Mary Ellen “Dude” Barton, 1984 National Cowgirl Hall of Fame honoree and founding member and first vice-president of the Girls Rodeo Association (now the Women's Professional Rodeo Association) in 1948, was born to Wilburn B. and Ella (Orr) Barton, in Matador, Texas, on January 14, 1924. She grew up on the Cross 6 Ranch in Motley County.
For ninety-five years, Barton lived and worked on land that was once part of Charles Goodnight’s Quitaque Ranch, where her grandfather Al Barton worked as manager under three ownerships. Later, Al and his son, Wilburn, purchased portions of the large ranch. In 2003 the Barton place received a Family Land Heritage Award from the Texas Department of Agriculture in recognition for keeping the land within the extended family for a hundred years.
The youngest of nine children, Barton’s earliest experiences involved horses because her brothers and sisters alike worked with mules on the family farm during the week and rode horses while working cattle on the weekend. Entertainment often consisted of local rodeos where women competed along with men. Barton entered the junior boys and girls roping contests, flag races, and barrel races while accompanying her extended family to nearby rodeos.
As a sixteen-year-old, Barton won her first saddle when she competed in the Sponsors Contest at Shannon Davidson Day in Matador on May 17 and 18, 1940. Sponsor contests featured young women of prominent ranching families who were judged and given scores based on costume, appearance, ability to ride, and horse reining. Such contests drew attention but hardly challenged Barton, whose father, a rancher of forty years, claimed she was “a better hand than a good many cowboys.”
The souvenir program of the All American Rodeo and Horse Show, held in Fort Worth from November 15 through November 24, 1940, was billed as “a combination of the finest cowboys and cowgirls of the nation testing the finest livestock.” Its expanded roster, in addition to the sponsor contests, included women competing in the horse show, calf roping, and women’s bronc riding categories. Built on the interest generated in Fort Worth was Faye Kirkwood’s All Girl Rodeo in Wichita Falls. The athletic Barton, a former high school basketball player, was named overall winner of the cowgirl sponsor contest with first place in both the musical chairs and cutting competitions, second in calf roping, and third in cutting and reining.
Not one to shy away from competition, Barton was the only girl to enter the ribbon-roping contest at the Old Settlers Reunion and Rodeo in Roaring Springs, Texas. She outcompeted fifty-six male entrants in the local contest and took the $25 prize. Her performance at the Floydada’s Pioneer Reunion prompted Matador Tribune editor Douglas Meador to write:
Meeting all competition of riding queens in this territory, Miss Barton suffered no serious chance of defeat, in the estimation of rodeo followers in this county who have witnessed her performances with a rope and in the saddle. She is without question the most able horsewoman in this section of Texas and has caused many a seasoned cowboy to wonder about his own ability after watching her ride and rope.
Sponsor contests, although less challenging for accomplished horsewomen, gave recognition to daughters of prominent ranching families and provided an avenue for women to be involved in rodeos. In 1942 Barton, along with seven other girls, was featured as a Ranch Girl Honor Guest at the Southwestern Exposition & Fat Stock Show in Fort Worth. In the North Side Coliseum at the Stock Yards, she especially excelled in musical chairs by horseback and won eight of the nineteen scheduled performances.
Roping, however, remained her special interest. Matched roping contests were a way for women to compete against each other at the male-dominated rodeos. In one, Barton challenged accomplished ropers Nancy Binford and Fern Sawyer and Madison Square Garden competitor Sydna Yokley. Although competitors, the women developed friendships, support for each other, and good-natured rivalry.
During World War II, because so many men in the United States were serving in the armed services, the interest in rodeos began to wane. Binford, along with Barbara Inez (Tad) Lucas and Thena Mae Farr, are credited with coming up with the idea of a competitive all-female rodeo, staffed by women and filled with all-women contestants. The Tri-State Fair All Girl Rodeo in Amarillo in October 1947, drew thirty-eight performers and cowgirl contestants, including Barton, who won the sponsor contest and calf roping and entertained an estimated crowd of 4,200. The success spawned an organizational meeting of the Girls Rodeo Association (GRA) in San Angelo, Texas, on February 28, 1948. Barton was elected vice president. The goal for the women was to provide structured entry fees and prizes and rules of competition for twelve events: three in roping, three in rough stock, four races, one cutting, and one wild cow milking. GRA is the oldest organization of female pro athletes and the only one controlled and managed entirely by women. Some critics, however, felt that the women had lost the ability to compete as equals with men in otherwise all-men’s contests. In 1982 the GRA changed its name to Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA).
After serving only one term as vice-president, Barton continued to follow the GRA professional circuit until 1953 when she hung up her spurs at Colorado Springs, Colorado, due to her aging parents and growing responsibilities on the family’s Cross 6 Ranch. There, on the North Pease River in Motley County, she raised cattle, bred American quarter horses, and grew cotton, as well as feed for livestock. She and Viola Stinson, her business partner and good friend, accumulated many trophies showing horses and, at one time, sponsored their own horse on the racing circuit. With Stinson’s care as a professional nurse, their prize American Quarter Horse Association stud, Star Benjy Bar, was nursed through a severe case of lockjaw.
In 1984 Mary Ellen “Dude” Barton was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame and Heritage Center in Hereford, Texas. Her contributions included promoting the sport of rodeo, seeking equality for women in a male-dominated world, and serving on the founding board of the All Girls Rodeo as vice-president. She continued farming until she was seventy-nine but continued to raise cattle until her death at the age of ninety-five. In an oral history interview done with the National Cowgirl Museum, Barton said, “I think I've been the most fortunate person in the world. I’ve always just exactly done what I want to do all my life.” Mary Ellen “Dude” Barton died on May 10, 2019, in Matador, Texas. A memorial service was held at the Matador Methodist Church, and she was buried at the East Mound Cemetery in Matador. See TEXAS COWBOY REUNION.