Into the Sunset

As I watched new members being inducted into Fort Worth's Cowgirl Hall of Fame last fall, I realized that these Texas icons are aging. Is this the end of an era?

February 2003By Comments

LAST FALL, I RECEVIED AN invitation to one of the social events of Fort Worth’s season: the annual luncheon to induct new members into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame. The dress was black-tie—bolo tie, that is. Fine beaver-skin hats, fancy tooled boots, and big silver belt buckles were in vogue too. It was a shindig with plenty of Cowtown style.

Hundreds of revelers streamed into the cavernous Amon G. Carter Exhibits Hall at the Will Rogers Memorial Center—members of prominent local families like the Basses, Marions, and Moncriefs along with well-heeled citizens and curious onlookers like me. We dined on $100-a-plate pepper-crusted tenderloin, sipped champagne, and gawked at the cowgirls’ embroidered-and-sequined jackets. The crowd cheered as cowboy poet and singer Red Steagall read the names of the five women being honored, including Hollywood stuntwoman Polly Burson; the late Fort Worth matriarch, rancher, and quarter horse breeder Anne Burnett Tandy; and Sandra Day O’Connor, an El Paso native who was raised on an Arizona ranch and is now an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. One thing was clear: In Cowtown, cowgirls rule.

Looking around the audience that day, another thing was clear: The archetypal Texas cowgirl is aging. The lovely lined faces and graying hair tucked under brimmed hats seemed to tell the story of the state’s western half—of growing up on a ranch, working cattle, riding horses under the sun, and cherishing independence above all else. I realized that I was in the company of some of the last of the old-time cowgirls. I had come to the luncheon to praise the cowgirl, not to bury her. But I couldn’t help wondering: In a state where technology, not cattle or horses or even land, is king, what is to become of one of Texas’ most cherished icons?

MY HEROES HAVE ALWAYS BEEN cowgirls (sorry, Willie). Women ranchers, trick riders, and rodeo queens were much more intriguing to me than the dusty cowboys I saw at the King Ranch when I was growing up in South Texas. Daring and free-willed and expert at handling horses, they were symbols of what the state had been—and what we still wanted it to be. They also had a unique fashion sense. I remember seeing a group of them years ago at a small-town rodeo in the Hill Country. They wore fringed satin shirts and smiles as they performed daredevil stunts on horseback or raced around barrels in a cloverleaf pattern without appearing to break a sweat.

The early cowgirls had unconventional names like Tad and Dude, and they were liberated long before anyone had heard of “women’s lib.” “The emancipation of women may have begun not with the vote, nor in the cities where women marched and carried signs and protested, but rather when they mounted a good cowhorse and realized how different and fine the view,” wrote folk historian Joyce Gibson Roach in her book The Cowgirls. I couldn’t agree more. To me, the cowgirl is the quintessential role model for any strong Texas woman: When she got knocked down in the dust, she got back up and kept going.

Any notions I had about becoming a real cowgirl myself were unrealistic, of course. I lived in the city, and the only horses I handled regularly were the plastic models that little cowgirl wannabes collect and play make-believe with. I lived out my fantasy in the spectators’ seats at rodeos, in the pages of books about cowgirls like Annie Oakley, and in my living room, watching Dale Evans on TV. So it was a fortunate twist of fate that, after I moved to Fort Worth, the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, which was founded in the Panhandle town of Hereford, decided to relocate there too.

When the new, $21 million museum opened last June in Fort Worth’s Cultural District, I had to be there for the inaugural ceremonies. The shrine’s site seemed both fitting and symbolic. The Remingtons and Russells at the Amon Carter Museum down the street had celebrated the American cowboy for decades; now the cowgirl was getting some overdue validation too. Inside the museum, the cowgirls’ contributions sprawled across three galleries: cowgirls in the rodeo arena, cowgirls as entertainers, cowgirls living on the land as ranch women. I was fascinated by the story of the late Tad Lucas, one of the most famous cowgirls. A longtime Fort Worth resident, she had ridden broncs and steers and been a trick rider, doing handstands on horseback, jumping off a running horse and vaulting back into the saddle, and performing other gymnastic feats. An athlete on a horse, Lucas was the all-around champion and trick-riding champion at the big Madison Square Garden Rodeo in New York for eight straight years in the twenties and thirties. A photograph in The Cowgirls shows her performing one of her most daring tricks, the “suicide drag,” in which she would hook her feet into straps on the rump of her galloping horse and dangle off it backward, with her head close to its pounding hooves and a calm look on her face. She passed on the love of rodeo to her daughter, Mitzi Lucas Riley, who was a talented trick rider in her day and is also in the Cowgirl Hall of Fame. Riley’s daughter-in-law, Pat Riley, is the cowgirl museum’s executive director.

Lucas epitomized the romantic perception of the cowgirl as a Western heroine, but other Texas cowgirls led far less glamorous lives. “Cowgirls were involved in every part of the process of making the state,” says Mitzi Riley. Some went on the cattle trail drives along with men. In The Cowgirls, Roach wrote that in 1886 Mary Taylor Bunton, who lived on the Cross S ranch near Sweetwater, persuaded her husband to take her up the Chisholm Trail to Kansas. “Riding ahead of the herd, I would turn in my saddle and look back, and it would look as if the entire face of the earth was just a moving mass of heads and horns,” Bunton recalled. Another early cowgirl, Sally Skull, was riding and roping and marking her cattle with the Circle S brand in Refugio County in the 1850’s. Wrote Roach, “Wearing rawhide bloomers and riding astride, she thought nothing of crossing into Mexico, unchaperoned, to pursue her career as a horse trader. She asked no man’s leave and needed no man’s escort.” What made these women different was the horse, says Roach, who splits her time between Keller and a piece of land in Wise County. During the Victorian era, it was considered improper and provocative for a woman to ride any way but sidesaddle, completely covered with skirts. “But women in the West had to depend on the horse for more than just leisurely transportation,” she says. “They were out in a place where nobody knew what they were doing. Nobody was looking over their shoulder. They began to use the horse out of necessity, like men did. And anytime you master the horse and make it a part of your life, you produce a different kind of person. So what happened was that women were becoming more outspoken, more capable, more confident, more skilled. Suddenly you had this spirited, independent, back-seat-to-nobody kind of attitude.”

I learned about that kind of woman in my early childhood years in Kingsville. I grew up hearing stories about one of the most famous ranch women of them all, Henrietta Chamberlain King, who built the King Ranch with her husband, Richard, and is also in the Cowgirl Hall of Fame. I recall visiting the ranch on weekends and admiring the red Santa Gertrudis cattle, the nation’s first distinct cattle breed. It impressed me that Henrietta was an equal partner with her husband and helped found the town of Kingsville; the street behind my grandmother’s house, Henrietta Street, was even named after her. I didn’t realize until years later how much her example had molded my own ideas about a woman’s place in the world. The ranch woman­cowgirl archetype instilled in generations of Texas girls the message that gender doesn’t have any bearing on a person’s worth and that a woman has to learn to do things for herself, to “saddle her own horse,” to paraphrase the cowgirl museum’s motto. I was always surprised, and quite annoyed, when I encountered males who were so misinformed as to think otherwise.

Today, of course, the cowgirl has been embraced by popular culture. When I was searching for a copy of The Cowgirls on Amazon.com, more than ninety items popped up when I typed in the word “cowgirl,” from calendars and coloring books to big coffee-table books. Cowgirl memorabilia like old rodeo programs, postcards, and costumes are hot collector’s items. Cowgirl images are splashed on T-shirts, coffee cups, mouse pads, and note cards. When I was watching the HBO series Sex and the City recently and saw Miranda wearing a T-shirt with a vintage image of cowgirls—I have one just like it—I realized that the cowgirl has become a model for independent women everywhere. “Cowgirls are more popular now than they’ve ever been,” says Mitzi Riley. “They’ve finally gotten their due.”

BUT THE COWGIRLS POPULARITY IS rooted in nostalgia. Where will the next generation come from, I wanted to know, and how will it be different? In late December I drove to Stephenville to put those questions to three cowgirls I know and respect, women who are in the Cowgirl Hall of Fame. I met Jerry Ann Portwood Taylor and Jimmie Gibbs Munroe, appropriately enough, by the big plastic cow in front of the Erath County courthouse, then we drove several miles to the ranch where Nita Brooks-Lewallen lives with her husband, G. K. Lewallen. A dirt road led us through mesquite brush to an attractive multilevel stone-and-cedar house near a small lake. Nita appeared on the front porch to greet everyone and distribute hugs. At eighty, she looked trim and stylish in black pants and a vest, an orange shirt, and a silver necklace of tiny linked horses. Her silver belt buckle was a gift from her college roommate, columnist Liz Smith, when Nita was inducted into the hall of fame.The shelves of her big, comfortable living room were lined with photographs and trophies from her years as a rancher, horse breeder, and part-owner of champion Thoroughbreds, including a Kentucky Derby contender called Coax Me Chad. Nita splits her time between this ranch and the one she and her late husband, Louis Brooks, established near Sweetwater. She and her children and grandchildren formed a limited partnership to operate the Sweetwater ranch and keep it in the family. “They’re working the cattle out there today,” she said wistfully in her low Texas drawl. “They roped and branded one hundred fifty-six calves yesterday. I would love to be out there.”

Her friend Jerry, a 72-year-old former trick rider, had driven down from Graham that morning. National barrel-racing champion Jimmie, 50, had come from her ranch near Valley Mills with her 13-year-old daughter, Tassie, who barrel races and jumps Welsh ponies. “Do you consider yourself a cowgirl too?” I asked her. Tassie smiled shyly, showing her braces, and nodded. She has already been riding for a decade. It must be in her genes: Jimmie’s grandfather Zack Miller was one of the Miller brothers who owned the 101 Ranch in Oklahoma and ran a famous Wild West show featuring early cowgirl stars like Tad Lucas and Lucille Mulhall.

Three generations of cowgirls sat around Nita’s kitchen table, where our hostess had set out a tray of sandwiches and snacks. Jerry had brought a tooled-leather scrapbook, and she took out a black and white photograph and passed it around. It showed several cowboys and a blond, beautiful woman on horseback—herself, of course. She still looks like a rodeo queen, with coiffed blond hair and a dramatic red-and-black jacket trimmed with silver conchos. “That was taken in London when I was in the Texas show with Tex Ritter,” she said.

“Which one is Tex Ritter?” Jimmie asked.

“The one on the big white horse,” Jerry replied.

As we looked at more vintage photos and ate lunch, the hall-of-famers reminisced about their days in the saddle. Despite the difference in their ages, all of them share some things in common. They grew up on Texas ranches, learned to ride while young, and were Ranch Girls, a tradition at the Southwestern Exposition and Livestock Show, in Fort Worth. It began in 1939, when the daughters of Texas ranchers were invited to be “honor guests” and were treated like celebrities at what was then called the Southwestern Exposition and Fat Stock Show. Jerry was the youngest Ranch Girl ever when, at nine, she debuted at the Fort Worth show in 1940; at fifteen she rode in Gene Autry’s rodeo in New York and went on to become a national cutting-horse champion. Nita, who was one of the six White Horse Riders at Hardin-Simmons College, in Abilene, was a Ranch Girl in 1942 and also went on to ride in the New York rodeo at the same time Mitzi Riley did. The Fort Worth Ranch Girls were glamour girls, selected as much for their ranching pedigree and their appearance as for their riding abilities. Nita recalled that when she was at the stock show, she competed in a simple contest of musical chairs played on horseback—not exactly challenging for a girl who’d grown up on a ranch, but she enjoyed being in the spotlight at the biggest stock show in Texas.

By the time Jimmie was invited to be a Ranch Girl, in the early seventies, the tradition was changing, and the Ranch Girls had moved from simple events like musical chairs or staged riding exhibitions to the more difficult sport of barrel racing. Today, the sociological underpinning of the tradition has evolved as well. Rather than representing big ranches, many of the girls who are invited to participate in the amateur Ranch Girl Invitational Barrel Race at the stock show are sponsored by civic groups or towns. “You know, it’s sad; there aren’t a lot of ranch-raised girls anymore because the ranches are becoming fewer and fewer and the way of life is changing,” said Jimmie, a petite woman with shoulder-length dark blond hair, hazel eyes, and a folksy manner. “It’s sort of like with horses. It’s hard to find a colt that’s been ridden out on a ranch and is used to cattle work. These days they’re started and trained in arenas.”

Jerry shook her head. “When I was a kid, I rode every day,” she said. “I loved being outside.”

“And I worked on our ranch,” Nita added.

“Yeah, side-by-side with your husband?” Jimmie interjected.

“I did,” Nita said. “It was hard work, but I loved it. I think the younger generation will miss that.”

“Oh, I don’t know if they’ll miss it or not,” Jerry said. “They won’t know it.”

While all three women believe that there will be cowgirls in the future, they think they’ll be different. “I was just amazed that these girls who are rodeo champions now learned to ride in a city or at a stable,” said Jerry. And there’s another big difference between the cowgirls of yesterday and today: These days, more and more of them are turning pro, either in the arena or as professional horse trainers. Women rodeo riders are earning huge purses, thanks to Jimmie, who championed equal pay for women competing in professional rodeo events when she served as the president of the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association from 1978 to 1993. When she was a pro barrel racer, she might earn $20,000 in a year; today’s top competitors can rake in more than $200,000.

Many of the younger women who have been inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in recent years came from the ranks of professional rodeo champions. Charmayne James, who lives in Athens and was inducted in 1992, is a nine-time world champion barrel racer. Lindy Burch, who owns a ranch near Weatherford and was inducted in 1997, was the first woman to win the National Cutting Horse Association Futurity. “This is all business now,” Jerry said. Even the clothes, once a big part of the cowgirl mystique, are changing. Jerry once owned as many as sixty fancy costumes, but younger riders today are opting for practical shirts and blue jeans instead.

After lunch, we strolled outside so the cowgirls could have their picture taken in front of a horse trailer. “Watch out where you step,” Nita warned as they walked across a pasture mined with cowpatties. “You might mess up your boots.”

“Well, it wouldn’t be the first time,” Jerry shot back with a laugh.

The photographer told the women to show some attitude in their poses. “I like that word, Œattitude,'” Nita said, putting one hand on her hip.

After the shoot, Nita drove me back to the Stephenville square. Along the way we talked about her 24-year-old granddaughter, Shasta Brooks, who is living in Fort Worth and studying law at Texas Wesleyan University. She has a share in the family ranch in Sweetwater and has grown up with cowgirl independence. “She’s won more saddles than I ever dreamed of winning,” Nita said proudly. “She is truly a cowgirl.”

I felt better knowing that women like Jimmie and Nita were passing along the cowgirl gene to their daughters and granddaughters. I also decided that Joyce Gibson Roach was right when she told me, “As long as there are horses and a culture that tends to idealize and idolize the horse world, cowgirls are going to stay in the saddle.”

But I have one thing to say to all those little girls out there who are dreaming of becoming cowgirls: You’ve got some tough acts to follow.

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