Introducing 2009 Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame Inductee…
Fannie Sperry Steele (1887-1983)
An admirer once observed that Fannie Sperry Steele must have been born with glue on the seat of her pants. Horses were her life, and she loved equally the ones that bucked her off and the ones that served her faithfully. This champion Montana horsewoman is easy to spot in the women’s mural that colors the south side of Helena’s Livestock Building. Fannie sits astride a spirited pinto, and endearing detail that says a great deal about this top-notch cowgirl. When Fannie neared the end of her eventful life, she insisted, “If there are no horses in heaven, I do not want to go there”.
Fannie Sperry was a first generation Montanan. Her father, Datus Sperry came west and established a ranch along Seven Mile Creek in 1872. Seven years later, her mother Rachel followed arriving at Fort Benton via the steamship Montanaon June 29, 1879. The Sperrys moved to the Hilger Ranch in 1884, caring for the Hilger stock in exchange for the use of land. Datus and Rachel wanted their own place and soon found a homestead at the base of the Sleeping Giant where Fannie, the fourth of five children, was born in 1887. An old injury prevented Datus from riding so Rachel taught her five young children to sit a horse almost before they could walk. She would put the youngster on a gentle horse with stern instructions not to fall. When the child inevitably tumbled off, she would administer a swat and back up he or she would go. Consequently all the Sperry Children became exceptional riders and broke and shod their own horses by the time they were teenagers. Fannie rode her horse to school at Mitchell (now the Sieban Ranch).
Of the five Sperry children, it was Fannie who had Rachel’s fierce love for horses, especially pintos. On weekends, she and her brother Walter would round up wild horses that roamed the hills and drive them into the corral where Fannie rode the wildest ones. Her reputation for courage, skill, grit and sticking power on the back of a bronc spread among the locals. The summer of 1903 at Mitchell, sixteen year old Fannie awed spectators with such a ride on a bucking white stallion that they passed the hat. Soon after Fannie was demonstrating her riding skills in Helena horse shows. Rodeo was in its infancy in 1904 when the Capital Stock Food Company of Helena sponsored her in a new event inspired by Buffalo Bill Cody’s Pony Express Race. In the Montana version of this relay, racers rode only thoroughbreds and distances varied with riders changing horses and sometimes their own saddles at top speed. Fannie rode such relays at Helena, Butte and Anaconda. Butte promoter Walter R. Wilmot signed Fannie and several others to ride relays across the Midwest in 1905. The “Montana Girls” did well, and Fannie won her first medal for meritorious riding in a 24-mile relay at the Minnesota State Fair. In 1907 the “Montana Girls” scandalized crowds in their daring black riding bloomers and at about this time Fannie began to branch out into bucking horse competition. She earned a gold medal as Helena’s woman bucking horse champion. Fannie competed in Montana for the next few years. Rodeo was a young sport and women competitors few, yet her name was widely known.
In 1912, Guy Weadick organized the first Calgary Stampede rodeo and wrote inviting Fannie to ride against five other top women competitors, enticing her with possible big money winnings. This stampede was a historic milestone and a hugely attended success. Fannie, with her mother as chaperone, arrived at Calgary’s Victoria Park on September 1, 1912. As they toured the exhibition grounds, a commotion drew them to the horse barn where a wild bronc named Red Wing had just thrown and stomped cowboy Joe LaMar to death. A depressed group of riders gather for rehearsal an hour later. Weadick announced that the day’s proceeds would be given to LaMar’s wife and children, inspiring competitors to do their best. On the last day contestants gathered to draw the slip of paper that would influence their chances. Championship depended on the luck of the draw. The wilder the horse, the better the chances to show of one’s skill. Fannie chose her slip of paper. Luck was with her: she would ride the killer outlaw Red Wing. Fannie’s ride on Red Wing went down in rodeo history as one of the best rides ever made by a man or a woman. Fannie’s success was partly because of her style of riding slick. This meant that she rode without tying her stirrups under the horse’s belly, a concession judges allowed for women contestants. Most women rode their broncs thus hobbled for greater stability in the saddle; it was almost like being tied onto the horse. This hobbling was very dangerous because in the event of a tumble, it was almost impossible for the rider to kick free. Fannie viewed the hobbling as unfair to the horse since it did not give the animal a fifty-fifty chance of bucking off its rider. Slick riding; however, demanded precision, balance, courage and unusual strength. Fannie was the only woman rider among her contemporaries to ride her entire career slick, just like her male counterparts. That day at Calgary, it was part skill, part style and part luck that gained her the title of “Lady Bucking Horse Champion of the World”. She won $1,000 cash, a $300 gold belt buckle, and a beautiful saddle with hand-tooled roses. Many decades later a reporter asked her if she was scared when she came out of the chute. Matter-of-factly Fannie replied, “You just forget about being scared when you ride horses”.
Fannie was a lovely slip of a young woman, ladylike and well brought up despite her bronc-riding prowess. Young men stood in line to be her dance partner, but Fannie cared more for horses than cowboys until she met bronc rider and rodeo clown Bill Steele. The couple was married in a ceremony at the Diamond Block in Helena in 1913. More than 60 years later, Fannie recalled the day with nostalgia. Although she favored saddle-worn divided leather riding skirts, on her wedding day she wore a very feminine gown of deep blue gabardine with a high lace collar and flounce that concealed a plunging neckline. Bill gave her a corsage of red roses that she pinned over her heart. The newlyweds spent their honeymoon rodeoing and Fannie won the title of “Woman’s Champion Bronco Buster” at Winnepeg that summer.
Fannie and Bill traveled the rodeo circuit and performed with Buffalo Bill Cody in 1916 at the Chicago Shan-Kive, one of Cody’s last appearances. Both were crack shots and put on shooting exhibitions across the country. Among other tricks, Fannie would shoot the ashes off Bill’s cigar. She rode bucking Brahma bulls and some of the meanest, most famous broncs. One was a horse named Midnight that could arch his back into an inverted “v”, toss his rider into the air and then sidestep so that when the rider came down it wouldn’t be on the saddle. She was one of the few who successfully rode Midnightin New York City, riding slick and sticking in the saddle like a cocklebur.
The Steeles ranched north of Helena and supplied bucking stock to rodeos across the country. Fannie competed until 1925 when she rode her last bronc in competition at Bozeman. (She was still riding exhibition broncs at age 50). The couple bought a dude ranch at Arrastra Creek near Lincoln in 1927, and their lives changed. Horses, of course, remained central. They kept a string of pintos that were Bill’s favorites too.
Bill died in 1940, and Fannie then ranched the ranch by herself for another twenty-five years. She was one of the first women to receive a packer’s license and well into her sixties she spent long days in the saddle guiding hunters into rough country. She stocked Meadow Creek before environmental concerns were fashionable by packing six horses with cans of fish over treacherous terrain, stopping at every stream to keep the water cool. Until her retirement, Fannie shod and broke her own horses to pack, did her own packing and at the end of the season trailed her 25 head of pintos seventy miles across the Continental Divide to winter in the pastures where she used to ride as a child.
In 1974 at eighty-seven, Fannie could no longer live alone. She had long fretted about it: “My greatest worry will be the well-being of my pintos. I can leave the range, since I have 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.” She spent nearly another decade at the Cooney Convalescent Home in Helena, In 1975 Fannie was one of the first of three women inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame. A few years later at ninety, Fannie summed up her life: “To the yesterdays that are gone, to the cowboys I used to know, to the bronc busters that rode beside me, to the horses beneath me (sometimes) I take off my hat. I wouldn’t have missed one minute of it.” Fannie died in 1983. Fannie was a Rodeo Legend as well as the quintessential Montana woman: homegrown, determined, gritty and most of all, independent of spirit.