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Ah, Keep Your Skirt on…While You Ride, Rope, Shoot, Brand, Bust a Bronc…

By Heather Frey Blanton
Copyright 2014 Heather Blanton

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Eastern Montana is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful and lonely places in the US. It is not an area for the faint of heart. The weather, the wide-open spaces, the solitude…it’s the kind of place that makes you or breaks you.

Which is why the story of May, Myrtle, and Mabel Buckley is all the more remarkable.

When Franklin and Susannah Buckley started having children, surely they hoped for boys. After all, farming in the Dakotas and ranching in Montana was man’s work. But the Buckley daughters were born for this land. Franklin was smart enough to know it…or perhaps his precocious, fearless, ambitious daughters gave him no choice. They bloomed on those prairies like a wildflowers after a snowy winter. They took to the saddle as if they’d been born to it. Their father’s ranch hands taught the girls to ride, rope, shoot, brand, round up, even break broncs, and called them, with affection, the Red Yearlings.

Confident in his daughters’ abilities, Franklin turned his 160-acre ranch in Terry, Montana over to the girls. This freed him up to manage the farm in North Dakota, other business ventures, and serve as a state representative. Papa was also confident that men would be men, especially where his three pretty daughters were concerned. Hence, he did not leave them unattended. The girls’ mother stayed close, keeping a watchful eye on her lovely Red Yearlings.

In 1914, neighbor and friend Evelyn Cameron photographed the girls working and playing on the ranch. Cameron wrote an article about Montana cowgirls and featured the feisty ranching sisters doing what they did best. While this article spread their fame to Europe, the girls had already been fielding invitations from Wild West shows and even President Roosevelt. Turned’em all down flat. May, Myrtle, and Mabel were ranchers. The profession was no game to them. The most play-acting they did was posing for the now famous and very collectible Cameron photos.

And I’d like to point out, they did all this in skirts. Oh, there was a brief scandal whereby the girls tried wearing split skirts. Apparently, Montana was not ready for culottes. The lady photographer was threatened with arrest over in Miles City for wearing the things. So the girls went back to skirts, wearing said culottes when nobody was looking.

May, the oldest of the sisters, never married. The more reserved of the three, she nursed her mother for years after a stroke, then died at only 50 years of age.

Myrtle, the middle sister, was a handful. One could guess she occasionally had bouts of the “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha” syndrome. She eloped with a ranch hand and had two children with him. The marriage failed and Myrtle late married rancher and neighbor George Straugh. That one stuck.

Mabel married Milton Gile and lived to a ripe old age.

Maybe they didn’t lead fairy tale lives, but the Buckley Sisters sure can inspire us to think past the prince and glass slipper and enjoy the lives we’re given.

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