Visiting Fort Worth’s National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame is a journey through the lives of hundreds of heroic women of the west. From Annie Oakley’s rifle to Dale Evans’ dress, there are countless artifacts that exemplify the cowgirl way of life. But there’s one name that appears again and again throughout the museum. It’s a name that is still revered among cowboys and cowgirls of all ages: Tad Lucas.
Rodeo’s First Lady
Tad Lucas was born Barbara Inez Barnes in 1902 on a ranch in Cody, Nebraska. Born to pioneer parents, Lucas was the youngest of 24 children. (Yes, really, 24 children.) As the smallest and fastest of the bunch, she earned the nickname “Tadpole,” eventually shortened to Tad.
Little Tad wasted no time getting into the rodeo business. She won her first steer-riding contest at the age of 14. During World War I, she rode bulls in the main street of Cody to raise money for the Red Cross. By the age of 20, Lucas was a full time cowgirl making a name for herself in the rowdy world of trick riding. Trick riding, which includes stunts such as standing up on a galloping horse and hanging upside down from a strap while riding, was in its heyday in the 1920s and 30s. And Lucas was the undisputed trick riding queen.
Along with her cowboy husband, James Edward “Buck” Lucas, Tad traveled the world competing and performing. She was part of California Frank’s Rodeo Co., owned by rodeo magnate California Frank Hafley. According to Cowgirls of the Rodeo: Pioneer Professional Athletes by Mary Lou LeCompte, California Frank’s Rodeo Co. was part of a series of rodeo companies that traveled the country in the vein of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
Lucas went on to wow crowds from London to Madison Square Garden with her jaw-dropping stunts. She won three years in a row at the Tex Austin Madison Square Garden rodeo, taking home the coveted MGM $10,000 silver trophy. In 1933, Lucas won champion all-around cowgirl at the Chicago World’s Fair, but not before crushing her arm in the process. After three years in a cast, Tad was back in the saddle again.
In the 1940s, several women’s rodeo programs were dropped. In response, the Girl’s Rodeo Association was formed in 1948. Lucas was a key member of the association, ensuring a place in the arena for women for years to come.
Queen of the West
In 1964, at the age of 62, Lucas rode her last bucking horse. But she was far from through with rodeo life. In 1967, she became the first woman elected into the National Rodeo Hall of Fame. She went on to be inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in 1978 and the Pro-Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1979.
Tad Lucas died in 1990 at the age of 88. Her daughter, Mitzi Lucas Riley, went on to become a successful trick rider in her own right.
The tattered old red boots Lucas wore while trick riding are now on display at the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame as a reminder of her tough-as-nails grit and fearlessness, ensuring that as long as there are boots, cowgirls and horses, Tad Lucas will be remembered.