Friday, August 22, 2014

‘Wild women’ ride history on horseback

By ABBY CROSTHWAIT, Herald Staff Writer | 4/26/2013

It takes a certain type of gal to be a wild woman, Ellen Noll said.

Noll is a member and co-founder of the Wild Women of the Frontier, a group of about 25 women who portray female characters of the 1800s and early 1900s at parades and events in Franklin County, across Kansas and throughout the country.

It takes a certain type of gal to be a wild woman, Ellen Noll said.

Noll is a member and co-founder of the Wild Women of the Frontier, a group of about 25 women who portray female characters of the 1800s and early 1900s at parades and events in Franklin County, across Kansas and throughout the country.

“We got the idea from a sister of one of the other co-founders,” Noll said. “Her sister has a group in Arizona called the Wild Women of the West, and they were a parade troupe and we patterned after them.”

The Wild Women started out just doing parades around Kansas and small gatherings, she said. That changed with a growth in membership and word-of-mouth promotion.

“We started out as just a parade troupe,” Noll said. “Then we started doing performances and a little bit of everything. In 2001, we went to Equitana [trade fair for equestrian sports] and performed in front of 28,000 people. It was something else.”

During a performance, an announcer tells about the different groups of women in the wild bunch, highlighting each individual character as she rides out, Noll said.

“The girls will come out and tell a little bit about their story and shoot off guns and have pretend fights,” she said.

Performances range from festivals and parades to fairs and rodeos, she said. The Wild Women do on-foot performances, but much of their work is done on horseback.

“It’s kind of like history on horseback with a little fun put in for entertainment,” Noll said. “We come in and tell our story with each person and then we do a flag tribute — something we started after 9/11.”

Hours of research went into finding the women to be portrayed in the Wild Women performances, she said. Aside from Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane, most aren’t household names. Instead, they are women who branded their names in the history books, she said.

“When we started out, I researched 50 women,” Noll said. “Some gals have researched their own women from the 1800s. But a lot of the women we portray, people had never really heard about.”

Getting to see people learn and enjoy the performances is great, she said, but getting to be someone else for a change is what’s really a blast.

“It’s always fun to have an alter-ego,” Noll said. “I just love anything to do with history. And I love when we do performances for retirement homes because they just get the biggest kick out of it.”

Members of the group range in age from 19 to more than 70, she said. For some women, it’s an opportunity to do something they’ve always wanted.

“One of the gals that’s 70-plus, people see her and they go, ‘No,’” Noll said. “She’s got energy and it’s amazing to watch her go. She’s quite an inspiration.”

 

MOTHER-DAUGHTER CONNECTIONS

Members of the group range in age, but something special to the Wild Women is the two mother-daughter duos that perform, Noll said. Mother-daughter team Kandie and Gerie Koehler have been performing with the Wild Women for the past five years.

“My daughter does horse shows,” Kandie Koehler said. “We were always together and I love the performance aspect of it, and my daughter loves the showmanship. Anything to do with horses had us very intrigued.”

Koehler and her daughter have been around horses their whole lives, she said. The Koehlers had been riding behind the Wild Women in parades for years, but it was a friend and member of the Wild Women who got them started.

“I actually bought a horse from a member who was in the club,” Koehler said. “We had seen them and knew what they were all about and my daughter loved the idea and I loved the idea.”

Koehler portrays Pearl Hart in the Wild Women, she said, a woman she shares more in common with than she thought.

“My great-grandmother’s second husband’s name was Hart,” Koehler said. “Everyone said, ‘Oh yeah, you have to pick her. You’d be a great Pearl Hart.’”

Pearl Hart was the first woman stagecoach driver, she said. Hart robbed a stagecoach and went to prison in Yuma, Ariz. While there, she received a full pardon from the governor because he would give her private visits.

“I looked at her character and thought, ‘Oh yeah, I can do this,’” Koehler said. “This is me and my alter-ego.”

Gerie Koehler is the youngest Wild Woman at 19, and has been on horses since she was 6 months old, she said. Performing on horseback is her favorite aspect of the group.

“I do horse shows and rodeos,” Gerie said. “When it comes to talking about my character I’m pretty shy, but when I’m on a horse I’ll do anything.”

Gerie was talked into being a Wild Woman by her mother, but her character isn’t related to Hart, she said.

“I portray Tad Lucas, the first woman inducted into the cowgirl hall of fame,” Gerie said. “She pretty much rode broncs and did trick riding and crazy stuff like that. She was really young and she used to ride her dad’s steers when she first started out.”

EXPECTATIONS

The Wild Women obviously rely heavily on their horses, Noll said. Although owning a horse isn’t a requirement to join the group, how a person handles a horse in a show helps determine membership.

“We do a lot of desensitization so the horses are safe in parades around the public and around performances,” Noll said. “So we get them used to gunfire and do the desensitization by walking over a ramp or going through like a hanging tarp.”

During a 10-month probation period after a member is accepted, owners and their horses have to pass “spook-ems,” Noll said. Owners have to show their ability to handle their horses under different circumstances.

“We expect the horses to be trained well,” Kandie said. “We put the horses through tests to see if they’ll go over and under tarp. Anything that we think might come up during a performance or parade. Because we’re dealing with an animal, we can’t be 100 percent sure they won’t spook.”

WHAT IT TAKES

Becoming a member of the Wild Women is a process, Kandie Koehler said. Being able to perform, ride a horse and have a good time are all part of the job. “First we have a social where you come and the new people meet the group and you get a feel for the group,” Koehler said. “During that social, we usually tell them about the group and what’s expected of them and their horse.

Being shy is not an option for the Wild Women, Koehler said. Those trying out will have to get into character and show they’re not afraid to get a little loud and rowdy.

“We see if they can speak up without being embarrassed,” Koehler said. “We do a skit and try to involve them.”

The Wild Women like to have a good time, but being a member can be costly, she said.

“We pay for everything,” Koehler said. “We buy our own costumes and pay for our own fuel. We pay for everything.”

Part of getting into character is dressing up in 1800s garb, she said. Finding the perfect outfit isn’t easy.

“I do have one dress for a second character that I play, which is a madam, and her dress was like $400,” Kandie said. “It can get very costly, which is why a lot of the women make their own costumes.”

TRY-OUTS

The Wild Women are holding new member under saddle try-outs May 11 in Meriden, a press release from the group said. Women 18 or older can go to www.wwfrontier.net to submit a request for more information or call Ellen Noll at {785} 484-3177.

“It’s for fun, and it’s a fun group,” Koehler said. “I tell my husband when I die, ‘Strap me to my horse and let me go.’”

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