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,

Tags: THE CULTURE

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