Extremely large families intrigue me. That’s probably a throwback to my childhood because, while growing up, one of my best friends was the youngest of twelve children. That always astounded me. She was already an aunt when she was born, and her oldest sister was about the same age as my mother. She had seven brothers who acted as bodyguards whenever the boys started swarming around her. She had four sisters who served as extra mothers. And she had two very, very tired parents who were so happy to be on the home stretch of parenting that they didn’t spend their days worrying about child safety hazards and whatnot. They seemed to feel that any day that ended with the same number of children it had started with, was a good day.
Recently, I was doing some reading on one of my all-time favorite rodeo cowgirls. Somehow I had forgotten that “Rodeo’s First Lady,” Tad Lucas, was the youngest of twenty-four children. Yeah, let that sink in for a minute!
I’m not sure if this was a “Yours, Mine, and Ours,” situation or not, but I am sure of two things:
- Twenty-four is enough children to make the Duggars look like rank amateurs at procreating, and
- Tad Lucas had the makings of a fascinating biography from the moment she was born.
They Could Have Called Her Pollywog
Tad Lucas was born Barbara Inez Barnes on a Nebraska ranch, in 1902. When you’re the youngest of two-dozen offspring, someone is bound to give you a nickname. In the case of little Barbara Inez, that nickname was Tadpole, which was mercifully shortened to Tad. I can’t help but wonder if anyone regretted not calling her Pollywog and shortening it to Polly. But, as with so many of my thoughts, that is neither here, nor there.
As the baby of twenty-four children, her parents had bigger fish to fry than wringing their hands worrying that their little Tadpole was a tad of a tomboy. Tad, it seems, was born to ride and she spent a major chunk of her childhood in the saddle. By the age of seven, she was helping her big brothers start colts. And, just for giggles, she liked to ride calves. She and her siblings also competed in horseback races and various contests against other ranch children and local Sioux children.
In 1917, at the age of fifteen, she made her professional debut in a steer riding competition at the Gordon, Nebraska State Fair. When you stop and think about it, her childhood experience of riding calves was sort of like the training wheel version of steer riding.
She Got There as Fast as She Could
Tad wasn’t born in Texas, but she got there as fast as she could. Soon after making her professional debut, she moved to Fort Worth with one of her many brothers. She spent some time riding broncs at small town rodeos and moved on to bigger competitions. In 1922, she became a full-fledged, full-time, professional rodeo cowgirl. One year later, she joined a Wild West show and toured the U.S. and Mexico. Those tomboy years paid off in spades when Tad won second place in bronc riding at the Madison Square Garden rodeo.
More Tricks Up Her Sleeve
While she was with the 101 Ranch Wild West show, Tad became enchanted with trick riding. She also became enchanted with cowboy, and fellow performer, Buck Lucas. So, she learned how to trick ride, married James Edward “Buck” Lucas, and set off on a grand life adventure. Tad was invited to compete at Tex Austin’s London rodeo, so the new Mr. and Mrs. Lucas had themselves a honeymoon ocean voyage to London. It was in London’s Wembley Stadium that Tad first performed publicly as a trick rider. Both trick riding and marriage agreed with her and she stuck with both of them for the duration.
Tad and Buck made their home in Fort Worth, but it would be wrong to say she “settled down.” From the time of her marriage, until the beginning of WWII, Tad continued to compete in bronc riding, relay racing and trick riding. She was best known as a trick rider and collected more titles than those given to Eastern European royalty!
In 1928, Tad Lucas won the $10,000 MGM trophy for champion all-around cowgirl at Madison Square Garden . . . and she did the same in 1929 and 1930. In 1935, Tad earned a more than $12,000 in competitions and exhibitions. That’s more than $200,000 in today’s money, and that was far from “chump change” for a woman. And it is all the more impressive when we consider that she earned it during the Great Depression.
She Can Do It!
For reasons I do not understand, women’s contests were dropped from the major rodeo circuit during World War II. If you ask me, rodeo should have taken a cue from baseball and ramped up female involvement during the war. Were the rodeo people not reading the Rosie the Riveter posters? The “We Can Do It!” sentiment seemed to be lost on them. Even so, Tad Lucas continued to have steady work as a rodeo performer.
That “We Can Do It!” attitude took root with Tad, and she became one of the charter members of the Girl’s Rodeo Association, which later became known as the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association. The organization was formed in 1948, in an effort to restore women’s roles in rodeo. She maintained her affiliation with the group until she retired from rodeo in 1958, at the age of 56.
Tad Lucas was the first person ever to be honored by all three rodeo halls of fame: the National Rodeo Hall of Fame, in 1967 (the first woman elected), the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame, in 1978, and the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame, in 1979.
Tad passed away in 1990, in her adopted hometown of Fort Worth, Texas. In her will, she established the Tad Lucas Memorial Award, which honors women who excel in any field related to Western heritage.
It’s not easy to stand out in a family with twenty-four children. But, by jingo, the Tadpole did it! And, in the process, she earned her unofficial title as Rodeo’s First Lady.