Tillie Baldwin: Immigrant Hairdresser Turned Bronco Buster Extraordinaire

Tillie Baldwin: Immigrant Hairdresser Turned Bronco Buster Extraordinaire

Rebecca Scofield, University of Idaho

 Editor’s note: Tillie Baldwin’s story is drawn from author Rebecca Scofield’s new book, Outriders: Rodeo at the Fringes of the American West, which examines the ways in which outsiders—including women, convict, African-American, and gay riders—reclaimed rodeo performance.

 

Sometime during the first decade of the twentieth century, a young Norwegian immigrant named Anna Mathilda Winger encountered cowgirls performing extraordinary tricks on Staten Island, New York. Visiting on a day off from her job as a hairdresser in Brooklyn, she was reportedly swept away by their “wonderful costumes and apparently colorful lives.” She changed her name to Tillie Baldwin, learned to ride, and, like many other women of the early century, set off down the rodeo road. Over the next decade, Baldwin rode with Wild West Shows and won rough stock and trick riding championships across the United States and Canada. She also constantly managed her immigrant story as she narrated her place in American culture.

Baldwin was part of a massive immigration wave from Norway during the late nineteenth century. She was born in 1888, just two years after her home city of Arendal had suffered a major economic catastrophe. As the country industrialized and younger children were pushed off the land, three-quarters of a million people emigrated from Norway to the United States, establishing small communities in places like Brooklyn and North Dakota. Joining millions of immigrants from Europe and Asia who were making their way to the Americas, Baldwin was sent to live with an aunt and learned to style hair, though apparently that trade was not exciting enough to hold her.

Tillie Baldwin first rose to national notability in 1912, when she stole the champion crown at a Los Angeles rodeo from popular cowgirl Bertha Blancett. After leaving New York, Baldwin had taken jobs with Wild West Shows. Billed as a “real” Oklahoma cowgirl, because of her job riding with the Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch Wild West show, Baldwin’s first appearance in the media was as a native-born daughter of the West.

For the Miller brothers and other Wild West showmen, convincing audiences of their show’s “authenticity” was paramount. Yet, many of their performers were not the products of ranching childhoods, but instead show business. Women came from all walks of life. Fellow western performer Goldie Griffith worked as a female wrestler and famed rodeo rider Mamie Hafley dove horses off a fifty-foot platform at Coney Island. Even the most famous of early cowgirls, women like Lucille Mulhall, spent more time on the road performing—Mulhall eventually created her own female scout vaudeville show—than they did ranching.

Baldwin, and the journalists who told her story, at times openly acknowledged her immigrant past and congratulated her on “overcoming” it. In 1912, an Oregon paper explained, “contrary to natural opinion” Baldwin, “is no girl of the west, neither is she a girl of the east. In fact she is not native American at all but claims Sweden as her fatherland.” Referring to her riding partner, Jack Baldwin, as her husband, this article explained that before she married she knew as much as any “effete eastern girl” but when she married a Texan “she did not lose much time in adapting herself to be a true helpmate.” Set up as an example for other immigrants, Baldwin supposedly had Americanized by learning rodeo in order to be a good “helpmate.”

bronc_rider_tillie_baldwin_at_the_round-up2c_pendleton2c_oregon2c_1912_28al2bca_182629

Bronc rider Tillie Baldwin at the Round-Up, Pendleton, Oregon, 1912. Walter S. Bowman [Public domain]. University of Washington: Special Collections Accession #1826.

Other news outlets did not acknowledge her immigrant past. For instance, in 1913, Baldwin performed at the Pendleton Round-Up and the Winnipeg Stampede. The Idaho Statesmen hyped these events, asking Baldwin how she learned to ride. She responded: “I just rode, that’s all. Got on the horse and got dumped, got up and got on him again and got dumped again.” She bragged, “there is nothing [at Pendleton] I can’t ride,” and claimed to be devoted to horses because “she was raised that way.” Neither she nor the journalist noted that this upbringing, which may have indeed involved horse riding, was not in the United States. This mutual silence allowed readers’ assumptions, whatever they were, to remain intact.

As Tillie Baldwin actively negotiated her space in the often bone-crushing world of early rodeo, debates about women’s political rights, immigration reform, and racial purity raged around her. At times, she did not mince words about her worldview, saying she would rather “give an exhibition ride on a milch cow before the Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals” than be “roped and hog-tied by what’s advertised as society.” Yet she also was able to be operate in this world in part because no racial restrictions barred her from competing, she could easily pass as a “cowgirl”—a moniker often assumed to mean white. She used the tools at her disposal, including her name and her appearance, to make a space for herself in western performance.

Baldwin eventually retired to Connecticut and married. She ran a riding school, worked as a ranch manager, and supposedly applied to be the township’s first female police officer. Her local newspaper trotted out articles about her as a mascot of the “golden West” every decade or so for the rest of her life. Recounting her immigrant story, the paper noted, “Her early life is mentioned that honor may be given her for a victory over all manner of obstacles.” Indeed, “The West is the land she loves and there is no disputing that she is a real rider of the West.”

Near the peak of her very successful career in rodeo, Baldwin once told a reporter, “Cowgirl? I’m no cowgirl…I’ve never been on a ranch in my life.” This response exposed the debates about belonging and western identity in the early century. Champion Lady Bronco Buster, Champion Lady Buckaroo of the World, and other titles she claimed, but not a cowgirl. It also illuminated much of what her experience of rodeo must have been—always made to feel the counterfeit, yet also being proud of her mastery of riding without the benefit of being ranch-born. Like many white women involved in rodeo, Baldwin both utilized and perpetuated common tropes about authentic western womanhood, while also cheekily resisting them.

 

Sources:

“The Champion Lady Broncho Buster: Mrs. William Slate of South Lyme,” The Hartford Courant, August 23, 1925, D2.   

 “Champion Lady Buckaroo of the World,” The Times-Gazette, September 19, 1912, 1.

 “Tillie May be a Trifle Horsey but She was Raised that Way: Girl ‘Cowboy’ Gives Ample Illustration,” Idaho Statesman, July 20, 1913, 5.

 “The Champion Rough-Rider Who Never Saw a Ranch,” The World, September 3, 1916, from the Collections of the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, Fort Worth, Texas.

 

 

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