BEHIND THE CHUTES AND ELSEWHERE

 

MABEL STRICKLAND, ALWAYS A LADY, ALWAYS A COWGIRL

By: Gail Hughbanks Woerner

 

In the early 1900s one rodeo cowgirl stood out because of her natural beauty and charm, and her abilities to ride and rope.  Newspaper accounts called Mabel DeLong Strickland ‘the Lovely Lady of Rodeo’ and some said she looked more like a ‘Follies beauty’ than a champion cowgirl.  Her features were delicate, her hair was always done in the most attractive style and her western clothing fit perfectly and was always of the most flattering styles.  Throughout her twenty-five year rodeo career she had the respect of all who knew her and later received honors from various Halls of Fame confirming her rodeo prowess.   

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 Mabel DeLong was born in 1897 near Walla Walla, Washington,  Her father, a bootmaker, introduced her to the world of rodeo very early.  By the time she was in her teens she had become a natural horsewoman.  She took lessons from Bill Donovan, a trick rider, and won the trick riding contest in Walla Walla three years in a row, 1913, 1914 and 1915.  Her first major accomplishments were as a relay rider.  George Drumheller, a friend and neighbor who raced horses, asked, upon her graduation from high school in 1916,  if she could accompany his racing entourage and compete as a relay rider.  A chaperone, required by her parents, traveled with Mabel and she began her rodeo career competing throughout the northwest.  Reba Perry Blakely, a competitor of Mabel’s said, “She was very aggressive and got the most out of her horse around the track.”

  In 1918 Mabel married Hugh Strickland, a bronc rider and calf roper.  At first they settled on a farm near Mountain Home, Idaho, but soon found themselves in debt.  They decided to go to a Round Up at nearby Twin Falls and see if they could win some money to help pay their debts.  Hugh not only won, but was also arena director which paid, too.  On the way home the saddle Hugh had won was sold to a young man for $250 and their debts were paid!  They decided farming was not for them, rodeo was much more profitable, and proceeded down the rodeo road.  Mabel was not only a relay racer but one of the best trick riders of the day.  Mabel was very talented racer and never suffered a major injury.  She also rode steers, broncs and husband, Hugh, taught her to rope steers and calves.  They were quite a team, and both had the talent to win in a variety of events. 

The book, BOB CROSBY, WORLD CHAMPION COWBOY,  written by his wife, Thelma Crosby & Eve Ball, she wrote, “The parade through the streets of Cheyenne was always a thrilling spectacle.  That year ( 1925) it was led by Mabel Strickland astride her beautiful white horse, carrying an American flag.  Behind her rode Nellie Tayloe Ross, Governor of Wyoming.”  In 1926 the cover of the Cheyenne Frontier Days program was a photograph of Mabel Strickland riding a bronc named Stranger.  The only woman to ever be featured on the cover of the program.

Hugh Strickland enjoyed pitting Mabel against male steer ropers, and finally they encourage him to do contract exhibition steer roping.  It was no secret they were ‘tired’ of having Mabel as competition!  She rode Buster, Hugh’s roping horse, for her trick riding performances.  She did hippodrome stands, vaults, and even passed under the belly of the horse.

In 1922 Mabel had won at many rodeos, - Cheyenne, Pendleton - to name a couple.  By the time they arrived at Madison Square Garden in the fall her arrival and activities were covered by the press.  She had won the important McAlpin Trophy and invitations were many.  Mrs. William P. Hamilton, chairman of the Argonne Association, invited the rodeo participants to a dinner, where she displayed Strickland’s trophy.  A New York Herald reporter wrote that Mabel, along with Bonnie McCarroll and Fox Hastings, all clad beautifully in evening gowns, had “utterly ruined all Eastern ideas concerning lady broncho busters.”

In the 1930s Mabel and Hugh Strickland went to Hollywood.  She performed in movies, and did stunt work for leading actors and actresses.  She had a small part in Rhythm of the Range with Bing Crosby.  By 1935 women trick and stunt riders organized into the Association of Film Equestriennes.  Mabel was President, and other rodeo cowgirls were Bertha Blancett, Vera McGinnis, Bonnie Grey, and Dorothy Morrell. 

Hugh Strickland passed away in 1941.  Mabel eventually married Sam Woodward and moved to Buckeye, Arizona, where she became active in the state and national Appaloosa Horse Club.  She was inducted in to the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum Hall of Fame, the ProRodeo Cowboys Hall of Fame, the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame, the Pendleton Hall of Fame and the Cheyenne Frontier Days Hall of Fame.  Unfortunately, only the Pendleton induction happened during her lifetime, the others were after her demise.  After a lengthy battle with cancer she passed away January 3, 1976, and her ashes were scattered over the hills near Buckeye. 

  Today the Mabel Strickland Cowgirl Museum is open to the public at 124 W. 16th St. in Cheyenne, Wyoming.  The facility holds many of her outfits, boots, hats, photographs and memorabilia, but also displays other cowgirls trappings, as well.  It’s worth a visit.  For more information 1-307-772-0300.