Brida Gafford was a pioneer in many arenas, most notably the rodeo arena.
She was born Brida Randall in LaCrosse, Wisc., on June 4, 1896, and lived for 82 years, dying in Natrona County, Wyoming, in June of 1978.
She had a passion for horses and pursued it by riding broncs for 23 years; a long run in anyone's book. She was World Champion Lady Bronc Rider three times. In addition to riding competitively all over the United States, she did exhibition riding and ran in flat races during a portion of her rodeo career. She rode under the names, Brida Randall, Brida Miller, Brida Gafford and Cactus Kate, and was small of frame with auburn hair.
In 1901 the first woman appeared in a bronc riding contest. This event occurred at the Frontier Days Celebration in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Brida competed in bronc riding for the first time only nine years later.
Her early years are sketchy. Brida was born in Wisconsin, but went to live with her grandparents (Sholander) at the age of nine; in what state is not clear. From a story written around 1975 by Velva Mattix from Midwest, Wyo., we find that after going to live with her grandparents, she ran away several times. Brida was quoted as saying, "I felt I had too much bossing around and a year later, I ran away from home. Of course my grandparents brought me right back, but every time I'd get mad at my grandmother I would threaten to run away and join the circus as a lady rider. I always loved horses and started riding at the age of two."
At the age of 13 she ran away for the last time, and using money given to her by her grandfather for purchasing books and clothes so she could attend school, took a train to Miles City, Mon. Upon arrival she was broke, hungry and alone. Asked whose little girl she was, by a concerned stranger, she is reported to have said, "I'm nobody's little girl." The kind stranger took her home to his wife and they gave her a home for awhile. (Stranger's name unknown).
In 1910 at the age of 14, she entered her first rodeo bronc riding contest and was quoted by Mattix, as saying, "I got bumped off on my head." Apparently she was addicted and continued the sport until 1937.
In 1913 at age 17 she married Henry Shimek from rural Box Butte County, Nebraska, and moved to a farm about 10 miles west of Hemingford. While there she competed in local rodeos and broke horses for the Applegarth family that lived in the area.
Brida was left a widow when Henry died of the Spanish Influenza. His obituary in the Nov. 7, 1918, Hemingford Ledger states " Henry Shimek died at his home west of town at five o-clock Saturday evening, Nov. 2, 1918, being 24 years, two months and 12 days of age. He leaves a wife, mother and several brothers and sisters to mourn his departure. He was buried in the Lawn Cemetery west of Hemingford.
After her husband's death she stayed on the Hemingford farm for a few years. In 1921 she moved to Lusk, Wyo., for a time and then on to Midwest, Wyo.
In a book titled "Times of my Life" written by Martin Hammer who lived in the Hemingford area, mention was made of Brida. "It was in the early 20's and Harry Schuller a bronc rider and Brida Shimek a cowgirl bronc rider were going to ride some wild horses that day on the old Fox Ranch. Brida rode first and had a very good ride with hobbled stirrups."
It is unclear if Brida ever used the Shimek name while rodoeing. Several references to Brida are made in a book by Dee Marvine, "The Lady Rode Bucking Horses" which is the story about Fannie Sperry Steele, who was also a bronc rider and won the Lady Bucking Horse Champion of the World at the first Calgary Stampede in 1912 and is well-known in the world of women's rodeo.
In that book, Fannie mentions in one excerpt that she was mounted next to Brida Randall and waiting for the grand entry to begin at the 1914 Miles City Roundup, which would have been after her marriage to Shimek.
At that same rodeo, during the July 4th performance Fannie recalled, "Brida drew 'White Diamond' to ride. The horse plunged to one side ducking his head between his legs. The rider's boots pulled free and she was hurled through the air, landing with a dull thud, her head striking the ground, where she lay, out cold."
After the rodeo Fannie and her husband Bill were in a cafe downtown and Brida came in looking pale and shaken. Brida said, "I'm okay, just knocked out for a few minutes. About all I got is a darn nasty goose egg on the back of my head, I took the five-dollar second place money in the first day's bucking is all."
After moving to Wyoming, Brida joined the 101 Miller's Wild West and Far East Show and Rodeo (year unknown) and traveled with them for a time and rodeoed extensively all over the United States.
In a Doubleday photograph taken in 1925 at the Cheyenne Frontier Days she is recorded as Brida Miller, riding 'White Cloud.' No record of why she went by the Miller name has been found.
Brida homesteaded a place near Midwest, Wyo., in 1925 and in 1926 she married bronc rider Roy Gafford and went by that name for the remainder of her life. Even though as stated in the Velva Mattix story ... he later went his own way and she managed her homestead on her own with only occasional help.
Brida won her first World Championship in 1928 at Madison Square Garden and competed there every year but one from 1928 to 1937. She won her third world championship in that final year. Brida was quoted (Mattix story) as saying, "I'd better quit if I want to hold myself together. I had seen too many bronc riders who were all crippled and broke up, and had to beg for a living, and none of that was for me. I wanted to quit while I was winning too, and while I held the World Title."
In Mary Lou LeCompte's book "Cowgirls of the Rodeo" she includes a table showing the Cowgirl Champions at Madison Square Garden; the year, who won and how much. In 1928 Brida won $600. In 1937 she won $449 and a purse of $2,775. She also received two saddles from there, one for her winning in 1928 and the other in 1937. (I could find no record of when a third world title was won).
Rodeo at that time had varying rules. Some lady bronc riders rode their horses 'hobbled' meaning their stirrups were tied together under the belly of the horse, or they rode 'slick' which allowed total freedom of stirrup movement, just like their cowboy counterparts. Rodeos seldom made rules designating which style should be used, but many major contests awarded bonus points to the women who rode slick.
The National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas, has both of Brida's saddles, a saddle blanket, her chaps, boots and a pair of spurs. (In 1928 Brida won under the name of Miller and 1937 she went by Gafford).
Brida was nominated for the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in 1979 by Alice Greenough Orr but is yet to be inducted into the Hall. There are over 200 nominees awaiting induction and only four or five get in each year.
Brida died on her homestead which had grown to 1,280 acres, in relative isolation. According to a Casper Star-Tribune article of August 12, 1967, there was no electricity to the ranch, but a battery-operated radio, kerosene lamps and a telephone to the nearest ranch were in use.
Steve Keane from rural Hemingford, Neb., whose grandmother was Brida's cousin, brought this lady to my attention and provided several wonderful photographs and invaluable help with some of the details of Brida's life. He said his aunt Rosie Shimek-Teansky has kept Brida's memory alive and Rosie always held her up as a role model. He is looking for more information on Brida to fill in the gaps. If you can help, you may send info to email@example.com.
Editor's Note: Steve Keane would like to dedicate this feature story to his brother and his wife, Michael and Vicki Keane. They passed away during its writing.