Trail’s End – Goldie Griffith’s
By Linda Jones
Goldie Griffith enjoyed storybook moments in her life – her wedding in Madison Square Garden, planned by Buffalo Bill Cody, and receiving trophies for wrestling and boxing, trick riding and bronc riding – but she endured many hardships and disappointments as well. Her captivating life story was the subject of a full-length book written in 2009, The Last of the Wild West Cowgirls: A True Story.
Goldie was born in Ohio in 1893 to traveling performers. Her father, John, sold medical elixirs while her mother, Allie, performed nearby. By age 3, Goldie was singing and dancing with her mother, and the thrill of an audience applauding seeped into her bones. She left home at 17 as a professional athlete, wrestling with the Lady Athletes during the Appalachian Exposition in 1910. Women wrestlers were popular in those years, but she also learned to box and fence to earn more money.
Her athletic interests changed when she met Charlie Mulhall who was performing with the 101 Wild West Show in the same town. He encouraged her to learn to ride horses, even “broncs,” as they were then called, and Goldie, always full of grit, met his challenge. She spent that winter at the Mulhall’s 101 Ranch in Bliss, Okla., riding wild bucking broncs. When Goldie was introduced to horses, her career was born. She loved everything about the rodeo world: riding, horses, parades, the noise and the excitement, even the long hours. (The Ranch covered thousands of acres with huge herds of cattle, horses, mules and hogs and it boasted orchards, cotton fields, oil rigs, its own depot and train.) By spring of 1912 she was riding with the 101 Show on the road. Her romantic interest in Charlie lasted for years and he eventually proposed to her, but by that time she was married.
When the mammoth show train left Bliss, it consisted of several sections. More than 1,000 people traveled with the show, including performers, Indians, Mexicans, Cossacks and cowboy bands, even the famous Bill Pickett, the “Dusky Demon.” The stock included more than 600 animals, including elephants, camels, horses, bison, steers, longhorns, oxen, mules and horses. The show equipment included wagons, stagecoaches, buggies, harnesses and tack, even a calliope, and the kitchen supplies and equipment filled several cars. Goldie slept in a Pullman sleeper with the other single girls. After practice shows in Oklahoma, they chugged to Boston for the first real show.
The rigorous performing schedule suited Goldie. The performers rode in two shows every day except for Sunday; between shows they took care of their horses and costumes. Sunday was a day of rest for performers and stock, although they often paraded on Sunday. Sunday was also a day to do laundry, and in Goldie’s life, to enjoy dinner with Harry Smith Walters, a top hand performing in the show.
By fall, the show was performing in the West. After more than seven months on the road, 14,097 miles through 25 states, the 101 show finished in California. While they wintered there, Goldie and Harry and other performers rode behind the 101 band in the Rose Parade in 1913.
Flickers was her next adventure. She, Harry and other performers provided crowd and background scenes for several of the new flickers, many starring Hoot Gibson or Tom Mix. Goldie met all these stars but she thought the flickers were boring because they required a lot of just standing around waiting for action. She missed the live audience, the applause and the adrenalin of the live shows.
A wonderful surprise came for Goldie that winter while she was back on the 101 Ranch. Buffalo Bill Cody, America’s consummate showman, asked her to ride in his show as a Lady Bronc Rider, and when she reported, she discovered Harry too was now working for Buffalo Bill. This show was called the Two Bills because Pawnee Bill Lillie had merged his East show with Cody’s West show. Goldie found the perfect boss in Cody – kind, generous and loyal – but the performers detested Lillie because he cheated them on wages. When Cody’s show was later attached for non-payment of bills, the performers blamed Lillie.
One of Goldie’s gutsy adventures came when the Two Bills show was denied a parade permit in New York City. Goldie and Cody’s personal valet, Carlos Miles, were the only two performers foolhardy enough to carry out Cody’s PR stunt – riding horseback up the steep marble steps of Grant’s Tomb.
In New York, Harry told Cody he and Goldie wanted to get married, which was a surprise to her. She agreed, however, but the day before the wedding she was thrown into the stands and into the hospital. Sore and bruised, she left the hospital and managed to mount her horse for the wedding on May 9, 1913. Cody gave her away in the horseback ceremony in Madison Square Garden arena while 8,000 spectators cheered and applauded. Goldie felt proud; she had made herself a cowgirl and a bronc rider and now was in the most famous show on earth, given in marriage by the most famous man.
Many disappointments would follow in Goldie’s life. A disastrous stagecoach accident in a show six days after the wedding killed one performer and put the other stage riders, including Goldie, in the hospital. Harry traveled on with the show while she healed. Goldie was in three Western shows that folded without paying the performers: the Two Bills show, the Kit Carson show and the Bill Penny show. Despite those hard times with no money for food, the constant wandering of Harry, losing a days-old baby and almost dying from the Spanish flu, Goldie always recovered. After she divorced the philandering Harry, she married another rodeo performer, Doc Cameron, who also left her for another woman.
After the demise of the Western arena shows, Goldie raised her son Russell in Nederland, operating several restaurants to earn a living. She loved the old mining town because the closeness of its residents reminded her of the close-knit family of rodeo performers. Goldie lived to age 83, dying in 1976 and leaving a memorable legacy in ‘Ned.’