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By M. Timothy Nolting
For The Sun-Telegraph 

Across The Fence: Three women are queens in the world of rodeo

 

Over the years it has become somewhat of a tradition to celebrate Father's Day at the Grover Rodeo.

The rodeo in that small northern Colorado town has been an annual event since the early 1920s and attracts professional rodeo cowboys from across the nation. The so-called "Biggest little Rodeo" kicks off the areas rodeo season and is followed by the Greely Stampede along with numerous County Fair Rodeos, all leading up to the "Granddaddy of 'em all," Cheyenne Frontier Days.

There are still a few old timers around who remember when the rodeo arena consisted of a large circle of Model A and T Fords used to contain the broncs and steers that nowadays are penned with pipe and cable. When rodeos grew beyond the realm of local cowboys competing for small purses and exaggerated bragging rights, rodeo became a sport for professionals. From the very beginning rodeo has drawn crowds from every walk of life providing Wild West entertainment for paupers and princes, presidents and kings around the globe. Cheyenne Frontier Days, Calgary Stampede, Pendleton, Winnipeg, Madison Square Garden have all featured the best of the rodeo cowboys and, in the not too distant past, the best of the rodeo cowgirls.

Perhaps not everyone realizes that prior to the 1940s, there were women who competed in rodeo events other than barrel racing. In fact, there were many women, during the early 1900s who competed in steer wrestling, roping and bronc riding events. These were not special events held for women only, but the women competed alongside the men and, not infrequently, won the purse, gold buckles and championship saddles to prove it. In addition, they earned well-deserved bragging rights.

• • •

It is said that the first female to be called "cowgirl" was Lucille Mulhull. The famous trick roper and cowboy humorist Will Rogers wrote, "Lucille's achievement in competition with cowboys was the direct start of what has since come to be known as the Cowgirl. There was no such a word up to then as Cowgirl."

Born in St. Louis in October 1885, Lucille was still a toddler when her father homesteaded a 160-acre claim during the famous Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889. The homestead would eventually grow into an 80,000-acre ranch where Lucille was more inclined to spend her time horseback than attending to the domestic chores of her sisters.

As a petite, blue-eyed blonde, Lucille eagerly learned the skills required of a rancher in the open grasslands of Oklahoma Territory. Taught by the capable ranch hands of the Mulhull Ranch, Lucille learned to rope and ride during the round-ups and brandings of the Mulhull cattle.

On July 4, 1900, Theodore Roosevelt – a vice presidential candidate at the time – was campaigning in Oklahoma where he was the guest of honor at a Rough Riders convention. While there he attended a "Cowboy Tournament" where Lucille showcased her trick riding skills and also participated in the steer-roping event.

Roosevelt was so impressed with the young girls skills that he invited her and her family to be special guests of the Rough Riders convention. Roosevelt encouraged Lucille's father to promote the skills of his daughter saying, "...before the girl dies or gets married or cuts up some other caper you ought to put her on the stage and let the world see what she can do."

In 1904, Lucille competed against some of the Southwest's most capable cowboys in the Dennison, Texas, rodeo and at 18 years old established her reputation by winning the steer roping event. Lucille went on to claim three Texas championships in steer roping. By the turn of the century the young lady was known as America's greatest cowgirl. She was the first woman to compete with men in rodeo events.

It's important to note that the steer roping event was a timed event, similar to today. The steer was released from a holding pen and pursued by the roper on horseback and roped around the horns. The rider would then dismount. They'd depend on the horse to keep the steer on the ground while the rider tied three of the steer's feet together, preventing him from getting to his feet.

In 1913, Lucille won the steer roping at the Winnepeg Stampede with a record time of 33 and 3/5th seconds.

Lucille's last exhibition was in September 1940. Two months later she was killed in an auto accident less than a mile from the Mulhull ranch. In 1975, she was posthumously inducted into the National Rodeo Hall of Fame.

Mabel Delong-Strickland was born in Wallula, Wash., in 1897 and was first put astride a pony when she was 3. From that time forward she would spend most of her time in the saddle. Said to be a "natural" horsewoman, Mabel was schooled by a local trick rider and was an excellent student.

In 1913, she entered the trick riding competition in the Walla Walla Stampede and won the event and followed it up with wins in the next two years.

A small, 5-foot, 4-inch whisp of a girl, Mabel was labeled as "The Lovely Lady of Rodeo" by local media. Her good looks and horsemanship caught the admiration of a rodeo champion named Hugh Strickland from Bruneau, Idaho. The two were married in 1918.

Hugh taught Mabel to ride broncs, rope steers and even steer wrestling, but when they became parents of a baby girl they tried to settle into farming in Idaho. Going broke at the farming game the couple hit the circuit and Mabel became a champion of the rodeo. She was skilled in bronc riding, calf and steer roping, trick riding and relay racing and was capable of winning multiple events at any given rodeo.

Although her trick riding was perhaps her best event, Mable was also a champion bronc rider, winning championships at the Pendleton Stampede, Madison Square Garden and Cheyenne Frontier Days. A photograph of her 1924 bronc ride in Cheyenne, on a horse named Stranger, was used for the cover of the 1926 Cheyenne Frontier Days program.

Mabel has been inducted into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Hall of Fame, the ProRodeo Cowboys Hall of Fame, The National Cowgirl Hall of Fame and the Pendleton and Cheyenne Frontier Days Halls of Fame. A lifelong professional horsewoman, Mable died in 1976 at 79.

• • •

Nebraska's own, Barbara Inez "Tad" Lucas was born at Cody, Neb., on the first day of September 1902. She was one of 24 children of Lorenzo Barnes, and she made her professional rodeo debut at the Gordon, Neb., fair in 1917. At age 7, she was already helping her brothers break colts and riding calves just for fun.

Tad became a full-time professional cowgirl in 1922 and the following year toured the United States and Mexico as a trick rider. Later touring with rodeo performances in Europe and Australia.

Although best known for her trick riding skills, she placed second in bronc riding at Madison Square Garden in 1923. Through the 1920s and '30s, Tad won most every major prize in bronc riding, trick riding and relay racing. She was three-time winner of the Champion All-around Cowgirl at Madison Square Garden and won trick riding, bronc riding and relay events at Cheyenne Frontier Days.

Tad Lucas died in February 1990 and is honored by the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame, the Prorodeo Hall of Fame and was the first woman named to the National Rodeo Hall of Fame. She has been considered by some to be the most famous woman in rodeo history.

After surviving the great depression, struggling through the dust bowl years and staring in the face of an ever-threatening world war, women competing side-by-side with men came to an end. There were those who had always opposed women in rodeo, citing potential reproductive health hazards.

Others were opposed due to their Victorian views on the proper attire and expected mannerisms for women. Split skirts and trousers were blasphemous and riding 'like a man' was downright obscene. And, for the most part, rodeo cowboys were strongly opposed.

Perhaps they felt threatened by the talented cowgirls like Lucille, Mabel and Tad.

M. Timothy Nolting is an award-winning Nebraska columnist and freelance writer. To contact Tim, email: acrossthefence2day@gmail.com.

 

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