Whether it was with wild horses, barrel horses or movie horses, Sammy Thurman Brackenbury lived her life with spirit, a sense of adventure, and a […]
Back When They Bucked with Marilyn Freimark
Written by: Lily Weinacht< Back to Articles
Marilyn Freimark knows her family’s genes run thick with the blue-jean lifestyle of rodeo and horses, but it was her own love of horses that put the passion back in her family tree—and Marilyn herself into rodeo history as the first Miss Rodeo America.
Born in 1935, Marilyn was raised in town in Cheyenne, Wyoming, but she was a country girl at heart. “The first horse I saw I fell in love with, and I’ve been in love with them ever since,” says Marilyn. “My father was a railroad man, but he came from a ranch near Newcastle, Wyoming. His brothers were all ranchers, and we would visit them every summer and ride many cattle for pleasure. When I was 13 years old, I started working at Merritt Western Store, an upscale Western store. I met people from all over the United States, and I was able to visit with them and meet a lot of ranch and rodeo people.” She modeled Merritt’s clothing and a clothing store in Cheyenne, which made up most of her own wardrobe as well.
Marilyn graduated from Cheyenne High School in 1954, and motivated by the many Colorado livestock club students she met at work, she enrolled at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, known then as Colorado A&M University. Paying for her tuition and all her expenses through her job at Merritt’s, Marilyn majored in business and mass communications, and leapt in to a variety of school activities and sports, including Western and English riding lessons, polo, swimming, ice skating, basketball, volleyball, tennis and was an expert rifle marksman and she was an award winning fisher person. Marilyn also became a Kappa Delta and competed in five non rodeo queen contests, including Miss Colorado, Miss Colorado A&M.
A year into her studies at CSU, Marilyn’s employer at Merritt’s learned about the newly minted Miss Rodeo America organization and asked Marilyn if she’d like to compete for the title. “I just had fun doing it, never thinking that anything would come of it, but I won about four contests before I got into the (Miss Rodeo America) contest,” says Marilyn. Her first step was winning the Cheyenne Riding Club queen contest. With their sponsorship, as well as Merritt’s, she went on to win Miss Rodeo Wyoming, followed by Miss Rodeo Queen of the Rockies, all in 1955. “In those days, the contestants had grooms with them and some of them had been in special training for a year for the (Miss Rodeo America) contest. I had too, but it wasn’t that I was planning on doing anything with it—I just happened to be lucky and got in on some wonderful training before I went.”
The first Miss Rodeo America contest took place in Marilyn’s home state in Casper, where she and nine other women, including a Canadian, competed in front of 15 judges over several days. “They also had silent judges at various places watching you and seeing how friendly you were, and if you were greeting people and on your best behavior.” Marilyn excelled in and won all three divisions—horsemanship, personality, and appearance—but horsemanship was always her favorite. “You brought your own horse at that time, and they furnished other horses for us to ride. I am not a bronc buster, but I do know how to train horses for riding and western equitation, and even for English.” Marilyn competed on her mare, Blue, her first horse given to her by a friend when she was a senior in high school. “She loved to show off and do beautiful things.”
By the end of the contest, Marilyn was hoping for the unusual—that the title would go to someone else. “I had a girlfriend from Colorado State University in the contest, Laurie, and she wanted to win so badly and I really wanted her to win.” The first ever Miss Rodeo America crown was placed on Marilyn’s hat, however. She and Laurie continued their friendship, and Marilyn, with her mother as chaperone, began traveling and representing rodeo across the country. She made history again as the first rodeo queen invited to ride at the Denver Stock Show, and she was even offered a contract with Paramount Pictures, along with opportunities for television appearances. “It was always wonderful to travel like that and go to many places and meet lots of people.” Marilyn’s schooling in mass communications came to her aid, though she was never entirely comfortable being on stage in front of an audience, and she continued studying at CSU through her reign as Miss Rodeo America.
A year after her reign, Marilyn was a junior in college when she married Paul Painter from Buffalo, South Dakota, who was also a student at CSU. The couple moved to South Dakota, where they ran Painter Ranch and Marilyn later finished her degree at Black Hills State University. She and Paul were married for 18 years and had 4 children, Joe, Laurie, Cindy, and Judy, who all went on to attend BHSU as well. When Marilyn and Paul separated, Marilyn moved to Spearfish, South Dakota, where she worked, and eventually met Dr. Lyle Freimark, a surgeon from Rapid City. They married in 1985, and while Marilyn wanted to become a stock broker, it wouldn’t give her the flexibility to travel with Lyle to seminars all over the world. Instead, she was his office manager for the next 15 years, and they traveled to 52 countries, sometimes staying for a week or even as long as 3 or 4 months. “He was very interested in music, and we always went to concerts and I loved the plays,” says Marilyn. Because of Lyle’s allergies, they didn’t have animals to care for at home, though Marilyn’s son, Joe, raised 75 head of buffalo for them at one time.
Lyle retired in 1997, and he and Marilyn remained in Rapid City until he passed away in 2018. Marilyn stayed active in the horse world and even spoke at a rodeo queen clinic at Cheyenne Frontier Days in the early 2000s to 90 rodeo queens and their families. “I’ve always encouraged the girls to get their educations so they can take care of themselves in any situation,” says Marilyn. “I love schooling, and I told that to all my children and grand children.” Several of her children and grandchildren live nearby, and everyone in the family is involved with horses in some form, whether barrel racing like all three of Marilyn’s daughters, or team roping like her son and grandsons. Marilyn’s granddaughter-in-law, Jessica Routier, qualified for the WNFR for the first time in 2018 and finished second in the world standings. She also has a grandaughter Jessica Painter Holmes who has won over 50 saddles competing in rodeo events. “I always go to the Black Hills Stock Show, and my son, Joe, often gets into the ranch rodeo, so I’m always there that night, and I often go three or four times to the rodeo,” says Marilyn. “I’ve been blessed all my life. I’ve had two wonderful husbands, four great children, 6 grand children and 10 great grand children, two wonderful horses and two wonderful dogs. With the help of our dear Lord the many tasks I have chosen in this life have been the right decision. As a mentor for many, my legacy continues. God has blessed me and I feel very thankful.”