From Cheyenne to Pendleton: The Rise and Fall of the Rodeo Cowgirl

Posted By:  Liz Goodrich
Date Posted:  6/3/2010

From Cheyenne to Pendleton Cover and CowgirlsDeschutes Public Library is pleased to welcome filmmaker Steve Wursta to the Sisters Public Library for a screening of the documentary film “From Cheyenne to Pendleton: The Rise and Fall of the Rodeo Cowgirl,” on Saturday, June 12 at 3:00 pm. The film was made possible, in part through a generous grant from the Idaho Humanities Council and is free and open to the public.

Wursta’s historical documentary offers insight into the west and women’s participation in the rodeo in the early decades of the 20th century. The film chronicles the lives of Idaho’s Bonnie McCarroll, Colorado’s Bertha Blancett and Washington’s Mabel Strickland during the years 1904 through 1929. All three women have been inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma and the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas.

“The reason I made the film was to answer the simple question ‘why?” says Wursta. “Why were women allowed to compete in the rodeo and why were they removed from the arena?”

Many historians point to the death of Idaho’s beloved cowgirl Bonnie McCarroll at the 1929 Pendleton Round-Up as the reason for the expulsion of women from the rodeo arena, but in reality, the tide had turned against the cowgirls many years earlier. Both the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo and the Pendleton Round-Up had difficulties with Mabel Strickland, a 98-pound steer roper who set the world’s record at Frontier Days in 1924 – an accomplishment that was written up in newspapers and magazines across the country. Both rodeos barred this petite woman from competing against the cowboys.

Throughout the 1920s the rodeo cowgirl was losing ground to the Rodeo Queen, an invention of the Pendleton Round-Up, which was viewed as the more “appropriate” role for women. “You can’t begin to understand the history of women’s rodeo unless you understand the current events of the early 20th century,” says Wursta. By the spring of 1929, the Rodeo Association of America had already announced that 1929 would be the last year for women in the rodeo. Bonnie McCarroll’s tragic and avoidable death at the Pendleton Round-Up was used as the excuse to remove women for good.

The film opens as 21-year-old Bertha Kaepernik, arrives in Cheyenne, Wyoming for the 8th annual Frontier Days Rodeo in 1904–the first year women were allowed to compete in the bucking bronc competition. The film concludes with the death of Bonnie McCarroll at the Pendleton Round-Up of 1929. “It was never a question of whether women had the skills to compete with men in the rodeo, rather it was a question of it being socially acceptable – and the rodeo committeemen made those decisions,” explained Wursta.
Steve Wursta lives and works in Bend, Oregon.

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