These cowgirls didn't sing no blues Fame: It been a struggle in macho Texas, but half the $15 million has been collected in Fort Worth to build the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in honor of 135 women who helped settle the West.

Sun Journal

March 10, 1998|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

FORT WORTH, TEXAS — "Any woman who does not thoroughly enjoy tramping across the country on a clear, frosty morning with a good gun and a pair of dogs does not know how to enjoy life." FORT WORTH, Texas -- Those words were spoken by Wild West trick shooter Annie Oakley in 1901. That same year, Connie Reeves was born: a cowgirl in a cowboy state.

In the saddle since age 5, and still riding daily, Reeves will be 97 in September.

Though childless, Reeves has begotten more than 30,000 cowgirls. That's how many girls she taught to tramp across the country and enjoy life during her 58 years as riding instructor at a girls' summer camp. According to the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame, which honored Reeves last year, Texas needs to tell more such stories of how its best cowboys are, in fact, cowgirls.

Reeves' story blossomed when she married former rodeo rider Jack Reeves and helped him manage a 10,000-acre ranch then owned by Lyndon B. Johnson. She called her husband "the cowboy" and still calls men "menfolk," yet Connie Reeves herded sheep and cattle, hunted deer, barrel-raced and jumped at rodeos and horse shows, wore jeans and killed rattlesnakes just like her husband.

When a kick from a horse shattered her leg, leaving it slightly shorter than the other, she had a boot smith make her cowboy boots with one heel taller than the other. Every summer, until semiretirement in 1980, she'd break from her ranching duties to teach at Waldemar Girls Camp.

Even after cracking three ribs and her wrist when a horse tossed her onto a hornets' nest four years ago -- becoming, at 93, the oldest person in the state to file for workman's compensation -- Reeves continued to ride the well-worn trails she helped etch.

"I'm almost blind and very hard of hearing. But I still ride about six hours a day," says the white-haired cowgirl from Kerrville, in hill country northwest of San Antonio.

The National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame is struggling to gain wider recognition for the womenfolk. But this is Texas. It is generally considered a macho state, home to the Dallas Cowboys, Houston's mostly male astronauts, and all those angry cattlemen who sued Oprah. Home to Wild West heroes and villains. Home to wealthy oilmen and ranchers, who, even in the cities, wear cowboy boots and hats with their business suits.

That means it has taken a while for the stories to be told about the 139 hall of fame cowgirls who have roped and ridden alongside the men of Texas ever since the West was won.

"The cowboys have done so much for this country," says Connie Reeves, who has also been honored by the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. "But the women have been right there with them. And I think it's wonderful that they're recognizing the women."

Cowgirl Lindy Burch -- she "grew up on horses like most kids do on bikes" -- says her induction into the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame last year affirmed her many years of striving for equality with the cowboys.

"It was hard to find acceptance as an equal," says Burch, the first woman to win the National Cutting Horse Association Futurity competition, a prestigious annual Texas rodeo event in which horseback riders separate or "cut" a cow from a herd.

It will take time, though, for Fort Worth to rival Cooperstown on the hall-of-fame circuit.

The Cowgirl Hall of Fame began in 1975, honoring the likes of Annie Oakley, "Little House on the Prairie" author Laura Ingalls Wilder and country western singer Patsy Cline. But it was based in Hereford, a small north Texas town many miles from nowhere, and attracted few tourists.

"It was a good, important idea but not the best location," said Patricia W. Riley, executive director of the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame.

The museum and hall of fame moved to Fort Worth in 1993. But it is currently little more than a downtown gift shop selling bull-horn coatracks, denim jackets and T-shirts with such mottoes as "Don't fence her in" and "It's never too late to be a cowgirl." There is also a small, roving museum collection that was recently on display at a nearby mall.

So for the most part, the museum and hall of fame have been theoretical.

Riley was hired two years ago to step up efforts to raise money and find a permanent home. Her board of directors has raised half the $15 million it needs to build a new facility in the city's Cultural District, a complex of museums, rodeo rings and the Fort Worth Zoo.

Construction is to begin in a few months, and a grand opening is scheduled for the year 2000, when an expected 230,000 annual visitors will finally be able to learn more about the women of the prairie: farmers, ranchers, trick riders, writers, artists, entertainers, social activists and Indians.

The museum is being designed to hold a 150-seat theater, five galleries, high-technology interactive and "virtual reality" kiosks, and a research library and children's exhibit.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.