Ronnie Bowman was part of the pro rodeo bull riding scene in the 1960s and 70s. The Durant, Okla. cowboy qualified for the National Finals […]
Back When They Bucked with Madonna Eskew Pumphrey
Written by: Ruth Nicolaus< Back to Articles
If anybody was born with the Wild West in their blood, it was Madonna Eskew Pumphrey. The Ardmore, Okla. cowgirl was the third generation of her family to entertain in the western style.
She was born August 24, 1941, the granddaughter of Colonel Jim Eskew, a famous Wild West show producer. Col. Jim took his show, the JE Ranch Rodeo, all over the eastern seaboard with his headquarters in Waverly, New York, where four railroads came together, for easy transportation of his animals. He made a home there and set up a small town for his workers: cabins, bunkhouses, a cookhouse, an Indian village, tack shop, barns, showgrounds and grandstands. As a young man, the Colonel had worked on Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows and incorporated many of Bill’s ideas into his shows.
Col. Jim and his wife Dolly, Madonna’s grandmother, had two sons: Jim, Jr. and Tom Mix Eskew. Jim, Jr. was Madonna’s father.
Junior, as he was known, married Mary Louise Randolph, the step-daughter of internationally-known trick rider Florence Hughes Randolph and her husband Floyd, also a rodeo producer, from Ardmore.
Florence Randolph had as an impressive background as the Eskews. She was a world champion cowgirl, trick rider, trick roper and bronc rider and friend of fellow world champ Tad Lucas, another woman bronc rider. She competed in about 500 rodeos, supporting her mother and two sisters for a time. She had her own short-lived wild west show, “Princess Mohawk’s Wild West Hippodrome, with about sixty performers and workers. And she was an accomplished Roman standing racer: straddling two running horses while racing, and winning the event at the 1919 Calgary Stampede, the first woman to do so.
Jim performed in the Colonel’s wild west shows, beginning at age five. It was said he could tie eighty different knots and name them all. He challenged Chester Byers, another roping great, in a contest for a world title, but Byers forfeited. And when nine famous ropers from the U.S., Mexico and Australia came to challenge Junior, at the end of three days, Junior was determined the world champ. One of the contestants ruefully said, “Jim started where the rest of us left off.”
Into this rich history, Madonna, an only child, was born. By the time she was two, she was on horseback. She was five years old when grandmother Florence taught her to trick ride on an old paint horse named Boy. By this point, her granddad the Colonel had switched to producing rodeos, and she performed in his rodeos, spending her summers in New York at the show’s home base.
Each Fourth of July, the Colonel would put on a wild west show for the residents of Waverly. He had made a deal with the city of Waverly: in exchange for 300 acres four miles outside of town, he would put on an annual wild west show. Madonna was part of the show, dressed as a pioneer with her grandmother, in a covered wagon driven into the arena. Its cheesecloth covering was doused with kerosene, so when the Indian actors set it on fire as part of the act, Madonna would grab her dog and hide under the wagon.
Native Americans, Sioux from North Dakota, were part of the show, and Madonna remembers playing cowboy and Indian with them between shows. At play, she was the Indian and they were the cowboys. And she remembers being her grandad’s “little secretary, with a pencil behind my ear,” as he paid his workers in cash. “He kept the cash in a trunk under the seat of a wagon,” she said. “He’d have all this money in little piles on his bed, and he’d call people in to get their pay.”
When she was nine, her dad taught her to trick rope, and she added that to her part in her granddad’s rodeo. She was often part of his act, and the two were very close. “He was a good dad,” she remembers. “He wasn’t pushy, but he was there if you needed him. We were very close, like best friends.”
Col. Eskew’s wild west shows, and later rodeos, entertained every week at big and small cities all over the east. They performed everywhere, from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., from Vermont to Georgia, and as far west as St. Louis. It was a wonderfully free life for a child, traveling with her family.
When school time rolled around, she was sent back to Ardmore, Okla., to her mother’s parents, Floyd and Florence Randolph. She missed being on the road, but in November, after her parents were done working the Madison Square Gardens and the Boston Gardens shows, each a month long, they would join her in Ardmore and the family was together till school was out and they’d all go back on the road.
The JE Ranch Rodeo operated until 1959, when the Colonel retired to Ardmore, where he died six years later. Madonna quit trick riding. Her horse was old, and she was traveling with her dad and his trick roping specialty act.
Junior trick roped but was also an accomplished bulldogger, and sometimes his daughter was his hazer. His two biggest pieces of advice for her were “when the gate opens, whip and ride,” and “never pull up.” Those words came in handy when, at a rodeo in Estes Park, Colo., her dad volunteered her to haze for Buddy Heaton, a rodeo clown and steer wrestler. As Buddy slid down on the steer, the steer stumbled, throwing him and the steer directly under Madonna’s horse. She remembered her dad’s advice: she didn’t pull up but ran over the steer and Buddy. He wasn’t mad, she remembered. “Wrecks are part of it.”
Madonna graduated from Ardmore High School in 1959 and spent a year in college. But her dad needed her in his act; she was part of the contract, so she came home and went back on the road.
She traveled with him, trick roping across the nation for producers like Beutler Bros., Harry Knight, Mike Cervi and Harry Vold. She also worked as a timer, and in those days, the timers often carried flags in the grand entry. Harry and Emily Knight considered her as a family member. “I was kind of like their kid. They were family.” She often spent time at Knights’ ranch in Colorado between rodeos. For several years, she timed the National Finals Rodeo in Oklahoma City.
For a while, her dad Junior ran the Medora, N.D. Ranchorama, a show similar to a wild west show, and between rodeos, she would help her dad there. She also worked for the American Tobacco Co. for six months in 1968 promoting the Bull Durham cigarettes for ready roll instead of rolling your own. She trick roped for them, traveling across the nation. “That was a fun tour,” she remembers.
Her dad quit performing in 1973. He had contracted lupus while serving in the Pacific in World War II. “He fought with that for many years,” Madonna remembered. When he retired, she quit as well. He passed away in 1977.
When her rodeo career ended, she worked as a veterinarian’s assistant in the Ardmore area and as a dental assistant. Animals and kids are two things she loves.
Her dad had told her she could not date cowboys till she had gone to college for a year. He didn’t think the rodeo scene was a proper place to date, as the only places for a couple to go were the dance hall or bar. She married in 1961, then divorced seven years later. Madonna married Jim Pumphrey in 1974, and they continued to live in Ardmore, until his passing in June of 2018. They celebrated 44 years of marriage together.
Together, she and Jim raised quarter horses, boarded horses and taught a concealed carry school for fifteen years, instructing 15,000 students. She spent fifteen years volunteering with CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), speaking up for children’s best interests in court and mentoring them.
She’s had the chance to be a buddy to lots of children, especially her granddaughter, Riley O’Linn. Jim had a daughter, Kaylynn, when they married, and Kaylynn came to live with Madonna and J.M. in her teenage years. Kaylynn is married to Tim O’Linn and they live in Georgia. Madonna doesn’t get to see her granddaughter as much as she would like, but they are close.
She loved her days in rodeo and the friends she’s made, and loves to see them at reunions. They were good days. “I’ve had a pretty exciting life, I truly have. If I go tomorrow, I can’t say I haven’t tried a lot of stuff.”
Madonna was awarded the Tad Lucas Award in 2003. Her grandfather the Colonel, her grandmother Florence Randolph, and her dad are members of the National Cowboy Museum’s Rodeo Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.