Cowgirls and Calf Roping at the Sesquicentennial

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Not all of the entertainment that took place at the Municipal Stadium during the Sesquicentennial Exposition of 1926 focused on pageantry, theater, and music. The Stadium, located near the intersection of Broad Street and Pattison Avenue, was built to serve both as a gathering and performing area during the Sesquicentennial and as a venue for outdoor and athletic events in Philadelphia after the Sesquicentennial was finished. 710 feet wide and 721 feet long, the Stadium had a seating capacity of 100,000 with 73,830 of those seats being permanent and the remainder being movable as necessary.[1] During the Sesquicentennial, the Stadium hosted parades, concerts, speeches, athletic events, and races and continued to serve as a sporting venue for decades after the Exposition closed. 

One of the events hosted at the Municipal Stadium during the Sesquicentennial was a rodeo. The photos of the rodeo feature calf roping, bull riding, cowgirls, and rodeo hands and show a crowd enjoying the festivities. Unfortunately, there is little further documentation regarding the event.   

Although rodeo competitions had existed since the late 1800s, the 1920s saw a huge rise in the popularity of rodeos. As the economy boomed and radio, automobiles, and motion pictures became more readily available, Americans had extra money and the desire to spend that money on various forms of entertainment. Rodeos became more accessible when annual indoor rodeos began to be staged in cities such as Chicago, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and New York.[2] Although rodeo promoters feared that urban audiences would not pay to see such contests, the Madison Square Garden rodeo became so popular it quickly became an annual event and additional rodeos were scheduled throughout the East Coast.[3] Fred Beebe, a rodeo promoter and producer, is featured in several photographs taken at the Sesquicentennial rodeo. Beebe staged the 1926 and 1927 rodeos at Madison Square Garden and additional contests in Philadelphia, Kansas City, and St. Louis during the 1920s and 1930s.[4]

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The 1910s and 1920s also presented more opportunities for cowgirls as rodeos began to feature more events and prizes for women. One well-known cowgirl of the 1920s and 1930s was Ruth Roach of Fort Worth, Texas. Roach’s portrait was taken by a photographer at the Sesquicentennial, indicating that she may have participated in the rodeo. In 1926, Roach finished second in the all-round cowgirls competition at Madison Square Garden. Seven years later, Roach would be trampled by her house and suffer a broken leg after an 8 second ride on a bucking bronco as part of the 1933 World Series Rodeo in Madison Square Garden.[5] She premiered as a rodeo cowgirl at the 1917 Fort Worth Roundup and became known for competing while wearing giant hair bows. Born in 1896, Roach passed away in 1986 and was inducted into the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in 1989.[6]

Although there are few details regarding the rodeo held at the Sesquicentennial in 1926, the event provides an illustration of the change from rodeo competitions held only outdoors in the West to those held in stadiums and arenas around the United States and the world. Some groups resisted the spread of rodeos; the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals protested the rodeo held in Madison Square Garden from November 4-13, 1926.[7] Despite these protests, rodeo competitions would continue to draw crowds of spectators throughout the 1920s.

[1] Austin, E.L. and Odell Hauser, Editors. The Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition: A Record Based on Official Data and Departmental Reports. Philadelphia: Current Publications, Inc., 1929, p. 419-423.

[2] LeCompte, Mary Lou. Cowgirls of the Rodeo: Pioneer Professional Athletes. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1993, p. 70.

[3] Ibid., p. 83-86.

[4] Ibid., p. 86.

[5] New York Times. “Cowgirl is Hurt in Rodeo Mishap.” October 13, 1933, p. 24.

[6] “Ruth Roach Salmon.” National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame.

[7] New York Times. “Champion Cowboys Arrive for Rodeo.” October 24, 1926.