IT’S GOOD TO BE THE QUEEN
Rodeo royalty in rural Oregon
WORDS BY CAMILLA MORTENSEN, PHOTOS BY TODD COOPER
Picture a tiara-wearing beauty queen greeting a screaming crowd. She’s smiling and waving without a hair out of place. Now put that queen on the back of a horse galloping full tilt, replace her high heels with a pair of cowgirl boots and stick that tiara on top of a cowgirl hat, and you’re starting to get an idea of what a rodeo queen looks like.
Oregon is full of rodeo queens. From small town royalty representing places like Yoncalla, which boasts a population of about 1000 people, to our own Miss Eugene Pro Rodeo or the top title of Miss Rodeo Oregon (eligible to compete for Miss Rodeo America), a queen is more than just a pretty face.
The first rule of being a rodeo queen is that she never lets her hat touch ground. It doesn’t matter how fast her horse is running or how hard the wind is blowing. “If your hat hits the ground, then your head had better be in it,” said Tina Johnson, former queen’s court advisor for the Yoncalla Rodeo. “Losing your hat is a major rodeo queen faux pas,” according to Johnson.
|Yoncalla Rodeo Queen Natalie Napier|
|Yoncalla Rodeo Senior Princess Whitney Richey|
|Court Advisor Candy Leonard|
|1980 Yoncalla Rodeo Queen Norma Richards. PHOTO COURTESY OF NORMA RICHARDS|
The secret to not losing your hat is bobby pins — lots of them — said 2007 Yoncalla Rodeo Queen (and 2008 Senior Princess) Whitney Richey. Wearing your hat one size too small helps too, said Richey. “One of the new girls was complaining because her hat was too tight,” said Richey. “We told her, ‘Take an Advil.'”
Yoncalla, Oregon is a small town about halfway between Eugene and Roseburg just off I-5. It’s a former timber town whose economy has suffered since the mills closed in the 1980s and ’90s, says former Yoncalla rodeo queen Norma Richards. According to the town’s historical society, Yoncalla “has almost become something significant several times.”
The first Yoncalla rodeo was in 1947; it was an amateur event put together by the Yoncalla Saddle club. It quickly grew from just a couple events (including the ever-popular “wild cow milking”) to an event featuring everything from barrel racing to the more controversial calf roping.
In the 1980s, the Yoncalla Rodeo became a stop on the pro-rodeo circuit, and was a “major stop” on the Cowboy Christmas tour, say rodeo organizers. Cowboy Christmas takes place in the summer, not at Christmas time. It’s the time of year in the West when the most rodeos take place, allowing cowboys and cowgirls to race from one rodeo to another. A cowboy will ride a bull in one town in the morning and dash off to the next rodeo to ride another in the afternoon.
But in 1995, the Yoncalla Rodeo dissolved, the rodeo grounds were sold and the rodeo was no more. Almost a decade later, a group of Yoncallans decided the time had come to bring the rodeo back, and by July of 2005 the Yoncalla Rodeo was reborn. And with its rebirth came the return of the Yoncalla rodeo queen and her court.
QUEENS IN OREGON
It just so happens that Oregon is the birthplace of the rodeo queen. According to Renee Laegreid, author of Riding Pretty: Rodeo Queens in the American West, the first-ever local-girl rodeo queen was Bertha Anger, queen of the 1910 Pendleton Round-Up. The idea of having rodeo royalty may have come from the queen and court at the Portland Rose Festival, a tradition that started in 1907, writes Laegreid.
Women were part of the rodeo long before there were rodeo queens. From the 1890s until the 1920s, women rode against men in rodeo competitions. They often wore long dresses, but that didn’t stop them from roping cattle, riding broncs and going head-to-head against the cowboys.
Then in 1929, a popular rider named Bonnie McCarroll was thrown from a bronc and trampled to death at the Pendleton Round-Up. After McCarroll’s death, rodeos pretty much stopped sponsoring women’s events until 1948, when the Girls Rodeo Association was founded (it became the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association in 1981).
Today’s rodeo queens are kind of Miss America meets Annie Oakley. It’s not enough to just look pretty in a cowgirl hat — the ladies have to be able to ride.
Norma Richards, the 1980 Yoncalla rodeo queen and currently a professional rider and trainer in the more rarefied hunter/jumper English riding circuit, exemplifies some of that small-town spirit that brought the rodeo and its queen back to Yoncalla.
“I thought the queen should come from Yoncalla,” she said of why she competed to win the tiara and big silver belt buckle. “The queens came from Roseburg and Myrtle Creek most of the time.”
Richards, who has lived in Yoncalla for 30 years and is excited to see the return of the rodeo as well as Yoncalla’s fireworks show, said being the queen was “a whole different experience.”
This year’s court doesn’t come from Yoncalla — three of the girls come from the Springfield area and attend Thurston High School, and Queen Natalie Napier, age 18, hails from Roseburg. But Napier says the Yoncalla Rodeo is “close-knit” with a “hometown kind of feel.” She says, “It’s a whole different rodeo from the others.”
Most rodeo court competitions allow for women to come from nearby towns to compete. (And yes, rodeo royalty is an all-female contest, unless you are competing for a spot on the Pacific Northwest Gay Rodeo Association court, which is open to men and women. But that’s another story.)
The Yoncalla Rodeo court competition is based on the girls’ ability to speak in public and to ride her horse — and on appearance. That last category, this year’s court advisor Candy Leonard clarifies, is “not just the pretty girl.” The category of appearance is judged on how she puts herself together. For example, does the shape of her cowgirl hat suit the shape of her face?
“Girls that sparkle,” says Johnson. “We want little kids to come up and ask for their autographs.”
In the competition for queen, the girls who are aged 15 to 18 in the Yoncalla court, gave speeches about horses or rodeo, answered impromptu questions and showed that they could handle interacting with a crowd.
Queen Natalie won with her speech comparing rodeo to potato chips — you can’t go to just one. Junior Princess Kyra Turner, age 16 says the impromptu questions, like “If you were an Oreo, what kind of Oreo would you be?” were not always easy to answer off the top of your head (she would be a Double Stuf, she said).
Questions also centered on current events. Turner says she was asked what she wanted to see happen in public schools. She said more focus on “public safety” because she attends Thurston High, which faces the 10-year anniversary of Kip Kinkel’s shooting spree in May.
Turner, who got her tiara and belt buckle on Saturday at the queen’s court coronation, says she plans to wear her glittering silver buckle to school. “Everyone’s pretty excited to see it on Monday,” she said.
The riding portion of the contest starts out with a practice of the “queen’s run.” The girls gallop their horses around the arena, guiding the animal with one hand while waving at the crowd with the other.
“I look to see if they are waving the whole way round,” says Johnson. “I want them waving at the cowboys at the bucking chute as well as the crowd.”
The girls are also asked to do a pretend parade route and ask their horses to step over things like tarps and walk through blowing colorful balloons. The queen and princess will appear in parades like the one during Florence’s Rhododendron Festival, and the girls must be able to handle their horses in every situation.
Johnson and Leonard make it very clear that being rodeo royalty is “a lot of hard work and dedication.”
“They stay up bathing their horses and cleaning tack until nine or 10 pm,” said Johnson. “Then they’re up at five getting their hair curled.”
LET HER BUCK
Megan LeCoure was the 2007 Yoncalla Junior princess and is the 2008 Senior Sutherlin Stampede Queen. With blue eyes, blonde ringlets and a wide smile, she’s the epitome of the American rodeo queen. And that’s not just because she’s pretty. When asked what rodeo events she likes to ride in, she tosses her golden locks and says, “Steer riding. I’m starting bulls this year.”
For those of you who aren’t familiar with rodeo lingo, a steer is a castrated bull. Both steer and bull riding, as well as saddle bronc and bareback riding are known as “rough stock” events in rodeo.
In 2006 LeCoure won the belt buckle in steer riding at the Yoncalla Rodeo, beating all the boys. “I love it,” she says, but admits it gets a little hectic sometimes. “I have to change into my bull stuff, then run and change into my queen stuff,” she says.
All the members of the Yoncalla queen’s court compete at rodeos and in other equestrian competitions. Junior Princess Karissa Sampson, age 16, rides her paint horse Maddy at the rodeo and she competes on Thurston’s equestrian team in Oregon High School Equestrian Team (OHSET) events.
Queen Natalie Napier admits not every sport in the rodeo is for her. “I tried goat tying one time, but it didn’t work out.”
All the Yoncalla royalty speak of their horses with love and pride. Napier says her little mare is “my best friend.” Senior Princess Whitney Richey of Walterville says she rides in OHSET competitions with her Arabian mare Roxie and being a rodeo queen is “a new experience — we’ve done everything.”
“I always wanted to be a rodeo queen,” says Richey, and the other girls echo that sentiment. She and the rest of the court all remember when they were “little kids” and would go to rodeos and ask the queens for their autographs.
The queens and princesses have photos taken that they then autograph and handout at rodeos and parades. Richey says she signed 1,500 autographs last year. “So many Sharpies! So many kids’ names!”
“Little kids run up to you,” says Napier, who says she loves “keeping the Western way of life alive.”
Outreach is part of the job. The queen and her court tell people about the rodeo and “the rodeo way of life,” says Napier. They also participate in Camp Millenium, a camp for kids with cancer outside of Roseburg, and they go visit veterans. One of the queen’s court sponsors is a soldier serving in Iraq, Johnson says.
Rodeo author and history professor Laegreid says, “The young women are truly committed to the sport of rodeo, and promoting the sport. They work very hard to win their titles, and for the most part, I would argue that they do a great job.”
Johnson says being a rodeo queen or princess not only prepares the girls for life — they learn public speaking skills and how to handle themselves — “This is the one time in their life that they are the princesses. They are the Cinderellas.”
The 53rd Yoncalla Rodeo will be July 4 and 5, 2008. Go to www.yoncallarodeo.com for more information on the rodeo and the fireworks exhibition.