Candy Moulton: Reading the West 1-2-12
Jane Burnett was not even 7-years-old as she sat on her pony “huddled over the saddle-horn, icicles hanging from the end of my nose” positioned to turn a horse herd she had helped her daddy round up one winter morning in Montana. She knew then and there that she had “hired out as a tough hand.” Through the next 20-plus years she helped her father and grandfather with the ranch work, and she hit the rodeo trail.
On Nov. 15, Jane Burnett Smith passed away in Chandler, Ariz. She was just shy of her 92nd birthday, which would have been December 16.
The Burnett family ranch, where Jane first learned cowboy skills, had been settled by her grandfather, William Clinton Burnett in the 1880s along with his brother W.P. (Perkins) Burnett. William “Bill” also had ranch and business holdings near Sheridan and Buffalo Wyoming, but by the time his son Clint was in high school it was “understood” that he would eventually take over some of the ranch responsibility in Montana. However, even after Clint married and had daughter Jane, his attention to ranch details generally centered only on helping during necessary periods of the year: branding, moving cattle to summer or winter pastures, and haying. Otherwise he preferred the gregarious activities of gambling, drinking and carousing.
Jane, however, spent much time on the ranch with her grandfather and became an adept horsewoman. An accomplished horsewoman and writer, she told her own story of Montana ranch life and her entrance into the rodeo arena and working in Hollywood as a stunt double in “Hobbled Stirrups,” a book I wrote about in this column when it was first published by Caxton Press.
After learning how to ride on the ranch, Jane found there was greater challenge beyond the Burnett fence line. When in her teens she began entering rodeos, first competing in steer riding and later signing on as a bareback bronc rider. But she found her true sport when she first climbed aboard and stuck her boots into a pair of hobbled stirrups and became a saddle bronc rider.
The stirrups were tied together just tight enough to give the rider stability without being rigid, and after her first such ride in Montana, Jane went on to top broncs all across the United States in rodeos from Chicago to Florida and from California to Madison Square Garden in New York City. As she put it, “I was to get in and out of fights, hospitals, jails and marriages; get whipped in several different states, bucked off in a few of them, and divorced in a couple of others. And all because I had ‘hired out for a tough hand’ and thought I had to follow through without complaining.”
Jane Burnett Smith proved her mettle to the world on the deck of a bronc and her story was truly quite a ride. Her travels took her all around the United States and also into Mexico. During that time, she became acquainted with Gene Autry and he introduced her to Hollywood where she had small parts in several movies.
After her rodeo career, she joined the WACs where she learned to fly. Jane returned to Montana to marry Woody Smith of Gilt Edge. They moved to Windham and bought the Bar 87, and Woody started a crop-dusting business in Stanford. She moved near Glacier Park for one winter to deal blackjack, and the next summer moved near Yellowstone Park to play the organ at Chico Hot Springs. After several years, they sold the bar and Jane and her children moved to Arizona, where Woody would also live during his off-season. During her storied career she rafted the Colorado River rapids, became a certified scuba diver and an underwater photographer. She dealt blackjack in Reno, sold real estate, became a medical transcriptionist, and an author. She wrote two rodeo-based mystery novels, but her greatest work was the writing of her own life story.