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Back When They Bucked with Florence Hughes Randolph
Written by: Gail Woerner< Back to Articles
Early Day Madison Square Garden Cowgirl
When searching for information about rodeo history, it is not unusual to be diverted in my quest to find a cowgirl or cowboy with unusual and interesting experiences other than rodeo. My attention goes directly to that person. Florence Hughes Randolph is just such a person. Her experiences just have to be re-told!
Cleo Alberta Holmes was born to John and Mary Holmes in Augusta, Georgia in 1898. She didn’t like her name and let it be known. Her father, in jest, called her Florence instead. The name stuck and when she began her career it was Florence, not Cleo or Alberta, that she chose to call herself.
She spent as many days as she could with her grandfather, on his cotton plantation, making rounds. She rode behind him on a mule. When she began riding alone, at age 13, she wasn’t satisfied with the mules. She rode horses instead, and eventually persuaded her mother to let her travel with a circus equestrian family as an apprentice.
She loved the excitement of the Colonel King’s IXL Ranch Wild West. She practiced with tutors, did the hard work she was also asked to do, and watched others, to learn, as they practiced their specialties with horses. She became a trick and Roman rider and a trick roper. A few years later, 1915, the troupe disbanded and Florence was free to do what she wanted.
Florence never grew very big. She was four feet six inches tall and weighed all of 90 pounds, but her experiences had allowed her to gain so much confidence during those years she formed her own show. She named it ‘Princess Mohawk’s Wild West Hippodrome’. The group grew to sixty people, which in addition to the performers, included cooks and crew to set up and tear down. Often they traveled with other shows and carnivals. It lasted several years until a disaster struck in Kentucky. The bleachers collapsed on opening night and numerous spectators were injured. Florence lost everything!
There was no time to waste, she had to earn some money! She joined the Barnum & Bailey Circus. While there Florence learned resinback riding from May Wirth, a well-known specialist in that endeavor. She learned much from this fine lady, including how to turn a backward somersault from one horse to another. Florence’s ability to perform could amaze and excite the audience.
Meanwhile, between circus engagements she began to enter rodeos as a bronc rider and trick rider to try and win money. It took awhile to prove herself in rodeo as she was known as a ‘wild west gal’. In 1919 she heard of the rich purses offered at the Calgary Stampede and hungry for money she headed that way. Florence entered the three mile Roman standing race. The winner would receive the Prince of Wales Trophy and a silver mounted saddle. She was the only woman entered against eight men. When it was over she had won, the only woman to ever win that event. Plus the Prince of Wales trophy she won a silver-mounted saddle worth $1,500. She quickly sold the saddle to Edith Sterling, a silent movie actress. She needed the $1,500 much worse than the saddle.
After this Canadian win she had confidence galore, and began entering all the big rodeos, such as Cheyenne Frontier Days, Pendleton RoundUp, Chicago and Fort Worth. Florence competed under the last name Holmes, Hughes, King, Fenton and Randolph, and occasionally as Princess Mohawk. Florence married a bronc rider named Angelo Hughes who was killed in an automobile accident at Mexia, Texas four months later. Suddenly she had to support herself plus support her mother and two younger sisters.
When a Phoenix rodeo ended she went to Hollywood to visit friends. While there she was encouraged to double for Shirley Mason, a movie star. Florence would get two or three hundred dollars for doing risky horse riding chores, that actors refused to do for movies, such as riding horses over cliffs. She also posed as a Mack Sennett bathing beauty. But the desire to rodeo won out. Back in Texas she threw her saddle behind an open cockpit of a Curtiss bi-wing at Love Field in Dallas and took off in to the air to promote the Dallas Dunbar Rodeo.
Her first New York competition was Tex Austin’s 1923 Championship Rodeo at Yankee Stadium. She entered all three cowgirl events – Bronc Riding, Trick Riding and Relay Racing. Later in life she was quoted as saying, “I didn’t win all the time, but I got my share of the prizes most of the time.”
The rough and tumble world of rodeo did cause Florence to experience some bad spills. In Houston a bronc named ‘Dumbell’ fell on her and she was dragged to safety by world champion Bob Crosby. At the Shrine convention rodeo in Washington D. C. a notorious bronc named ‘School Girl’ turned a somersault and landed on Florence, who was declared dead, but after going to the hospital by ambulance she came back to ride again! Once, when she was taken to the hospital after a serious accident, Ruth Roach went with her. Florence had been unconscious and was coming to when she heard the doctor tell Ruth that she would never walk again. Florence bolted, got up and ran out, heading to the front door, with the doctor and Ruth after her, when she realized she was only wearing a sheet! One of her most embarrassing moments.
In 1924 Florence was asked to go with the Tex Austin entourage to London, England, to compete in Wembley Stadium, the first rodeo ever held in England. It was a 14 day trip by ship with the cowboys and cowgirls, and the stock. The Prince of Wales, who by then was the Duke of Windsor, took a group of competitors to supper after one performance. He had remembered Florence when she won the Prince of Wales Trophy at Calgary five years earlier and was fascinated by her. Later he escorted her to Buckingham Palace to be presented to his parents, George VI and Queen Mary. He also took her to view the crown jewels of Great Britain.
In 1925 she met Floyd Randolph of Ardmore, Oklahoma, who was judging a rodeo at Dewey, Oklahoma. He also furnished stock for the big rodeos, including 200 head of horses and steers for the first Madison Square Garden rodeo. They were married at Newkirk, OK later that year. They went on to the next rodeo since there was no money for a honeymoon. Florence’s desire to win at the Garden caused her to have an arena made, to the same dimensions as Madison Square Garden, at the Randolph ranch near Ardmore, Oklahoma. Regardless of the weather Florence could be found working out in the arena every day of the year.
She also made and designed her own costumes. New ones were made for each season. Sometimes as many as sixteen costumes or more were made yearly. Many were made out of satin and when they wore out she would rip them up and make satin quilts from the fabric.
Florence had several horses she trained for trick riding. The most famous was “Boy” a five year old that she bought completely untrained. During his training Florence lost two teeth to his wild ways, but she and husband Floyd finally got him settled down. “Boy” and Florence were featured at many rodeos. At one of their Madison Square Garden performances a representative of ‘Ripley’s Believe it or Not’ discovered ‘Boy’ had a clear map of the United States on his right side. Believe it or not, Florence had never noticed it before. In Philadelphia they were invited to a Rotary Club gathering and ‘Boy’ traveled by elevator up sixteen floors in the Bellvue-Stratford Hotel. She had him wear special made rubber boots so he would not slip on the tile floors.
The SesquiCentennial in Philadelphia, 1926, is where she won her first All-Around cowgirl trophy. It was presented to her by Jack Dempsey, the well-known boxer of the era. All together she had won $6,000 there with wins in bronc riding and trick riding. She moved on to the Chicago rodeo and won the same two events there.
Madison Square Garden rodeos were held in late October or November. Through the years the New York rodeo became bigger and bigger, with standing room only at times. Florence was one of the favorite cowgirl competitors and always sought out by various reporters. In 1927 she won the Cowgirl All Around Championship, plus the Cowgirl Trick Riding Championship. She was the first cowgirl to win the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Trophy, valued at $10,000. The trophy would not be given to a cowgirl to keep until someone had three consecutive wins.
During her rodeo years Florence continued to go to the Madison Square Garden Rodeo. She remembered in 1932 when Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, Chairman of the Milk Fund, had a luncheon for the cowgirls competing that year. Mrs. Hearst gave each of them a purse for their enthusiastic participation in the rodeo which aided her favorite charity. After the presentation the cowgirls became silent. Florence got to her feet, in behalf of the group, and thanked Mrs. Hearst for her kindness and hospitality. From that time forward Florence became the ‘unofficial’ spokesperson for the cowgirls whenever there was any public speaking required.
Her achievements were amazing. She won the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer $10,000 Trophy; the George W. Nixon trophy for World Champion Girl Bronc Rider in Chicago in 1926; the Juergens and Anderson World Champion Cowgirl Trick Rider in 1927 and 1928; and the Champion All-Around Cowgirl at Philadelphia in 1930, plus many more.
In 1939 Florence “Princess Mohawk” Hughes Randolph announced she was hanging up her saddle. “I have done everything in rodeo that I set out to do,” she reported. Her retirement dinner was held at Madison Square Garden, and she was presented a huge bouquet by Paul Whiteman, a popular bandleader of that era.
She did not retire when going home, but began teaching her granddaughter, Madonna, age 5, to trick ride. Floyd’s daughter, Mary Louise had married Jim Eskew, Jr., world champion trick roper, and Madonna was their child. As a teenager Madonna became a well-known trick rider and trick roper. She retired from trick riding at 16, but continued to perform as a trick roper.
Florence did many things during her retirement in Ardmore including assisting her husband politically when becoming sheriff. She was also active in her church. Madonna said, ‘There was never a Sunday that she didn’t have me at Sunday School and Church at the First Christian Church in Ardmore.’ Additionally, she and Floyd also helped start the Ardmore VFW Rodeo in 1946, and worked on it for many years.
Florence was inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in 1968. The only two women to be honored in that Hall of Fame at that time was Florence and Tad Lucas. Many of her trophies she had won during her rodeo career are housed there in the Oklahoma City Hall. Her most treasured were The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Trophy which she won in 1927 as “a tribute to the charm and courage of western womanhood’. The second trophy, also from Madison Square Garden, was from 1933 when she won as the Champion Trick Rider. She was also inducted to the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Fort Worth in 1994 posthumously. Florence had passed away April 14, 1971.
The cowgirls from the 1920s and 1930s were fiercely driven and it was extremely difficult in those days. Once they honed their rodeo skills, won some prize money, learned how to travel from one rodeo to the next, and became friends with other cowgirls and cowboys, you couldn’t keep them away. It became their life, and some excelled at it, like Florence.
Gail Woerner, rodeo historian, is writing a book about professional rodeo from 1920 to 1959, with an emphasis on the Madison Square Garden rodeos. She has always called the early day Madison Square Garden Rodeos the ‘unofficial’ predecessor to the National Finals.