CHEYENNE – Wyoming was built on the tradition of the American cowboy. It’s evident in everything from one of the state’s nicknames to the university’s mascot.
But the women who made it possible for those men to settle the so-called Equality State aren’t always given credit.
“Cowboys and Indians are very exciting, but there are other exciting things like cooking dinner over a fire, birthing babies all by yourself and doing your wash without a washing machine,” said Sharon Russell, president of the Cowgirls of the West Museum.
“That’s the purpose (of the museum). These ladies did a whole lot, and ladies continue to do so.”
In 1995, the Cowgirls of the West Museum was founded to honor women who contributed greatly to Western culture and history, from the pioneering women who first made the West their home to the first women to compete in rodeos. In 2001, the Cowgirls of the West Museum and Gift Shop officially opened its doors in downtown Cheyenne and continued to do so on a seasonal basis until this past summer.
In March, the Cowgirls hosted its last monthly luncheon before the COVID-19 pandemic brought everything to a halt. By May, the museum board decided it was unsafe to open the museum for the summer because most of the docents are members of the high-risk group. So its doors remained shut.
As a completely volunteer-run organization with zero paid employees, the Cowgirls also discovered they weren’t eligible for any CARES Act funding, which put the nonprofit in an even more challenging financial position. All events, including the Cowgirls of the West Annual Brunch & Fashion Show, the group’s largest fundraiser, were also canceled, so without visitors to donate to the museum, it soon became difficult to pay the double storefront’s rent on 17th Street.
“The executive board met in July, and we simply faced the possibility of having to close, to shut down and store all of our wonderful items in here because we had no money,” Russell said. “You can’t spend money you don’t have. Then the hunt was on – what should we do?”
Russell teamed up with museum Director Pam Cooper and Cooper’s son to create a GoFundMe, and since it launched Aug. 8, the page has raised $2,685 of its $35,700 goal via 30 donors. The pair also worked with other Cowgirls members (those who pay $30 a year to support the museum) to ask community members for help.
The result has been encouraging. Cooper said even other businesses that could be considered competitors have reached out, such as Wyoming Home assistant manager Carman Hess, who recently called the Cowgirls to see if she could sell some of the gift shop merchandise in her own store and give the museum the profits.
“We’ve really had some people step up to help us,” said museum co-founder Gerrie Bishop. “Cowgirls have donated, and friends and family have donated to this cause because they feel like they’re saving it, and we’re proud of that.”
Former city councilman and current candidate Richard Johnson and current City Councilman Pete Laybourn were early supporters after Visit Cheyenne CEO Domenic Bravo connected them with the Cowgirls, and after a recent meeting of all parties, a new plan was developed for the museum.
Starting Sept. 26, the building will reopen from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Saturday until Christmas, and there will be plexiglass installed at the front desk to keep high-risk volunteers safe. Bravo said he’s also helping the organization obtain personal protective equipment and recruit younger volunteers to walk around the museum to answer visitor questions.
“My daughter is in high school, and some of her friends who ride rodeo and are members of DACA and Future Business Leaders of America wanted to help, so we’re signing up some young ladies to volunteer who want to learn more about what the museum does,” Bravo said. “The Cowgirls have never done this before, so we’re going to experiment and provide them with help through connections via our own volunteers, and it’ll be good for them exposure-wise.”
“If Visit Cheyenne hadn’t stepped forward, we wouldn’t be able to do this,” said Russell. “I think we’re just flat blessed. … People that have been in here see how wonderful this is.”
Laybourn is a Cowfolk, aka one of the male members of the Cowgirls, and he said as a former champion of Cheyenne Frontier Days, he has great respect for the fortitude and skill of the early cowgirls. Telling their history was personally important to him, so he didn’t think twice before doing whatever he could to help the museum reopen.
“When I got the gals together, I said, ‘We’re not giving up the homestead!’” Laybourn said. “The thing is, the Cowgirls have never asked for help from any governmental organization. They just were real independent, and were very successful with their fundraising at the annual brunch during Frontier Days, and that basically kept them afloat, so when that didn’t happen, they were really in a jam. … I think Visit Cheyenne – which I’m the council representative to – saw how important that little museum was to downtown. It was important that they made it through this rough patch because we can’t afford to have the Cowgirls Museum leave.”
The goal of the museum was always to give a women’s perspective on Western history, and in 2019, visitors from 27 countries and all 50 states were able to learn the important role women played in settling the Wild West. Many of those visitors, Cooper said, exclaim that this is the first museum to ever get Western women’s history right.
Now, visitors can return to the museum to experience that history through an extensive collection of memorabilia and detailed exhibits.
“If you have a connection with your past, it sort of gives you a connection with your future,” Russell said.
“A lot of times, Cowgirls were really glorified,” Cooper said. “And yeah, they had a wonderful little life … but these women had to prove something.”