Her name is Mary Ann Mayfield Stephen, as in Stephenville.
“My husband’s great-grandfather gave the land for Stephenville. Mr. Erath came to him and asked if he would give the land if the town were name for him. Of course, Mr. Erath wanted the county to be called Erath County,” she smiled all in the same breath, and probably without realizing how she had set my historian’s blood to racing with that very quick answer to my question as to whether her surname was Stephen or Stephens.
And then I silently did the math in my head, way too polite to ask the age of the stunning woman who sat before me, but she DID say great-grandfather, not great-great, and she WAS talking about being involved in a 1940s era rodeo…and yet this trim, wrinkle free, articulate, beauty could not possibly have seen eight decades come and go…could she?
As it turns out, the fact that Mary Ann Mayfield Stephen is an octogenarian may be one of the least fascinating things about the woman, and that’s saying a lot! Naturally, I goofed with my very first question by calling her a rodeo trick rider. She corrected me in that unbelievably smooth, silken voice that seems to be her trademark.
“Actually, I was a trick roper, and I eventually combined that into trick riding. Mr. Colborn [Everett Colborn] hired a man from Australia by the name of Johnny Reagan, and he came to Dublin and stayed at their house for a short time to work with me.”
Of course, I had to back up here to get it all worked out in my mind. First of all, you have to understand that Mary Ann and the Colborn’s daughter, Carolyn, were inseparable from the time they were very little girls. The families lived just two blocks apart on Patrick Street in Dublin, and the girls spent every minute that they could together.
At some point, Mary Ann began “fooling around” (as she calls it) with a piece of rope, and she apparently had at least some talent for it.
“Carolyn went home and told her dad about it, and said that she bet I could become a trick roper if I wanted to. Of course, I thought that would be fun.”
Mr. Colborn (whom I would guess was always on the lookout for ways to improve his show) decided to work her into his rodeo act.
The Colborn’s home was just north of the Little’s home, and it had a garage apartment, where Johnny Reagan lived while he worked with Mary Ann.
“I would come after school and he would give me a lesson in trick roping. He would show me different procedures and things to practice, like movement of the wrist and arms. He had a program that he taught me. He made all of my ropes, and I just did what he told me to do.
“Of course, I practiced all the time because I was fascinated. I had a horse that Mr. Colborn always kept for me at the park, and Carolyn and I would ride until I could stand on the horse and do different tricks.
“All of the rodeo horses were kept at the park, and Carolyn and I spent hours and hours there. I always think about poor Mrs. C. she’d take us there, and we’d ride while she sat in the car and read a book. We were probably in the first grade when we started this; that is how young we were. Carolyn idolized her dad and if he were home, she was with him. She always called me to come too.”
By her own admission, the little girl that was Mary Ann Mayfield lived a double life, one that was the perfectly normal life of a little girl growing up in Dublin, Texas and the other that was the charmed life of the best friend of a little girl, who led a pretty extraordinary life for the times.
By 1948, Mary Ann was a performer herself.
“I was the sponsor for the town. The rodeo committee would take a bus and go to different places to advertise the town and the rodeo, and I’d go with them and trick ride and rope. I think that was the year I first performed at the rodeo. I must have been about 16.
“I never worked for anyone but Mr. Colborn and in 1950, I went to Madison Square Garden as a Texas representative. Through the Garden, I did television shows and personal appearances to advertise the rodeo. I was working for Madison Square Garden during that time.”
Of course, you have to remember that at that time Colborn and his partners WERE rodeo so Mary Ann was still working for Colborn, even at Madison Square Garden.
“Back then, the whole town participated. They bought stock in the arena, and they all wore western clothes. They had to or they would get thrown in jail!” she laughed. “We had thousands and thousands of people who came to Dublin to see the rodeo. The cars would line up for as far as you could see.
“People rented cots on their porches; everyone opened their doors and let people stay with them. Mrs. Colborn always had a full house, with wall to wall cots. They always had a big BBQ at the ranch and a swimming pool and EVERYBODY came and congregated…”
And as she trailed off for the moment, looking out of the window of what today is the Rodeo Heritage Museum there in the town of Dublin, Texas, I knew that at least for that moment, Mary Ann Mayfield Stephen was not seeing the quiet little 21st century street. No, although it was hidden from my sight, it was a street filled with untold thousands of excited rodeo goers that had captured the attention of the trick roper who had once ridden with Gene Autry.
“I actually got caught up in it because of my association with Carolyn and the Colborns. They were good enough to let me go places with them. When we were about ten, Mrs. Colborn drove Carolyn and me to Utah. Gene Autry was performing at the Ogden Rodeo, and Carolyn and I got to ride in his Ghost Riders in the Sky act. We had iridescent shirts, and we thought we were something.
“Later, Gene Autry came to the elementary school in Dublin to talk to the kids, and he and Mr. Colborn were on horseback. When it was time to go, they told us to hop on so we didn’t get in the mud. Carolyn wanted to ride with her Daddy so I rode with Gene Autry! Of course, we had seen him in the movies, and he was spending the night at their home in Dublin, where I stayed because of Carolyn. I was so in awe of him. Of course, the Colburns were as strict with me as they were with their daughters, or my mom would not have let me go.
“I always said that maybe I lived two different lives. Carolyn would stay and be part of my life and then I would go be with her, and it was a completely different world. We lived the best of two different lives.”
And then, the real world took over as it usually does.
“I rode quadrille (square dance on horseback) till probably about 1958.”
By that time, she was married and had two children, believe it or not! Of course, I asked why she quit, but I already knew the answer to that question.
“I had a family and two children, and I knew what that meant. Plus, that wasn’t really a life that would work. My husband was in sales, and you can’t really do both. For me, I chose my family.”
And then she laughed that soft, tinkling laugh…
“My husband’s dad told him that if he married me, he would be standing inside the fence holding the kids…and I was not going to be that person! I kept riding for fun, and both of my girls rode. Now we’re down to the great-grands. We all ride, but no tricks,” she told me.
Carolyn married Lynn Holden from Comanche, and lived in Dublin and then moved out to the Colburn ranch where Lynn took over and could be close at hand. They lived there until Colburn retired. Then, they moved back to town. Carolyn passed away from cancer, and Lynn still remains in the home they built.
Mary Ann will soon be 84 and still looks fabulous….even though she says last year’s shingles nearly “pushed me under. I go to all of the horse shows and have a son-in-law who trains cutting horses and shows at the futurities.”
And with a great-grandson who participates in ranch rodeos, she is never far from the business that captured her heart so long ago…when a very young girl picked up piece of rope and began to play with it in Dublin, Texas.