Hard Twist – Exploring the Western Ranch Women Exhibit at Eiteljorg Museum

Entrance to Eiteljorg Museum

The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art showcases a vast visual arts collection by indigenous peoples of the Americas. Having been fascinated with learning more about Native American Indians’ history, the Eiteljorg Museum has a wealth of information to share in a fun and interactive way. The highlight of the museum was the photography exhibit on Western Ranch Women. With my recent stint as a horse ranch hand, I found this photography exhibit truly inspiring.

Entrance to Eiteljorg Museum
Hard Twist photography exhibit

The photographs in this exhibit are by Montana rancher Barbara Van Cleve. The photographs are a vivid depiction of the daily lives of women ranchers and their overlooked role in the story of the American Wild West. You always hear about how cowboys helped run the ranches, how they herded cattle, repaired the fences and buildings, and took care of the horses. And it was always cowboys that worked on the cattle drives. But, there was more to the wild west than just cowboys, and the Hard Twist exhibit does a fabulous job showing how cowgirls did the same jobs as cowboys and sometimes even better.

The Ranch Women

Barbara Van Cleve was born and raised (fifth generation ranch woman) on the historic Lazy K Bar Ranch, founded in Montana in 1880. She noticed who did double duty on a typical family ranch at an early age: the woman. As she said, “So many of the ranch women whom I know growing up milked cows, helped put up hay, helped with the fencing, drove the team to feed cattle in the winter, rode, helped work the cattle, and roped. The women were absolutely essential, for not only did they perform their traditional tasks, but they also took over the men’s work when necessary”.

Barbara became an Internationally Acclaimed Western Ranch Life, Black and White Photographer based out of Big Timber, Montana. She picked up her first camera at the age of eleven, and through a career teaching, she would go back home and take photographs and lead pack trips at the Lazy K Bar ranch. In 1979, she left that behind to become a full-time photographer. Since then, she has persevered and has had 52 solo exhibitions and 92 selected group exhibitions of her photography work. The photos for this exhibit were on loan from the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame Collection. Another place to add to my bucket list. What an impressive lady, and she is definitely one that I admire to break out of the expected career roles to go after something that she loves.

Melody Harding, Bar Cross Ranch, Wyoming 1995

Some of the more powerful photos are the solitary photos of the ranch ladies, as I call them. Their serious faces without smiles show how important their job was to be on the ranch. The above photo is of Melody Harding from the Car Cross Ranch in Wyoming taken in 1995. I can imagine this taken early in the morning as she grabs the gear to begin her lengthy day. The below one is of This photo is of Toni Schutte from the Quarter Circle S Ranch in Nevada. Another face that has a lot to say in that one look. Even the horse looks like it has had a very trying day as well.

Toni Schutte, Quarter Circle S Ranch, NV, Portrait with Horse's Head, 1996

Working on the Ranch

Kim Davis Barmann, A Good Heeler, 1986

Seeing these black and white photos of these ranch women in action makes me want to get my camera out and head out west. So much character, grit, stamina, willpower, and strength that these ladies have. Truly remarkable! I recently just saw my first bull riding competition, and while I watch the riders, I kept wondering how come there were no women that did this. My first answer is that we are smarter than that. But, it does make you wonder.

Ann Holland Daughtery, Gage Holland Ranch, TX- Cutting Cattle, 1996

The Gear

Saddle used by Gretchen Sammis

Besides the black and white photographs, several pieces showed off the gear that the ranch women used. For example, this is the saddle (made in 1965) used by Gretchen Sammis on the Chase Ranch. She rode in this saddle and worked it hard every day on the steep rocky mountain trails with lots of brush. Gretchen was considered a very good ranch hand, just like the cowboys who worked on the Chase Ranch.

Chaps worn by Ruby Gobble, 1950s

These chaps were worn by Ruby Gobble (1930-2013), who was an accomplished horsewoman, trick rider, roping champion, rodeo queen, movie actress, and ranch foreman. That is one impressive resume! Ruby was raised on her family’s Arizona ranch, and at the age of three, learned to ride on burros and quickly mastered roping after that. She started her career as a trick rider and then switched to roping competitions and won several awards and championships. All her skills and talents were used as the ranch foreman of the Chase Ranch in New Mexico, where she lived and worked for 50 years.

Decorative Cowgirl Gear

It was neat to see a little color pop up in the exhibit with some of the attire these ranch women wore. From red cowboy hats to teal cowboy boots, the ladies personalities showed through with what they wore even while they were working hard on the ranch day after day. One particular lady, Fern Sawyer (1917-1993), stood out for her flamboyant fashion sense, owning a colorful array of custom cowboy boots, even with her father insisting that she perform as well as the men if she was to help with the ranch work, which she did. Fern Sawyer even competed in men’s events at rodeos because she found the women’s events too infrequent and uninspiring. Her biggest accomplishment was at the 1945 Ford Worth Fat Stock Show and Rodeo, where she claimed first place against a large field of men to become the first women to win the National Cutting Horse championship title.

Equine Photography

Michele Carroccia, Sweet Grass Ranch, MT - Moving Horses to the Bar B, 1995

My newest photography passion is equine photography, thanks to my friends at Auld Macdonald Farm Arabians. Capturing each horse’s unique personality is something that I had so much fun trying to do while working and being around these magnificent horses. Hopefully, I will be as good as Baraba Cleve someday, something to aspire to. Until then, I will practice and shoot as much as I can.


Star Shower, 1993

What an amazing gift it is to travel and visit neat places like the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis. Thank you to VisitIndy for the wonderful stay in Indianapolis. This museum is often overlooked as being next to the Indiana State Museum; however, that is a mistake. People should take the time to visit this museum to explore all the history of the American West. I have been inspired, and hopefully, you enjoyed this small snippet of Barbara Cleve’s amazing ranch women’s photography exhibit. Anyone up to go with me to vacation at a dude ranch? Or take in a rodeo? Wild West, watch out for my camera; I am coming for you!

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