Gift To Library Keeps Old West Thriving

Western author Will James was a contemporary of sorts of Zane Grey


Living in the Rim Country, many of us are most familiar with the western novel as Zane Grey wrote it. We know that several of his characters and some of his stories were based on the people he met and the tales they shared when he spent time in this neck of the woods.

Grey was not the first to write a Western novel, however he contributed significantly to elevating its popularity.


Barbara and Phil Warwick, of the Will James Society, along with Payson Public Library Director Terri Morris, peruse two of 20 newly reprinted books written and illustrated by award-winning novelist, Will James. The books were presented to Morris this week.

In one online biographical sketch, Grey is said to be a "pioneer of Western as a new literary genre."

According to that same biography, Grey made a trip "West with Colonel C. J. (‘Buffalo') Jones, who told him tales of adventure on the plains. The trip was a turning point in Grey's career. He began writing Western novels in the tradition of Owen Wister and produced the first, "The Last of the Plainsmen," in 1908."

Wister wrote "The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains" in 1902, which one biographer called the "ancestor of the classic Western."

Grey was born in Ohio and attended the University of Pennsylvania. Wister was from Pennsylvania. Both men wrote Westerns based on real Westerners they met and heard about.

Will James was a contemporary of sorts of Grey -- they were publishing Westerns at the same time; though James was just getting started, while Grey was well into his career. James was an Easterner, too -- he was born in Quebec Province, Canada -- his Westerns were somewhat more authentic. He came West at the age of 15 and went to work as a cowboy.

It was tough work, too, crippling James until he could no longer do the work. But his experiences as a working cowboy were the foundation of his more successful career as an author and artist.

He had drawn from a very young age and according to various biographies was also quite a storyteller. Those stories became his 24 (some sources say 26) Western novels, which he also illustrated.

His best known story, "Smoky the Cowhorse," won the Newbery Award for best children's' book in 1927. Several other of James' works were written specifically for children, but most were for older readers.

The Payson Public Library received 20 newly reprinted Will James books this week from the Will James Society. Phil and Barbara Warwick, both members of the board of the international society, who make their home in Payson, made the presentation to Terri Morris, director of the library.

The Will James Society is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the works and memory of James.

It serves as a catalyst interested in James and with the Will James Art Company and Mountain Press, it promotes the reprinting and redistribution of James' works to schools and public libraries. There are more than 500 members in the U.S. and Canada. Other Payson residents who are members of the society are artists Donn Morris and Conrad Okerwall, Barbara said.

Morris said the library has some of James' works in its collection already, but the gift of the 20 books -- valued at nearly $500 -- will make the author more accessible.

Part of the gift from the Will James Society and the Warwicks is a compact disc of the first American documentary on James by Gwendolyn Clancy.

In creating the documentary, Clancy talked to a number of people who actually knew the author and artist. She described her search for these sources and some of their conversations in the Oct. 1990 edition of the "Nevada" magazine.

"This is the first society donation in this area," Barbara said.

Morris said the books should be ready for circulation with the month.

So, go get acquainted with another pioneer of the Western and see the great contribution to the Payson Public Library by the Will James Society.

Membership information is available from Barbara Warwick, who is on the society's membership committee. The annual dues range from $25 for an individual or family to $500 for the patron level and $1,500 for life.

Warwick can be contacted at (928) 468-2427. She and her husband are also available to make presentations about James and the Will James Society.

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