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Artists Dick and Elizabeth Sprang
Batman and the Boulder

Dick Sprang was the preeminent Batman artist during the Golden Age of Comics. He was also an adventurer and amateur archaeologist, exploring Glen Canyon before the Colorado river was dammed. He discovered Forgotten Canyon and the Three Warrior petroglyphs (later called the Defiance House) long before professional archaeologists happened upon them and claimed credit for Sprang's discovery. Sprang was a collector of boulders, including the Wandering Boulder of Capitol Reef, which he transported to his Fish Creek Ranch before he and his wife Elizabeth were evicted from their Ripple Rock Ranch in Fruita. After the eviction, Sprang became depressed and quit working on Batman. The Sprangs divorced, and the Wandering Boulder continued its odyssey to California, where it remained in obscurity until it was rediscovered in 2010 by another amateur archaeologist, Ronald Bodtcher.

Batman Takes Flight

Richard "Dick" Sprang left his Ohio home in 1936 after graduating from high school and working as an artist for a newspaper. In New York City, he worked as a freelance artist until the early 1940's, illustrating western, detective and adventure pulp fiction magazines. In 1943, he began regular work on the Batman comics that would continue for two decades. While in New York, Sprang met and married Lora Neusiis (aka Pat Gordon), who did the lettering for his artwork. In 1946, following Sprang's dream to move out West, they settled in Sedona, Arizona. Sprang continued working on Batman and in his spare time, he began roaming Northern Arizona and Southern Utah. In 1950, he began exploring Glen Canyon with boatman Harry Aleson and a companion, Gertrude "Dudy" Thomas, who became Gertrude Sprang after Dick divorced Lora in 1951.

Dick, Dudy and Harry formed a research team called Canyon Surveys to explore Glen canyon. They discovered the so-called "Defiance House" ruins and pictographs seven years before University of Utah archaeologists claimed to have discovered them in 1959. Dudy named the area "Forgotten Canyon" and the pictographs "Three Warrior." Dick Sprang was a well-known and respected amateur archaeologist.

At the same time, Dick became the greatest Batman artist of the Golden Era of Comics, creating the Riddler and Batgirl characters and becoming the Superman artist when the Man of Steel teamed up with the Caped Crusaders. This success brought a measure of wealth and with it, Sprang acquired his Eden: the Fish Creek Ranch, which he purchased in 1956.

To the Middle of Nowhere

In 1956, another couple, Max and Elizabeth Lewis (nee Elizabeth Russell) purchased their Eden a few miles down the road in Fruita: the Ripple Rock Ranch. Max was no Mormon farmer, but apparently he relocated from Pasadena, California to the Redrock Eden for health reasons. At that time, many doctors believed that a desert climate could cure a number of diseases, including asthma and tuberculosis. Apparently such was not the case for Max Lewis, and he died in 1957, the same year that Elizabeth joined the LDS Church. Elizabeth suddenly found herself the sole owner of one-third of all the land in Fruita. She taught Relief Society and Sunday School while pursuing a career in art and looking after her home in Fruita. She became friends with Dick and Dudy Sprang.

Meeting in the Middle

Early in 1958, Elizabeth's neighbor down the road, Dick Sprang, also lost his spouse. Dudy Thomas died suddenly from a brain tumor. Sprang was devastated and turned to his friend Elizabeth Lewis for comfort and advice. Six month later, the two were married by the LDS Stake President at his home in Loa. And so the two artists took up residence at the Ripple Rock Ranch in Fruita. Dick worked on Batman, while Elizabeth worked on recreations of petroglyph panels that they discovered on their trips through Glen Canyon.

They also began collecting large river rocks and boulders, caching them along the Colorado river and then retrieving them with large wooden 10-man boats. Their beloved neighbor, Arthur "Doc" Englesby, was a rock collector himself, and Elizabeth particularly admired his green lawn, surrounded by a wonderful stone fence built of ripple rock and petrified wood posts. The Sprangs, physically isolated, nevertheless enjoyed the company of Englesby, Dean Brimhall (prominent Mormon, renowned psychologist and aeronautics enthusiast), Charles Kelley (first Superintendent of Capitol Reef) and visitors such as writer Wallace Stegner, explorer Otis "Doc" Marston, artist Douglas Snow, historian Angus Woodbury and fellow amateur archaeologist Noel Morss, who first documented the Wandering Boulder in 1928.

The Sprangs planned to build a house and tourist facilities on part of the land they owned on top of Johnson Mesa, which enjoys a magnificent view of the Fremont River Valley. But that dream would never come to fruition.

Cast Out of Eden

Official government documents insist that the people living in the village of Fruita were treated fairly and that they willing abandoned their homes in order to make way for the establishment of Capitol Reef. The truth is that the people were forcefully evicted against their will in order to give the government access to strategic war material for making bombs.

In 1939, Albert Einstein signed and delivered a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Drafted by eminent scientists, the letter warned of Germany's efforts to develop "extremely powerful bombs of a new type" and called upon the President to begin stockpiling uranium ore and supporting the nuclear research of Enrico Fermi and other scientists. By 1941, Roosevelt had approved the U.S. atomic program. Within a year, the U.S. Government filed a Declaration of Taking and seized 67 acres of private land within a stone's throw of the Ripple Rock Ranch in Fruita. Nearby, the Fruita school (operational since the early 1890's) was shut down and the schoolhouse abandoned. The uranium boom that would make Moab, Utah the "Uranium Capitol of the World" would not happen until 1952. The United States Government was ten years ahead of the game and knowing that most uranium ore in the United States comes from deposits in sandstone, they staked their claim in the heart of Fruita, at the junction of Sulphur (Sand) Creek and the Fremont River, where Franklin Young first settled his Redrock Eden.

Germany never completed development of their new bomb, but the United States did, and that ended World War II. After the war, the Soviet Union replaced Germany as the enemy developing a new bomb, and the U.S. responded by creating the Atomic Energy Commission. The Utah Uranium Boom of 1952 followed. That year, Capitol Reef began to mine ore for weapons grade uranium. The following year, jurisdiction of Capitol Reef was transferred from Zion National Park to the Santa Fe Regional Office of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Santa Fe was (and is) home of the Los Alamos Laboratory which conducted the Manhattan Nuclear Weapons Project during World War II and other projects subsequently. By 1956, the Cold War was in full swing and so was the U.S. development and deployment of nuclear weapons. April 17, 1961 brought the Bay of Pigs fiasco and with the Berlin Crisis following on June 4, 1961, the government was willing to do anything to increase production of uranium ore. During that very time frame, on June 2, 1961, the Federal Government filed Declarations of Taking for the remaining land in Fruita, including the Sprang's Ripple Rock Ranch. Interestingly, telephone service finally came to Fruita in 1962, just as the last residents were being evicted from their land.

The Wandering Boulder

The Park Service floated a false report that most of the residents weren't Mormons anyway, so what did it matter? In fact, almost all of the land in Fruita was owned by Mormons, including Clarence "Cass" Mulford, Elizabeth Sprang, Dean Brimhall, Cora Smith and Dicey Chestnut. Dick Sprang was a few years ahead of the game, having read Capitol Reef's Mission 66 Report (published in 1956) which called for the takeover of all private land in Fruita and expulsion of all the private citizens living there. Accordingly, in 1956, Sprang purchased a ranch outside of Capitol Reef. When a paved road to Fruita was completed in 1958, the Sprangs used an idle dump-truck to transport their collection of boulders (including the Wandering Boulder of Capitol Reef) from their property in Fruita. And so, after being deposited in the Fremont River Valley and remaining in place for thousands of years, the boulder began its wanderings again. But this time, it was moved with the help of a couple of friends: Elizabeth and Dick Sprang.

Photo of Dick and Elizabeth Sprang at the Fish Creek Ranch.

Dick and Elizabeth Sprang at the Fish Creek Ranch. Source: [TO BE REVEALED]

The removal was performed in full view of Superintendent Charles Kelley, who did nothing to stop the Sprangs. Moving a 30,000 pound boulder the size of a small car was a massive undertaking and would have been impossible to complete without Kelley knowing about it, as he was the Sprang's next-door neighbor! So why did he not stop them?

The answer is not altogether certain and will continue to be unclear pending receipt of further information from NPS officials. However, National Park Service documents reportedly put the original location of the boulder on Elizabeth Sprang's private property in Fruita. In addition, personalty (movable) property is not subject to condemnation and seizure by the Federal Government in a proceeding for real property (land). Condemnation proceedings did not begin until after June 2, 1961, when Deeds of Taking were filed. Final Judgement was not pronounced until February 19, 1963. Therefore, it would appear that Sprang was perfectly within her legal rights to take her private, personal property and move it wherever she desired. And the place she desired to move the Wandering Boulder was Dick Sprang's Fish Creek Ranch, 17 miles down the road.

End of Dreams

By 1963, the lawsuits were over, and the Federal Government evicted the Sprangs from their Redrock Eden. The last of the Sprang's belongings were removed in December of that year. Subsequently, the Park Service tore down the Sprang's home, along with Doc Inglesby's unique home and the home of Franklin Young, Fruita's first settler. They also attempted to clearcut the historic fruit trees until local protesters forced them to stop. No lodge or campground with magnificent views and safe accommodations was ever built on top of Johnson Mesa. Instead, a small campground was built on some of the Sprang's other land along the Fremont River, which periodically floods to this day. The Sprang's art studio at the Ripple Rock Ranch became the National Park Service's Ripple Rock Nature Center.

The Sprangs were busy building a new home and art studio at the Fish Creek Ranch from the time of initial condemnation proceedings in 1961. However, after the 1963 eviction from their home in Fruita, things took a dramatic turn for the worse. Dick Sprang suffered from depression and lost focus on his work. He abruptly stopped drawing the Batman comics after 20 years of meeting deadlines like clockwork. Work on the new home and studio came to a standstill. Apparently, the Federal Government and National Park Service did what the Joker, Riddler, Penguin and other villains could not: they put an end to the Batman.

All this took a toll on the Sprang's marriage, and they began to drift apart. Dick began spending time back in Sedona, Arizona, where he had lived prior to his move to the Fish Creek Ranch. There he found comfort in an old friend, Marion Lyday, who he married after divorcing Elizabeth in 1972. The Fish Creek Ranch, now completed, was sold. Dick and Marion Lyday moved to Prescott, Arizona. Elizabeth moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico where she met and married Dr. Lionel Detlev Percival (LDP) King. Ironically, King, a nuclear physicist, was also a friend and colleague of Enrico Fermi, whose research initiated the uranium boom that eventually brought about Elizabeth's eviction from Fruita and the end of her marriage to Dick Sprang.

Elizabeth pursued an art career, making rock writing reproductions. A good writer, she also penned the book "Good-bye River," a reminiscence of time spent with Dick Sprang and Harry Aleson in Glen Canyon before the Colorado was dammed. The book was published under the name Elizabeth Sprang. Elizabeth King died on September 12, 1993 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Unlike Dr. LDP King's other two wives, Elizabeth was not buried next to him.

Photo of artwork by Elizabeth Sprang.

Elizabeth Sprang Art. Source: Ronald Bodtcher

Dick Sprang resurrected his art career in the 1980's after finally gaining a measure of fame for his Batman and Superman art. He produced limited edition lithographs and attended conventions, where he was hailed as the greatest Batman artist of all time. Dick Sprang remained married to Marion Lyday until his death on May 10, 2000 in Prescott, Arizona.

The Boulder Wanders Again

When Dick and Elizabeth Sprang sold the Fish Creek Ranch in 1972, they left behind a new house, art studio and memories of what could have been. They also left the boulder, which sat in the carport. The new owners of the property apparently had some inkling of the boulder's significance, and in 1978, they offered it as a gift to a friend, [TO BE REVEALED]. Dr. [TO BE REVEALED] was a professor of anthropology and archaeology at a college in Southern California and decided to loan the object to the college. The boulder (now dubbed "Circle Rock") wandered to the campus of [TO BE REVEALED] College at [TO BE REVEALED] near [TO BE REVEALED] courtesy of a diesel tow rig provided by Kaiser Steel. This Unidentified Lying Object remained at the college, unknown, unappreciated and undeciphered, until it was rediscovered in 2010 by another amateur archaeologist, Ronald Bodtcher.

Footnotes

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References

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