Rodeo cowgirl gets hitched, faces hard times
By T.J. GILLES – For The Outpost, Billings MT
Some, such as Montana’s Jeannette Rankin, had gone into the halls of Congress. Amelia Earhart proved she could fly airplanes with the best of the boys.
Multitudes merely bobbed their hair and became flappers in the speakeasies and blind pigs which sprang up in dark places after the women’s vote helped usher in a quaint Shiite law known as Prohibition.
In the West, women rodeoed.
Not confined to sissified events such as barrel racing or goat-tying, Montana women such as Alice and Margie Greenough, Fanny Sperry Steele and Marie Gibson were busting broncs head-to-head with their male counterparts. They and trick rider Trixie McCormick were showing their stuff in Madison Square Garden and before the crowned heads of Europe in Wild West shows.
Heidi M. Thomas’ grandmother, Olive May “Tootsie” Bailey grew up in the Sweetgrass-Cut Bank area near Montana’s border with Alberta, loved her damned old rodeo and competed alongside the aforementioned legends.
She and her husband, Otto Gasser, ranched along the Hi-Line and then in Garfield County.
As Thomas says she visualized it:
“A petite young woman mounts a 750-pound steer, and hangs on to nothing but a rope tight-wrapped around one hand. That she stays on this bucking, twisting, snorting beast for ten seconds, eight seconds or even two seconds, seems like a miracle.
“This is the intriguing picture of my grandmother I have carried in the back of my mind since I was a little girl. Ever since I began to explore fiction writing as opposed to journalism, this idea has been nagging at me, telling me I needed to write about her.”
As a girl, Thomas heard of her grandma’s sagas. “She died when I was only 12, so I never got to talk to her about her life as a rodeo cowgirl,” Thomas writes on her extensive website.
“But she had taken many pictures, created photo albums, scrapbook and journals, from which a story emerged. My Dad told me stories about his growing up in the 1920s and ’30s. The spark grew to a flame, and I was hooked.”
Living in Washington state in 1999, Thomas began setting down “Cowgirl Dreams,” basing the lead character, Nettie Bradley, on her grandmother.
Ten years later, she was back in Montana on book tours for the book. She’s back again this year with the story of Nettie’s early married life in “Follow the Dream” and has another title on the next generation, “American Dreams” currently in revision.
According to her website, yet another novel, “Rescuing Samantha” is in progress.
In the sequel to “Cowgirl Dreams,” Nettie has been married (against parental resistance) to her cowboy, Jake Moser, and they share their dreams of rodeoing together and even raising a family on the circuit, as real-life Marie and Tom Gibson did in the 1920s and 1930s.
But into each dream, a little reality must fall and a lot of reality fell upon the Montana landscape in those years. The state’s fledgling homestead agriculture began its death spiral in the 1920s because of a post-World War drop in prices and persistent drought on the highly leveraged land.
Banks failed and insect plagues of biblical proportions seemingly descended whenever there was sufficient rain to grow a crop worth destroying.
A reverse immigration occurred, as families pooled resources to send one of two members to the coast to earn enough money to buy train fare for remaining family members to escape ravaged Montana. Livestock –- and people – often were left to fend for themselves.
Thus, Nettie and Jake move from ranch to ranch and in 1931, decide to trail their herd of 50 horses two mountain ranges and 350 miles from Sunburst to Salmon, Idaho, where there’s grass.
The struggle to keep body, soul, marriage and horse herd together marks the saga that is “Follow the Dream.”
Thomas’ books are classified in the “young adult” category and Treble Heart Books is a Christian publishing house, which in this case means there’s no cussing or violence. Thoroughly vetted, it should interest readers of all ages.