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For more than half a century, a 5-foot-tall pile of rocks sat atop a hill in Ballinger City Park, just a scant and mysterious hint of its significance. Residents of this West Texas hamlet called the mound Indian Hill because in the late 1930s, city officials placed a statue named Friend on a limestone base after the park’s dedication. The 7-foot-tall statue, proudly looking over the town with his right arm extended high, became a popular backdrop for wedding photos, family celebrations and children’s games. It’s said people told secrets to the regal Indian, knowing he would never violate their trust.
But sometime in the late 1950s—no one can say when for sure—the statue was yanked down, and all that remained was a pair of tin alloy feet and moccasins on a weathered limestone base. Local lore says high school kids, possibly students from nearby Winters, lassoed Friend and drowned him in Elm Creek, a stone’s throw away. The statue was never found, and nobody fessed up.
Over time, the disappearance became local legend, and Friend became yet another vestige of bygone days when farming and ranching towns like Ballinger (population 3,800) were more populous and prosperous. The mound, partly covered with concrete, was continually defaced with graffiti.
In the fall of 2008, Cinnamon Carter, one of Ballinger’s schoolteachers, became intrigued by the tales of Friend. She sparked an interest among her middle school students and challenged them to research the history of Native Americans in Ballinger and discover their memorabilia. One student, Christin Garcia, brought in her grandmother’s old black-and-white photograph of the statue.
The photograph inspired students to begin work on what started as a little book about Friend. They discovered that Ballinger’s statue originally came from Ardmore, Oklahoma, the home of a defunct oil company that cast a number of the statues as a marketing ploy. In 1939, Ballinger city official Elmer Shepperd purchased one on a trip to Oklahoma and brought it back to Ballinger, where it was placed on its prominent perch—until it was stolen. Ballinger is in Runnels County, most of which is served by Coleman County Electric Cooperative.
Persistence by Carter and her students began to pay off, and as word of their research spread, clues about identical statues began to trickle in. The students tracked down four of the remaining Indians, but the owners, including an Oklahoma museum, declined to part with them. Eventually, they located one in a junk pile in Duncan, Oklahoma. It was buried up to its knees in concrete and was missing its left eye, possibly from being used as a shooting target.
The owner donated the statue to the students, whose focus shifted to restoring it so Ballinger could again have its Friend. The statue was placed in Higginbotham Brothers, the town hardware store, to galvanize public support for the restoration project. For help, the students contacted San Angelo sculptor and Western artist Hugh Campbell, who grew up in Ballinger.
Campbell, 72, remembers the statue well. As a schoolboy in the 1950s, he and his friends hung out with Friend. “Sometimes at noon we’d run down there for the fun of it, eat under the Indian,” he said. Campbell inspected the old statue and, noting its deteriorated condition and out-of-proportion dimensions, recomended that a new one be made of finer material. The students decided to commission a bronze statue more than 9 feet tall, but first they would have to raise $48,000.
In December 2008, Carter received a letter from Nell Shepperd Hambrick, the daughter of the man who originally brought Friend to Ballinger. Hambrick, a former Ballinger middle school teacher now living in Waco, wrote about how much the statue meant to her father.
Plans for a new statue picked up steam as townspeople joined the cause. To advise the students, a three-member citizens group was appointed, including Tammi Virden, the Ballinger Chamber of Commerce executive vice president whose son is a member of the class. Virden and Mayor Sam Mallory, whose daughter is also in the class, were among many city leaders who rallied behind the project.
To raise money, students held bake sales, sold hot dogs, went door to door, sold pumpkins, ran concession stands, applied for grants, held movie nights in the park and organized the city’s largest-ever garage sale. The cause continued even as students progressed through sixth, seventh and eighth grades.
In the fall of 2010, Campbell began sculpting the statue in a space made available by a local manufacturer. Students made field trips to view the clay form taking shape and provided designs for his moccasins, headband and loincloth. The piece was transported to a foundry in Lubbock, which agreed to forge the 1,000-pound statue in phases as money trickled in.
On the last day of school in 2011, Carter received a call from the Dian Graves Owen Foundation in Abilene. It donated $3,500, enough to reach the fundraising goal and pay for the remaining foundry work. In April 2012, Hambrick, 95, helped unveil Ballinger’s new Friend.
Students say the statue is their legacy. A plaque listing the names of the class members is attached to its base. “It gives us all a lot of pride,” said Alyssa Flanagan, 15. “It brings the community together.”
Charles Boisseau is an Austin writer and frequent contributor.