By Shirley Morris
© 2009 All Rights Reserved
Waverly, New York, 1939
The kitchen was warm and filled with an inviting aroma from the morning baking of breads. Tiny bits of flour danced slowly upon prisms of sunlight streaming through the window above the porcelain sink as Dolly washed the sticky dough from her hands. Grabbing the gingham towel from the side of the wood stove, she gently patted them until they were dry. She gazed out the window above the sink and saw the hired ranch hand and part time JE Ranch Rodeo clown Pichandle, chopping wood by the shed. Taking both hands and opening the wood framed window she called out, raising her voice just loud enough for him to hear,
“Pichandle! Come on over here when you have a minute. I have a chore or two for you to do for me.”
“Yes, ma’am." he smiled and replied, "I’ll be there shortly.”
Pichandle didn’t mind at all doing chores for Miss Dolly. He knew she would repay his efforts with her baked goods and that was better than any amount of money. He smiled wondering what kind of 'chore' she would come up with to justify her fine gift of warm bread and muffins. Pichandle looked back toward the reflection in the window of the almost fifty year old woman affectionately. She had always treated him fairly and with the kind of respect usually reserved for workers of much higher stature. But then, that was simply her nature and it didn't matter who she was talking to, she always had a smile in her voice.
Dolly closed the window tightly and walked over to the square wooden table in the middle of the room. Pulling out a heavy wooden chair, she sat down and moved the large yellow mixing bowl over to the side. Hoping to ease the pain of age and years of youthful abuse, she cupped her hands around a badly swollen left knee rubbing gently, but as usual, the pain persisted.
A newspaper, The Lethbridge Herald from Alberta, Canada was still on the table where she had left it along with several other newspapers from across the country. They all exhibited the same frontpage headline. Dolly knew the story well. Even so, it was unbelievable to read the words in print. Picking the folded paper up and holding it just far enough away so her eyes could focus upon the words, she read the story one more time. Up and down, side-to-side, her eyes moved with purpose, desperate to see those words again. And there, on the front page, they were. The bold, black, hot set headline confronting her eyes, challenging her to read on. Furrowing her brow she read; “SKELETON OF MISSING RODEO STAR IS FOUND”
Squinting, with eyes now affected by years of Diabetes, she blinked twice trying to refocus upon the words from the beginning. The news article continued; "Rawlins, Wyo. July 25 –(AP) The skeleton of “Prairie Rose” Henderson, rodeo star who disappeared in a blizzard seven years ago, was found in the Green mountain section yesterday…”
She read it again and again. God willing she would somehow believe it. She could feel her racing heart all the way up her neck and down into the tips of her fingers. Closing her eyes tightly, she held the paper a moment longer before returning it to the table. Gently placing both hands upon the story Dolly covered the black words, so exposed upon the stark, white sheet of newsprint. She sat quietly, barely breathing.
Finally, resurfacing from oceans of thought, she gasped and captured a long, deep breath of warm air. Everything that meant anything to this woman was there at that moment; her husband, Col. Jim Eskew, sons Junior and Tom, the ranch, the show – everything she loved, everything important. All she and Jim had worked for in a lifetime. Recalling all she had surrendered, left behind in the past, she cloaked herself in the wonderful baking aroma, the smell of home, the light that filtered into her soul from the golden morning sun, streaming into the kitchen. Somehow, this sanctuary offered safety and permission to raise her closed eyes and move deep into a memory hidden long ago. A faint smile lifted the corners of her lips and just like that, she was away in another time, another place, another life.
Cheyenne, Wyoming 1911
“Over here, boys! You want pictures of the great cowgirl, Prairie Rose? C’mon over here, she’s a-waitin’ for you.” C B Irwin, a giant of a man and one of the founders of Cheyenne Frontier Days, smiled and with one hand atop her shoulder, pointed with the other hand to the young, pretty, feminine girl standing beside him. He looked down at the girl, no more than nineteen, twenty years old and instructed her in his booming, baritone voice, “OK. Now you smile and tell ‘em what they wanna hear. Don’t you forget, they are here for the show – you make sure you give ‘em a show.”
At the same time, an older, suntanned and weathered woman was exiting the arena, far away from the crowd now surrounding “The Prairie Rose”. She was also known as the Prairie Rose and had just finished riding Gin Fizz in the Ladies Saddle Bronc Riding Contest. Oh, and how the crowd had gone wild! She made her ride in expert fashion and walked away from the cheering crowds without fanfare. C B called out to her as he left the rodeo arena, “Good ride, Rosey. You and Jimmie comin’ out to the ranch for supper Sunday?”
Beating the dry, white dust from her purple split skirt, she nodded yes, she would be there. Still feeling somewhat wounded that C B would bring in a ‘ringer’ for her, someone younger and prettier, to talk to the press, she just could not bring herself to make eye contact with the consummate showman, C B Irwin, owner of Irwin Bros. Wild West Show. She thought to herself, “I’m still the better cowgirl and that’s what the blasted newsboys and photographers should be interested in.”
The woman known as "Prairie Rose Henderson" had been born in 1875 in Nebraska, Lillian Rosetta White. She had always used her middle name, Rose, and liked it better than her first. At her fathers insistence, she married a blacksmith, Ira Mealman, a Swedish Immigrant who spoke little English and the couple had two children. Her youngest child died in childbirth and Lillian decided she could no longer stay in a loveless marriage. She gathered her five year old daughter, Daisy, and left to join her married sister, Hattie in Colorado.
It was in Colorado she met a cowboy by the name of Tom Henderson. He told her she could make some money, good money, enough to support herself and daughter, if she were willing to get on the back of a buckin’ horse and stick for just a few seconds. “It’s not that hard, Rosey, we’ll tie your stirrups and with hobbled stirrups, you won’t be goin’ nowhere ‘til the pickup man comes to get ya.” Tom thought for a minute and realizing she was a divorced woman, unchaperoned, traveling alone, she may have a problem gaining admittance as a rider in the show. It was a common problem and good heartedly suggested they become “married” for the sake of the towns folk who objected to loose women and poker. The name stuck and Rose Mealman, by way of jumping the proverbial rodeo marriage broom stick became Rose Henderson for the rest of her professional career. Much to the consternation of Tom’s true wife, Maude Tarr, another rodeo cowgirl.
Rose found she loved the thrill of riding saddle broncs and became quite good at it. There weren’t many rodeos at the time but there were scores of wild west shows and circus’ and she had no problem finding work.
She was hired as one of the cowgirls for Irwin Bros. Wild West and C B had a habit of only hiring the best cowgirls; Ollie Osborn, Fanny Sperry Steele, Goldie St. Claire, Fox Hastings, and his own expert cowgirl daughters, Pauline, Joella and Francis.
Rose not only found fame and fortune with Irwin Bros. Wild West, she found her husband, cowboy and ranch hand, Jimmie Danks. The cowboy and cowgirl were married in Nebraska in 1908.
But Rosie Danks was getting older and the crowd demanded pretty, feminine cowgirls. C B obliged them and produced just that, the perfect cowgirl.... just like Miller's 101 Wild West, the women of Irwin Bros. Wild West were ".... Ranch born and bred - right off the range." They were tough as nails, able to ride any unrideable bronc and they could rope with the best of the cowboys and go home, fix dinner, do all the mending, feed the chickens, tend to the children and look beautiful and feminine for the lucky cowboy who roped her and made her his wife.
The Prairie Rose, C B Irwin's creation of the greatest cowgirl of them all was all of that. It was time for Rosie Danks to think about going home to the reality of being Jimmie Danks wife and Daisy Mealman's mother.
Dolly Michaelis posed in the middle of the arena for all the newsmen and rodeo photographers. A German immigrant and runaway from Pennsylvania, she embraced the persona of “The Prairie Rose”.
Before joining Irwin Bros. Wild West Show, Dolly learned to ride rosined horses and became a ménage rider before becoming a headliner and star for the stage production “Young Buffalo”.
Her job also included being in charge of all cowgirls in the show. She not only was beautiful, she was the feminine match to C B Irwin and a natural at marketing her abilities and talents.Her act was described as:
“Display No. 12.
Roping and riding the wildest and most untamable horses procurable anywhere, introducing the world’s greatest subduer of the outlaw equine, Prairie Rose, Beyond cavil the greatest and most intrepid female rider in the known world.”
She told the newsboys what they wanted to hear – all about her ride on the bucker Gin Fizz and offered advice to American women in the process: “Riding is good for you and will help you keep a glow to your cheeks and your girlish figure.” The newsboys wrote, “ Prairie Rose is beyond a doubt the most fearless lady rider in the world. Dolly smiled as Ralph Doubleday told her to look into the camera and show America who “the sweetheart of the rodeo” really is.
Her costume was unlike anything anyone had ever seen, soft velvet cordouroy with sequins, Maribou feathers, Mink and the largest, most flamboyant Sombrero-like Stetson hat anyone had seen. Her smile was wide and inviting. Her eyes danced as the newsmen and photographers asked their questions and camera’s captured the image of what America wanted and needed to see, a very feminine, perfectly coutured young woman exhibiting the strength and courage of the western cowgirl.
Dolly Eskew, the most famous of C B Irwin's character, 'The Prairie Rose' returned home for good in 1924 to help Col. Jim Eskew make the JE Ranch Rodeo and Wild West Show the largest rodeo and wild west show east of the Mississippi. Dolly would become instrumental in helping women realize their passion as bronc riders and rodeo performers for another generation to come.
And The Prairie Rose? A few more great cowgirls would come to portray her and create an amazing legend, leaving a bigger than life legacy for all who contributed to
The Legend and Legacy of the Great Cowgirl, Prairie Rose Henderson.