Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Bonnie McCarroll - Her Last Show

From the documentary film, "Oh, You Cowgirl!"

Bonnie McCarroll was one of the best cowgirls of her day. 
She was quoted by a newspaper reporter saying, 
"We cowgirls have butted in on a so-called strictly man's game–and if to ‘play' on the hurricane deck on a sun-fishin', whirlly-giggin', rearin'-up, fallin'-over-backward, squallin', bitin', strikin', buckin', roman-nosed cayuse ain't a heman's game, there never will be one–still, as I say, we cowgirls that like the game well enough to play it should play it just like the cowboys do. 
Why, I'd feel insulted...if I was told to tie my stirrups down!" 
However, in 1915 on a bronc named Silver, Bonnie was riding for the Cowgirls Saddle Bronc Contest of the World and she was riding hobbled. The 1915 Pendleton Round-Up Official Program listed the rules or conditions for the contest this way, 
"Contestant to ride each day. Horses to be furnished by management and riders to draw for mounts. All contestants to ride any horse and as often as judges may deem nesessary to determine the winner. 
Riding to be done with plain halter and split reins. Rider may have the privilege of using helps. 
No saddle fork over 15 1/2" wide to be used." 
Helps was the word used to describe "hobbles" or ropes used to tie the cowgirls stirrups together to help them stay in the saddle. 
Programs from subsequent years all described the rules or conditions for the Cowgirl Saddle Bronc Contest in that same way.
 It was the cowgirls privilege rule, 
it did not require the women to ride hobbled.
Not many cowgirls could make their ride without "helps." Many had grown up far from prairies or ranches, they were entertainers from wild west shows, carnivals and circuses. They would ride, tied into the saddle until the pick up man would come and in the meantime wave and smile to an adoring crowd. This was the only way they could ride and had never been taught to ride slick, spurring the bronc, with their stirrups free, like the cowboys.

Bonnie was not required to ride hobbled in 1915, 
she chose to ride hobbled. The same choice 
was made by Bonnie and other cowgirls in 1929.

Bonnie and Frank McCarroll were favorites on the rodeo circuit. In 1929 Bonnie McCarroll pleaded with her husband, Frank, "Please Frank, just one more show. I want Pendleton to be my last ride." Bonnie and Frank were on their way to retirement, and looking forward to their new life with Bonnie's nephew and a new home. Frank didn't want Bonnie to ride but as he so often did, he gave in to the wishes of his wife. 
Frank accompanied Bonnie into the arena and lifted her, little boy style, into the saddle. The crowd loved that and they knew how to play to the crowd. But on this day, something went terribly wrong and when the snubber removed the gunny sack from the eyes of her bucker, Black Cat, he sommersaulted backwards with Bonnie trapped in the saddle. Her boots hobbled into the stirrups prevented any chance of escape. Each eye witness saw the horrific event differently. Each account is as valid as the other, each was as heartbreaking as the other.

Among those who saw what unfolded that day included, Monk Cardin, who along with his partner, George Moons, had a burlesque wrestling act and had been asked to "clown" the Round-Up. Monk asked "Well, what do we do?" He was told to "Entertain the crowd if there was any delay in the show." Monk and George were favorites at Pendleton and did entertain the crowd for five years. Monk saw Black Cat go over backwards and come back up with Bonnie still in the saddle.

Ollie Osborn, another cowgirl saddle bronc rider was an eye witness to the event and said "I could hear that girls head hit that ground, right there in the bleachers."

Rodeo Historian and cowgirl performer, Reba Perry Blakely was also there. She was sitting in the stands with Black Cat's owner, Mildred Jory, and scouting the bucker for her ride the following day. She claims the ground was too wet and that is what made Black Cat tumble, losing his footing. She remembers Black Cat going to his knees and the pick up man trying desperately trying to grab hold of Bonnie.
Some say it was the fault of the Pendleton Round-Up Committee because of a ruling requiring the cowgirls to ride hobbled. Since the cowgirls saddle bronc contest was not a rodeo competition, the girls riding only for exhibition, it wouldn't make sense for the Round-Up committee to involve itself any further than what had already been set out and defined as the conditions for the cowgirls bucking contests. As Pink Boylen said in Episode of the West, "With tied stirrups usually used in the Cowgirls Bucking Contest, Bonnie could not free herself when in trouble."
To this day no ruling has ever been found after exhaustive searching by many researchers and historians. Monk Cardin and rodeo cowboy, Jack Sweek admit there were rumors but both denied having direct knowledge of the Round-Up committee ever making such a ruling. Still, the rumors persisted and the story has been whispered, written about and shouted angrily by those who said it was so.
Could there be another reason why the cowgirls rode hobbled, with their stirrups tied beneath the belly of the horse, in 1929? It was well known riding hobbled was a very dangerous practice and had cost more than one cowgirl her life in previous years.... Why would anyone chose to ride that way? Why would the Round-Up committee place the cowgirls lives in jeopardy and demand they ride that way?
Bertha Kaepernik-Blancett, the best all around cowgirl early rodeo had ever known expressed her opinion to stock contractor and director of the early Los Angeles rodeo, Andy Juaregui. She said she didn't approve of the wild west show cowgirls riding as saddle bronc riders. Not because they weren't "real" cowgirls or ranch women but because of the danger they exposed themselves to. Bertha adamantly  believed they should not be roped into the saddle, unable to free themselves and that is what hobbling did.
She also claimed that was the reason she wouldn't participate in their "shows" and "exhibitions." Bertha said "I always rode slick, my stirrups were always free." Even in saddle bronc exhibitions where Bertha would ride a saddle bronc, she remained true to her word; she always rode slick, just like the cowboys she was barred from competing against for the Cowboy Championship of the World in 1915 just because she was a woman.
What happened September 19, 1929 would change the course of rodeo history and would prove to be the beginning of the end for the rodeo and wild west show cowgirls across the country.
By Shirley Morris ©2010
Buy "Oh, You Cowgirl!" on dvd to learn more about this story!

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