An angry chestnut mare dashed out of the wire enclosure, bucking and twisting. The rider on its back gripped the reins powerfully. The horse pitched, whirled, and kicked to eject the passenger. Lulu Bell Parr, the tenacious cowgirl atop the animal, held on tightly, determined not be thrown. Despite the bucker’s best efforts, Lulu stayed put. Her strength and skill – and her thighs’ grip of iron – kept her in place. Rides like this one helped earn her the title Champion Lady Bucking-Horse Rider of the World.
Lulu’s love for rough riding was fostered by her uncle, William Sheehan. After her parent’s death in 1879, three-year-old Lulu and her seven-year-old brother went to live with their uncle and aunt on a farm in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The toddler was enamored with the animals there and learned to ride before she was eight.
Not much is known of Lulu’s early life. The Medway Historical Society in Ohio attests to the lack of information about her between the ages of nine and twenty. Jefferson County, Ohio, records show that she married George Barrett on March 31, 1896. By 1902 the pair had divorced, and Lulu was living alone in Steubenville, Ohio.
It can be surmised that Lulu perfected her horseback-riding skills during the twelve-year period in which no information on her can be found. She must have been exceptional with a gun too because in 1903 she was invited to join the Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Brighton Tour and traveled to Europe. While she was with the show, she was privileged to perform for socialites, politicians, and dignitaries including England’s King Edward.
In 1911 Lulu went back to work for Pawnee Bill who had now joined his Wild West program with Buffalo Bill’s. Cody was in awe of her daring to ride unbroken ponies. “Bronco busting isn’t a game for the timid and weak,” he told newspaper reporters in January 1912. “Death lurks close every time a rider mounts up.”
In appreciation for her courage and talent, Cody presented Lulu with an ivory-handled Colt single-action revolver. He had it engraved with the words “Buffalo Bill Cody to Lulu Parr – 1911.”
Lulu left Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1913, after deciding to work for the 101 Ranch Wild West program instead. The show took her to South America where she performed for Argentine President Jose Figueroa Alcorta. Alcorta showered the bucking-horse star with flowers and gifts.
Lulu moved her skills back to Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show in 1916. She was the top-billed act, but by this time Wild West shows were losing their audiences and folding under financial pressure. For twelve more years Lulu shifted her riding aptitude from one small, lesser known Wild West show to another. Pay for her performances were barely enough to fund her way to the next town.
In 1929 she decided to retire. She was fifty-three and penniless. Lulu moved into a modest home in Dayton, Ohio, with her brother and his invalid wife. The small house had tarpaper on the walls and no running water or electricity. The cowgirl spent much of her time outdoors entertaining neighborhood children with stories of her travels and the fierce horses she had ridden.
Lulu Parr died on April 24, 1960, from complications she suffered from a stroke. Ohio newspapers reported that the performer had collected so many Wild West souvenirs over the life of her career you could hardly walk into her room. Among the memorabilia were costumes, pictures, and the Colt revolver Buffalo Bill had given her.