Judging by the influx of cowboys and horse trailers around town, it’s time once again for presentation of the World’s Oldest Rodeo in Prescott, Arizona. But after 125 years, this annual event still offers the same edge-of-your-seat excitement and thrilling entertainment of days gone by. And while most folks won’t be surprised that ladies aren’t competing in the more death-defying events, they might be shocked to learn that this wasn’t always the case.
Running now through August 26th, When Bronc Riders Wore Lipstick is a special exhibit at the Phippen Museum illustrating through memorabilia, photos and artwork a unique period in rodeo history when women rode right alongside their male counterparts.
These hardy women who were brought up in the early West did not live by the strict Victorian standards of the East. They were tough, rugged cowhands from ranching families and were expected to work hand in hand with their fathers, brothers and husbands, raising and breeding cattle and horses. Amazingly, some began riding horses as early as two and three years old, and were soon after competing in local ranching contests.
The cowgirls who competed in the early years of rodeo had ranching and circus backgrounds, and many preformed in popular Wild West shows. By the turn of the century, it was estimated there were almost one hundred Wild West Companies touring the United States, Canada and Europe. Women performers could earn $25 a week and, by the end of the Wild West era (in the 1900's), many went into the rodeo ring in a concentrated effort to earn as much money as they could.
Thanks to the efforts of Bertha Blancett, Lucille Mulhall and Prairie Rose Henderson, three of the most famous lady rodeo riders, women were invited to participate in the 1911 Pendleton Roundup and the 1912 Calgary Stampede. From 1900 through 1940, women competed in rodeos alongside men for cash prizes and exhibition money. They rode broncs, bull-dogged steers, rode bulls and roped. They also participated in Roman Style races (standing on top of the saddle), relay races, and preformed dangerous trick-riding stunts. These women who braved bucking horses and steers became widely popular with audiences but were always still at risk of severe injury or even death. Interestingly enough, these early cowgirls were perhaps our nation’s first professional women athletes.
In addition to this outstanding collection on generous loan from Cheri and Scott Raftery, the museum is still offering Arizona’s Pioneering Women: Early Women Artists (1905-1945). However, if you want to see this unique display of original artwork, be sure to visit the museum before it closes on July 8th.
The Phippen Museum is located just minutes north of historic, downtown Prescott at 4701 Highway 89 N. Admission is $7.00 for adults, $6 for AAA members, $5.00 for Students with ID, and free for museum members and children twelve and under. For additional information, please call 928.778.1385, or visit their website at www.phippenartmuseum.org.