House Bronze Foundry 1972-2010
“Jerry House was a good friend who shared my interest in history. So of course we collected history together, which was not a big deal because neither of us had earned income to spare back in the late 60’s.”
– Forrest Fenn
In December of 1968 a singular event in a war zone 8,500 miles away nearly altered the time space continuum of the art scene in the southwest United States. That was when Forrest Fenn, future Santa Fe gallery owner and arts benefactor almost didn’t make it out of Southeast Asia alive. Had Forrest perished over the dense jungle canopy of Laos that month it is a given that Fenn Galleries would never have hatched onto the Santa Fe scene a few years later. It is equally unlikely that House Bronze, an acclaimed art foundry run by Jerry and Gail House, could possibly have emerged on the stubbornly dry, staked plain of Lubbock, TX in 1972.
In January of 2010 Gail House was closing the doors on an art business she and her late husband Jerry operated since 1972. House Bronze Foundry occupied an unremarkable building in an unremarkable section of Lubbock, TX. But what went on in this “plain Jane” building for the previous 38 years is indeed quite remarkable and has added significantly to the collections of art bronze statuary and monuments worldwide.
Creating mostly large public statuary, House Bronze turned out bigger than life monuments of icons of our times including president George H. W. Bush, the astronaut Willie McCool and even a nine foot Rev. Billy Graham. They didn’t just cast important folks though. They also made elephants and lions and bears and giant whatcha-ma-callits that adorn public gardens, university lawns, town squares, corporate entryways and great halls all over America.
But it wasn’t Jerry and Gail’s dream to own an art foundry back in 1968. They both worked at Texas Tech University. In fact, large art bronzes probably weren’t even anything they thought much more about than you or I do today.
Jerry collected guns and was interested in obtaining a smoothbore muzzle loaded firearm. Those things were expensive and the company told Jerry that if he could generate $5,000 in sales he would get a discount. So he was contacting everyone he knew that might be interested in buying a modern black powder gun. Black powder guns are a kind of unusual firearm. His list wasn’t building rapidly.
Someone told Jerry that there was a pilot over at Reese Airbase, a Major by the name of Forrest Fenn and if Jerry could wait two months Forrest Fenn would be back from Vietnam and surely he would be interested in buying one. Jerry added Forrest’s name to his list of hopefuls.
Nearly two months went by when Jerry heard the news that Forrest and his F-100 had been shot down and he might not be heading home. Jerry added a question mark after Forrest’s name on his still incomplete list.
In 2010 Gail House was reminiscing about her late husband Jerry and his friendship with Forrest. She remembered when Forrest arrived back home from Vietnam. ”The morning of the 26th, our phone rang and it was Forrest Fenn. A helicopter had picked him up not long after he was shot down, and because he was due home, he took the next Red Cross plane back.”
For his part, Forrest wanted to make sure Jerry didn’t scratch him off the buyer’s list. He wanted that muzzle loader.
“When Jerry got the call from Forrest, we were stunned,” Gail recalls. “Jerry went over that day, and they formed a real friendship.”
At the time, Forrest had started a part-time business in his garage where he was casting small bronzes for artists. Jerry was intrigued. More-so when Forrest told Jerry he could make a handsome $10 an hour doing this kind of work. That was the egg that Jerry later developed into his own foundry, House Bronze.
Forrest recalls that he was thrilled with his new black powder gun. “Jerry and I knew how to load it: measure the powder and pour it down the barrel. Then tamp some wadding in. The round bullet was next, just roll it down the barrel. More wadding was added to keep the bullet from rolling out if you tilted the gun down.”
They really wanted to shoot the thing because neither had done that before as Forrest remembers, “The problem was that we didn’t have any bullets. After looking around for a minute I found some old chewing gum that one of my young daughters had placed on the kitchen counter. It was dried and hard. I remember having to force it down the barrel with the ram-rod that came with the gun. Are you ready for this? Jerry took the first shot and that glob of chewing gum went clear through a 1” board in my back yard fence. We couldn’t believe it and Peggy couldn’t stop laughing.”
So now it was Forrest’s turn to shoot and he put a small rock down the barrel and shot at the fence. “When the powder ignited our close proximity went black with smoke that chased my wife into the house. You are not going to believe this, but that little pebble came out of the barrel in pieces, and each one was impaled in my fence. There must have been 6 or 7 pieces. Jerry and I talked about that for a long time and considered telling the Army about our newly discovered secret weapon.”
The camaraderie lasted well beyond their first muzzle loader experience. “Jerry was a lot of fun. One of his legs was 2” shorter than the other, so he wore a shoe with an elevated sole. He bragged about it keeping him from being drafted. One thing you never did with Jerry, and that was to call him on the phone between 12:00 and 12:15 because that was when Paul Harvey was on the radio. Jerry was a fanatic about that guy, and he got me started listening. Paul, Jerry, and I had something in common. We were good, conservative, patriotic, American citizens.”
After awhile, Forrest moved his foundry out of his garage, hired some help and started Fenn Bronze on the outskirts of Lubbock. “Jerry used to come see me in my foundry, which was just a few blocks from where he worked. After a while he started helping me work waxes and get them ready to pour in bronze. He liked it, and was soon on my payroll. It wasn’t long before he knew the business as well as anyone.”
After Forrest moved to Santa Fe, in 1972, Jerry opened his own casting studio with his wife Gail in Lubbock called House Bronze and did very well for 38 years.
Jerry and Forrest kept in touch. He was still working long hours at House Bronze and probably making considerably more than $10/hr when he died in 2009.
You can read more about Forrest’s “Bronze Years” on this blog in Forrest’s Scrapbooks: