Cowgirls in Cowtown

1908FortWorthShow

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]

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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.

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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, http://www.fwssr.com 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. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Will_Rogers_Memorial_Center_02.jpg (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.

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