Saddlesore

How Fort Worth's rhinestone socialites bushwacked the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame

Nowhere can you look so far and see so little--or so you think while traveling across the Texas Panhandle on the way to the little feedlot town of Hereford. The railroad tracks and telephone wires and tar-covered highway race across land so flat you can see into the middle of next week.

The first hint that anyone lives out here is the galvanized grain elevators shimmering miragelike on the horizon. Then come the pungent feed yards and the forbidding sheds of the Hereford Custom Slaughter Co. Pretty soon Baldo's Mexican Food, a big marble courthouse, and the melancholy-looking collection of storefronts on Main Street confirm one's arrival in Hereford city proper, population 14,872.

Set among stark beige land and sorghum fields about 50 miles southwest of Amarillo, Hereford is the seat of Deaf Smith County, named for a hard-of-hearing scout who played a role in the Texas Revolution.

This town, though, is better known for its women. It's the birthplace of the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame.

"How could it start, in 1975, out here with all the rednecks and raw land? And women--we were housewives or raised children, so how could it?" asks the hall's founder, 67-year-old Margaret Formby. "Well, it just happened so beautifully. Maybe not then, but as I look back at it. It was beautiful."

For 18 years, Formby and her friends nurtured the cowgirl museum, which honored women of the Great West. But then Formby and the hall's Hereford supporters realized it had outgrown their wallets and their town. In 1994 they decided to turn over the museum and its collection to Fort Worth--with the hope it would flourish in a bigger place.

Today, however, there is little delight on their lips when Formby or the other Hereford folks talk about the hall, which set out to honor rough stock riders and trick ropers, pioneers, ranchers, artists, and entertainers, both living and dead. Most people in Hereford would rather forget the rude treatment and hurt feelings that have come to surround the Cowgirl Hall of Fame.

Wooed and won by Anne Marion, Ed Bass, Kit Moncrief, and several other Fort Worth multimillionaires whose promises sounded better than anyone else's, the hall has since bred a dust storm of conflict. Not the least of it is a lawsuit that the hall's new managers filed in Fort Worth this year against a well-liked New York restaurateur who put Hereford's museum on the national map.

Several of the rodeo performers and ranch women among the hall's 129 honorees are so fed up with the shabby, high-handed way they say the Fort Worth crowd has treated people, that they've withdrawn their things from the museum's collection of boots, saddles, flashy clothes, and such, which is currently stashed away in a Fort Worth warehouse.

Divisions between the Fort Worth and Hereford crowds are so deep that Formby, who is lovingly regarded by most of the honorees, skipped last year's induction ceremony. She is purposely avoiding this year's event as well.

Changes in the annual get-together, which has been held in Fort Worth for the past two years and is scheduled this year for November 1 at the Worthington Hotel, have prompted some honorees to complain that the whole thing has become too elitist and remote.

Last year, honorees were put up in $100-a-night rooms and made to pay half of the $125-a-plate tab. Invitations asked Fort Worth's benefactors to don "Western chic," the sort of faux atmosphere that sits as well with cowgirls from Billings, Montana, or Texico, New Mexico, as picking a new executive director from the East--which is what the Fort Worth folks did in June. Few of the women honored in the hall say they have ever met the woman who succeeded Formby as president, Kit Moncrief, wife of oilman Charles Moncrief and a fixture in the society columns in both Dallas and Fort Worth.

The return envelopes for this year's induction ceremony, which read "Mrs. Branford S. Barnes," show how country-club fusty it all has become, some honorees say. In Hereford, she probably would have been Jil Barnes, or just plain Kit's-sister-Jil. You could have called her up and asked if it was all right to park the camper in that field out near the hall.

Against that backdrop, there is growing uneasiness about the seemingly indifferent pace Fort Worth is taking in finding the hall a new home, although Kit Moncrief says that "doing it right," with the Walt Disney Co.'s help and a site among the city's best museums, is taking time. At present, there is no blueprint, no fund-raising drive, and no museum--only a promise that something will be open in three years.

It's enough to give Annie Oakley the blues.

The National Cowgirl Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center--its full name--began 21 years ago as part of an "all-girl" rodeo sponsored by the Hereford Chamber of Commerce. Like a lot of small towns, Hereford was casting around for ways to get people into town.

The possibility that there might be more to it was evident to Margaret Formby nearly from the start.

Looking a bit like Georgia O'Keeffe--her dark hair pulled back tight and framed by cowboy-boot earrings, her wrists weighted with thick silver bracelets--Formby retells the story from her Southwestern-style home, which is decorated with striking cowgirl bronzes and other Western art.

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