Hundreds of rodeo fans filled every available seat at the Pendleton Roundup in Northwestern Oregon in late September 1912. They cheered loudly for Swedish bronc buster Tillie Baldwin sitting atop an outlaw horse named Spike. The gate was moments away from opening and the bronc was already bucking wildly. Tillie ground her hat down tight on her head and then clenched onto the thick reins of her ride. The chute opened and Spike darted out into the arena. Tillie bobbed up and down in the saddle, holding on with all her might, as the horse worked violently to try and throw her off his back. At long last, a horn sounded, and the ride was officially over. Tillie had survived the long trek around the arena on top of an animal who had been unsuccessful in tossing her to the ground. The crowd enthusiastically applauded the 24-year-old, and the remarkable ride earned her first prize in the women’s bucking bronco contest. She was awarded a $350 saddle. In addition to winning the bucking bronco championship, Tillie also won the trick riding competition and its $150 purse.
Tillie Baldwin was born Anna Mathilda Winger in Arendal, Norway, in 1888. She was 14 years old when she migrated to the United States with her family in 1902, and she did not speak English. Six years later, she had not only mastered the language but had become a hairdresser with a healthy clientele of New York ladies wanting a new look.
During a trip to Staten Island in early 1908, Tillie saw a troupe of cowboy and cowgirl actors making a movie. The teenage hairdresser immediately wanted to learn to ride a horse and join the talent. Tillie approached one of the actors and asked them to teach her to ride. She worked for weeks with her paid instructor and eventually became a competent horsewoman. Shortly thereafter, she asked the producer of the film if she could join the cast. He agreed.
From those silent pictures, the eager young equestrian signed a contract to perform live in Captain Jack Baldwin’s Western Show. There, she perfected her riding skills and met her husband, cowboy Johnny Baldwin. While employed in Baldwin’s show, she changed her name from Mathilda to Tillie. In time, she signed with the renowned 101 Ranch Wild West Show. When she wasn’t performing, she was competing in various rodeos around the country.
Over the course of her 13-year rodeo career, Tillie Baldwin won roping and riding events in such prestigious programs as the Winnipeg and Calgary Stampedes and the California Rodeo in Salinas. Routinely billed as the “fearless rider who had never been thrown by a bucking bronco”, rodeo fans in 1921 named her as one of the three best women riders in the country. Also on that list were Fannie Sperry and Bertha Blanchard.
Tillie retired from rodeo competition in 1925 and moved to South Lyme, Connecticut, where she operated a horse ranch and riding school. She died on October 23, 1958, at the age of 70.