Family Traces Rodeo History Back To The 1920s

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Heeler Tammy Lewis (left) and header Michelle Rizzonico close in on this calf as they work together for the best time in the team roping event Thursday, Aug. 19. The Women’s Professional Rodeo Association Cactus Series Rodeo opened the August Doin’s at Payson Event Center.

While the rodeo is a fun way to spend a weekend for some, for others it is a way of life that stretches back through generations.

Sisters Nancy Jane (Henson) Hunter and Leigh Ann Billingsley, longtime coordinators of the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association Cactus Series Rodeo in Payson, grew up surrounded by some of the founders of professional rodeo.

From their grandmother, Margie Greenough Henson, who started her career in the 1920s performing in Wild West Shows and ended it inducted in more hall of fames than either can remember, to their father, champion rodeo clown Chuck Henson.

Billingsley and Hunter’s childhood memories swirl around watching their dad entertain the crowds at summer rodeos across the country and hearing stories about their family’s rich history in rodeo. That included the time Grandma broke her arm after a horse she was mounting flipped in the chute.

Today, the sisters’ own children are active riders, practicing on the family farms in Tucson, improving their skills and even beating out their moms sometimes.

Billingsley recounted her childhood, hours before the women’s rodeo was set to take place Thursday at the Payson Event Center. The Cactus Series Rodeo Thursday included women from across the southwest competing in barrel racing, breakaway roping and team roping. Points earned went toward riders’ standings for the 2010 Women’s National Finals Rodeo, which will be held in Tulsa, Okla. in October.

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Nancy Jane Hunter gives Jake a brushing (below) after the trip up from Tucson. Hunter and her sister, Leigh Ann Billingsley, organize and participate in as many rodeos as time allows.

“All summer long we would go with our dad to the rodeos. He would pick us up on the last day of school and drive north,” she said. “Mom would stay home.”

With a trailer loaded down with a mule, dog, props and his two daughters in tow, Chuck made the rodeo rounds, entertaining the crowd with his act.

“We are like any family,” Billingsley said. “If you grow up with race cars, you do racing.” We grew up with horses, so we do rodeos, she said.

Billingsley said she always knew she would participate in rodeos, and by age 10, had competed at the Arizona Junior Rodeo, winning her first buckle by age 12.

By college, Billingsley had won her first saddle. Today, she has won more events than she can recall.

Billingsley’s accomplishments, however, pale when compared with her grandmother Margie.

Margie performed with her sister Alice, brothers Frank, Bill and Turk and husband Charlie “Heavy” Henson in rodeos throughout the country. Like her granddaughters, Margie grew up on a farm, riding horses and learning the ropes with her siblings.

It was at home that Henson learned to saddle bronc, a sport traditionally dominated by men. Billingsley said she tried riding saddle bronc once and although it was fun, once was enough.

For Margie, riding saddle bronc and even bulls was the norm. When she was old enough, Margie and her sister took off from home and joined various Wild West acts, forever traveling to different rodeos.

Known as one of the “Riding Greenoughs,” Margie’s saddle bronc skills landed her in the National Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1983. Margie is also a member of the National Cowgirl’s Hall of Fame.

Hearing stories about their grandmother, great uncles’ and grandfather’s success, inspired Hunter and Billingsley to carry on the family tradition.

Hunter, a bookkeeper by day, is a champion barrel racer and team roper. Billingsley is a champion team roper, barrel racer, calf roper, breakaway roper and in 2002, she won the barrel racing championship and all-around championship for the New Mexico Association.

Despite the inherent danger of the sport, Billingsley said she has never injured herself beyond a broken ankle in high school.

“I normally compete every weekend,” she said.

Fifteen years ago, women’s rodeo in Arizona was nearly extinct. At the time, most women’s events were held outside of the state. Sometimes, the sisters traveled as far as Georgia.

One day, the sisters decided, along with four other women, that instead of traveling, they should organize their own rodeo in Arizona.

Every year since, the sisters organize a rodeo in Payson and Cave Creek. The events are normally held before another sanctioned rodeo, like this past weekend’s rodeo put on by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. Since the arena is already set to go and a stock contractor selected, Billingsley said they only have to organize riders, judges and get sponsors.

This year, the women’s rodeo lacked a major sponsor, so the whole event was organized on entry funds. In addition, the rodeo saw a major decrease in the number of riders.

Normally, Billingsley said they have between 60 roping teams and another 30 to 40 entries for breakaway roping. This year, they had 15 breakaway ropers, 24 roping teams and another 15 barrel racers.

“The think the economy is keeping people at home,” Billingsley said.

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