Fannie Sperry painted on the Women's Mural in Helena

HELENA – Another Last Chance Stampede and Fair kicks off in Helena this week.

One of Montana’s best-known cowgirls was raised on a ranch near the Gates of the Mountains and was on a horse before she could even walk, according to Interpretive Historian Ellen Baumler.

Fannie Sperry made a name for herself at the Stampede in 1904 – back when it was the Montana State Fair.

“It was at that event where Fannie and three of her friends made the first relay ride,” said Baumler.  “They became very famous relay riders.  They would ride a certain distance, then they would have to change horses and saddles and another rider would hop on.  They did that across the Midwest for a few years.”

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Baumler said Fanny Sperry rode slick her entire career, meaning she did not use the concession that was given to women during that time to tie the stirrups under the horse’s belly.  Sperry believed the practice was unfair to the horse and the rider.

Baumler said the first Calgary Stampede in 1912 marked another major milestone in Sperry’s career.

“She drew Red Wing, who just a couple of days before had a fatal accident.  A cowboy was thrown from Red Wing and died.  So she drew this killer horse,” explained Baumler.  “It took so much courage for her to get on that horse and do that ride.  And she did win, there were 5 contestants – 5 women – and she won the World Bucking, Lady Bucking horse Championship at that time.”

Baumler said Sperry became Fannie Sperry-Steele when she married fellow rodeo rider and arena clown Bill Steele in 1913.

Sperry-Steele eventually became the first woman licensed to be a packer and she is honored on the Women’s Mural in downtown Helena.

You can read Ellen Baumler’s complete article on Fannie Sperry-Steele and other Montana cowgirls in the summer edition of Distinctly Montana, which is on newsstands now.