National museum honors women who helped tame the Wild West
FORT WORTH, Texas – They broke in broncos on their ranches and dangled from galloping horses in Wild West shows and Hollywood flicks.
Often overlooked in history books, women who helped tame the West — and others sharing their pioneering spirit — are riding high in the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame.
Their tales of grit and grace are being told in the new $21 million, 33,000-square-foot building, set to open next weekend in Fort Worth’s cultural district.
“These women are great role models — often ordinary women who did extraordinary things because they had to get done,” said Patricia W. Riley, the museum’s executive director. “These are inspirational lessons whether you’re 6 years old or 60.”
Corralling cattle isn’t necessarily a requirement to be a cowgirl. The 158 Hall of Fame inductees include former slave and businesswoman Clara Brown, author Laura Ingalls Wilder, painter Georgia O’Keeffe and potter Maria Martinez.
Among this year’s five inductees is Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who plans to attend the museum’s Friday ribbon cutting. The El Paso native, whose 1981 appointment made her the first female Supreme Court justice, grew up on her family’s ranch straddling the Arizona and New Mexico border.
Pam Minick, a champion team roper and a 2000 Cowgirl Hall of Fame inductee, said museum visitors may be surprised by some of the 400 women featured — from Lewis and Clark’s American Indian guide Sacajawea to bootmaking businesswoman Enid Justin.
“The common thread, whether they’re a cowgirl at heart or a competitor, is perseverance and looking at obstacles as a stepping stone,” said Minick, also the first woman rodeo announcer in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. “It’s hard to put into words how proud I am to be part of it.”
The museum, billed as the world’s only museum dedicated to documenting women’s contributions to the American West, came from the humblest of beginnings in 1975 in Hereford, near Amarillo.
When the town planned to host an all-women rodeo, resident Margaret Formby thought there should be a museum honoring cowgirls. She stored a growing collection of photos and memorabilia — sent from rodeo stars and families of Western pioneer women — in the Deaf Smith County Library basement.
The museum opened in a donated house six years later, but by the early 1990s Formby and others decided it needed more space in a larger city. Nearly three dozen cities lobbied to be the museum’s new home.
Ultimately, the choice was Fort Worth, dubbed “Cowtown” decades ago because it was a frequent stop for cattlemen traveling along the Chisholm Trail.
However, the museum has not had a permanent home since moving to Fort Worth in 1994, so the collection has been in storage while organizers raised $21 million from donors and planned the project. The new museum is set to open to the public June 9, two days after the ribbon-cutting ceremony and a day after a parade featuring many Hall of Fame inductees.
The brick building near a horseshoe-shaped plaza features a mural of women on horseback. Inside, several motifs — wild roses, horse heads and ropes — adorn the light fixtures, columns and stair railings.
The museum includes a multipurpose theater with 54 leather-tooled seats, three exhibit galleries with interactive and educational exhibits to showcase about 2000 artifacts, a research library, gift shop and a room for traveling exhibits.
Names of the Hall of Fame inductees are on illuminated stars along the first-floor walls of the rotunda, where glass-tiled murals along the second-floor level depict faces and scenes that slowly shift.
The pop culture gallery features pictures of actress Barbara Stanwyck, singer Patsy Montana and Dale Evans — as well as her stunt double, Alice Van Springsteen. Other displays feature stereotypical cowgirl advertisements, books, posters and album covers.
In the ranch gallery, visitors can see a day in the life of a cowgirl. It features pictures taken by ranchers nationwide who were sent disposable cameras by the museum. Artifacts include a split skirt and a side saddle.
The arena gallery tells stories of rodeo stars through the years, from trick rider Tad Lucas and sharpshooter Annie Oakley to cutting horse champion Sheila Welch. Visitors can see costumes, saddles and rodeo programs.
“We wanted to make sure people have access to their stories and be inspired by them,” Riley said.