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Cowboy Heroes

by Jim Olson

"Bertha Blancett –
A Pioneer Lady in Rodeo

Hundreds of cowboys have ridden broncs at “The Daddy,” (Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo) since it began in 1897. But did you know women used to ride broncs there as well? The first woman to complete such a task was none other than Bertha Kaepernik, a pioneer in women’s rodeo competition. Bertha Kaepernik Blancett has been credited with many “firsts” for ladies when it comes to the early days of the great sport of Rodeo!

Born near Atwood, Colorado (south of Sterling) to William and Federico Kaepernik (an immigrant ranching family) during 1883, Bertha’s father had her riding a horse at a very young age. In 1904, the young Miss Kaepernik rode a horse from the home ranch in Colorado to Cheyenne, WY where she wound up giving a bronc riding exhibition. (The promoters of the rodeo had advertised “Ladies Bronc Riding” as a promotional gimmick but did not really expect any takers. When young Bertha showed up, it was to the surprise of the promoters and to the crowd. Whatever prompted Bertha to ride that day, however, made her the first lady to do so at Cheyenne Frontier Days.) She returned the following year to do it again and this time they also had women’s relay races which she participated in.

The rodeo bug must have got a hold of her because in 1906, Bertha left home and joined up with Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show where she rode broncs and put on exhibitions until about 1909 when she joined up with the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Show. While there, she met and married Dell Blancett who was known as the World Champion Bull Dogger (the first man after Bill Pickett to be known as such).

Author, Willard Porter, said of Bertha, “She not only contested on an equal basis with the men but also pioneered women’s rodeo competition. She won several championships as a bronc rider and competed in relay race riding and roman riding.”

Another first that Bertha Blancett is credited with is being the first lady hazer in the bulldogging event. Dell and Bertha traveled the United States, Canada and Mexico with the Wild West Shows and Rodeos. Along the way, Dell taught Bertha to be his “hazer” in the bulldogging (practically unheard of, even to this day). During this period, the couple also appeared in the “newest rage” taking over the country, the Moving Picture Shows.

Men such as Hoot Gibson and Tom Mix performed with the Miller Bros. show before going to Hollywood to work in the movies. By using these contacts, the Blancetts were able to gain work as extras and stunt doubles for Bison Films when they were traveling in California.

In 1912, Bud Atkinson, organized the Atkinson’s American Circus and Wild West Show to tour in Australia. The show had over two-hundred performers, one-hundred head of horses and a number of other livestock. Among those who signed on with Atkinson were the Blancetts.

After returning from Australia, Bertha and Dell continued to tour the Rodeo and Wild West Show circuit. However, with the onset of World War I in 1914, things were about to change forever. Like many able-bodied men, Dell volunteered to join the Army. Upon hearing he was rejected (it was said because of rheumatism) he went north and joined in Canada instead. Shortly after getting into the action in Europe as a Canadian Soldier, Dell was killed, leaving Bertha a young widow.

She never remarried. She also never competed in the bronc riding again. She did however perform another first, becoming one of the first lady “pick-up men” to assist in the bronc riding event. That says a-bunch about what the cowboys thought of her ability. If they allowed her to perform this all-important task, they knew she was as good a rider as any man. She also worked as a guide in Yosemite (one of the first women taking on this task as well).

By about age fifty, Bertha retired to her new home in Porterville, California where she lived the rest of her life, until her death at age ninety-six. She took odd jobs to help pay the bills, but never forgot her days as a rodeo star. (She was interviewed on several occasions about those early days.)

During her time in rodeo, she is credited with winning: the World’s Championship Ladies Relay Race in 1911, 1912 and 1913, the World’s Ladies Bronc Riding Championship in 1914 and 1915 and the World Championship Roman Race in 1918 (to name a few). She also competed and won at such prestigious rodeos as Pendleton, Calgary, Cheyenne and many others. She truly was a pioneer in the sport of rodeo.

At the age of ninety (1973), she was inducted into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum Hall of Fame at Oklahoma City. After her death (1979), Bertha Blancett was also inducted in National Cowgirl Hall of Fame and Museum at Fort Worth, Texas in 1999. n