|Sturgis woman is a rodeo legend
By Leesa Kiewel
I wanna ride Old Paint movin’ at a run,
I wanna pillow my head, beneath the open sky,
To visit with Mattie Goff Newcombe is to sit in the grandstands of a rodeo arena, circa 1925. When she talks about her trick riding performances, you can almost hear the rhythm of hoofbeats and the roar of the crowd.
The Great Depression and the Dirty Thirties had not yet arrived when Mattie began her entertainment career. Calvin Coolidge was President, ‘flappers’ were the rage, Wyatt Earp was still alive, and the legendary bucking horse, Tipperary, was being campaigned by a rodeo promoter named Sam Brownell.
It was Brownell who encouraged Mattie to consider performing for spectators, after he watched her ride at one of the local rodeos. She took his advice. Before long, Mattie was carving a name for herself across the nation as the trick-riding master of the Suicide Drag.
Known as the "fastest trick rider on the fastest horse," the 110 pound Mattie performed death-defying stunts like Under the Neck, Under the Belly, Spin the Horn and the Suicide Drag. Audiences gave the petite girl from White Owl, South Dakota, standing ovations when she performed the Roman Stand --- riding two horses at the same time while standing upright.
"The Suicide Drag was the most dangerous," Mattie said , "because you’re hanging headfirst over the running horse’s rump with your feet in special holds at the back of the saddle, your head and hands almost touching the ground. A rider could easily be kicked in the head."
Throughout Mattie’s career, she was undefeated as a relay rider – a timed event where she would sometimes leap from the back of one horse to another without touching the ground, bringing a roaring crowd to its feet.
Mattie’s rodeo career began in the early 1920s when she traveled as a female bronc rider with stock contractor Russ Madison’s string. She recalls her first rodeo with Madison at Sioux Falls, South Dakota in 1921.
Mattie’s older brother Charley discovered her talent with horses as they were growing up on the family ranch along Tepee Creek near White Owl. Charley, who owned one of the largest remudas in that part of the country, including the famed ‘white horse band’ put her on a horse at the age of three to see how she would react. As Mattie grew older and more experienced, Charley had her help him break rank horses and found that his little sister could stick to a horse’s back, loving every single minute of it.
Mounted on the family babysitter --- a gentle black gelding named Blackbird --- Mattie practiced in pastures and river bottoms to develop her skills. When she decided to take her show on the road, she took her own horse Bob, a bay gelding, and moved to Belle Fourche, then considered the rodeo capital of the Midwest. Every day, like athletes in training, the two looped the track at the roundup grounds, Mattie running alongside the horse, hanging onto the stirrup. After the running session, Mattie and Bob practiced her routines until they had them down to an absolute science.
After Mattie’s first appearance, newspapers began to chronicle the career of this tiny, young South Dakotan who quickly made a name for herself as she and her horse, defying the laws of gravity and speed, thrilled audiences everywhere. She traveled the circuits in an old car she purchased from her earnings, pulling a homemade horse trailer with her treasured horses inside. (The trailer will soon be on display at the Casey Tibbs Museum in Pierre, South Dakota.)
Even the cowboys who competed at the same rodeos came to respect and admire Mattie’s skills with a horse -- men like Earl Thone, Yakima Canutt and Casey Tibbs, who become rodeo legends themselves. Her saddle and other gear were custom-made to accommodate her tricks and her size.
Traveling the rodeo circuit in those days was not an easy feat.
Mattie recalls roads that were, at best, little more than dirt trails that lacked gas stations; restrooms and motels were nonexistent. In the late 1920’s she joined George Gardner’s rodeo troupe as a contract performer, traveling the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky. Local townsfolk loved the performances but were standoffish of the caravans of people that arrived with the show. Like gypsies, they traveled out of their suitcases, camped in tents and occasionally stranded, had to find their own way home. Mattie remembers arriving in Omaha late one night, purchasing a train ticket, loading her horses and coming home aboard the train.
During the spring of 1927 Mattie paid $2,000 for a horse she called Buster --- a great deal of money in those days, especially for an unbroken horse with no credentials or significant breeding. Buster turned out to be her best horse and was her faithful companion until his death, long after Mattie retired from show business.
While home in South Dakota between rodeo seasons, Mattie met and fell in love with Maynard Newcombe, a rancher in eastern Meade County. They were married in the 1930s and Mattie then began to devote herself to the ranch and her husband, easing up on her show career. The Great Depression arrived, and the two newlyweds worked day and night to save their home place. Hard work and sacrifice prevailed, so much so that they were able to purchase neighboring land and built their operation over the years. The Newcombe Ranch, at 12,000 acres, is still in operation today, producing beef cattle. When her faithful horse Buster died, Mattie had him buried on the ranch.
Mattie moved to Sturgis after Maynard’s death, leaving management of the ranch to the couple’s long-time hired hand.
Although Mattie doesn’t speak about her age, she appears much younger than a woman who began her rodeo career nearly 80 years ago. Her dark eyes twinkle, her mind is sharp and she’s still no bigger than a minute. She never was injured during her profession, but a 1950s ranch accident left her with a concussion, paralyzed eye and internal injuries that had to be treated at Mayo Clinic.
In 1961 Mattie Goff Newcombe was one of the first inductees into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. In 1989, she was honored in her home state by being inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame, and in 1991 she was inducted into the Casey Tibbs South Dakota Rodeo Center at a ceremony she was unable to attend because she’d undergone surgery for stomach cancer.
Mattie was elected to the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Texas in 1994, a result of a nomination from the Tibbs Museum group. In 1995 she received the Pioneer Award from the Black Hills Stock Show & Rodeo during the annual Old-Timers Breakfast.
The Casey Tibbs Rodeo Center houses most of the material items comprising Mattie’s stunning career: photos, clippings, her custom-made Frazier saddle, beaver Stetson hat, silver mounted spurs and beaded gloves, along with her fringed white leather show outfit which she can still wear today.
Mattie’s good friend, Johnny Smith of Ft. Pierre, said her larger-than-life spirit is overshadowed only by her heart and generosity to those close to her, and to the sport she loves so much.
"Mattie is a major benefactor to the Casey Tibbs Rodeo Center, and her generosity has helped ensure that the legacy Casey created will live on for future generations to see and experience. There’s no one else like Mattie; she’s a spitfire and she’s cowgirl through and through," he said.
Bronze sculptor Tony Chytka was commissioned to create a life-size statue of Mattie and Buster that will eventually be placed at the Tibbs Rodeo Center in Fort Pierre, right next to the one the Spearfish artist created of the famous Casey Tibbs. Currently both bronzes are on display at the South Dakota Original 1880 town near Murdo.
In Mattie’s memory book, her biggest thrill came at the Belle Fourche Roundup in 1927, when she performed for President and Mrs. Coolidge. That was the same year she first won the All-Around Cowgirl title. Grace and Calvin Coolidge asked for an audience with Mattie following the performance, and the President told her how much he enjoyed her trick riding and relay racing.
Today, when asked how she feels about the evolution of the sport of rodeo and what it has grown to become, her eyes light up. "I love rodeo...I always have," she said. "It’s the greatest sport on earth."
Deadwood Magazine ©2000