It is National Finals Rodeo time! Behind the event is a great deal of planning, organizing, effort from sponsors, stock contractors, and many more. It brings to mind the importance of history made behind the scenes. Most history we rememberand study is the major event itself. But you must look at the factors behind the scenes that lead to that event to understand how and why it occurred.
In professional rodeo, the National Finals is the biggest event of the year; the concluding competition to see who is truly the best. It is the rodeo that kids dream of, not because of the fame, but because of the value in the proof that he or she is the best. But the NFR is a journey that many spend a lifetime traveling.
Some contestants believe rodeo is about them. Simplifying the entertainment aspect of the sport to that of the fans wanting to see their favorite top cowboy or cowgirl, and they certainly make it thrilling. But historically, that view has almost ruined professional rodeo a time or two. It is the “Cinderella story,” that competitor who arrives from behind the scenes, that sustains big rodeo, especially the NFR.
Rodeo began on ranches in the American West. Working ranch hands, vaqueros, cowboys, and cowgirls, having fun and competing to see who was the best roper or bronc rider. That evolved into scheduled contests that attracted an audience, and rodeo formed.
What started with a dream as a kid playing in the yard, the 4- or 5-year-old roping the dog, or chasing down a goat, or riding a sheep, led to twentieth century Junior Rodeos and Playdays. Then, to the hours and hours of practice in arenas across rural America that the greater public doesn’t always see–that is what built today’s rodeo.
The road to the Finals is never what we see on TV in the glamourous Vegas setting. It is perpetuated by those following their dream by working the second job to pay next week’s entry fees, and the trailer flats because you needed to get a few more miles down the road on a questionable tire because you just paid the vet bill from the month before. It is mucking stalls at 5 a.m. before work because you might get a practice run in after work and before dark on the long road to the bright lights of Vegas. From 1959 in Dallas to today in Las Vegas, it is the possibility that any cowboy or cowgirl can achieve the dream that sustains it.
For those of us who are rodeo historians, the behind the scenes work is similar. Hours searching for scraps of evidence to help piece together the stories of those cowboys and cowgirls who make it in rodeo. Early rodeo did not leave a nice neat paper trail to study. The 1922 Sumas Rodeo payout records held in the archives at Western Washington University, are on a small piece of paper like my grandmother used to write her grocery list. Countless others didn’t keep records until the 1920s. So, we use the materials collected by professional archives across the rodeo trail, and keep searching. The biggest collections as you may imagine are in the Cowboys Western Heritage and the National Cowgirls Rodeo Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City and for cowgirls inducted in their own Hall of Fame, in Fort Worth at the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame. But much like rodeo itself that started in the rural areas of the West, artifacts, and remainders of rodeo history are still scattered there today in local museums.
Mulhall was essential to women’s entrance into competitive rodeo. At the Oklahoma Territorial Museum are artifacts, photos, and family information on Mulhall. Much like those of us today who purchase NFR jacket or memorabilia, it is thrilling as a historian to see Lucille’s saddle or articles of clothing like the beautiful beaded vest gifted to her by Geronimo when part of the 101 Ranch Wild West show.
Artifacts like her signature beaded belt could contain other information about Lucille.
For example, we may not know where she obtained this belt, but it is possible that she herself did the work as her mother ensured she learned domestic skills before Lucille’s full interest turned to roping. Her mother’s insistence reflects the greater social standards of the period about gender norms including skills that identified one as a “lady.”
Well before rodeo sponsors provided shirts, hats, trailers, and many items used now to support modern competitors and advertise product, attire reveals a great deal about the rodeo competitor. Clues from articles of clothing provide information varying from social norms to socioeconomic class. For example, Lucille’s split skirts were tailor made but the signature blouse she wore was store bought. Both are indicators of her status and financial security.
The national museums preserving American history help us to explain our past, but also, who we are. For topics of study like rodeo, rooted in rural life, one cannot overstate the importance of local and regional archival centers. They unlock the history of rodeo and those men and women that made it what it is today. Their work behind the scenes allows historians to analyze materials that reveal important and analytical conclusions, like those about rodeo sustainability and our heritage which is important to understand how we preserve history and move forward toward a better society.