The Calgary Stampede – a Tradition of Prestige


At the end of this year’s rodeo season, and as the National Finals Rodeo (NFR) approaches, pondering how we came to have a National Finals, or even how some of the biggest professional rodeos became prestigious led me to reflect on my trip to Calgary this summer. When you ask young cowboys and cowgirls just starting in junior rodeo, where they want to ride someday, they will most often say: the Calgary Stampede, the Pendleton Round-Up, and the Big Daddy–Cheyenne Frontier Days. Why isn’t the NFR on their list? It is after all considered by many to be the Super Bowl equivalent in rodeo. Even a kid knows that if he or she is good enough to ride in the big three, they are already well on their way to the NFR.

I haven’t attended a National Finals rodeo yet, but I attended the Calgary Stampede for the first time this summer, and it was one of the best rodeos I have ever been to. Now, I’ve been going to rodeos all my life. My dad was a bull rider when I was little and my mom told stories of me staying up late to watch the bulls, and the re-rides which they used to do right after. About 1:00 a.m. when we got into the car to go home, she said I would finally fall asleep. So I have loved rodeo from the beginning.


When I walked up to the gates to go into the Stampede I got goose bumps. It is hard to explain the emotions that well up; knowing the history of the Stampede and with a love of the ranch life that helped form organized rodeo. Yet, excitement replaced nostalgia because I knew that I was going to witness the best of the best at the Stampede. Since 1912 the Stampede has centered on community with the contestants, the staff, and the entire city.  As a historian the question then becomes, how did the Calgary Stampede become so prestigious? What makes it stand apart from the thousands of rodeos held every year? In this case it really starts at the beginning. What was created to be a one-time farewell commemoration and celebration of a disappearing ranching life in southern Alberta, ironically became the event that showcases it and now contributes approximately 345 million dollars throughout the province.[1]  Funded by four area cattle barons, Guy Weadicks’ vision for the rodeo established a unique event that was “not conceived, nor was it ever designed by its original sponsors, to be just an ordinary cowboy show.” Weadick recreated the frontier in a show “devoid of circus tinsel and far fetched fiction” to showcase the people and livestock important to the region. The Stampede has stayed true to Weadick’s dream by continuing to highlight rural agriculture in the region through the exhibition of agricultural products and good produced in the area and with the invitational rodeo and chuck wagon races that are now Stampede traditions.[2]


Overwhelming public support for this annual event is evident from the moment you get off the airplane and the customs agent says, “Welcome to the Stampede,” and this enthusiasm is reinforced in the many hats and boots seen all across the city. People assume everyone is “Stampeding” and in fact wish you a wonderful time even before they confirm that you are attending. The entire city is both accommodating and helpful as they co-host this event with the many workers and committees behind the scenes who make sure security is on duty, the vendors are set-up and the livestock are cared for. There’s a lot to the Stampede besides just the rodeo, and the entire event is at the heart of this city.


This 1912 program is archived at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta. Photograph taken by the author.

So, what makes the rodeo exceptional? It is in the roots of rodeo itself and in the hearts of the stock contractors, chute bosses, the arena hands, and even the tractor men (or women, I couldn’t see into the cab).


It is the select invitations to those athletes who stand out in the profession, and they are not always the athletes one expects to see annually at the NFR. Stampede contestants are outstanding competitors like Mary Burger, a 67-year-old grandmother from Paul’s Valley, Oklahoma who won the championship in barrel racing this year.


Another thing that sets the Stampede apart, is that competitors ride the best livestock in the business, and just like Weadick’s original vision, it is just rodeo, no gimmicks. This event showcases the best rodeo contestants and finest bucking stock in the world.


The tradition of educating the public continues today. The Stampede puts great effort in teaching the many first time visitors from all over the world who attend importance of the agricultural community and lifestyle. Explaining our heritage to future generations is key to sustaining it, be it rodeo, ranching, farming, or culture.


The venue is enormous: the midway, First Nations Village, the Exposition barns, the shows, the music, the celebration — all of it making up the Stampede. But, for me the best part of the rodeo is that the cowboys, cowgirls and livestock are the center stage. While it is impressive that some cowboys and cowgirls zip line into the arena during the opening ceremony, the exceptional talents of these athletes shine in the competition.

If you have not attended, it is a must for anyone with a heart for rodeo, or an appreciation for working animals, or just wanting to learn more about the western way of life. It is the exception, providing an incredible experience for those who attend.




[2] Guy Weadick, “How I Started the Calgary Stampede” from Guy Weadick manuscript, “Alberta Cow Country” Glenbow Archives, M1287 reprinted in Alberta History, Vol. 60 (Summer 2012), 2-3.


June Cleaver and Miss Kitty Walk into a Bar

Have you ever wondered what would happen if June Cleaver walked into the Long Branch Saloon?  Miss Kitty might eye her up and down to see if Cleaver is trouble, or she might say, “What’ll ya have?” to which Cleaver would probably say, “Tea, dear.”

You are likely wondering what these two have in common. Cleaver was no woman of the Wild West in her post-war suburban utopia. But the connection is more political than you may think.

Amanda Blake 1966

Amanda Blake as Miss Kitty on Gunsmoke, 1966 

The two television series that posited these  leading ladies as ideal American women reflected greater social extensions of domestic policy in America during the Cold War. Gunsmoke with Amanda Blake as Miss Kitty Russell ran from 1955 to 1975 and was set in the Wild West.  On the television series, the character Miss Kitty worked in the Long Branch Saloon and later became owner of the establishment.[1]  A more modern suburban setting cast Barbara Billingsley as June Cleaver, wife and mother, on the series Leave it to Beaver which ran from 1957 – 1963.  Similar to other sitcoms popular during the late nineteen-fifties, like Father Knows Best and the Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Cleaver was a character who portrayed the ideal American mother and wife: always dressed for dinner in heels and pearls, very calm and submissive to her husband Ward.

June and Ward

Barbara Billingsley and Hugh Beaumont as June and Ward Cleaver on the television series Leave it to Beaver (1958)















These two women seem light years away from each other – a saloon girl from New Orleans looking for a new future in the Wild West, and a content housewife in the post-war suburbs.  But each character represented a renewed focus on the quintessential American woman who became an important moral leader during the Cold War.  Cleaver was the dutiful housewife whose nuclear family represented the success of democracy evident in financial stability and good moral character, free from the evils of communism.  Similarly, Miss Kitty reflected the individualism and spirit of opportunity offered by the American West.  Although her character, as a saloon girl and later owner, would have also realistically been a prostitute, this reality is downplayed in the show.  Her character is only very early on dressed in wardrobe suited for a saloon girl; as the show continues, her attire becomes more modest – again characteristic of television at the time emphasizing the good in American women.   That she had come into hard times and reinvented herself in the spirit of the West reflects the Turnerian idea that the West perpetuates democracy, all of which promoted domestic sentiment championing American democracy over communist ideology.

Kitty Russell 1969

Amanda Blake as Kitty Russell and guest star Jack Albertson from Gunsmoke, 1969

So, had June Cleaver walked into Miss Kitty’s bar, they might have surprised everyone by sharing a whiskey or tea and conversation about how they contributed to America’s self-image during the Cold War.




[1] Amanda Blake was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.




Sweethearts of the Rodeo

First thoughts of western couples often conjure up Roy Rogers and Dales Evans – Hollywood’s silver screen sweethearts.

Roy and Dale

Roy Rogers and Dale Evans – photo taken at the 61st Academy Awards, March 29, 1989, photo by Alan Light[1]

Although Rogers and Evans met through rodeo and he actually proposed in an arena, there were also many famous rodeo couples at the turn of the 20th century outside of Hollywood. It seems a love for rodeo has an equally formidable appeal for both cowboys and cowgirls. Rodeo life is not easy with the travel, out-of-pocket expenses, and constant physical risks and many songs have been written about the hardships and strain on relationships.  Some like George Strait’s “I Can Still Make Cheyenne” where a relationship is ending due to one woman’s weariness from being alone while her love chases rodeo.

Also, Suzy Bogguss’, “Someday Soon” where another hopes she can one day travel with her love, because she recognizes that his first love is rodeo.

But early cowgirls who had their own careers in rough stock as well as timed events and exposition, often traveled with their husbands or married on the road, sometimes in an arena like at Boston Garden and at Madison Square Garden. These couples started a career and marriage during a time when they could work the circuit together. Many like Tillie and Ed Bowman, Tommy and Bea Kirnan, Tad and Buck Lucas, Bonnie and Frank McCarroll, Fannie and Bill Steele, and Mayme and Leonard Stroud became famous, rodeoed, and supported each other.[2]

 Rodeo Cowgirl by C.M. Russell[3]Cowgirl CM Russell



Not every cowgirl had a happy ending. Lorena Trickey was tried for the murder of her man, J.P. “Slim” Harris — she was found not guilty. Also, Vera McGinnis’ first marriage dissolved because of her decision to continue with her rodeo career after her husband Earl got out of the business. It was that common attraction — a love of rodeo — that also contributed to the end for McGinnis who said, “the rodeos had become a compulsion…it didn’t occur to me to give up my career to save my marriage.”[4]

I’ve always heard and believed that a cowgirl’s first love is her horse, but for the women in early rodeo who committed themselves to their careers as much or more so than their marriages, rodeo ran a close second.

Happy Valentine’s Day, I hope you make time for your best horse today…and maybe someone you like as well.

Have you hugged your horse today?

 LucilleLucille Mulhall[5]




[2] Mary Lou LeCompte. Cowgirls of the Rodeo: Pioneer Professional Athletes (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1993): 28.

[3] Charles Marion Russell [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

[4] Vera McGinnis. Rodeo Road: My Life as a Pioneer Cowgirl. (NY: Hastings House, Publishers, Inc., 1974): 163-4.

[5] Creative Commons License

Cowgirls in Cowtown


Photograph of a halter class at the 1908 Southwestern Exposition and Livestock Show  –  CC public domain

The brisk change in weather and chance of precipitation are right on cue. Those of us who grew up in anticipation of the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo could tell when time for the first rodeo was near. As a kid, the excitement of getting to go to the rodeo, and travel to the city, combined with the potential for snow, made the Stock Show a fun way to start the new year.

This year marks the 120th for the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo (FWSSR) and it has changed greatly through its history. Most recent transformations include a fine-looking renovation of Cattle Barn 2, and to accommodate the increasing number of visitors, the Tower Promenade, which provides a “300-foot arched pedestrian thoroughfare” that will also connect to a planned multipurpose arena and improve mobility for crowds.[1]


Will Rogers Memorial Center, Fort Worth Texas – photo by Joe Mabel, January 28, 2007        GFDL granted by photographer

Since beginning in 1896 as the Southwestern Exposition and Livestock Show, it has been a place of many firsts for cowgirls, particularly rodeo cowgirls. Cowgirls’ debut at the FWSSR actually pre-dates the rodeo, as women participated and performed in the round ups and auxiliary shows as early as 1898 which included “Broncho Busting,” “Wild Steer Riding,” and trick riding and roping events staged by both men and women.”[2] Although early exhibitions and Roundups provided prizes and cash awards for demonstrating events that showcased “ranch work,” the first organized rodeo, or “The Rodeo of the Southwestern Exposition and Fat Stock Show,” occurred in 1918 and included cowgirls in the Ladies’ Bucking Bronco contest.[3]   Lucille Mulhall, often credited as being America’s first cowgirl, starred in the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Show when they performed in Fort Worth in 1916. But for Mulhall, this exposure also allowed her to become one of the few female rodeo producers in the profession at that time, when she and her business partner Homer Wilson produced the first indoor rodeo in the old coliseum building in 1917 after having signed a deal to “stage a big round-up as a night entertainment during the Fat Stock Show Week and the Cattle Raisers Association Convention.”[4] By 1918, cowgirls were advertised as a main attraction of the rodeo. “The Star Telegram featured a half page of action shots of Ruth Roach. The caption read: ‘Of all the features at the Fat Stock Show and Rodeo, none is more thrilling that the riding of Ruth Roach, cowgirl.’”[5] The cowgirls’ presence in the FWSSR has increased greatly as women have continued to rodeo there, increasing their participation by serving on committees, organizing community outreach, hosting a number of clinics and events for young future cowgirls, and sponsoring extremely important educational programs and service through the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame and Museum.

Cowgirls have long been an important part of the development of Fort Worth and contributing to her western heritage. The role of the cowgirl in the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo is a significant part of Cowtown history. Although the economic success of the FWSSR has waxed and waned through the years, today’s stock show indeed “proves” to be a deserved celebration of tradition largely due to the perseverance of the cowgirl, for it is through her dedication and determination that this legacy is preserved through education, supporting agriculture and agribusiness, and of course, the all-important culture of Texas.   This year’s theme and logo is quite fitting – “120 Years Proof Positive” and here’s hoping the positive grows with posterity.


Fort Worth Rodeo, Cowtown Coliseum – photo by Billy Hathorn CC public domain

Post Script — For a brief timeline, details of the many names of the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, and explanation of how the show moved to the now famous art deco style buildings that house the rodeo performances in the Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum, see the official page of the FWSSR, under the heading, History and Tradition.

[1] Robert Francis. “Fort Worth Stock Show gives a Glimpse of the Future with Cattle Barn, Promenade.” Fort Worth Business, January 5, 2016. (accessed January 16, 2016).

[2] Clay Reynolds and Marie-Madeleine Schein. A Hundred Years of Heroes: A History of the Southwestern Exposition and Livestock Show. (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1995), 77.

[3] Clay Reynolds and Marie-Madeleine Schein. A Hundred Years of Heroes: A History of the Southwestern Exposition and Livestock Show. (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1995), 115, 118.

[4] Homer Wilson, “A Spring Round Up at Ft. Worth,” Wild Bunch 2, no.6 (January 1917): 6.

[5] Mary Lou LeCompte. Cowgirls of the Rodeo: Pioneer Professional Athletes. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 75.

Cowgirl Christmases and the New Year’s Rodeo Season

The holiday season in today’s rodeo world kind of kicks off with the end of the season and the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas – but it wasn’t always so. This Christmas break led me to reflect on the lives of the rodeo cowgirls I research, who competed in rodeo at the turn of the twentieth century. For many of these cowgirls, the off-season was a much needed rest, albeit in a loosely interpreted meaning of that word. Those who were married and owned ranches returned home to winterize the place, tend to their livestock, and complete the never-ending repair work that comes with ranching. But for those single cowgirls making a career in rodeo, the off-season was a scramble for a paycheck to make ends meet until the next rodeo.


Helen Gibson in a 1916 episode of “The Hazards of Helen”

Some of these cowgirls found work in other areas, as tailors or hair dressers, like Tillie Baldwin, and in office work. Others worked training horses, either for racing or for use in motion pictures. But a few wintered in California working as stunt doubles in Hollywood. Who could question how intelligent these cowgirls were when deciding to climb on a killer bronc (as I’m sure some did) when they were smart enough to winter in sunny southern California, and still make money doing what they loved? After this week’s winter storm, it seems like a brilliant plan!

Many rodeo cowgirls found off-season work in motion pictures; some were in silent films, and others worked for the industry in some capacity such as Alice Adams Holden, Bertha Kaepernik Blancett, and Mildred Douglas Chrisman, to name a few. Others like Vera McGinnis and Gene Creed who worked and lived part-time in the greater Los Angeles area, often trained horses for Hollywood production companies like Bison Motion Pictures and Universal Pictures. These women were well-known for their rodeo skills, from bronc and steer riding to roping and relay racing. In a time when stunt work was reserved for men, due to Victorian beliefs that women should not be sporty, these women used their athleticism to transform Hollywood, with many cowgirls working as stuntwomen and even becoming the main character and heroine.

Perhaps one of the more famous was Helen Gibson. She began her career with the Miller Brothers 101 Wild West show and proceeded into rodeo where she met and married Hoot Gibson. In Hollywood, what began as her off-season work became a solid career as a stuntwoman, actress, and producer. She is one of the few cowgirls who starred in a series that portrayed women as the hero. In Hazards of Helen, Gibson began as a double for Helen Holmes, then later starred in the same series, playing Helen for 63 episodes where in various scenarios she saves the day! Here she is in a great pose – rescuing herself in the film, The Capture of Red Stanley. [1]











Whether training horses, doubling for stars, or performing stunts, these women pursued their passion in a time when this type of work was atypical. Although women portrayed as heroines was not a sustained theme in the classic westerns, it does provide some history of real cowgirls who perpetuated their primary careers in rodeo by taking advantage of their popularity in Hollywood. Their talents were reflected during this brief period on the silver screen, leaving a legacy of inspiration for us all.

Here is an episode of Hazards of Helen starring Helen Gibson


Bad Girls and Bimbos in Boots

Bad girls in the Old West was not a term just limited to soiled doves or saloon girls. Bad girls in the West, both in reality and on the silver screen, have come to identify women who refused to conform to society’s assigned gender roles and etiquette expected of a lady in the Victorian West. This bad behavior consisted of anything from voicing an opinion to wearing pants, or in a few cases running their own ranches or homesteads – acts that made others view them as being masculine!

Through the history of western film, women have mostly been cast as helpmates, often needing rescue from either natives or bad guys. Some have been a bit saucy with their attitudes and a few have been true bad girls, completely bucking the standard or playing the role of outlaws. Many films that include bad girls center on women led astray by circumstances unique to the West. One example is a character played by Gail Davis in Whirlwind, a 1951 Columbia picture that also starred Gene Autry. Davis’ character in Whirlwind is introduced to the audience when Autry mistakes her for a cowboy watering his horse. Presenting Davis’ character, Elaine, as Laine, the more masculine abbreviation, the role has Davis dressed not just in pants, but actual bluejeans, with a leather jacket and wearing a man’s hat. She is gruff when answering Autry who addresses her by saying, “Hey cowboy,” yet as the story unfolds we learn there is reason for her crude attitude. After the murder of her father, she was raised by a bachelor uncle who was also running a gang of thieves. She is therefore abrasive and appears to be unladylike in both her attire and her behavior. However, as Autry and Laine become close and begin to like each other, her clothing, and her demeanor both change. For example when courting, she wears a riding skirt as they go for an afternoon ride, and near the end of the film when there are hints of a potential marriage she no longer wears a man’s hat and pants, but instead has her hair fixed and wears a full-length, modest dress.


Gene Autry and Gail Davis

Spotlighting social prejudices, public outcasts become the leads – both bad girl and bad boy – in the film Stagecoach, a 1939 United Artists production. Stagecoach actually billed Claire Trevor in the top spot over her leading co-star, John Wayne. Trevor plays the role of Dallas, a saloon girl or prostitute, and the entire film is set around the tensions between Dallas and the enforcers of proper society, the League of Ladies, who have cast her and the local doctor (a drunk) out of town. This forces the pariahs, Dallas and the doctor, to sit opposite the two characters playing the roles reflecting proper citizens – an army officer’s wife, Mrs. Mallory, and a proper southern gentlemen – during their stagecoach journey further West. This tension rises as the quasi-bad boy Ringo, played by John Wayne, enters the stage. He is the pivot for the clash between views as he, like Dallas, is a good man who turned bad due to circumstance; however, as a male character, he voices his opinion that Dallas is just as much a lady as Mrs. Mallory. Both Ringo and Dallas have become orphaned due to the harsh conditions of life in the West, but through the storyline, it is revealed that they are not just ordinary and good people underneath the labels society placed upon them, but actually heroes, when both Dallas and Ringo save the day.

Doc and Dallas being thrown out of town.

Women as outlaws are more infrequent in Western filmography, but there are some modern examples. The 1965 Columbia film, Cat Ballou, stars Jane Fonda in the lead role. This comedy places Catherine Ballou center stage – she is educated in the East and returns to Wyoming territory as a teacher. Her circumstances change when she meets a handsome prisoner being transported by a marshal, which starts a chain of events leading to the death of her father. This turns Catherine into Cat, a vigilante seeking revenge for her father’s murder. Although a spoof, this film encompasses many romantic myths about the West; for example, the way Dime Novels led many, including the character Catherine Ballou, to believe the West was full of brave gun fighters, only to find that the hired gun fighter in this film, played by Lee Marvin, is an off-the-mark drunk.

 Click HERE to watch the turning point for Catherine Ballou in the film, Cat Ballou starring Jane Fonda.

In another parody, Bandidas (Twentieth Century Fox, 2006), starring Salma Hayek and Penélope Cruz, two very different classes of Mexican women take the role of Robin Hood-type vigilantes who reclaim stolen gold to save their town. They do so by using their sexual prowess and extraordinary outlaw-type skills to accomplish their goal. This rather cheesy B movie again makes the point that extenuating events have caused the change of course in the lives for good girls, forcing them to step outside social protocols to do what was necessary.

The official trailer for the 2006 Twentieth Century Fox film, Bandidas

The final example is another Twentieth Century Fox film made in 1994, Bad Girls. This film addresses a wider variety of women than found in most Westerns by portraying four types of women in the West: homesteader/helpmate, Wild West show star, Southern Belle, and entrepreneur. These women are some of the many who populated the American West, and similar to the other bad girls – events associated with the West changed their lives. All of these characters were forced into prostitution, one of the most likely destinies of women in the West who did not have a spouse or family to care for and chaperone them. The helpmate became a widow while on the trail in the move west; the Wild West show star’s father went bankrupt and died, forcing her to pay his debts through the only means she could. The Southern Belle had run away from home to the city from a poor farm in hopes of becoming a theater star when reality forced her into prostitution, and finally the entrepreneurial tough girl and leader of the group had been orphaned young and taken by a gang of bandits, where she was brutally treated.

All of these Hollywood portrayals of bad girls in the Wild West reflect a continuity in that the women had once been good, but happenstance and tragedy turned them bad. This leaves the audience satisfied with notions that the West was still that untamed and exciting frontier where people could be free to start over, to reinvent themselves if necessary, to be anything – even a bad girl tough enough to survive the tragedies of the territories. In the end, all these women ride away with some goodness reflected in their character, with some accomplishment, with a victory in overcoming the greatest of odds – not because they needed a cowboy to save them, but because they were bad enough to do it themselves.

Singing Cowboys and Tone-deaf Cowgirls

Singing cowboys made their entrance onto the silver screen in the 1930s and remained popular through the early 1950s. Perhaps the two most well-known are Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.

Gene Autry and Smiley Burnette singing “Deep in the Heart of Texas” in Heart of the Rio Grande (1942)

The singing cowboy actually began in Medicine shows where businesses like the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company sold bottles of “Kickapoo Magic Snake Oil” with Indian brand labels. This led audiences to connect the iconic symbol of Indians to Cowboys of the West, so much so that it became part of advertising for the shows. “The earliest known collection of cowboy songs was published a producer of patent medicines, Clark Stanley, in 1897” which he used to advertise his goods.”[1]

Forms of singing commonly associated with cowboys include yodeling. In Europe yodeling pre-dates Shakespeare, but the art form wasn’t popular in the United States until the 19th century. Even then, the yodeling cowboy came not from the West but from minstrel shows, with the first show that included yodeling being promoted by “Tom Christian, a blackface minstrel who made his début in Chicago in 1847.”[2]

Here is an example of a true yodel combined with Western influence by Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers singing “A Swiss Yodel” in 1934.

When medicine shows toured the South the iconographic music morphed with the “blue yodel” of the minstrel shows and with folk and Hillbilly influences to become Country and Western music, a style that was raw and a bit too telling of the mostly poor and rural people these songs were about. How would one clean up this act? With a cowboy in a white hat, of course. The singing cowboy is “intimately tied up in the process of making Country music respectable and therefore marketable. It was the image and mythology of the cowboy that provided the most accessible means of repressing the vulgarity of Southern vernacular music.”[3]

The idea behind a cowboy who sings also replicates cowboys singing to settle herds of cattle at night during long cattle drives and for cowhands to stave off boredom. This character in movies makes this sub-genre rather unique. Unlike the traditional musical where the songs are written to tell part of the story and are fitted to the script, the Westerns that spotlight the singing cowboy are quasi-musical motion pictures that showcase the cowboy’s musical talent through popular western songs. In these western-type musicals, women are portrayed swooning over the cowboys who are serenading them. For the most part, women in these Westerns are depicted in a way that is consistent with most other films from this era: as good girls who need rescuing by a handsome cowboy so they can ride off into the sunset together. There are some who take second stage to a cowboy’s horse, but others who sing along with their cowboy partners.

In the 1951 Columbia picture, Whirlwind starring Gene Autry and Gail Davis, he opens with a song that gives the audience an indication of where he stands. The lyrics begin, “Ain’t no lady gonna break my heart, as long as I’ve got my horse.”[4] His horse, Champ, was a beautiful light sorrel, leaving the lady in the picture to earn her way into Autry’s heart.

Gene Autry singing “As Long as I Have My Horse” in Whirlwind (1951)

One may wonder why these women put up with secondary roles that portrayed them as completely dependent on crooning cowboys. However, these films were popular during a time when American society needed assurances about traditional roles of women. From the Depression to the Cold War much of motion picture entertainment centered on reflections of the normalcy of tradition, even if it was a romanticized rather than realistic version. Also noticeable is the constantly recurring “happy ending” in Hollywood: the good guy gets the girl and they live happily ever after. This led to the popularity of movie star couples on and off the screen. The most famous of the Western duets were Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.

Perhaps Dale Evans can best explain this as she grew up dreaming of marrying a cowboy, Tom Mix in fact, while she also “admired silent serial heroine Ruth Roland.”[5] Evans’ pursuit of a career reflected a mixture of these two things as she become known as “Queen of the West,” partnering with her co-star and later husband, the “King of the Cowboys, Roy Rogers.” Their first picture together, The Cowboy and the Señorita, was made in 1944.[6] Evans and Rogers also had a series for which Evans wrote the closing song, the famous “Happy Trails,” reflecting her talents in writing, music, and acting.

This is a tribute to Dale Evans and Roy Rogers singing “Happy Trails” and highlighting some of Evans’ many famous costumes.

One of the rare women to play the lead as a singing cowgirl was Dorothy Page. She starred as “The Singing Cowgirl” in a series of three B-Westerns by Grand National Pictures. Unlike other Westerns, Page was the star with top billing, and played the lead in fighting against rustlers and other bad guys; as in the sub-genre of Western musicals, these films simply inserted some songs into the typical story-lines. Although the three films Water Rustlers (1938), Ride’em Cowgirl (1939), and The Singing Cowgirl (1939) were not the successes the studio had hoped for, they did at least briefly allow women a place in the spotlight. For even if overlooked in popular Westerns, women built the West alongside men and have a place in the stories we love to tell about this heritage.

The film, “The Singing Cowgirl” starring Dorothy Page.

[1] Stanfield, Peter. “Dixie Cowboys and Blue Yodels” The Strange History of the Singing Cowboy” qtd. In Edward Buscombe and Roberta E. Pearson, eds. Back in the Saddle Again: New Essays on the Western. (London: British Film Institute, 1998), 97.

[2] Ibid, 98

[3] Ibid, 100.

[4] Gail Davis is probably most well known for playing Annie Oakley in the series produced by Gene Autry’s Flying-A Productions. The show ran from 1954-56. Boyd Magers and Michael G. Fitzgerald, Westerns Women: Interviews with 50 Leading Ladies of Movie and Television Westerns from the 1930s to the 1960s. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1999), 67.

[5] Magers, Boyd and Michael G. Fitzgerald, Westerns Women: Interviews with 50 Leading Ladies of Movie and Television Westerns from the 1930s to the 1960s. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1999), 84.

[6] Ibid, 84.


Finding Waldo and other Camouflaged Items

When I first began researching rodeo cowgirls for my dissertation, one archivist told me to quit. She said I was looking for a needle in a haystack and I would not find sources adequate for a dissertation on women. Not to be deterred by one grump, I continued looking. It hasn’t been easy, and not just because part of my dissertation includes the “black hole” in rodeo that is part of this Digital History project at Oklahoma State University. This “black hole” as you may recall from previous posts is from 1929-1949, when women begin to be forced out of certain events in what is now professional rode and in which they had been competing since rodeo began. It is an underdeveloped area of study.

One of the reasons for that portentous word of caution directed at me a couple of years ago was that rodeo is a small-town event scattered across the United States and Canada as much as it is the big-name, big-city rodeos we all know today like Cheyenne, the Pendleton Round Up, Fort Worth, Denver, and of course Las Vegas. Many rodeo producers did not keep adequate records, if any, until the 1920s during the Golden Age of Rodeo, and even those records are haphazard and often not part of larger archival collections. Because of the travel on the rodeo circuit, and the number of producers who lost their businesses, the records are piecemeal at best. Nevertheless, some resources are available in local historical societies, local libraries and county libraries in towns where rodeo has a long history. Information on the more famous contestants, stock contractors, and producers is available at the larger archival collections such as the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, and, for information after the organization of professional rodeo, the ProRodeo Hall of Fame – Museum of the American Cowboy. But of course this is not news to anyone who has even looked at rodeo history.

Add to all of this the typical challenges of researching women in history, which for the most part has been written by and about men. Because efforts to rectify this since the 1970s, the volume of literature has increased as scholars have reviewed the usefulness of traditional methodology and written about how we can better research women, including how to locate women’s sources. These lessons are particularly fitting for a tough subject like rodeo women. Having experience with this, here are what I would consider the top three most helpful hints and the results of my own hard work in researching this topic:

1 – Think outside the box. Often women’s resources are not found in the usual documents one finds when researching men. It requires piecing together evidence that is sometimes initially quite strange to the historian, such as, but not limited to: quilts, art, household account records, letters, and diaries, travel narratives, court documents, and even sermons. My recommendation for anyone working in women’s history is to read Contesting Archives: Finding Women in the Sources by Nupur Chaudhuri, Sherry J. Katz, and Mary Elizabeth Perry (see the Additional Resources link above for more information about this book).

2 – When you look for women in records, particularly where they shared a career with their husbands as in rodeo, look in the husband’s records. True, today it seems odd that she might still be known only by her affiliation with her husband – especially in archival records, but it is often where information is kept. Additionally, some women continued to rodeo under their maiden names, while others used their married names – either way, her information may still be listed in her husband’s collection.

3 – Finally, look for yourself! Don’t expect someone to do the work for you, and don’t expect these rules to be iron-clad; there are always exceptions. More times than not, when someone says there is nothing useful in a particular collection, this is false. Besides, that advice is hopefully from someone working on a different project than your own. Also, no matter how good your elevator speech is, or how well you describe your thesis and project in the brief letter of introduction to the archivist, he or she still has very limited knowledge about your work. Having said that, many archivists are very good at piecing together the materials and resources in their collections that will be of use to you, get to know them; talk to them about what you need and why you are looking for the information you seek. This is most successful when you do so in person. The bottom line is that you have to review the collection and see what is useful.

Leading Ladies Necessary for Oaters’ Success

Magers, Boyd and Michael G. Fitzgerald, Westerns Women: Interviews with 50 Leading Ladies of Movie and Television Westerns from the 1930s to the 1960s.  Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1999.

Many people fondly recall having seen their favorite Western as a kid, perhaps at a local theater for the matinee. In addition, when asking about one’s favorite Western, the response often includes details of leading actors and the action scene that made the heroic cowboy stand out in those memories. Westerns have been immensely popular in America since the first moving pictures, but the lure of the Old West on the silver screen knows no borders, as Westerns are now well-liked in many cultures across the globe. Because of this love for the Western, an internet search of the genre’s filmography produces lengthy results. Even on Wikipedia, the list is so long that it requires subdivision by decade. Nevertheless, the first film listed on the Wikipedia page is not the first cowboy hero; it is a cowgirl. Annie Oakley shooting glass balls in 1894 is the first film listed.[1] Perhaps this is a lesson to remind us that along with every cowboy hero was a cowgirl who all too often has been overshadowed.

The book, Westerns Women, compiled by Boyd Magers and Michael G. Fitzgerald, provides the women’s voices so often missing in both the Western genre and its creation.  The collection consists of interviews with fifty leading ladies who discuss their experiences on the set and their relationships with leading men, directors and other aspects of the business. The discussions range from difficulties in working with harsh directors, or impossible jerks, to how much these women enjoyed working in nature, learning to ride and work with horses, and managing their own careers.

Magers and Fitzgerald covered a broad area of the genre by including actresses in both A and B movies, as early as the 1930s, and adding television series through the 1960s. The majority, however, focus on women starring in these roles during the heyday of Westerns in the 1950s and 1960s.  Each entry includes narrative of the interview with the starring actress, her filmography in movies including the year and the leading man, and a list of her experience in television Westerns.

The book reads very conversationally, giving the feeling that you are actually interviewing the actresses. Their stories are beneficial in understanding some of the struggles these women had in establishing a career, and in their efforts to gain notice in the masculine-focused setting of the West.  Many describe feelings of accomplishment and courage at learning how to ride, and attempting to use stunt doubles as little as possible.  Others explained how working on Western sets and with animals expanded their knowledge of the art of acting.  Julie Adams described how trainers showed her how to teach the horses to do the scene, stating they had to “rehearse the horse – [to] hit the marks” so the horses wouldn’t completely run away with less experienced riders, or to stay together as a herd running across the prairie. Several interviewees reported pushing their own boundaries of comfort by attempting rather daring stunts, when allowed to do so. Merry Anders, in the 1957 film The Dalton Girls, rode the horses herself in all the action scenes except one. Anders said she “didn’t do the jump off the roof” onto a horse stunt – a girl has to draw the line at a really bad idea.[2]  Studio contracts limited some women obligated to ensure specific qualities.  Julie Adams’ term with Universal Studios bound her to publicity stunts promoting such qualities, “including having her legs, ‘the most perfectly symmetrical in the world,’ insured for $125,000.”[3]

Many of these women describe their roles along the lines of damsels in distress needing rescue from the cowboy hero, or mothers of cowboys battling the bad guys, or as saloon girls. Many women described being sexualized in off-screen publicity exploits. Pinups of cowgirl stars like Vivian Austin included posing in a mini-skirt, bikini or tank top with cowgirl boots, gloves and a gun. Similar to other Hollywood uses of leading actors, women occasionally played characters of other races. Julie Adams played a Mexican in Wings of the Hawk, a 1953 3-D film by Universal-International that, while not employing a Mexican actress, did use authentic props like a “Mexican saddle… [and] riding crop.”[4] Some women were able to break out of the mold in some respects, although even in those films that portrayed them as atypical women, they did not hold the leading roles that were still reserved for men. Julie Adams played a bad girl in the 1952 film Horizons West, but the star was Rock Hudson.

Although she made many types of films, the one woman who stands out and made a niche for herself in the Western genre is Maureen O’Hara. Her Western filmography is surprisingly short in comparison to some of the other actresses showcased in the book. However, the Westerns she starred in were big pictures with leading big-name actors like John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Henry Fonda. This selection of quality films plus her consistently being cast as an “Irresistible Redhead” have contributed to her success. More often than not, she was portrayed as a lady, yet with a fiery temper, such as in McLintock!, a 1963 United Artists picture starting John Wayne. Although strong-willed, her characters were rarely what one would consider a working cowgirl.


Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne  in McLintock!


John Wayne, perhaps the most famous of all the Western stars, stated that “of all the oaters he had done, only two had a good part for the leading lady: Stagecoach (with Claire Trevor, 1939) and Tall in the Saddle (with Ella Raines, 1944).”[5]  That may never change due to audiences continuing to look for tradition and romantic myth in our stories of the Old West.  Nevertheless, the efforts made by Magers and Fitzgerald have at least preserved the important contributions made by these leading ladies…for without a cowgirl, who would a cowboy ride into the sunset with?

Tracey Hanshew

 Oklahoma State University


[2] Anders, Merry, “Opening Up” in Boyd Magers and Michael G. Fitzgerald, Westerns Women: Interviews with 50 Leading Ladies of Movie and Television Westerns from the 1930s to the 1960s. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1999), 19.

[3] Adams, Julie, “From B’s to A’s” in Boyd Magers and Michael G. Fitzgerald, Westerns Women: Interviews with 50 Leading Ladies of Movie and Television Westerns from the 1930s to the 1960s. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1999), 10.

[4] Ibid, 11.

[5] Magers, Boyd and Michael G. Fitzgerald, Westerns Women: Interviews with 50 Leading Ladies of Movie and Television Westerns from the 1930s to the 1960s. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1999), 1.

Rodeo’s Deeply Rooted Patriotism

Some of the best rodeos of the season are on the July schedule. True, it is hotter than blazes in some areas where rodeos show during the summer, but it doesn’t seem to deter the crowds, perhaps because of the ice cream, snow cones, and frozen lemonades now available at the concession stands, but more likely it is the connection to July 4th celebrations.

By Duncan, Patricia D., 1932-, Photographer (NARA record: 8464441) (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Duncan, Patricia D., 1932-, Photographer (NARA record: 8464441) (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This past July there was discussion on Facebook and in connection to an article about dwindling knowledge of proper etiquette during the singing of our national anthem. Because I have strong feelings about this, when I attend a sport event or assembly, I pay attention to the behavior of others while the flag is presented. Sometimes people remain seated (referring to those who do not have a physical impairment that makes it difficult for them stand), or people fail to remove their hats, or they continue conversations — worse, are those on their cell phones. This prompted the question as part of that Facebook dialogue about who is responsible for teaching proper etiquette. Some blame public schools for not doing so; others fault parents. I would argue it is all of us. A good place to start making change is by being an example. In my observations, I have noticed audience members who know the protocol, who provide good examples and who consistently do so while attending American rodeos. There, a greater majority of participants and spectators remove their hats, immediately cease conversations, stand to attention, and silence their cell phones during the singing of the national anthem and during the display of the flag.

photo credit: American Flag via photopin (license)

photo credit: American Flag via photopin (license)

Why the difference at rodeos? Simply put, it is rodeo’s heritage. The first rodeos were organized not just to display the skills of local cowboys, but to include the surrounding communities and commemorate America. Many early competitions were scheduled in conjunction with Independence Day celebrations or weekends closest to July 4th. As rodeo evolved, producers alternated events where cowboys and cowgirls competed with intermissions that included live productions or plays telling a brief history of America, or honoring local war heroes. This practice of reverence for veterans expanded after World War II partially because the exponential contributions to the war effort affected everyone across the country, but also many cowboys who served in the military during the war returned to rodeo careers or to Hollywood as cowboys becoming famous in both areas. Audie Murphy even had an arena named for him and for a brief time, a rodeo in his honor in his home state of Texas.

Like most sport events, rodeos today open with the display of the American flag, singing of our national anthem, and in many areas an opening prayer. Many rodeos honor veterans with a free admission night, taking time to recognize members of the military in attendance and with a “thank you.”

By Bobjgalindo (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Bobjgalindo (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

I once heard a first-time attendee state that rodeo people were hyper-patriotic; perhaps, but in a society that cannot seem to identify who is responsible for teaching proper manners during the national anthem or posting the colors, or even respect for individuals who serve, aren’t we fortunate to have a community willing to stand up and remind us all how?
Happy Veterans’ Day ya’ll.