First Lady of Rodeo
A pretty little gal named Mabel Delong was born in 1897 near Wallula, Washington. Her parents were Mr. William F. Delong, a shoe shop owner and guest columnist for the local paper (The Wallula Gateway) and Mrs. Anna F. Delong. The Delong’s homestead is now under the waters of Lake Wallula, on the Columbia River, behind the McNary Dam—since 1954.
Her father first introduced Mabel to horses, at about age three. She took to them immediately. Within a few short years, the young horsewoman was training with Bill Donovan, a local trick rider. In 1913, she entered her first rodeo, the Walla Walla Stampede and won the trick riding. After winning the next two consecutive years as well, she was asked by George Drumheller of “Drumhellers Wild West Productions” fame, to hit the road doing trick riding and relay races across the country. Her parents agreed to let her go on the condition she be accompanied by a chaperone. After all, she was a beautiful young lady—and just coming of age. So began the professional rodeo career of Mabel Delong.
She was a petite gal of five-feet, four-inches and around one-hundred pounds. Newspaper accounts from the day called Mabel, “The Lovely Lady of Rodeo” and some said she looked more like a “Follies beauty” than a Rodeo Cowgirl. Author and Rodeo Historian, Gail Hughbanks Woerner once wrote, “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.” She soon caught the attention of rodeo champion, Hugh Strickland of Bruneau, Idaho. The two were married in 1918.
After having a daughter (April) and an attempt at settling down to become Idaho farmers, the couple decided to hit the rodeo trail to earn money as they had about gone broke farming. Hugh taught his wife to ride broncs, rope calves and steers and even steer wrestling. The duo paid their debts with rodeo winnings, gave up the farmer’s life, and never looked back—they were making more money on the rodeo trail.
Mabel went on to become one of the most recognizable and popular cowgirls of the early days of rodeo. It has been said that she was the most photographed cowgirl of all. Photographers loved to take pictures of the lovely little lady as she competed in trick riding, relay racing, roman riding, steer and bronc riding and calf and single steer roping! She was also a Rodeo Queen and was likely to win at a number of different events on any given day.
Mabel looked more like a model than a champion cowgirl, but her winning ways put her in tight competition with the cowboys. She could rope as fast as most of them and set several records during her time. (It should be noted here that before 1929, cowgirls competed right alongside the cowboys at most shows. Separate girls events were few and far between.)
There was a growing national concern back then over how competitive sports, such as rodeo, could harm women. Most cowgirls competing in those days were more of the brutish sort, not necessarily portraying the proper image of a lady. Few were delicate and feminine looking like Mabel. The debate even reached the small town (back then) of Pendleton, Oregon, where Mabel had been named 1927 Rodeo Queen. The following was written in her defense: "There is nothing masculine in her appearance and she does not wear mannish clothes. She dresses with excellent taste, whether in the arena or on the street." -The East Oregonian 1927
Without ever intending to, she was being mixed up into a women’s liberation movement. She responded to a newspaper reporter once, “I know you think I’m a paradox, but I belong in the saddle for I’ve been there since I was three. I love the open, dogs, horses, guns, the trees, the flowers...Still I love dresses and everything that goes with them. I can’t tolerate the mannish women anymore than I can stand the womanish man.”
When asked about her and Hugh’s relationship she was quoted, “Now, here’s the way it is with Hugh and me: He’s a one-woman-man, and—well, I’m a one-man-woman. My home is my heaven. Hugh’s my husband, and that doesn’t mean maybe; he’s my manager; he’s my daddy sweet-heart and we’re pals right down to the heel of our boots.”
One of the most famous photographs of Mabel was when she appeared on the cover of the 1926 Cheyenne Frontier Days program, featuring her as a bronc rider, from the same rodeo in 1924. Amazingly, she was smiling and waving to the crowd while riding a bad bronc named, Stranger. She was the first woman ever to grace the cover of Cheyenne’s rodeo program.
In all her years of riding, she was only seriously injured once. Mabel was performing in trick riding at the Madison Square Garden “World Championship” rodeo. She attempted to pass under the horse's neck and grab the saddle on the other side as they went around the arena full-speed. Even though she had done this numerous times before, somehow, she lost her grip, fell beneath the horse and was trampled. She was severely injured and reported as "near death." She recovered however, and went on to continue her winning ways.
A few championships credited to Mabel include: Pendleton, Oregon; Cheyenne, Wyoming; Walla Walla and Ellensburg, Washington; Dewey, Oklahoma and Madison Square Garden, New York.
Once, when asked in an interview if she hoped her daughter, April, would follow in her footsteps, Mabel said, “I don’t want her to follow my game. It’s too hard for a woman, and then, maybe when she is old enough, there won’t be any contests.”
Mabel was right, by the depression years of the 30s, rodeo opportunities for women had all but disappeared. It wasn’t until the formation of the Women's Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA) in 1948 that women began competing in all rodeo events once again. (Although this time it was only against other women, not men as well, like back in Mabel’s day.)
During the 1930s, Hugh and Mabel relocated to Hollywood to work in the movies as many rodeo cowboy from that day wound up doing. They were in high demand for bits in Western movies, which were becoming very popular. Mabel preformed stunt work and had minor acting roles in many films; her pinnacle part being in “Rhythm of the Range” with Bing Crosby.
While filming a scene for “Rhythm,” a set was duplicated to look like the arena at Madison Square Garden—where she had been badly injured in 1926. As Mabel walked on set, she fainted in front of a gate looking just like the one where she had been trampled. She was rushed to the hospital where physicians reported a hemorrhage had reappeared at the site of the old wound!
While living in California, Mabel, along with Bonnie Gray and Bertha Blancett, founded the Association of Film Equestriennes, an association of women stunt riders and actresses. Mabel had established herself as a sought-after movie actress and stunt woman.
In 1941, Hugh Strickland passed away from a heart attack and Mabel then remarried to a man named Sam Woodward. The couple lived in Buckeye, Arizona where Mabel served the Appaloosa Horse Club on their Board of Directors from 1949 through 1965. As one of the first women ever elected to the board, Mabel was active in both the local and national levels. She was respected by her colleagues because of her determination and extensive experience as a professional horsewoman. Mabel owned, bred and showed Appaloosas for many years after leaving the rodeo and Hollywood scenes.
She has been inducted into 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 induction into Pendleton’s Hall of Fame happened during her lifetime. Today the Mabel Strickland Cowgirl Museum is active in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Mabel Delong Strickland Woodward died in 1976, at age 79, after a long battle with cancer. Her ashes were spread at her home in Buckeye, Arizona. She will forever be remembered as the first lady of rodeo.
Jim Olson (c) 2013