Lulu’s Lost Legacy

FORGOTTEN QUEEN OF THE WILD WEST SHOWS

Holy Cow

Lulu-Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show posterIt was a simple idea: if Americans couldn’t travel to see the West for themselves, the West would come to them.

So for 30 years from 1883 to 1913, the region was celebrated in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. It combined the breathtaking spectacles of a circus with a Smithsonian-level dedication to preserving the West’s unique legacy. My Grandfather Powell told me about seeing Buffalo Bill and his show as a boy in 1910.

Lulu-girl rider posterImitation, they say, is the most sincere form of flattery. And Buffalo Bill’s show had many imitators. Some very good, like Pawnee Bill’s West West. And many that were not so good.

With that entertainment form largely forgotten today, it’s no surprise that people also forgot the important role women played in those shows.

Lulu-Annie OakleyBest remembered are Annie Oakley (thanks in no small part to the hit Broadway and movie musicals “Annie Get Your Gun”) and Calamity Jane, a true Old West character whose real-life stories were only surpassed by those she made up (such as claiming to have married Wild Bill Hickok and had his child; she did neither).

Lulu-HatLulu Bell Parr was another big star of that era. Almost unheard of today, she was widely popular in her time as the “Champion Lady Bucking Horse Rider of the World.”

Lulu was born in 1876 in the very un-Western town of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Not much is known about her early years. It seems her parents died when she was young. She married at age 20 and was divorced three years later on grounds of “extreme cruelty.”

Lulu - Bucking Bronc

Actual photo of Lulu riding a bucking bronco

Somewhere along the way she learned how to ride and shoot. She was a good trick rider and could hit what she aimed at with a gun. But she really excelled at bronco riding. Lulu could handle an unbroken horse as good as any man. So it was only natural when at age 27 she headed out West.

Lulu crossed paths with Pawnee Bill, who was so impressed by her talented riding that he offered her a job in his show.

In 1908 she joined Colonel Cummins’ Wild West Tour and went to Europe, where she performed before King Edward in Liverpool, England.

Lulu - Buffalo Bill and cowgirlsIn 1909 she made it to the top of her profession when she joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Bill was blown away by her equestrian ability and gave her an ivory handled Colt revolver in admiration.

Lulu returned to Pawnee Bill’s show in 1916. But times were changing. Silent movies had arrived and people were deserting show tents for the cheaper movie theaters.

It was a sad downward slide for Lulu from there. With Wild West shows going out of business, she kept sinking to ever smaller outfits before finally being forced to hang up her spurs for good in 1929 at age 53.

Tombstone-3Flat broke and alone, she moved to Ohio and lived with her brother and his wife. Lulu was a favorite of neighborhood children who loved hearing her stories of famous Western heroes and ogling the collection of colorful costumes she had worn over the years.

Lulu-OpenLulu Bell Parr suffered a stroke and eventually passed away in 1955. She was 78.

Almost all that’s left to recall the hundreds of thousands of people she thrilled over the many years with her bronco riding feats is a lonely tombstone in Dayton, Ohio. It’s a sad reminder of the truth in the ancient Latin saying, Sic transit gloria mundi – All worldly glory is fleeting.

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2 thoughts on “Lulu’s Lost Legacy

  1. Cherri L. Monson

    Oh my gosh! I remember Lulu Belle. She lived down the street from us in Dayton, Ohio. So sad, the little, very old house she lived in had a dirt floor. I remember after she died, us kids (I was 11 years old) watched as they burned her house down. Word was that the local policeman got her guns, etc.

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