Many of the early wild west show cowgirls never knew ranch life. They had never gentled a range pony, branded or doctored a calf, mended a fence.... Yet, rather than settle for a life of arranged marriages, unfulfilling jobs, spousal abuse and a lack of freedom and control over their own lives, many chose to run away to circuses and wild west shows to become "rodeo cowgirls"
They risked their lives by climbing into the hurricane deck of a bucking bronc and tried to stay there for a few seconds to make their ride. Most times they did this with the stirrups hobbled, tied together beneath the belly of the horse. It kept them seated but was extremely dangerous and several of the cowgirls were killed practicing this very dangerous practice. But like one old cowboy said "If they stuck to it for a few seconds, they got to eat that night. That's why they were there and that's the only reason."
What do you think, was that really the only reason they were there? Would you have had the courage to do what those women had to do in the early 20th c. to escape the small world society and law would have them living in? Could you see yourself being a wild west show cowgirl?
Read I'LL GATHER MY GEESE by Hallie Crawford Stillwell (Texas A&M University Press, College Station, Texas) for the real life of a frontier woman. I met Miss Hallie once. She said "Young man (I was then in my mid-40s) I was born in the 19th Century, I've seen most of the 20th Century, and I aim to see what the 21st Century looks like before I cash in." She didn't quite made it. She died in 1996, just a few months short of her 100th birthday. At the time I met her she was serving as a JP in Brewster County, Texas--and she had the reputation of being one of the toughest JPs in West Texas.
When she was 18 she was teaching school in Presidio, Texas, with a book in her hand and a sixshooter strapped to her waist. She married Roy Stillwell, a 40-year-old divorced rancher, when she was 20. Her parents objected, telling her Roy was too old for her. She said "I'd rather be an old man's darling than a young man's slave."
She lived on his Terrell County ranch, in a house that consisted of a kitchen, a bedroom--no beds, just soogans on the floor--and two brush arbors. There was a shotgun beside every door and window. Roy told her "If a man you don't know opens the gate, shoot him. Don't think about it, just shoot him." She lived there for almost 50 years. When Roy killed himself in a rollover auto accident--yes, he was both drinking and driving that Hudson too fast--she ran that huge ranch, at first single-handedly and then with the help of her sons, for almost 30 years before turning it over to the boys and moving to Alpine. Miss Hallie was a Texas original. We'll not see her like again.
Thanks for the tip Charley, I'LL GATHER MY GEESE sounds like a good read and I'll look forward to it. The quote you mentioned, "If a man you don't know opens the gate, shoot him...." reminds me of the quote from the cowgirl code, "If a cowboy needs a shootin', shoot 'im!" It wasn't to be taken lightly, law was sparse and the consequences could be severe if you didn't.
My aunt, a homesteaders daughter from Oklahoma, just made her 100th birthday last week. I am very grateful to have heard and recorded her stories.
I wish I could have had the honor of meeting Miss Hallie and hearing her stories. How fortunate you were! ".... an old man's darling than a young man's slave." Love it!
My grandmother, who lived with us until I was 12, was born in 1873. She was born in a 2-room dogtrot log house at Hornsby Bend, Texas. The man next door was the grandson of one of the men who was with Jim Bowie at the Calf Creek fight in 1831. He knew his grandfather well. HIs dad had been a Confederate soldier & an Indian fighter. The man across the street was born when Texas was still a Republic. Two doors away, a neighbor was visited fairly regularly by an aged uncle of his. The uncle came from Clay County, Missouri, & knew a lot more about a couple of Clay County boys called Dingus & Frank than any peace-loving feller had any business knowing. My great uncle was one of Walter P. Webb's regular poker foursome. The other two were Frank Hamer & Manny Gault, both Texas Ranger Captains. J. Frank Dobie lived just down the creek from me. We didn't have television until 1951, the year before my grandmother died. I grew up listening to stories, & the interest generated by those stories in Texas, Southwestern, & Southern history has stayed with me all my life. I had the good fortune to inherit a wild talent for writing that runs in my mother's family, so I've been a writer of one sort or another for most of my adult life.
I also, on the same trip to West Texas when I met Miss Hallie, had the good fortune to meet Dogie Wright, a former Ranger, fomer Border Patrolman, & son of Ranger Captain Will Wright. I got to talk to people who'd known the Kilpatrick family--Ben Kilpatrick, the 'Tall Texan' of the Wild Bunch--personally.
I was, at the time, researching 3 different stories--the GH&SA #9 stickup in Terrell County, where Ben Kilpatrick & his partner got killed by the Wells, Fargo agent they were trying to rob; the legend of the Murder Maverick, and the shooting, at the Kilpatrick farm, of Oliver G. Thornton, which has been blamed on Bill Carver, though he didn't do it. The Kilpatrick story is on the Instiltute of Texan Cultures website, in the 'Hidden History' section, the Murder Maverick story is in Charley Eckhardt's Texas on the Texas Escapes website (under 'columns'), and the Thornton murder is in the March issue of Frontier Tales, an on-line Western short fiction mag which also publishes a factual article in each issue.
Oh, I so admire these women - Those who were ranch raised as well as the women who performed in the wild west shows. You will find tenacious, gritty, athletic, talented, women from both worlds.
Bertha Kaepernik is a great example of a ranch raised cowgirl. She took range ponies to school with her when she was little more than seven years old and gentled them during her lunch period for her neighbors who gratefully paid her $5.00 per head for her services.
Claire Belcher is a perfect example of a wild west show cowgirl. A cultured society girl from Massachusetts, she preferred bulldogging in contests with her nemesis, Fox Hastings. Claire traveled to London with Tex Austin in 1934, performed for the king and queen and won the title of All-Around Champion Cowgirl. Was she any less a cowgirl because she rode hobbled and grew up in the city? The line between performer, competitor, cowgirl and athlete grew very thin at that time.
Bertha Kaepernik-Blancett was adamantly opposed to any woman riding hobbled. She knew it was a dangerous practice and she also knew it was impossible to ride slick and look as poised and balanced as a gal who smiled, raising her hat high to the crowd while her stirrups were tied together under the belly of the horse making it almost impossible to find freedom from the hurricane deck of the bronc without the welcomed helping hand of the pick up rider. Lulu Parr and Prairie Rose were famous for gathering the favor of the crowd while Bertha, poor Bertha, simply rode a bronc the way she had been taught on the ranch, just like a man, with her stirrups free. Both women obviously had talent. One rode like a hand, the others like the cowgirl performers they were paid to be. All were gutsy, gritty and contributed to defining the role of a cowgirl and making the sport of rodeo what it is today.
An early Gene Autry movie--don't remember which one, but I've seen it a couple of times on TV--has footage shot at a Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo back, apparently, in the '20s. Saddlebronc riding was a little different then. They turned the broncs loose in the arena. Bronc riders had a team--the rider & his 2 partners. They had to rope the bronc in the arena, ear it down, put the blindfold on it, & saddle the animal. Then the rider got aboard & they pulled the blinder. From then on it was the bronc & rider. No time, no pickup men. You either stayed with the animal until it tired out & quit bucking, or you got thrown. They would have 8 or 10 broncs in the arena at the same time, which really made life interesting if you got thrown. I think it was in the '30s that they put a 10-second time on the ride, later shortened to 8 seconds.
They'd also often bring in an outside bronc & offer a prize for anyone who could ride the animal to a standstill. That's how Booger Red wound up with his show-bucker, Montana Gyp. The owner offered $1,000 to anyone who could ride the horse to a standstill. Red collected the $1,000, then added another $1,000 to it & bought the horse. The highlight of Red's show, for years, was Booger Red on Montana Gyp. Red died in FT Worth in the late '20s, so I never got to see him in person, but I've seen some old silent films shot at his show.
He was certainly what he described himself as being--the ugliest man in the world. His face was horribly scarred from an accident making home-made fireworks out of black gunpowder when he was a boy. However, I don't think the horse was ever foaled that man couldn't ride to a standstill. When he was a teenager the army heard about his horse-breaking skills & hired him to break horses for the cavalry. He was offered $5 per horse. By the end of the first week he was into the army for about $200, so they quit paying him by the piece & put him on a $50 per month basis.
They were indeed exciting times. Charley, I believe the event you are describing is the Wild Horse Race. The saddle bronc contests were for sure snubbed and eared down but those horses were brought in by the rider and C.B. Irwin would supply many of them.
In 1904, C.B. served as Bertha Blancett's snubber on a little roan and boy, did she give the crowd a thrill! It was the first time a cowgirl ever competed with cowboys in a saddle bronc event. Harry Brannon won the championship but Bertha made quite the ride.
In 1905 she ponied her bucker more than 100 miles ready for another contest. She was bitterly disappointed when she found out it wouldn't be a competition ride and she would not be competing with the cowboys that year.
Here is a story very few people have heard about cowgirls, competition and saddle bronc riding: In 1910 the first Pendleton Round-Up was held and a local girl named Florence Adams entered the cowgirls pony race comptetition and won. Ella and Rhoda Lazinka also competed in that race giving you an idea of the talent she had to beat in order to become the victor. Racing events were the only activities available to compete in for cowgirls that first year.
Florence was a clerk at the local western union office and the daughter of a Union Railroad executive. She had a brother who fancied himself a pretty good horseman and entered the first saddle bronc contest to be held at the Pendleton Round-Up.
At that time in Pendleton, three broncs were usually brought out into the arena, snubbed, eared down and prepared for the cowboys. There was one that defied all the cowboys and as each one came off that bronc, Florence yelled to her brother, "I could ride that bronc!" And then she would smile. Each rider pitched higher and with each failed ride Florence would again say, "I could ride that bronc!"
The cowboys had heard enough and her brother finally told her, "OK Flo, you come on out here and ride!" They were all ready to make her eat her words and a little dirt along with them.
Florence came out to the center of the arena, mounted the snubbed bronc, the blindfold was pulled and Florence Adams, the young, demure clerk from High Street, Pendleton, Oregon, rode that bronc for 15 minutes to a dead standstill.
Florence was told it was a cowboys contest and she was obviously not a cowboy and therefore, could not win the cowboys saddle bronc event. However, the story could be found in newspapers across the country proclaiming Florence the winner of the very first cowboys saddle bronc contest at the famed Pendleton Round-Up. Let 'Er Buck!
Florence married the following year, moved to California with her husband and enjoyed riding daily with her neighbor and fellow horseman, Jack London. She raised two profoundly deaf children and instructed them to be horsemasters, as she was.
I hope you have an opportunity to see my documentary movie, "Oh, You Cowgirl!" I discovered a 'lost' film from 1911 featuring the entire Cheyenne Frontier Days event and highlight much of the footage in my film along with some early Pendleton Round-Up footage. It shows Bertha Kaepernik-Blancett's first bronc ride along with footage of Mabel Strickland, Bonnie McCarroll, Kitty Canutt and a great interview with Monk Cardin, the rodeo clown who was in the arena with Bonnie McCarroll in 1929. I think you would enjoy it!
Oh! Booger Red.... That fireworks explosion that burned him so badly - Who was it that said "His face was all boogered up."
Gus, I will certainly agree Charley & Shirley has opened a whole other subject where there has not been much discussion that is really interesting..
The DVD "Oh, You Cowgirl!" is awesome.. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I viewed it..It's that good..
There are so many stories about these women, the cowgirls of the early days, women who homesteaded, ranched and entertained with wild west shows and circus's, that I have come upon researching "Oh, You Cowgirl!" I had never heard that history before and look forward to sharing what I have learned.
My next project is about the Irwin family. Most folks know something about C. B. Irwin but few know about the women of this family. Not only were they champion relay racers - cowgirls, but they went on to become accomplished artists among other things. Can't wait to share their stories!
They were all part of and featured in the family business, Irwin Bros. Wild West. But I just discovered a little treasure of information about one of them that I'll be writing about soon. Unbelievable!
When he was a brought in with his face so badly burned, one of his cousins, who was visiting--he and a cousin his age were the ones who were trying to make the firecracker--is supposed to have said "That 'i'l Red, he sure is a booger." They've got footage from a couple of his shows at the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Okie City. I understand they've got it on DVD now, but they didn't, yet, when I was there back in the '90s.
One of the things about him--he was so good that all he had to do was put down his entry fee & a whole bunch of bronc riders would just walk away. They knew the best they'd get was 2nd money if Red was riding. That guy probably topped somewhere around 20,000 broncs in his life & there's no record that he was ever thrown.
A guy very few people know about was Ralph Doyal. He was a professional horse breaker from Mason County. When he was drafted for WW I, they made him a clerk because he was too heavy for the cavalry. Somebody finally got smart & pulled the pro out of the office & put him in the saddle. Ralph broke horses for nearly a year for the cavalry.
There is an interview with his wife on the Library of Congress website: "Booger Red" -- Mrs. Mollie Privett, San Angelo, Texas, interviewed, February 8, 1938..Just type in "Booger Red" in the search box..
American Memory--Library of Congress