One of life’s hard lessons is that often our dream of a “happily ever after” doesn’t end up quite the way we had envisioned. Wild West cowgirl and rodeo daredevil Vera McGinnis would attest to that, I think. She was a powerful Western woman who had her heart stomped on by love more than once, and had her body crushed by more than a few wild critters . . . yet nothing could demolish her cowgirl spirit and her hope for something better. Today’s post is all about the life and loves of a cowgirl named Vera McGinnis.
Vera McGinnis was born in November 1892 in Missouri. Unlike just about every other future rodeo star that was born in 1892, Vera McGinnis did not grow up on a ranch. Her childhood wasn’t filled with trick riding and roping. It seemed that she was destined to be just about anything but a rodeo star. But destiny is a funny thing.
Destiny was hard at work when Vera made the acquaintance of a man named Art Acord. Art was a silent movie actor, a stuntman and a rodeo champion, who was friends with the likes of Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson and Bronco Billy. When Vera met him, she was smitten. His childhood had been exactly what you would expect of a man who would hold the World’s Championship Steer Bulldogging title. He grew up on a ranch and rodeo was in his blood.
Vera was working as a stenographer in Salt Lake City and Art was in town to compete in the 4th of July Frontier Day Celebration in 1913. She was the ripe old age of 21 when she first met Art, but, not wanting to scare him off, she told him she was 18. After all, nobody wanted an old maid!
If you’re waiting for me to describe some torrid love affair between Vera and Art, you’re going to be disappointed. Vera may have batted her eyelashes at Art and shaved a few years off her age, but it seems that Art just wasn’t that into her. I don’t know if Art actually gave Vera the ol’, “I love you like a sister,” speech, but the signs were there. Sigh. Vera, we’ve all been there.
Art may not have been the love of her life, but he was instrumental in introducing her to the first man to really steal her heart, Earl Simpson. Earl, like Art, was in Salt Lake City to compete in the Frontier Day Celebration. In many ways, Earl and Art were like night and day. Earl had black eyes, black hair and a bit of a shy demeanor. Art was a blue-eyed blond with a big personality. Art was more interested in playing matchmaker than in being matched with Vera. So, Vera began batting her eyelashes at Earl.
Vera may not have been born on a ranch, but she had learned basic riding as a child. She had even won a riding contest at the age of thirteen. So, when Vera heard a rodeo promoter say that he wanted another girl to ride a relay race, she raised her hand. It didn’t matter to her that she had never ridden a relay race before. Vera had her eye on a cowboy and a prize. She got the cowboy and came in third in the relay contest. It was during this time that she learned trick riding in a mere eight days. By the time the rodeo wrapped up in Salt Lake City, Vera was ready to take her show on the road.
Bloomer Where You’re Planted
In 1913, Vera started riding the rodeo while wearing her corset. As you might imagine, that didn’t last long. Following the first relay, she tossed the corset and never looked back! Vera McGinnis was the first woman to wear pants in the rodeo arena. God bless her! In fact, she was one of the first women to wear pants anywhere.
Vera went on to design practical cowgirl clothing. She was like the original Gloria Vanderbilt! Well, that may be a stretch. But she did help to change women’s rodeo attire from short skirts to bloomers and I for one, wish I could travel back in time to give her a big hug for that!
When relay racing eliminated the requirement for the cowgirls to re-saddle each horse in their string, Vera invented the “flying change”—the action of jumping from one horse to another without hitting the ground. Vera also had the notable distinction of being one of the few people to circle a horse’s belly while riding at a full gallop!
Vera’s love for rodeo riding outlasted her love for Earl, however. The two married in 1914 and officially called it quits ten years later. But, from the start, it had not been a completely happy union. Earl had been a less than dependable husband and breadwinner. Vera was heart broken.
Vera loved the West, but even the West wasn’t big enough to contain her rising stardom. She traveled the globe, finding adoring crowds throughout Europe. Vera won trick riding championships on three continents. She attended dinner parties hosted by the Prince of Wales. In Ireland, she was treated like a movie star. She even caught the fancy of one of the world’s richest men—a Malaysian sultan who fell head over heels in love with her. We don’t know the exact nature of their relationship, but he did send Vera letters and gifts for decades. She kept a scrapbook of mementos, which included news of his death in 1959.
The sultan may have had the money and the romantic moves, but he didn’t win Vera’s heart. In 1931 Vera married a man named Homer Farra. The two were married for fifty-two years, until Farra’s death.
The Trampling of a Career
Vera spent a good deal of time working as a Hollywood stunt double. She performed in Madison Square Garden with Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus. And, for a time she was the country’s only female jockey. Yet, she swore she wouldn’t trade being a rodeo cowgirl for any other profession. In 1934, she was seriously injured when a horse by the name of China Rose flipped on top of her. She suffered from a collapsed lung, three broken ribs, a broken neck bone, a broken hip and her back was broken in five places. Vera survived, but her career didn’t.
Forced into an early retirement, Vera sought out a new hobby. What could a former rodeo star do? Vera discovered that she greatly enjoyed turning trophies from her vast trophy collection into lamps! While her lamps have since been restored to their original trophy status, I can’t help but wish that I had one of her creations! If anyone knows the whereabouts of a Vera McGinnis trophy lamp, please let me know!
In 1974, Vera McGinnis’s book, Rodeo Road: My Life As a Pioneer Cowgirl was published. It’s 225 pages of rip-roaring rodeo history! In 1979, she was inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame and, in 1985 Vera McGinnis was inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame of the Rodeo Historical Society. The pioneer cowgirl who survived having both her heart and her body stomped on passed away in 1990—but not without giving us plenty to talk about for years to come.