Saddlesore

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

At first, Formby tried to make it more for the inductees than just--as she puts it--"arrive, get a plaque, goodbye." She began a luncheon for the honorees, whose names were provided in the early years by the Girls Rodeo Association, forerunner of the Women's Professional Rodeo Association.

Auspiciously, the first woman inducted was Alice Greenough Orr, "Queen of the Rodeo," a Montana cowgirl who in the 1930s and '40s won three national rodeo championships and personified the ideal of a wild woman of the West. Usually pictured in a sombrero, she rode fighting bulls in Spain, taught Dale Evans how to ride, and performed movie and TV stunts into her 80s. Over time she abandoned two husbands and some kids to sate her wanderlust and love of bronc-riding. "Mom was America's first liberated woman," pronounced her son, E. Jay Cahill, after her death in 1995.

Stories like those prompted Formby to begin compiling a historical archive and collecting artifacts. "I was finding out how much of the old cowgirls was lost; we needed more than a notekeeper," she says. "Little by little, we got it going."

In the early days, a lot of her enthusiasm fell on deaf ears, she recalls. The hard-on-women culture of the West hadn't really considered the thought of honoring cowgirls. Even her husband, Clint, owner of Hereford's country radio station, KPAN, and their four children didn't understand the long hours she gave, gratis, to the nonprofit hall, she says. But there was just enough support around town to keep the project going.

After six years as an exhibit in the basement of the Deaf Smith County Library, the Cowgirl Hall of Fame's expanding collection moved to a modernish, 6,000-square-foot house donated to the cause.

"The cowgirl had something we wish we had a little more of," says Formby, explaining the growing public interest during the past decade in the myths and realities of Western women. "They had individualism."

As the hall's pamphlet proclaims, "Broncs before breakfast, babies after 40, life without pay, death without warning, God as her guide, and a ballad on her wind-blistered lips, Woman in all her greatness gave flower to the great American West."

It continues, "Woman could rule a mule team, pop a bull whip, steer the plow, or build a campfire of cow chips, could fire a Winchester at Comanches or paint a watercolor of the wildflowers carpeting the endless prairies."

Hereford's Cowgirl Hall of Fame--as a keeper of this emerging cultural icon--started getting in-quiries from afar. Sissy Spacek would ring in from Hollywood for costume tips, and more serious researchers would phone or make their way to the little prairie town, some from as far away as Europe and Japan.

The collection grew to include files on more than 800 women, a collection of rare books and vintage photographs, plus the museum pieces. There's champion barrel racer Billie Hinson McBride's gold lame riding outfit; a red-white-and-blue rhinestone hat owned by Rubye Blevins Rose, better known as the yodeling Patsy Montana, who sold more than a million copies of "I Want to Be Your Cowboy Sweetheart"; an upholstered sidesaddle stamped "1881, Edna Smith, Virginia City"; a pair of pink-and-gold elephant-riding boots owned by Mae "Mamie" Francis Hafley, whose act including diving astride her Arabian mount from a 50-foot platform into a 10-foot tank. She performed the stunt 628 times between 1908 and 1914.

Under Formby's reign, the hall also celebrated unsung women such as Hallie Crawford Stillwell, an author who in 1916 drove a covered wagon into Texas and taught school in the Big Bend area with a six-shooter tucked in her skirt. Or Sacajawea Charbonneau, the Shoshoni Indian interpreter for the Lewis and Clark expedition.

The Hereford hall attracted some 3,500 visitors a year, but the $3-a-head admission fee hardly kept up with the $60,000 annual budget.

Formby and some of the other active supporters--feed-company owner Hollis Klett and his former wife, Charmayne, and Hereford accountant Diane Hoelscher--recall rustling together funds by staging a Selena concert for Hereford's big Latino population, or renting the museum for Christmas parties and baby showers, or making each board member kick in $1,000 as a last resort.

A little outside help arrived in 1988, when New York restaurateur Sherry Delamarter, a Texas expatriate, came in with a business proposition.

In return for a licensing agreement that allowed her to name her Greenwich Village restaurant after the hall of fame, Delamarter agreed to pay $5,000 a year for each restaurant she opened, and cater the annual induction luncheon in Texas. The story of a New Yorker arriving in Hereford to cook barbecue for the hall's Rhinestone Roundup was a big deal on Amarillo TV that first year.

"It was a big family picnic," recalls Dixie Mosley, a former rodeo clown and trick rider, of the annual event. "We'd stay in board members' homes and sit out by the hall and visit--things like that. Sherry's people did a great job with the food." Mosley, who lives in Amarillo, began her career in Western shows 60 years ago, at age 5.

Back in New York, Delamarter's vision turned out to be irresistible to city folk. She served up a combination of mythology--kind of like cowboys without the Indian- and buffalo-killer baggage--a menu of chicken-fried steak and Frito pie, and the ambiance of a Texas chuckwagon, with Hank Williams Jr. on the sound system and a decor of tinted cowgirl photos and pinto-spotted barstool seats. Delamarter, who was born in Waco and went to junior high in Fort Worth, drummed up publicity with things like a Patsy Cline look-alike contest--usually won by a guy in drag--and parties for Patsy Montana or Bonnie Raitt.

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