Tuesday, October 18, 2016

High Society Goes Home on the Range

by Heather Blanton

It sounds like the plot from a 1930’s slapstick comedy: wealthy New York socialite abandons money, fame, and furs for the rugged life of a cowgirl.

Only, this story is true.

The daughter of a New York City doctor, Jennie Louise Howard was born in 1875 to opulent wealth and society. Already living well, Jennie was 19 when her mother died. Her inheritance was nice a home and $10,000 a year. In 1890’s money, she was well heeled.

But Jennie didn’t love money near as much as she loved her horses. When she met a young doctor with the same passions, the fire lit and the two married. Dr. William Woodend enjoyed his membership in the high society clubs and parlayed his wife’s money into a seat on the Stock Exchange. Gifted at trading, Woodend made millions. Jennie focused on her horses and shows. She won ribbons and trophies in the US and London. 

The Woodends were living the high life. Then the coin flipped.

The market crashed. Dr. Woodend used up his money, his wife’s inheritance, even the money left to his invalid brother-in-law Watson. Jennie went to work on the stage, landing a small part in a play. But a grueling performance schedule mixed with a horrific case of food poisoning nearly did her in.

Enter Tom Mix. He met Jennie at a wild west show. She asked the cowboy where might be a good place to recover from her ptomaine. With glee, Tom recommended his employer’s place, the 101 Ranch in Oklahoma. Jennie fell in love with the vast ranch, the way of life, and of course, the first rate horses. She would visit the ranch and her simple cabin for several more years over the summers while her husband continued to claw and scratch his way back to the top of the High Society Heap. This allowed him to purchase a cabin for Jennie at the 101 and she began spending even more time there.

When Dr. Woodend decided to jump on the Wild West Show bandwagon and promote the shows, Jennie joined the act from the 101. She performed under the show name Jane Howard. None of New York’s wealthy and elite suspected the pretty little doctor’s wife was actually trick riding, roping, and barreling around the arenas. She stuck with the show for several seasons, but in 1911 her horse stumbled and threw her to the ground. A badly wrenched ankle required a visit to the hospital and the cat launched from the bag. Newspapers screamed headlines like “Ranch Girl Injured Really Mrs. Woodend.”

Jennie performed for a bit longer, but eventually the crowds petered out, and so did her marriage. Divorced in 1920, she and brother Winston moved to Oklahoma and left the big city behind. For a while she lived in the cabin, but eventually bought a modest five-room house for her and her brother. The Millers, the family who owned the 101 Ranch, offered to pay her rent for her. Jennie wouldn’t hear of it. She went to work for the Millers instead, riding fences. Every day. Rain or shine. Hot or cold. Until her death in 1938.

Jennie didn’t die wealthy, but she died happy. All she ever really wanted out of life she had right there on the Oklahoma prairie—a fine horse and room to ride it.

A true cowgirl couldn’t ask for more?

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