H. O. "Cowboy" Kelly Collection

Identity elements

Reference code


Name and location of repository

Level of description



H. O. "Cowboy" Kelly Collection


  • 1948-1979; undated (Creation)


2 boxes (7.5 linear inches)

Name of creator


Biographical history

Born March 6, 1884 in Bucyrus, Ohio, but lured out West as a youth, Harold Osman Kelly (1884-1955) traveled a long, hard road before turning his hand to painting as a means of support. Kelly's father was a Lancaster County, Pennsylvaniarailroader and his mother an Ohio born German. In Kelly's own words he loved animals and felt a desire to work with them from his earliest years, leaving school at 16 to work in stables around his home. H.O. Kelly's great American dream, however, was to own Western land and raise fine stock, particularly horses. For nearly 40 years of his life he worked in thirty states as a muleskinner, farmer, logger, bull-whacker, mill hand, sheepherder, freighter, and rancher. With the help of family, H.O. and his wife Jessie, whom he met and married in Arkansas, finally bought a farm in the Texas Panhandle in 1921. By 1939, however, the Dust Bowl swirled H.O. Kelly's dream into a bank foreclosure. Health broken after years of hard outdoor work, Kelly and his wife settled in Blanket, Texas, where he turned more and more to his painting, first with watercolors, then in oils by 1947, not only to occupy his mind and time, but to provide a modest supplementary means of support for himself and Jessie. His first one-man show was held at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts in 1950 at the invitation of Jerry Bywaters, the museum director and Kelly's early champion. Kelly died in Blanket, Texas December 12, 1955.

Content and structure elements

Scope and content

This collection contains 171 watercolor illustrated letters by H.O. Kelly, written to his close friend and biographer, William "Bill" Weber Johnson, his wife Elizabeth Ann (McMurray) Johnson, Mary Longwell (Lady), and their family between 1948 and 1955. These letters formed the basis for William Weber Johnson's research for Kelly Blue, a biography of Kelly, first published by Doubleday in 1960, with a foreword by Western writer Tom Lea.

A smaller group of fifteen letters by H.O. Kelly, and two in pencil by his wife Jessie (Bowers) Kelly, are addressed to another art collector and friend, Dallas lawyer, Rudolph Johnson. Seventeen additional letters by Rudolph Johnson, typewritten on yellow paper between 1955 and 1958 are included, addressed to Kelly, or, after the artist's death, to his wife, Jess.

Of interest too is a letter to Kelly by Otto Kallir of the Galerie St. Etienne in New York City, requesting some of Kelly's works to be displayed in an exhibition of American primitive artists to be mounted at the Galerie early in 1952. Included is Kelly's letter to Mrs. Daniel Longwell (Lady) asking permission to refer Kallir to her to view the painting she had just purchased from Elizabeth Ann McMurray. Also of note is a letter written by John L. Paxton of Fort Worth, Texas, in reply to Rudolph Johnson soon after Kelly's death in December 1955. Attached to Paxton's reply is a list of all the known owners of Kelly's artwork at that time, whom Paxton has written to in the interest of collecting funds to aid in supporting the then-destitute Jess Kelly.

In Series 2 copies of correspondence between Elizabeth Johnson, J. Wayne Stark, Irene Hoadley, and others relates to the bulk of the letters in this collection, an art exhibit at the Texas A&M University Memorial Student Center, a color slide of the painting "Penning Goats". and plans by Texas A&M University Press to publish an illustrated edition of Kelly Blue.

The tiny colored drawings found on Kelly's letters and cards to friends and family are a foreshadowing of the lovingly detailed scenes in his oil paintings. As a significant primitive artist, Kelly's paintings present a world of rolling, green pastures, tranquil blue skies, and solid farms and farming towns, also populated by a thick dusting of livestock, including wily goats, unpredictable donkeys, fine mules, and lively horses. The robust folk is reminiscent of Kelly's mother's German ancestors in Ohio, similar to those living in Fredericksburg, Texas, a town Kelly often visited for inspiration. As these letters so vividly attest, when Kelly sold a painting, it was the buyer's initiation into a warm friendship with the raconteur artist, not a mere business transaction.

System of arrangement

This collection is organized into three series and arranged chronologically within each series.
Series 1, Correspondence. 1948-1958; undated
Series 2, Texas A&M University Correspondence. 1977-1979
Series 3, Photocopies. 1952-1958; 1077-1979; undated

Conditions of access and use elements

Conditions governing access

This collection is open for research use.

Physical access

These materials are stored offsite and require additional time for retrieval.

Technical access

Conditions governing reproduction

Copyright is retained by the authors of items in these papers, or their descendants, as stipulated by United States copyright law. It is the responsibility of the researcher to secure those rights when needed. Permission to reproduce does not constitute permission to publish. The researcher assumes full responsibility for conforming to the laws of copyright, literary property rights, and libel.

Languages of the material

  • English

Scripts of the material

Language and script notes

Finding aids

Acquisition and appraisal elements

Custodial history

The 171 H.O. Kelly letters were gifted to the Texas A&M University Memorial Student Center (MSC) from Mr. and Mrs. William Weber Johnson circa 1977. Letters were then transferred to Texas A&M Libraries by the MSC Director, J. Wayne Stark on March 6, 1979.

The additional letters addressed to and from Rudolph Johnson were gifted to the Texas A&M University Office of Art Collections & Exhibitions in the late 1980s before being transferred by Catherine A. Hastedt, Registrar/Curator to the Cushing Memorial Libary & Archives in February 1990.

Immediate source of acquisition

Transferred to Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, 1979. Transferred to Cushing Memorial Library & Archives by Catherine A. Hastedt, 1990.


Related materials elements

Existence and location of originals

Existence and location of copies

Related archival materials

Related descriptions

Notes element

General note

Kelly Blue was later published in 1979 in a revised, illustrated edition by Texas A&M University Press. The illustrations for the second edition of Kelly Blue are reproductions of paintings from various private and public collections, including that of Texas A&M University, six of which were donated along with the letters to Texas A&M University in 1979, and have been on display in the J. Wayne Stark Galleries.

Specialized notes

Alternative identifier(s)

Description control element

Rules or conventions

Sources used

Access points

Subject access points

Place access points

Name access points

Genre access points

Accession area

Related subjects

Related people and organizations

Related genres

Related places