by Jim Olson
Bonnie McCarroll died as the result of a bronc riding accident at the Pendleton (Oregon) Roundup in 1929. This tragic event was the “straw the broke the camel’s back” as far as women’s bronc riding was concerned. (The first recorded competition for ladies bronc riding happened back in 1904.) During 1929, the Rodeo Association of America (RAA) was formed to help organize rodeo. They did not sanction any women’s events (citing Bonnie’s death as one of the main reasons). Although Col. W.T. Johnson and a few other East-coast producers, not associated with the RAA, continued to have women’s bronc riding (mostly as an exhibition), those efforts also soon faded. By the end of the 1930s, organized women’s bronc riding in a professional arena was scarce as hen’s teeth.
Historian, Mary Lou LeCompte, wrote, “The end of women’s rodeo was Gene Autry. He put women in their ‘place,’ in the square dances and out of competition.”
Autry, who owned the largest stock contracting company in the world at the time, did not allow women bronc riders. The Cowboy Turtles Association (CTA) formed in 1936, which was the forerunner of the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association (PRCA), also did not allow women’s events.
In response to the lack of rodeo opportunities for women, thirty-eight female competitors formed the Girls’ Rodeo Association (GRA) in 1948. The name was changed to the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA) in 1981 and that is what we have to this day. However, 1949 was the one-and-only time they gave a world champion saddle bronc title (bareback and bull riding are feature rough stock events).
But just who was Bonnie McCarroll?
For starters, she was born, Mary Ellen “Dot” Treadwell, on a cattle ranch near High Valley, Idaho in 1897. In 1915, which was her first known year of rodeo competition, McCarroll attracted nationwide attention as the result of a picture taken of her by Walter Bowman. It shows Bonnie being violently thrown from a horse named “Silver” at the Pendleton Round-Up.
Bonnie went on to win cowgirl bronc riding championships at the Cheyenne Frontier Days in Cheyenne, Wyoming and at Madison Square Garden in New York City during her career. In her time, she performed at numerous Wild West shows and rodeos. She performed in front of Kings, Queens and even U.S. President Calvin Coolidge at the Black Hills, South Dakota rodeo in 1927. She was reported to have always been a crowd favorite.
In 1913, at the Boise, Idaho rodeo, young Bonnie met rodeo cowboy, Frank McCarroll, who was an accomplished bulldogger, roper and bronc rider. The two were married in 1915 and made their home in Boise. The duo traveled the country, as a rodeo couple for the next fourteen years. Frank’s strong event was bulldogging and he won numerous championships along the way.
In an interview, Frank claimed Bonnie was, “The best little cook in the world and some dressmaker, too.”
As stated above, September 1929 was Bonnie’s last rodeo. The bronc she was riding (appropriately named Black Cat), fell and went into a somersault. Bonnie’s foot was caught in the stirrup and she was knocked cold. The horse continued to buck as Bonnie hung limp and unconscious, with one foot still in the stirrup. With each buck, her head hit the ground. She suffered numerous injuries and died later in a Pendleton hospital.
Rodeo Clown, Monk Carden, who was present at the time, recalled during a 2009 interview (at one-hundred years of age), “It was obvious to everyone who witnessed the wreck that Bonnie had met her end by way of insurmountable injuries.”
Although her death is often blamed as the end of women’s bronc riding, for many years prior to this, rodeo officials had been grumbling about the sport being too dangerous for women. Bonnie’s death just served as the catalyst to start the elimination of it.
The rodeo world mourned her loss, but none more than Frank McCarroll. He took her death hard, but afterward he became a stuntman and uncredited actor in Hollywood films. He died at the age of sixty-one from a fall at his home in California.
In 2002, Bonnie McCarroll was posthumously inducted into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum’s Rodeo Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. A sculpture of her stands there based on the famous 1915 buck-off photo at Pendleton (the W.S. Bowman photo). Many have mistaken the picture of her 1915 fall, taken by Bowman, with the fatal accident fourteen years later. (Probably because both occurred at Pendleton and the 1915 picture sure looks like a heck-of-a-wreck also.)
In 2006, Bonnie McCarroll was also inducted into the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas. ▫