The Last of the Old-Time Cowboys
Interview with Georgie Sicking
Fallon, Nevada 22 August 1992
Georgie Sicking is known throughout the Southwest as "a cowboy who just happens to be a woman." A featured poet at the Elko, Nevada and Prescott, Arizona Cowboy Poetry Gatherings, Sicking writes about her life and experiences "in a country where they didn't ride mares and they didn't hire women."
With two self-published books (Just Thinkin', More Thinkin'), a feature in Hal Cannon's Cowboy Poetry: A Gathering, and a February 1998 spotlight by KABC radio's Paul Harvey News, Sicking, while epitomizing traditional cowboy culture, has moved into mainstream culture as a self-proclaimed representative of old-fashioned feminine values and self-determination.
Georgie often refers to the cowboy's code of being a "top hand,"a person who can do any job on the ranch and do it well. When used in reference to another, the top hand is not the one in charge of the others, but the person who has impeccable skill with cattle and horses.
JL: When did you start cowboying?
GS: My mother started me riding when I was two. When I was three, I was holding herd with my sister and she told me to get around a wash-out where a calf was breaking loose. I didn't like to take orders from her, so I just sat there. When she saw my dad coming, she went for the cow. My dad come out of that herd, hit me with a rope and said, "From this day forward, when a cow moves you move with her," and that was the start of my career.
JL: What made you want to be a cowboy?
GS: See, I was born on a cow outfit, and I think it was listenin' to cowboys tell stories, the smell of the smoke from the brandin' fire, and the dust and excitement of watchin' them gather cattle--it was something I wanted to be part of.
JL: What kind of stories?
GS: Stories of the cattle works, of stampeding horses, ropin' wild bulls. Mostly stories of challenges accepted. I guess if there's any romance in this western life, it's in the stories the cowboys tell. Those stories made me desire to be truly a part of it, and not on the sidelines.
There was a woman in the country that I heard stories of. Her name was Laura Duncan. I never knew Laura...she was killed in Prescott before I ever got a chance to know her, but I heard the cowboys tell stories about her, how she could rope and lead in cattle. They said she was a cowboy.
So through the years as I was growin' up, I'd be afraid to get on a horse, or maybe there'd be an old cow that I was just a little bit afraid to catch, or maybe a rough place that I was afraid to climb. Whenever fear started to come in on me from some of these things, I'd think, "Laura could've done it, and you can do anything that Laura could do."
She was sorta like a beacon in front of me all the time; leadin' me on, even though I never knew her.
JL: Is that what cowboys grow up with--someone they try to model themselves after? A hero?
GS: That's right. They have someone in the foreground that's leadin' 'em on, I think. They have someone they feel that they have to live up to. Sometimes it's their dad, their mother, sometimes it's someone else.
That's where that "To Be A Top Hand" poem came from. My dad had me figurin' if you was a top hand you never made a mistake. That sayin', "A sorry hand's in the way all the time, a good one just once in a while," is true. Most of my poetry is true. I do very little fantasizing.
JL: What does it mean "to be a top hand?"
GS: Well, a top hand is a puncher who can do every job on the ranch and do it well. Whether it's ridin' broncs, breakin' colts, or mendin' fence, each one of 'em has to be done right, and everyone has their own way of doing it. A top hand, you never doubt the work he's gonna do, you know you can rely on him in any situation, and you'd choose him as your partner. That's a top hand, and everybody that wears a pair of cowboy boots is not a top hand. In fact, they're few and far between and it takes a lot of work to get there.
JL: Was there ever a time when you began to feel like you had attained your goal at making a top-hand?
GS: When I knew that I had attained the goal I had aimed at, a fella by the name of George was runnin' a pack outfit at the RO's ranch outfit, and he sent for my husband and I both. When I went to work the first mornin', I went down to the barn and those cowboys were standin' around. I could feel 'em thinkin', "That boss must be crazy hirin' a woman. She's gonna be a stool pigeon, she's gonna expect us to wait on her, she's gonna be nothing but trouble."
There was one fella working in the outfit, he was quite a bit older, and it really bothered him to see a girl doing things that he couldn't do anymore. So he tried his best to get rid of me; he'd run to the boss with this and that and something else. In fact, he was so bad [at cowboying], one day it was his turn to rope, and we were ropin' out of a hold-up. He went in and he roped this calf and when he turned, his horse tried to buck, so he came backing out of the herd dragging this calf backwards.
The boss turned and looked at about three different fellas and he said, "Georgie, would you go in and get his rope?"
And I said, "Normally I wouldn't touch it, but under the circumstances, it's my pleasure." I went in and asked for his rope, and that was the greatest insult a cowboy could get--to have a woman sent in to take his rope.
Right after that I told the boss, "Why don't you let me go back to camp? I'm afraid you're gonna lose some men on my account and I don't want it, you know."
"Listen," he said, "as far as I'm concerned you're the best hand I've got. You grew up in these rock piles and brush, and you know how to handle these cattle. I sent for you specifically, and if these fellas don't want to work with you, they can go out the same way they came in." Just then, I knew I had attained the goal I had aimed at years and years before.
JL: How were you accepted as a woman in a notoriously man's world?
GS: Being accepted as a woman and a cowboy out in a camp is no easy task. I've seen a lotta girls try the same thing, but they think the way they do it is to drink and talk rough, but that doesn't cut it. The first thing I did was make them respect me as a woman--and then they had to respect my ability. And that was true. There was so many things... I watched how I dressed, how I walked, how I talked. There was times I could be deep, and there was times when I wanted to laugh but I had to keep a stone straight face. There was so many things.
And then when I went to the ROs, I knew I had to have myself a partner, and instead of picking one of the younger guys, I picked one of the oldest, and well I think he was the ugliest guy there too. He was a little fella by the name of Jim Bennett, and one of the kindest hearted men I ever knew. But I was twenty-three or twenty-four and Jim was sixty-two. He was my buddy, and I mean he was my buddy all the way. But see, when I wasn't with my husband, I teamed up with Jim and they knew I wasn't lookin' for any hanky panky or playin' around, or I darn sure wouldn't have picked Jim. Jim treated me like I was his daughter, and we worked together a lot.
JL: So you had to be respected as a lady...
GS: You betcha.
JL: ...to be accepted as a cowboy.
GS: Well, in order to get the respect as a cowboy, first they had to repsect me as a woman. They were wantin' to ignore my ability anyhow, and say I got drunk one time and they'd see me drunk, then they could have said, "Well she's nothin'."
JL: Did your husband support your cowboyin' as well?
GS: Yeah, we were partners. When I married him, he was working for an outfit in Seligman [Arizona]. When we moved here, we had nobody backing us. The only thing we had was a good work record and a good credit rating. And that's all we had. We lived on this place for years before we were ever able to make a down payment. But it was an old run down place that nobody wanted, and that's how we got it.
When we moved in, we had two children and I was pregnant with the third. The prognosis was that we'd be out in the first year with nothing but the shirts on our back. I've got a poem called "Blood Sweat and Tears," and it is so true of what it takes to own one of these places with no backing, or no inheritance. In fact, they said it couldn't be done.
I've spent a lifetime of doin' things that couldn't be done. And yet I look at it now, and it's been worth while. I feel like I've lived, I haven't just existed. I had women tell me, "you'll never find anyone that will marry a cowboy like you, and someday you'll want kids and you won't be able to because you'll be in a wheelchair from your work." It was cruel, but the friction they gave me made me more determined to be straight and be somebody.
It's been a tremendous fight, but I know I have enjoyed the best of two worlds. I know what it is to rope a wild mustang and have him hit the end of the rope, and I know what it is to rock a baby. I think I've truly lived. I'm not ashamed of it.