c 2020 by Jan MacKell Collins
Portions of this article first appeared in the Frontier Gazette.
When it was first recorded in 1884, the term “cowgirl” referred to a female rancher or even a rancher’s daughter. In time, this single word also came to mean a female cowpuncher, and soon also applied to the resolute and hardy women who rode the rodeo circuit. In the Victorian west, a woman riding rodeo must have seemed appalling to some. But those in the game knew that gals coming from ranching backgrounds, where they worked with horses and cattle daily, were tough gals indeed.
In time, rodeo women became celebrities in their own right. They were vindicated heroes to other women, and men found them both pretty and impressive. During the 1880’s, during a surge of determined western estrogen, more and more women entered the arena at fairs, round ups and shows. Seven gals in particular watched as Prescott, Arizona held its first-ever rodeo in 1888. The following year, when promoters decided to add a women’s “contest”, they were elated.
Those first seven female contestants in 1889 were all locals, who had been born and raised on area ranches. They were “Mesdames T. Atto, Celia Book, D.W. Thorne and Misses Mollie Baker, Minnie Bargeman, Mary Boblett and Lizzie Dillon.” The women would perform in a single competition. A beautiful saddle would go to the winner; her runner-up would receive a fine bridle.
The event took place at the “Driving Park” in the afternoon of the rodeo’s last day. It was Friday, and crowds made their way to see this novel attraction. A cowboy tournament was scheduled too, but the “ladies riding” proved far more appealing. “Greater interest was manifested in the latter than in any of the previous days’ sports of the track,” noted the Prescott Journal-Miner, “every available vehicle and animal in the town being pressed into service to carry passengers, business of all kinds being closed for the afternoon.”
No doubt some betting money was exchanged as the cowgirls took their places. Seven judges—George Augustine, Orick Jackson, Frank Kuehne, Juan Leibas, George L. Merritt, James Rourke and Jeff Young—assembled to watch the contest. How it all went was not recorded by local papers, but the crowd was surely amazed and amused all at the same time. Lizzie Dillon won the saddle and Mary Boblett, a cousin to then-budding historian Sharlot Hall, received the bridle.
They say that despite it’s success, no other “ladies riding” contests took place at Prescott until the 1920’s. Lizzie Dillon married Tom Turner in 1891 and settled down. Likewise for Mary Boblett, who married Amos Hall in 1890, and Minnie Bargeman, who married that same year. Notably, lots of women back then competed no more than once, settling into domestic life with a satisfied smirk on their faces. Others, however, pursued rodeo as a career and did quite well.
But it was not forgotten that those seven brazen and talented women had busted right into the rodeo industry, and their courage inspired others. Soon, trick riders—including amazing women who dove horses into water from high in the air—were all the rage. It could be said that trick shooter Annie Oakley was truly one of America’s first sweethearts. And, their gussied up and colorful outfits inspired men to start adding shiny buttons and polished accouterments to their outfits, too.
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West performances, circuses and other events featuring equestrian performances were soon featuring women like Mabel Strickland (pictured) and Tad Lucas, dubbed “Rodeo’s First Lady”. During the early 1900’s, heads turned when Fannie Sperry rode “slick”, the same as the men did. Slick riding consisted of tying the stirrups together under the horse’s belly and sticking your feet in for better balance in the saddle. It could also be dangerous, since it was harder for the rider to kick free if the horse went down.
Prescott’s rodeo cowgirls of 1889 may be in the past, but plenty of other ladies have saddled up in the time since. These include such champions as three-time winner Shirley Davis during the 1960’s, rodeo veteran Alexa Allred during the 70’s, Rose Webb in the 80’s, Twila Haller during the 90’s and most recently, Sheri Sinor-Estrada. These and many others have been recipients of cash prizes and shiny buckles, and there will be more.