ELKO — Georgie Sicking, 87, has spent much of her life doing things others said couldn’t be done.
Born in 1921 on a cow outfit near Kingman, Ariz., Sicking grew up watching, with great fascination, cowboys gather cattle and smoke curl from a white-hot branding fire amidst the pungent smells of burning hair and flesh.
“Since I was a little girl I knew I was born to be a cowboy,” Sicking said, “and it was no swim upstream deal. Back then they thought women couldn’t do it, and they weren’t supposed to do it,” she said. “Women were meant to stay indoors.”
She recalls listening to cowboys recite stories of accepting challenges, including the cattle works, stampeding horses and roping wild bulls, and said this did nothing to discourage her dream.
“I am thankful I had the physical and mental strength to become what I was meant to be.”
Before she was born, her parents, Oscar and Mayme Connell, owned a ranch at a place called Knight Creek. At the time her mother was cooking for a roundup crew and made the decision to rest for a month before she was born. After a ride over rough roads into the town of Selligman, Ariz., Sicking was born the following day.
Her parents had their hearts set on a boy and had already picked out the name George. They decided to soften the name, and she has been called Georgie her entire life.
Ever since she can remember, Sicking loved being outdoors. She relates a story about how she kept wandering away from the house when she was 2 years old. Her mother was very busy and couldn’t keep running after her daughter, so she designed and made a tiny leather harness for the toddler and tied it to a Tamarack tree near the house. Sicking said it was her mother who taught her to ride a horse at the tender age of 2.
“By age 3, I could handle my own horse,” said Sicking. At the age of 5 her goal was to become a real cowboy.
“I felt it was what I was born to do,” Sicking said.
Although she dropped out of school as a teenager, she started cowboying in what she refers to as “the toughest school ever, the Arizona brush country.”
According to Sicking, the best cowboys come from Arizona.
By age 17 she was on her own, breeding and selling her first steer calves in order to buy food and clothes. Her work consisted of roping wild burros, shoeing horses, competing in barrel races and caring for cattle.
Her poem, “The Greatest Sport,” tells of something few women at the time had ever done — rope wild mustangs on the open range. She talks about those days with a certain nostalgia.
“You could ride for miles and miles and never see a gate,” Sicking said. “There were no padlocks on gates, no locks on anything. At the cow camp you could leave a pencil and tablet on the table and when you came back it would just be where you left it.”
After Sicking married, she and her husband, Frank, ran ranches in California’s Joshua forests, Nevada’s Carson Sink and Arizona’s desert. Eventually they settled down on a ranch in Fallon, where they could raise their three children.
“When we moved in, we had two children and I was pregnant with the third,” Sicking said. “Everyone thought we’d be out in a year with nothing but the shirts on our back.”
Sicking said she wrote a poem called “Blood, Sweat, and Tears” that highlights exactly what it takes to own a ranch with no backing and no inheritance.
“In fact,” she said, “people said it couldn’t be done but I’ve spent a lifetime of doing things that couldn’t be done, and I’ve always looked at the impossible as a challenge.”
Sicking said when she looks back on her life, she realizes it has all been worthwhile.
“I feel like I have lived,” she said, “not just existed.”
Although the life she chose wasn’t easy, she was determined to be “straight and to be somebody.” As a woman, it was difficult and nearly unheard of, living the cowboy life.
“Being accepted as a woman and a cowboy out in camp is no easy task,” she said. “The first thing I did was make them respect me as a woman, and then they would respect my ability as a cowboy.”
Sicking said her mom helped her a lot in her decision to become a cowboy by telling her to think of what the worst consequences could be and then to decide if she could live with them.
“It isn’t the clothes you wear,” she said, “it is how you act.”
Sicking said her mother wasn’t at all fearful.
“Fear and self-pity are two of the worst possible things you can live with,” said Sicking.
After her husband died, Sicking worked the livestock auction sales and ran her own herd of 60 Brahma-cross cows. Not long after paying off the ranch she decided to go to Arizona to camp out and gather wild cattle. Returning with 84 head, she learned that the Nature Conservancy had purchased all the water rights surrounding her land. Undaunted, she sold her ranch and stock and for the first time in her life she began sharing her poetry with others.
Sicking has received many accolades, including an award from Nevada for having ridden 100,000 miles on horseback and being the first Nevada honoree inducted into the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame.
She has authored two books of her original poetry, “Just Thinkin’” and “More Thinkin’.”
In 2004, Far Away Films produced a DVD documentary of her life entitled “Ridin’ & Rhymin’,” which recently won Best Film about the American West at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, Mont. The 57-minute film features the music of Lisa Miller and Ian Miller of the bands Lisa & Her Kin, Wylie & the Wild West, Leon Autrey and David Lipkind.
Her books, the DVD documentary and a CD entitled “To Be a Top Hand” are available for purchase at the Western Folklife Center gift shop.
Sicking first recited her poetry publicly at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering and returns this year for a couple performances: “Off the Page No. 6,” from 1:45-2:30 p.m. today in the convention center’s Gold Room; and “Women Running Ranches,” from 10:30-11:30 a.m. Saturday in the Turquoise Room.