraser's famous painting, "End of the Trail."

You'd think Fraser might have loved the publicity. Guess again. "End of the Trail" wasn't a painting, it was a sculpture.

Autry could never seem to get it right. Fraser could never understand why.

James Earle Fraser (1876-1953) is not a name many Americans will recognize. Yet it was Fraser who created some of our most recognized art. The most recognized of the recognized? His "End of the Trail."

If you've visited the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, you've no doubt seen it. A 25-foot rendition is on permanent display. But even if you haven't made the trek yet, you've probably seen a snapshot of the piece. Almost everybody has.

With its haunting depiction of an exhausted Indian atop his pony, the sculpture captures every horror, every injustice, every betrayal in the forced Westward resettlement of the country's Native Americans post-1830.

It wasn't by accident.

Many of Fraser's childhood friends had been Indian. He'd grown up in the small town of Mitchell, in what was then the Dakota Territory.

His father, a mechanical engineer with the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul railroad, was responsible for charting a route through the region. Through the region and, as fate would have it, right into art history.

It was in Mitchell, after all, that young Fraser met The Man on the Porch.

The Man was carving a piece of chalkstone. The soft mineral was quarried nearby.

"It was a square," Fraser later told The New York Times, "and he'd made four corner posts and a ball inside that could move."

"I went out to the quarry and I began carving every darn thing!"

Apparently, it took.

Fraser was just 17, a student at Chicago's Art Institute, when he designed "End of the Trail."

In 1915, he entered a 25-foot plaster version in the prestigious Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco and took home the gold medal.

Hopefully, they gave him some Prozac to go along with it.

No sooner had the exposition ended than the award-winning creation was carted off to a junkyard, albeit an art junkyard, a holding pen for work with no place else to go. And there it sat. For four years.

Fortunately, in 1919, the California city of Visalia rescued it for the not-so-princely sum of $190. It stood in the town's Mooney Grove Park for 50 years.

But 50 years exposed to the elements took their toll.

So in 1969, the Cowboy Hall of Fame took ownership of the plaster piece and its costly restoration needs.

In return, Visalia received a same-size bronze replica.

Because of its style and subject matter, the public long credited the sculpture to Frederic Remington.

No matter. Though they might have had the pedigree wrong, they knew what they liked. And they liked "End of the Trail." Big time.

Photos were sold by the hundreds of thousands. Its likeness was on everything from calendars to post cards to ashtrays, back when most homes had ashtrays.

About the only place it failed to make an impression was Fraser's bank account. He never had the sculpture copyrighted, so he never made a penny on it.

You can't say his dad didn't warn him. "He wanted me to be an electrical engineer," Fraser said. "He was afraid I'd starve."

We should all starve so well.

Fraser would become one of the country's most sought-after sculptors.

His works adorn the National Archives. Ditto, the Supreme Court. His bust of Teddy Roosevelt made it to the U.S. Senate Chamber. Philly has his statue of Ben Franklin. Rochester, Minn., his Mayo Brothers.

The Lewis and Clark monument in Missouri's state capitol building? That's his, too.

So moved was the wife of Gen. George S. Patton by the statue of her husband that she deposited his four silver stars into the bronze as it was being cast.

Yet, at one time or another, you probably had a Fraser of your very own. In fact, you probably had a lot of them. We all did.

That's because, in 1911, the government commissioned Fraser to design a new nickel. He agreed, and set about designing a richer-looking coin, "bigger and thicker" than the old one.

The result was the so-called Indianhead nickel, with a Native American relief on the front and a buffalo on the flip side. Over a billion were minted before the Jefferson nickel took over in 1939.

As for the "bigger and thicker" part, that wasn't entirely accurate. "Too big and too thick" was more like it. Turns out the chubby design wouldn't fit through the anti-slug defenses of the country's vending machines. Which meant every machine had to be modified to accept it.

In a nutshell, that's James Earl Fraser. The man behind some of the country's most highly regarded art. The creator of a nickel now turned collectible.

And if you ever find yourself on "Jeopardy!," and you're asked about "End of the Trail," don't make the same mistake Gene Autry did. Remember, it's a sculpture, not a painting.

And it's most certainly not a Remington.

E-mail: dmaurizi@msn.com