Rodeo queens appear at rodeos all across the Great Plains. Rhinestone tiaras adorning their hats, and bedazzling in cowgirl regalia, the queens reign over the rough-and-tumble rodeo events. The idea of a ceremonial rodeo queen might seem oddly out of place among the physically demanding performances of cowboys and cowgirls, yet the role of the queen is inextricably linked with the rise of rodeo as a spectator sport in the Great Plains.
The first rodeo queen is believed to have made her appearance at the 1910 Pendleton Round-Up in Oregon, but it took twenty years for the idea to spread. Cheyenne Frontier Days in Wyoming became the next well-known rodeo to have a queen. It is no accident that the first Miss Frontier Days, Miss Jean Nimmo Doubois, appeared in 1931. Local businessmen, worried that the Depression would keep ticket-buying spectators away from the rodeo, devised a competition: the young woman who sold the most tickets would become queen of the rodeo. The selection of a young woman from within the community, and one who did not compete in rodeo events, but instead used her "royal" position to promote the rodeo to a broad audience, was an innovation that worked well and was widely copied.
During the 1940s hundreds of communities throughout the Great Plains began holding their own rodeos. Although the method of choosing a queen varied widely, their purpose was the same–to help sell tickets. Competition was fierce among the towns to pull in large crowds, thereby making the rodeo an economic success, and rodeo queens worked with the town promoters to attract spectators. The role the queens played within their communities depended on the goals of the community sponsoring the rodeo.
In Cheyenne, a large town actively seeking regional and national attention, the role of queen gradually evolved into a rigorous twoyear commitment, with activities planned not only in Cheyenne but throughout the country. In 1946 Miss Patsy Rogers was selected by the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede Board to serve as the first Calgary Stampede Queen. Miss Rogers represented the Stampede locally, regionally by traveling to rodeos in the surrounding area, and internationally as a Ranch Girl in Gene Autry's Madison Square Garden and Boston Gardens rodeos. Nebraska's Big Rodeo, held in Burwell, a small community hoping to attract spectators from across the state, often selected its queens from outside Burwell. Ruby Dearmont, Miss Burwell 1949, was one of the very few queens selected from Burwell itself to represent the rodeo. Most common, however, were small-town rodeos where local queens appeared at numerous civic and social functions in town and traveled as visiting royalty to other nearby rodeos. In fact, traveling to promote the rodeo is something that most past rodeo queens recall as an important and exciting part of their responsibilities, even if the travel was only to the next town.
Another type of queen promotion began in the Plains in 1931, when the Texas Cowboy Reunion in Stamford held the first sponsor contest. In a unique promotional twist, Stamford sent out a call to chambers of commerce throughout the region to provide girls to participate in the sponsor event at the Stamford rodeo. Each town was responsible for holding a competition to select a hometown representative; the winner would then compete at the Stamford rodeo in an event specifically designed for them. The contestants were judged on the appearance of their horse, their costume, and horsemanship. The sponsor contests held by these other towns were a remarkably successful mechanism for publicizing the rodeo, and within a few years of its founding the Texas Cowboy Reunion was one of the largest rodeos in the country.
The original intention of the sponsor contest was to "add a little softness to the allmale rodeo." However, the horsemanship part of the competition became increasingly popular. What started as a subjective evaluation of the young women's ability to ride around three randomly placed barrels evolved into a timed event with a standardized cloverleaf pattern. Later named barrel racing, this event remains popular and highly competitive in rodeo today.
A new dimension was added to the rodeo queen phenomenon in 1955, when the first Miss Rodeo America pageant was held in Casper, Wyoming. Since its inception, twenty-two of the forty-four Miss Rodeo America queens have been from the Great Plains. The first Miss Rodeo Canada also made her debut in 1955. In order to compete for the title, a young woman must be sponsored by a Canadian pro-rodeo association. The Canadian prorodeo circuit is centered in the Plains–the easternmost rodeo is held in Morris, Manitoba– so twenty-six of the thirty-three Miss Rodeo Canada queens have been from the region. The role of the national queens is to travel across their respective countries promoting professional rodeo. In the 1960s it became increasingly common for Miss Rodeo America and Miss Rodeo Canada contestants to also participate as athletes in rodeos, usually competing in barrel racing events.
See also SPORTS AND RECREATION: Rodeo.
Renee M. Laegreid University of Nebraska-Lincoln
LeCompte, Mary Lou. Cowgirls of the Rodeo: Pioneer Professional Athletes. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
Shelton, Hooper. Fifty Years of a Living Legend: Texas Cowboy Reunion and Oldtimers Association. Stamford TX: Shelton Press, 1979.
Stoeltje, Beverly. "Gender Representations in Performance: The Cowgirl and the Hostess." Journal of Folklore Research 25 (1988): 219–41.