The relentless rain pelted man and beast in a soak-to-the-bone downpour. The cowboys, clad in slickers, corralled the wild bulls and broncs into holding pens at one end of Victoria Park’s newly constructed arena in the Canadian frontier town of Calgary, Alberta. The ‘First Calgary Stampede 1912,’ in the planning stages for several years, was finally becoming a reality. Guy Weadick, the event promoter, had invited only the top cowboys and cowgirls from the United States and Canada. He lured them with the promise of a $1,000 winning purse.
One of the invited participants, a 25-year-old cowgirl from Mitchell, Mont., seemed not to notice the rivulets of water streaming from the crease in her beaver-felt hat. The rain did not dampen her excitement. Fannie Sperry stood beside her mother, Rachel, as they became caught up in the swirl of the day-before-the-show activities.
The next day, spectators lined the streets of downtown Calgary. Everyone hoped for clear skies as the six-mile-long Wild West procession paraded by. Six Indian tribes modeled exquisitely beaded ceremonial dress and rode their finest horses. Men in authentic working cowboy gear twirled six-guns and ropes. Red-coated Canadian Mounties, Old Mexico vaqueros, stagecoaches, chuck wagons, Hudson’s Bay Company trappers, whiskey traders, missionaries, and fancy-bred horses passed in revue. The parade route continued inside the Victoria Park arena, where the procession wound ’round and ’round into a tight circle. The crowd filled the bleachers.
The five-day rodeo extravaganza, to be held regardless of the weather, began in a flurry of colors and activities. The gathering thunderclouds burst open, however, and the first day’s activities ended in a bust. Fannie Sperry’s horse came out of the shoot, hopped a bit, and then–as if stuck in the quagmire of mud in the arena–stopped. A very disappointed Sperry walked away from the animal, squishing through the mud with despondent step, back to the corrals. Her heavy, ankle-length divided riding skirt was saturated with the muck. ‘Tomorrow has to be better,’ she told her mother.
The next morning Sperry drew a notoriously wild bronc named Nett. He jumped and bucked, giving her a chance to show off her riding skills. The crowd whistled and cheered as they watched the blue-eyed, 122-pound slip of a girl spur her horse, riding him to a standstill. Sperry knew she’d done well, but so had the other cowgirls. Goldie St. Clair, for example, had better draws, and the audiences loved her. Only something spectacular would give Sperry the winning edge. Her final draw would have to be a crowd-favored bronc.
‘LAAAIDEEES AND GENNTLLEMENN…,’ reverberated from the announcer’s megaphone on the last day of the week-long stampede. The announcer told the crowd that the final women’s bronc ride of the day was about to begin. When he said that Fannie Sperry from Montana would ride Red Wing, a collective gasp rose from the crowd, followed by a tense silence. Sperry had drawn one of the biggest, meanest buckers in the circuit’s string of wild horses. Just four days before, in the holding pens, the outlaw bronc had unseated cowboy Joe LaMar and stomped him to death.
Drawing such an attention-getter was a lucky break; it would add points to her ride. Of course, she had to do her part, too. She was confident it was going to be her day. Even the five-day downpour had stopped, and the warm sun had dried up some of the mud. Sperry straddled the top rung of the shotgun row of chutes. Red Wing thrashed about in the tight quarters. He reared, his glazed eyes showing hatred. The men working the gates were anxious. They waited for a signal from the young rider.
‘AND FRROMM SHOOOT NUMMBERRR…,’ boomed the announcer. That was all Sperry heard. She dropped into the saddle, all the while talking to the horse. She tried to stroke his mane. Then she positioned her boots into the stirrups. ‘OK, Red Wing, let’s make a name for both of us,’ she crooned. To the gatekeeper she shouted, ‘Let ‘er buck!’
Red Wing came straight out of the chute standing on his hind legs. He bucked…hard! He sidestepped, circled, head down, head up. The crowd exploded as they watched Sperry’s waist-long black braid flounce up and down to the rhythm of the horse under her. She heard the 10-second whistle blow and jumped to the ground. She knew this magnificent sorrel had given her the ride of her life. ‘GIVE THE LITTLE LADY A NIIICE HAND!’ said the announcer.
One of the judges took over the megaphone. He called for Fannie Sperry to approach the platform. She swept off her hat and bowed to the crowd. They whistled and clapped and stomped their boots on the wood bleachers. She savored every word as the announcer said, ‘THE LADY BUCKING HORSE CHAMPION OF THE WORLD… FANNIE SPERRY!’ Weadick presented Sperry with a check for $1,000, a hand-tooled leather saddle, and an engraved gold buckle.
The next day, an excited Sperry accompanied her mother south to their ranch near Helena, Mont. She wrote about the trip in her journal, not wanting to leave out a single detail. But she didn’t have long to dwell on her accomplishment; her next rodeo started in just five days. For the rest of the fall rodeo season, Sperry entered and competed in shows throughout the state. While competing at the Deer Lodge fair, she met Bill Steele. Bill, 11 years older than Fannie, had earned his reputation around rodeos as a star rider and arena clown. He ardently courted her, and on April 30, 1913, they married.
Weadick re-entered Fannie’s life in the summer of 1913. He enticed the young bride to ride in the ‘World’s Greatest Frontier Days’ Celebration’ in Winnipeg. Fannie Sperry Steele drew a terrifying but well-known and crowd-pleasing bronc named Midnight. That draw and a good ride brought her a second women’s world bucking horse championship.
Fannie Sperry Steele never worried about which horse she might draw. Numbers, written on individual scraps of paper, were placed in a hat. Each number matched a horse. She stood in line with the men to draw her number, and she always rode the horse she drew. She wrote in her journal: ‘In New York I drew a wicked bucker called Watch Me. He piled me hard. That same year, in Kansas City, I drew Watch Me again. The rodeo people bet big that I wouldn’t ride him again. But I never turned down a horse in my life. I rode Watch Me, and the bronc put me in the top money.’
In addition to riding in rodeos, Bill and Fannie owned and operated their own Wild West show, using wild horses captured in the hills behind the Sperry Ranch. They worked these shows for many years. Sperry Steele, riding back-to-back performances, sometimes rode as many as 14 broncs a weekend.
The Steeles also accepted invitations to perform in more famous Wild West shows. ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody hired the couple to perform with him in the Shan-Kive show in Chicago in 1916. During her performances, Sperry Steele dressed in her typical riding fashion–long black braids, a vaquero-styled hat to shade her eyes from the sun, fancy cowboy boots, a shirtwaist and a split skirt. She knew that many of the spectators came to watch the women performers, and like the other cowgirls, she tried to ride like the cowboys but not look like them.
Years before joining up with Buffalo Bill Cody, Sperry Steele also had proved herself to be a star rifle shooter. It was only natural for Cody to utilize her shooting skills. She shot china eggs out of her husband’s fingers and cigars out of his mouth. The crowd-pleasing act was short-lived, however; Bill Cody died the following year. Because of men like Cody, women rodeo performers had starred in Wild West shows as early as the 1880s. By 1887, Cody had added authentic bronc-riding cowgirls. That same year, the future Cody star performer, Fannie Sperry, was born on March 27, in Montana Territory. The winter of 1886-87 was one of the worst in Montana’s history. Out on the range, thousands of animals and many cowboys froze to death. Fannie’s father, Datus Sperry, owned a dairy farm near the Gates of the Mountains, about 20 miles north of Helena. He also captured wild horses in the nearby hills. His five children, trained to ride by their mother Rachel, broke the horses for sale.
Fannie bonded early to the ranching way of life. She wrote: ‘If there is a horse in the zodiac then I am sure I must have been born under its sign, for the horse has shaped and determined my whole way of life.’ By age 6, Fannie owned her own pinto horse. (She favored pintos her whole life.) In the summer of 1903, she earned her first money from a crowd that enjoyed watching her ride a wild, white stallion so much that they dropped coins into a hat. By 1904, she had earned her first ‘Women’s Bucking Horse Champion of Montana’ title. Fannie had learned to ride like a man. She rode’slick saddle’–one rope, one hand free. Some women bronc riders rode with two reins and hobbled, which meant the stirrups were tied underneath the horse’s belly. Once the rider put her feet into the stirrups, it was like being tied on. The rowels on the spurs attached to her boots were tucked into the cinch. Fannie thought this practice too dangerous. She wrote: ‘Mine is the reputation of being the only woman rodeo rider who rode her entire career unhobbled. I confess it is a record I am proud of!’
The Steeles continued rodeoing until 1925. That year marked Fannie’s 20th year as a rodeo performer. Her last professional ride occurred at the Bozeman Round Up. She and Bill had sold the ranch they had purchased south of Helena near Jackson Creek in 1919. The wacky life of clowning in the bull arena had taken a heavy toll on Bill; Fannie, too, felt a few twinges in her bones.
They had moved from the Helena area to Arrastra Creek, near Lincoln, Mont., and started an all-pinto pack-string outfit. When Bill died in 1940, Fannie continued the business, enduring many winters in isolation, seeing only her favorite pintos and faithful dogs. She marked more than 40 years packing dudes and hunters into Montana’s wilderness. In 1965, she moved to a cabin that had been built in 1903 by her sister and brother-in-law, Carrie and Joe Hilger. The cabin, not far from the original Sperry ranch, was located beneath Bear Tooth Mountain near the Missouri River.
In 1974, at age 87, Sperry Steele left her horses for the last time and entered a Helena rest home. Of this time in her life, she wrote: ‘I can leave the range, since I have loved and had a full share of life on it; I can quit the ranch and ranch house and my souvenirs, but I hate like hell to leave my pintos behind!’ On December 11, 1975, she was inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and given a luncheon in her honor in Oklahoma City. Three years later, she was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame, becoming the first Montana cowgirl to join that elite group of women.
Aged 95 and still the ‘Lady Bucking Horse Champion of the World,’ Fannie Sperry Steele died on February 11, 1983. ‘I have never tired of rodeo in my life,’ she had written. ‘I have never seen one show too many, be it good, bad or middlin’. I hope there’s an arena in Heaven…that’s where you’ll find me…Fannie Sperry Steele.’
This article was written by Lenore McKelvey Puhek and originally appeared in the August 1996 issue of Wild West. For more great articles, order your subscription of Wild West magazine today!