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John and Anna Krieg had five children after they were married in Illinois. Only two survived, twin girls. Anna developed tuberculosis, and was sent to California with her nine-month-old babies. “They lived on the desert in a tent for nine months. Ever after she slept with a window wide open.” The dry air cured her, but one of the babies died.
Returning east she joined her husband and seeking a drier climate they settled near Jefferson City, Missouri. Mary Geneva was born May 14, 1909 on a farm outside of Hamilton, Missouri. A flood washed the farm away, so the family moved on to Iowa.
Later, “they bought a place near Branson, Colorado east if Trinidad and proved up on two homesteads nine miles apart. The whole family learned to ride—they always had a horse so they always rode. Mary Geneva was a tomboy; she didn’t care for housework—wanted to be out with her brothers.” Later she described, “On Sundays, we’d drive the calves in. We put them in the corral and then we would ride them. I got the name ‘Neevy’ ‘cause I could usually ride the most difficult calf.”
After the three years it took to prove up on the land the family moved to Holly where there were churches and a better school. Her oldest brother, John started working breaking horses. Mary Geneva told this story, “One day I decided to ride the horse he had been working with. We believed that if you tied a red handkerchief around your neck a horse couldn’t buck you off—it wasn’t true, but I believed it. I saddled up that horse and got on him in the barn. He came flying out and headed down the lane—that’s how I got started riding bucking horses and not being afraid.”
“Her career started at Watermelon Days in Rocky Ford. Her brother bragged that he had a sister that could ride any horse they had in the corral. He sent her two blocks to a downtown store to buy a pair of Levis and she changed out of her dress. They picked out a horse and she rode it down the race track right in front of the crowd with it buckin’ like crazy!”
By 1925, Mary Geneva Krieg was 16-years-old. Her mother put her on a train in Holly, Colorado to travel to New Mexico to help her sister with a new baby. She got off in La Junta and went north instead to Wyoming where she entered the women’s rodeo division of Cheyenne Frontier Days.
Mary Geneva rode in the bronc busting event and three days later was declared the Championship Cowgirl of the World. She was the youngest female to win the event. She won a new hat, $300 and took the ‘rodeo name’ of Gene Krieg.
“Afraid this title wouldn’t be enough to keep her out of trouble with the people back home;” Gene accepted a job with a rodeo company and set off to Denver to spend some of her winnings on clothes. The company traveled to Monte Vista where she won and never went home.
In Chicago, Gene learned to ride relay. For the relay race she would ride three horses each for one-half mile. The trick was to change horses quickly. She never touched the ground. One cowboy would hold the new horse and another catch the horse she was riding as she came in.
She learned to trick-ride in Oregon, but broke two ribs bronc riding. In the fall of 1925, she rode with a new girlfriend in her car to California from Fort Worth. There wasn’t a road across the desert, “you had to keep the wheels on boards laid across the sand. The sand was so deep if you went off the boards the car would sink to its axle.”
Gene quickly realized that what she wore was as important as how she rode. She began to design and make all her own flashy, satin costumes—some of which are at the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Houston, Texas, where she was inducted in 1982.
In 1928, she took a small part in Ken Maynard picture called ‘Cheyenne’. She “did her trick riding act, but she never thought of trying for a career in films—she loved the riding itself.”
After professional rodeo dropped the women’s bronc riding as too dangerous, she continued as a trick rider. Rodeo producers began to contract with female bronc riders for exhibition rides. Trick riding competition eventually became an exhibition event as well. (to be continued)