An angry chestnut mare dashed out of the wire enclosure, bucking and twisting. The rider on its back gripped the reins with all her strength. The horse pitched, whirled, and kicked in an attempt to eject the passenger. Lulu Bell Parr, the tenacious cowgirl atop the animal, held on tightly, determined not to be thrown. Despite the bucker’s best efforts, Lulu stayed put. The audience watching from the stands surrounding the rodeo arena in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, erupted with applause. Lulu’s strength, skill, and grip of iron in her thighs kept her in place, and the spectators were impressed with her persistence. Rides such as that had earned her the title Wild West show promoters bestowed upon her, “Champion Lady Bucking Horse Rider of the World.”
Born on November 14, 1876, in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Lulu’s love for horses came about at a young age. Her parents, William James Parr and Elizabeth Myers Parr, were reportedly homesteaders who worked the land in a variety of locations from Indiana to Ohio. In 1881, the Parrs moved to Springfield, Illinois, where Lulu and her brother Willie attended Lincoln Elementary School. She preferred to ride her horse to school instead of walk.
When Lulu was in her late teens, she became romantically involved with a farmer named Frank Wheaton who was living in Fernwood, Illinois. She met him during a visit to her Uncle William Sheehan’s home in Steubenville, Ohio. The two were to be married until Lulu’s father interceded. Wheaton was her third cousin, and her mother objected to the proposed union. When Lulu called off the wedding, Wheaton became furious and brought a lawsuit against her to recover items he had given her in anticipation of their marriage. Among the things Wheaton wanted returned were parlor furniture and a watch. The jury that heard the case determined that Lulu “should keep the presents.”
Not long after the court case concluded, Lulu met twenty-two-year-old George Barrett of Jefferson County, Ohio. The pair was married on March 31, 1896. Barrett was a machinist or stationary engineer who maintained motors, boilers, turbines, and ventilators. Lulu and George were married for six years. For most of their marriage, George was abusive and frequently in trouble with the law. She eventually filed for divorce, citing extreme cruelty as the reason.
The one constant in her life ever since childhood was horses. She owned more than five horses when she was married to Barrett and rode as often as she could.
At twenty-seven years old, Lulu decided to pursue a dream she’d been considering for several years. She wanted to utilize her love of horses and riding in the Wild West shows that traveled the globe. In 1903, Lulu joined Pawnee Bill’s Wild West show. As she was just starting out as a rodeo entertainer, she was simply one of the “congress of players” in the program. The advertisement posted in newspapers across the country explained what the cast of Pawnee Bill’s production, which now included Lulu, would bring to audiences everywhere. “No country is too far away, none too inaccessible to the energies of the many agents who annually gather this strange ethnological congress together to tour our vast country,” the ad in the May 3, 1903, edition of the Pittsburgh Press read. “There are hundreds of them, and, coming as they do from many lands and various races, are an instructive feature and a marvel of perfect harmony. Pawnee Bill has been blessed with perspicuity to a lavish degree, and many reckon his show as the largest in America, and over a thousand men and hundreds of horses are actually seen in his grand historic Wild West exhibition.”
In a short time, Lulu was featured as one of the top cowgirl acts in Pawnee Bill’s show. Her specialty was riding bucking broncos. Lulu was grateful for the chance to work with the show’s cast of skilled riders and performers from across the nation. The majority of her castmates were friendly and willing to share their knowledge of horse flesh with other entertainers. However, there were instances when the tension between the cowboys and cowgirls and the Russian Cossacks who rode in the show erupted into a physical altercation. Such was the case in New York in mid-June 1906 when Lulu was injured in one of those disputes.
“There is no feeling of friendship existing between the cowboys and the Cossacks with the Pawnee Bill show at Brighton Beach Park,” an article in the June 24, 1906, edition of the Standard Union read. “Both are excellent riders, and while the cowboys are not in the least jealous of the Cossacks, they don’t like the way they try to run things around the show. They are overbearing and never lose an opportunity to try to impress the other members of the company with their importance. When riding out of the arena they do so with a careless dash regardless of whom may be standing in the dressing tent waiting to go on.
“During a recent performance, Lulu Parr, one of the cowgirls, was standing in one of the rock concealed entrances waiting to go on as the Cossacks finished their act. Prince Lucca was in the lead of the Cossacks and seeing Miss Parr swung his horse to one side to avoid her. All but the last two of the Cossacks followed him. These deliberately rode her down. The leading horse struck her full in the chest, knocking her down, and the second horse trampled on her, bruising her body and arms, and inflicting an ugly cut on her forehead.
“Captain Jack Lear, of the Rough Riders, saw the occurrence and started after the Cossacks. As he passed the cowboys’ quarters, he told them what had happened. Del Champion and Mamie Skeeper, two of the cowgirls, hurried to Miss Parr’s assistance, while the cowboys took after the Cossacks. They had probably anticipated the coming of the cowboys and were bunched up with their ugly, heavy Russian swords drawn. They are experts with these nasty weapons, and the cowboys hesitated, but, for a moment. They rode down the Cossacks, knocking them right and left, and, before the latter could reach their horses, the cowboys had them on the ground and beat them unmercifully.
“The Cossacks do not know how to use their fists nor defend themselves in a fistfight. They could only but shout for help as the cowboys rained blow after blow on their faces and bodies. Miss Parr recovered sufficiently to be in at the finish and with her riding whip avenged the wrong the Cossacks had done her.”
In June 1908, Lulu was asked to join the Colonel Cummins’ Wild West Indian Congress and Rough Riders of the World and travel to England to perform at the New Brighton Tower Gardens. Among those who came to see her ride was King Edward VII. When she returned to the United States, the Wild West show was scheduled to appear in Steubenville, Ohio. Lulu was anxious to let those in the town where she’d lived for so many years see that she’d made good. She planned an elaborate entrance with that goal in mind. She rode her horse from Philadelphia where Colonel Cummins’ show was based to Steubenville. The stunt made the front page of newspapers from New Jersey to Montana.
According to the November 30, 1908, edition of the Salt Lake Herald-Republican, Lulu was to be in Ohio by early December. She would have arrived sooner, but inclement weather detained her. “It is a good six hundred miles from Philadelphia to Steubenville, although the roads are good during the entire distance,” the article read. “She [Lulu] has several wagers with friends who have bet that she will abandon the pony before she gets home and finishes the journey by rail….” Lulu completed the trip on horseback with never a thought of giving up.
Between 1909 and 1910, Lulu appeared in a variety of shows for the 101 Ranch Wild West program. She was honored to be a part of the Oklahoma based operation, and, when word reached the press that the “Champion Girl Bronc Buster” would be featured in the show in Brooklyn in May 1910, reporters hurried to interview the cowgirl.
“The best fun in the world is to ride a bucking horse,” she assured the correspondent from the Brooklyn Citizen newspaper. “It offers more fun than any pink tea or theatre party or tennis game ever yielded.” That is the promise given to her sisters in the city by Lulu B. Parr, whose home is the 100,000-acre tract of Oklahoma prairie comprising the famous 101 Ranch. Miss Parr is one of the groups of rollicking girl broncho “busters” who will be in this city all next week. She ropes, mounts, and subdues equine outlaws which even the lusty cowboys of the ranch hesitate to approach. She can shoot as quick and straight as the masculine adept and makes a lariat act as if endowed with reason.
“The woman who rides, but who is not intimately familiar with equine species, does not appreciate that she [Lulu] is in as much danger on the back of an impetuous, spirited thoroughbred as in the saddle of a bucker. ‘It is impossible ever to thoroughly tame the spirit of the thoroughbred,’ Miss Parr shared. ‘He may break out at any moment and at any place. Give me the avowedly outlaw horse every time rather than the thoroughbred who is docile one moment and a demand the next.’
“Lulu Parr has as much fun riding a bucker as the audience does watching her ride.”
When Lulu received an invitation from Buffalo Bill Cody to join his Wild West show in late 1910, she didn’t hesitate. Cody was a legend, and his show was the first of the Wild West programs introduced to the American public. Lulu was associated with a variety of Wild West shows between 1911 and 1913. She rode for the 101 Ranch, Cody, and for Cowboy Billie Burke’s show. Cody’s show was the most prestigious and well known of all the Wild West shows. One of the first locations she performed with his show was Waterloo, Iowa. The local paper covered the event, focusing on Lulu and how she was related to the famous showman. Much of the article was filled with misinformation that was later used by the Cody show to promote the lady bronc rider.
“The presence in Waterloo yesterday of Wm. F. Cody, ‘Buffalo Bill,’ was of special interest to Mrs. George H. Myers, 622 Fowler Street, as the noted showman is a relative of hers, having married her mother’s cousin,” the August 11, 1911, edition of the Courier noted. “Her niece, Miss Lulu Parr, also a relative of Mr. Cody, is with the company.
“Miss Parr was entertained at the Myers home for dinner last evening, but Mr. Cody was unable to come as he was busy at the grounds. Mrs. Myers had a good visit with him in his private tent earlier in the day, and the family all attended the performance.
“Miss Parr, who rides the broncos and is the lead in the military tournament in the grand opening, has been with Buffalo Bill for twenty years, having started to travel with him when she was only eight years old. She came of wealthy parentage but, being left an orphan in childhood, accepted the offer of her relative for a place in his show.
“Miss Parr’s home was formerly in Canton, Ohio. She is a pretty, young woman, very intelligent and attractive. She is the last of her family as her parents, grandparents, brothers, and sisters are all dead.
“When Mr. Cody, who is now 73 years old, completes this tour, which is his last, he will retire to his ranch near North Platte, Nebraska. At the same time, Miss Parr will retire from public life and will engage in business for herself, her intention being to open a store near her uncle’s ranch.”
The press agent with the 101 Ranch Wild West show had his own way of promoting Lulu Parr’s talent by calling her “one of the most daring and fearless riders with the company.” An article that ran in the July 27, 1912, edition of the Evening Times Republican and several other newspapers at the same time about Lulu’s skill in the saddle, was written by 101 Ranch promoter and cowboy Charles Mulhall.
“Lulu Parr, one of the most daring of the intrepid girls who have won distinction as fearless riders, dauntless hunters, and skillful manipulators of the lariat, is to the manner born, for much of her life has been spent on a ranch, and the range life appeals to her as the only one that is really worthwhile,” the Evening Times Republican story read. “At first sight, Miss Parr does not suggest the rough, often dangerous life of the range. She is physically made in a mold that suggests daintiness. Paquin gowns and society functions among the ultra-fashionable. As a matter of fact, these things do not appeal to her at all. The restrictions of the evening gown train and the bright lights of the society ball do not allure her in the least. Her greatest pleasure is derived in the saddle, dashing across the prairie on a wild, half-tamed pony, or mingling with the cowboys and doing her part in a thrilling and often dangerously exciting roundup.
“Many times, both on the cattle range and in the 101 Ranch show, Miss Parr has flirted with death and narrowly escaped being a victim of her own daring. Last spring in Philadelphia, when dared to ride a vicious Indian pony which had injured several cowboys, she made the attempt and would have achieved an immediate victory if her saddle girth had not broken and precipitated her to the ground. Although momentarily stunned and painfully injured, she attempted the feat the following day and succeeded in thoroughly taming the ‘outlaw.’ It was for this victory that Miss Parr received the gold medal which she wears, and which was presented to her by the management of the cowboys as an acknowledgment of her cleverness and intrepidity.”
Charles Mulhall, brother to the first “cowgirl” Lucille Mulhall, found Lulu to be everything he noted in the promotional material and more. He fell in love with her, and the two were married in St. Louis, Missouri, on October 25, 1913. Three days after the ceremony, Charles disappeared. Lulu filed for divorce on November 23, 1914, and the grounds for the action was listed as desertion.
Lulu’s personal problems did not keep her from continuing with her responsibilities as the world’s champion woman bucking horse rider. In January 1914, she traveled with Colonel Cummins’ Wild West show to South America. According to the February 21, 1914, edition of Billboard Magazine, Lulu made quite an impression on audiences in Buenos Aires, in particular the one-time president of Argentina, Dr. Jose Figueroa Alcorta. The politician showered her with gifts.
When Lulu returned to the United States, she agreed to perform with the Barnum & Bailey Circus. She entertained ticket buyers in New York, Philadelphia, and several other locations throughout the year. During a show in Spokane, Washington, in August 1914, Lulu was thrown from her horse and sustained serious injuries. She wrote one of her relatives about the incident, describing in detail what happened. The letter was written on stationery specifically designed for her by the 101 Ranch Wild West show staff. It featured an image of Lulu on a horse on the top left corner. The right corner included a list of other shows with which she was associated: Pawnee Bill’s Wild West, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, and Colonel F. T. Cummins-Brighten Tours.
“My Dear Ralph,” her letter dated August 12, 1914, began, “Just a few lines to let you know I am still alive but came near to being sent home to you already for burial. My bucking horse was bucking down the line fine, his head between the fences. I had taken off my big black Mexican hat, and it spooked him. The horse slipped and turned a complete somersault over me. I doubled up in a ball and went under him for he went so quickly. I had no choice to jump – broke my arm – out my eye – doctor took stitches in it – hurt the top of my skull. I am bruised, and there is no feeling on one side of my head. My back cracked as he went over me, and I thought it was broke. [sic] He rolled over, and I rolled away for fear he would fall back on me.
“I jumped up, run out with blood flowing down my face. Doctor sewed my face up, splinted my arm or done it up in boards and splints and bandages, and I am wearing big smoked glasses to protect the sight now and cover up those big, bruised eyes. I am a sight but glad I came out so lucky.
“Inclosed [sic] you a note card. Write me soon. Love to you and Aunt Mag…. Hope the time will soon fly away, and I will see you again soon. I will soon be all right again, and I get my money every week. Well, you never go till God calls you.”
Not satisfied with simply being billed as the “Champion Girl Bronco Buster in Wild West Shows,” Lulu wanted to make the title official. In May 1915, she decided to register to take part in the World’s Champion Bucking Contest at the Frontier Days Rodeo in Prescott, Arizona. She was informed by the rodeo director that there were no contests in the category of lady bucking horse riders, but that she was welcome to compete against the men in that area if she so chose. Lulu must have declined to ride against the men because her name was not listed among those in the event.
Lulu returned to the Wild West shows and worked hard to prove she was worthy of being called a champion in her field. She took part in bronco busting contests in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and earned a number of first prize medals.
There was always a risk of injury when busting broncs, and Lulu had her fair share of injuries riding wild horses. At Pawnee Bill’s Pioneer Days in Ohio in May 1915, Lulu suffered a dislocation of the bones of her right knee when a bucking bronco fell on her. She was rendered unconscious for more than thirty minutes, and, when she came to, she returned to the arena, got back into the saddle, and participated in the quadrille on horseback. “The immense crowd cheered her daring,” an article in the May 26, 1915, edition of the Weekly-Journal-Miner, reported. “The local physician who attended her after her injury told news reporters that the injury was of such a nature that she should not ride again for two or three weeks, but with her customary nerve and endurance she insisted on mounting her horse and taking part in the program.”
Lulu remarried on November 14, 1917. Her third husband was a sailor named Orth B. Barcus. The two were married in Washington, D. C. The time the pair spent apart working their respective jobs took a toll on their marriage, and, less than three years later the pair was divorced. Sadly, Lulu had no idea Barcus had filed for divorce.
“Dear Mother, I did not know Orth got a divorce from me,” she confessed in a letter home. “I have never received any notification. I am indeed sorry to [sic] for I loved Orth, but if he has secured a divorce and don’t care to live with me, of course I would not force him to live with me against his will. Nevertheless, I love him as well and ever more now but would like to have notification of the divorce and on what grounds I am sued, and I will never trouble him again with any correspondence. I never got a divorce, and I never will…. Pray for me, mother.”
Throughout the course of her career, Lulu distinguished herself not only with her riding style, but also with her manner of dress. From the broad-brimmed sombreros to the multi-laced riding boots, her look was well thought out and unique to her personality. The April 1921 edition of Billboard Magazine noted Lulu was one of the “swellest dressed ladies in the Wild West game.” An article in the October 20, 1925, edition of the Florence Morning News echoed the sentiment and added that few riders had such a stunning wardrobe or could look as good as Miss Parr in the garb. “She is the best dressed of all the cowgirls and girl riders with Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Real Wild West Show.”
The same month Lulu was being applauded for being such a well- dressed rodeo star, she married a man who also agreed she was stylish. Tracy Thomas Andrews and Lulu exchanged vows on October 31, 1925, in Newton, Iowa. Andrew was a bull rider with the Cook Brothers Texas Ranch show. The marriage was short-lived.
In the mid-1920s, Lulu performed in a variety of new Wild West shows traversing the United States. In 1926, she rode with the Mammoth Robbins Brothers Big Four-Ring Circus. An article in the July 4, 1926, edition of the La Crosse Tribune announced to the residents in La Crosse, Wisconsin, of her coming. “In the Wild West division is Miss Lulu B. Parr of London, England, of Paris, and other European continental places,” the report noted. “She is a native of Oklahoma and will appear here and perform her thrilling act. She has appeared in most of the foreign countries as a bronco busting cowgirl rider. Only recently she appeared at the Intercolonial Empire Exposition before the prince of Wales. Later she appeared in the American Rodeo at Paris, France.
“She rides outlaw horses, does anything a man can do astride a cantankerous mustang, and has thrown more wild-eyed mavericks than the oldest ‘high-jacking’, ‘hye-there’ bronco buster to be found from the plaza of El Paso to the plains of Moosejaw. She is simply ‘it’ when it comes to sailing along on the back of a horse. She appears in the Robbins Bros. Circus during the main performance and is an attractive figure at all times.”
The following year, Lulu was working for the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus entertaining audiences in Dover, New Jersey. Among the other women representing the Wild West contingent in late May 1927 were trick riders Julie Rinehart and Hazel Hickey. Lulu was billed as “Ex-Woman Champion Bronc Buster and Bucking Horse Rider.”
In 1929, Lulu was still appearing in a number of Wild West shows, including King Brothers Rodeo run by Colonel Jack King. Prominent Westerners appearing under the King banner in addition to Lulu were Vivian Delmore, “Wild Cy” Perkins, Tommy Cropper, Jimmy Carson, and Tom Howard. The riders, both men and women, numbered more than fifty, and twenty-five Sioux Indians were used in the show along with more than a hundred head of stock.
The Robbins Brothers Circus set up its tents in Dodge City, Kansas, on Wednesday, September 18, 1929, and Lulu was listed as one of the stars of the show. An article in the Dodge City Journal mentioned how excited residents were to have Lulu visit their town. “She stands without a peer and is the highest salaried rider known to the profession,” the newspaper reported.
Throughout the 1930s, Lulu continued to travel the country performing in any Wild West show or circus that invited her. She was in her fifties and still riding unmanageable horses most men wouldn’t dare tackle, and she survived bucking tactics without being displaced from the saddle.
The May 17, 1938, edition of the Gazette and Daily reported that Lulu had retired to a ranch she owned in Nebraska. The story was only partially correct. She had retired but was living in Riverside, Ohio, with her brother William and sister-in-law Emma. Lulu might have been the “highest salaried rider,” but she had little to show for her years as a bronc buster once her career ended. William and Emma were struggling financially as well. The three lived in a small, tar-paper cabin with no water or electricity. Food was scarce and either Lulu or William would make frequent trips to the gas station across the street from their home to use the restroom and transport buckets of water back with them for cooking and bathing.
Lulu’s living conditions were not reflected in her disposition. She always had a kind word for neighbors and was happy to share stories about her days with the Wild West shows. She was seventy-seven when a burglar attempted to break into her feeble home and steal the belongings she had acquired while performing. Lulu leveled a gun at the thief as he entered, and he ran off before a shot was fired.
On January 17, 1955, Lulu was transported to the Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, Ohio, after neighbors called for help. Lulu was suffering from malnutrition and had had a stroke. Her sister-in-law, who was also ill, was taken to the hospital at the same time. Lulu died sixteen hours after being admitted.
Trunks and cartons of memorabilia collected throughout her time on the rodeo circuit was piled ceiling high in the cabin where Lulu lived. Among those items were costumes, hats, fancy cowgirl belts, and a pair of .45 -caliber Colt pistols given to her by Buffalo Bill Cody back in the days she worked for him.
Lulu Parr died on January 17, 1955. Her death certificate listed her occupation as housewife. She was buried in an unmarked grave in the Medway Cemetery in Clark County, Ohio. She was seventy-eight years old when she died.