Margaret Elizabeth Owens was the oldest daughter of Thomas Jefferson Owens (1896 – 1967) and Mary Ella Bolt Owens (1894 – 1998). Margaret was born March 28, 1922 in San Angelo, Tom Green County, Texas. Margaret was joined by a sister, Lottie Jo “Sug” Owens (1926 – 2012), some four years later.
Margaret grew up working on the family place, the NH Ranch, alongside her family members and learned ranching skills by performing them there. One of the earliest mentions of her in newspapers is the September 3, 1938 edition of the Lubbock Morning Avalanche in which Margaret is listed as one of twenty-four cowgirls from Texas and New Mexico who were slated to participate in the upcoming Midland Rodeo. The contestants were to compete for prizes including a new saddle, a set of travel bags, a wrist watch and a purse. She was sixteen years old at the time.
Two years later in the February 12, 1940 issue of the Del Rio News, she is singled out as being a future “honor guest” and contestant in the upcoming Southwestern Exhibition and Fat Stock Show to be held the following month in Fort Worth. The article said “She can rope and tie a calf under rodeo rules and stack up a record with the best of the ropers.” It continued to say that she was chosen to compete the previous December during the Texas Sheep and Goat Raisers Convention and that she had been ranching on her own since her graduation from Ozona High School one year earlier.
In some accounts her last name is shown to be Montgomery, because she was married for a time to a San Angelo rancher by that name. The couple had no children and they later were divorced. For most of her life, she used the last name of Owens.
In the publicity for the 1941 edition of the Midland Rodeo, under a headline that read “Cowgirls Will Get Big Prizes At Midland,” Margaret is the only female contestant specifically mentioned. The article in the Big Spring Daily Herald states that she was the winner of the 1939 calf roping contest and that she would be challenging this year’s winner to a matched roping contest.
By the time she was twenty-three Margaret had been competing for at least eight years, likely more, against the best female contestants in the area. An account of the West of the Pecos Rodeo of 1945 listed Margaret as being a contestant in a two day event where she won against eighteen other women. That year, she won the barrel racing competition and went on to win the Girls Calf Roping event four years in a row, along with wins in line reining and barrel racing.
The popularity of these competitions continued to grow and in February, 1948, thirty-eight women gathered at the St. Angelus Hotel in San Angelo, Texas to form the Girls Rodeo Association (the GRA), now known as the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association. It is the oldest women’s professional sports organization in the United States.
The initial concept had been discussed and the group decided to come together during the previous year’s Tri-State All-Girl Rodeo in Amarillo. Credited for organizing this event were two young women, Nancy Binford and Thena Mae Farr during the Amarillo Tri-State Fair. At the 1948 meeting in San Angelo, a whole slate of officers were elected. Margaret was chosen as the group’s first president and her sister Sug was selected as the publicity director.
The purposes of the Girls Rodeo Association included the goals to organize female contestants, give women opportunities to compete in rodeo events, raise the standards for competition, establish rules both for all-female rodeos as well as events sanctioned as part of the Rodeo Cowboys Association, now known as the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, the PRCA. The GRA established the requirements for earning world championships in their events. Under the auspices of this group, women’s rodeo has evolved from exhibition events to the major events and competitions that are available to women today.
Margaret, then twenty-six years old, won the first GRA world championship in barrel racing later that year. She continued to operate her ranch and compete in rodeos. In 1951, she is mentioned in the July 18 issue of the Abilene Reporter-News in Seymour, Texas’ All Girl Rodeo. Margaret is listed as one of the featured contestants. The article stated that men, women and children can ride in the downtown rodeo parade, but that only women would be allowed in the arena, except for two pickup men. The popular all-girls event featured only women in the grand entry.
The Denton Record-Chronicle issue of May 20, 1955 featured a photo of Margaret and stated that she would be competing in four events, barrel racing, calf roping, ribbon roping and the cutting horse contest in the All-Girl World Championship Rodeo to open that night.
Her life was tragically cut short. Later that year in October, 1955 Margaret and Frank Carlyle “Butch” Mathers, Jr. were involved in an accident in a rural area near Sierra Blanca, Texas. Other details about the accident do not appear to have been published, but the vehicle they were driving stuck the rear of a tractor-trailer rig driven by a Tahoka, Texas man. Mathers and Owens were both killed in the accident, but the truck driver was uninjured. A medical doctor came upon the wreck and Margaret had already passed. Mr. Mathers briefly survived but also succumbed to his injuries. The doctor was from the same town as Mr. Mathers and recognized his name as having been that of a baby that he had delivered many years earlier. Margaret is buried in Fairmount Cemetery in San Angelo, Texas. She was thirty-three years old. Margaret was survived by her sister, her parents and numerous other relatives. Mr. Mathers, who was twenty-two years old, was buried in Sierra Blanca Cemetery in Sierra Blanca, Texas.
Among her many other honors, Margaret was posthumously inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in 1976 and the Texas Rodeo Hall of Fame in 2014. She was truly a pioneer and has left a lasting legacy for women in professional rodeo. She and several other key women of her day helped to bring women’s rodeo from being novelty entertainment to the major sport that it is today.
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