Even Cowgirls Get Their Due

At Fort Worth's newest museum, the feisty women of the West are finally riding high.

June 2002By Comments

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, Pam Minick, and Lindy Burch, who all live in the Fort Worth area and recently gathered for a sneak preview of the museum. Booted and jeaned, they reminisced and ragged each other over lunch, offering a glimpse into life on the other side of the stands.

Now 74, Mitzi Lucas Riley is a former trick rider and the daughter of rodeo legend Tad Lucas (and the mother-in-law of the museum’s Pat Riley). “My mother’s horse was my playpen,” she said. She made her professional debut at age 6, performing death-defying maneuvers atop a galloping horse, and traveled by car or train with her mother to dozens of events each year. “We had a steamer trunk full of clothes and huge hat boxes,” she recalled. “We took along our sewing machines and worked on our costumes on the way. We’d design ‘em, sew ‘em, trim ‘em. Everything had to be wool or heavy satin—it had to last. Even in the summer, we wore wool.” Riley, like most of her colleagues, refers to individual events by city, not by name, and the combination of cowgirl shorthand and professional jargon made for some interesting exchanges. For example, she mentioned one of her mother’s injuries in passing. “How’d she break that arm?” someone asked. “Going under the belly in Chicago,” Riley replied.

Jerry Portwood Taylor, a contemporary of Riley’s, started out as a Ranch Girl, the Western equivalent of a Rockette—a pretty woman hired by rodeo organizers as assistant and ornament. Soon, however, she transcended mere gorgeousness by perfecting trick riding and showing cutting horses. The blonde turned heads, and so did her vehicles: She traveled in a white Cadillac with a plaid top and a matching horse trailer. But behind the glamour was a lot of hard work. “I did 116 performances in London one summer,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘If I ever get home, I’ll never work another day.’” She remembered too the camaraderie that eased the hard work: “There wasn’t much money in it—might as well be friendly.”

Lindy Burch and Pam Minick are a generation younger but cut from the same saddle blanket. Burch is a widely admired cutting-horse trainer, the first female president of the National Cutting Horse Association, and a world-champion cutter herself. “I never wanted to be a prissy girl,” she said. “My parents never told me, ‘You can’t do that.’ The gender thing was never an issue with me.” Minick is a former Miss Rodeo America, a champion team roper, a rodeo announcer, and the marketing director for Fort Worth’s mega-nightclub, Billy Bob’s Texas. She got her first horse when still a child and loves to talk about riding. On why Fort Worth’s sandy loam, which doesn’t stick to horses’ hooves, is ideal compared with soggier areas of the state: “In blackland mud, when the horses come back, they’re four inches taller.” On the daily irritations of cowgirling: “I hate breaking in a saddle. I got a new one four years ago, and I still haven’t broken it in.”

Visitors should have the cowgirl museum itself broken in in a matter of weeks: Some 280,000 people are expected every year, including tourists from Germany, England, and Japan, where the media have enthusiastically touted the opening. Texas myth, pretty women, dangerous feats—they’re in for quite a ride.

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