Even Cowgirls Get Their Due

At Fort Worth's newest museum, the feisty women of the West are finally riding high.
Nancy Bragg Witmer in the forties.
Courtesy of The National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame

Like a rodeo queen winning another gold buckle for her belt, Fort Worth is adding another jewel to its necklace of museums. The National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame opens June 7 in a gorgeous new building that showcases the photographs, clothing, and accomplishments of 158 rodeo stars, early ranchers, Western-style entertainers, and world-famous cowgirls like Sacagawea, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Whoa! Laura Ingalls Wilder? Beloved heroine of childhood classics, yes—but not a cowgirl. Sacagawea? The ultimate tough broad—but not a cowgirl. Georgia O’Keeffe? One heck of a painter—but not a cowgirl.

Are too!” says the museum’s board of directors, which determined early on that the museum would throw a mighty wide loop. “We’re redefining ‘cowgirl,’” says board member Vicki Bass. “The common glue of all the women honored here is their spirit. We want to pay tribute to all our foremothers.” Bass sounds cocky, but she has earned her spurs: She and three other socialites who are civic activists—Kit Moncrief, Staci McDavid, and Elaine Agather—mounted a campaign to raise funds for the museum. They trekked from coast to coast and ended up with a Texas-size total of $21 million. How, in an era when arts funding continues to dwindle nationwide, did these gals and their sidekicks persuade people to pony up so much cash? With a lot of gumption and a little guilt-tripping. Says the museum’s executive director, Pat Riley: “We explained to every potential donor that the museum was about history, the history that their mothers and grandmothers made and that they ought to preserve for their daughters. It’s not just about rhinestones and glitz and glamour; it’s about grit and determination.”

Ironically, the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame moved east to take up its new home in the city “Where the West Begins.” It started in 1975 in the small but appropriately named Panhandle town of Hereford as a way to honor female rodeo champions and Western heroines. Margaret C. Formby, who has earned the new title of founding director, spearheaded the project there. “We started off by researching who deserved to be honorees,” she recalls. “Then we wrote off to them all and asked, ‘Could you just send us a little something—a memento or a picture?’ And somewhat to our surprise, they did.” The fledgling archives resided in the basement of the Deaf Smith County Library for six years before a local couple donated their house. The collection grew so steadily that by the early nineties, Formby, now 72, made a decision. “I told the board of directors, ‘We’ve outgrown Hereford, we’ve outgrown our building, we’ve outgrown our staff, and we’ve definitely outgrown our bank account.’”

Reluctantly, the museum started shopping around for a new home. Thirty-two cities, from Dodge City, Kansas, to Cheyenne, Wyoming, expressed interest in taking it over. But ultimately, only two towns made the shortlist of candidates, and both were in Texas. Though Abilene lobbied long and hard, Fort Worth’s success seemed almost preordained: What better place for cowgirls than Cowtown?

Locals lavished money on the plan—the Burnett Foundation alone forked over $3 million—and the who’s-who advisory board includes Laura Bush, Kay Bailey Hutchison, and Reba McEntire. (This year’s star inductee is native El Pasoan Sandra Day O’Connor, who was raised on a ranch and grew up to become an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.) The museum site—in the Will Rogers Memorial Center—is perfect, and the dusty-pink brick building, designed by David Schwarz, looks like it has been there all along. Dominating the exterior is a trompe l’oeil mural of four cowgirls galloping head-on toward the viewer; carved limestone panels above it depict cowgirls at work and play, and tiles and finials on all sides feature the wild rose (chosen because it’s “tough, beautiful, and a little bit thorny,” Riley says). The interior too has fetching details, like the metal horse heads that adorn the light fixtures. The museum’s 33,000 square feet provides ample room for both the permanent collection and for visiting exhibits.

Surely the 158 honorees never imagined such a tribute. The museum has corralled them into three types of cowgirls: pop-culture icons, ranch workers, and arena performers. The first group is the best known, encompassing the likes of Dale Evans, the greatest silver-screen cowgirl ever, and Patsy Montana, the trailblazing country singer. This section also focuses on Western wear as fashion statement and the cowgirl as come-on in advertisements. The gutsy ranch women run the gamut from pioneers like Henrietta King, the matriarch of the fabled King Ranch, to more modern businesswomen like Baird’s Helen K. Groves, who raises Santa Gertrudis cattle, trains quarter horses, and happens to be Henrietta King’s great-granddaughter. Other ranchers succeeded without the safety net of family fame and wealth. Consider Connie Reeves, of Kerrville, whose line “Always saddle your own horse” has become one of the museum’s unofficial slogans. She spent forty years raising livestock with her husband on 10,000 acres near Junction. “I’ve done it all,” she says simply, “from handling a hot branding iron to dealing with screwworm before that wonderful eradication.” But thousands of Texas women know her as the tiny little woman who taught them to ride at the Hill Country’s venerable Camp Waldemar. This June will mark her sixty-seventh summer there: Reeves is one hundred years old.

Fun as the pop-culture and ranch sections are, the contributions of those two groups of women have been acknowledged in other museums. Thus the third section of the permanent collection—the one most faithful to Hereford’s original vision—is by far the most fascinating. It honors cowgirls who work in the arena, from stars of the Wild West shows of yesteryear to cutting-horse champions of today. Naturally there’s a corner paying homage to sharpshooter Annie Oakley. Her shotgun, boots, and tweed riding habit are on loan from the Garst Museum of Greenville, Ohio, the chief repository of Annie artifacts, which has never before let any of its treasures out of the building. More modern but less famous cowgirls include Mitzi Lucas Riley, Jerry Portwood Taylor,


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