In past the Oneida County Fair brought in some of the biggest names in Country & Western music. These acts always drew the biggest crowds for the fair, but one year a particular singer brought her very own Rodeo to perform with her. Historian Gary Entz has the story.
The annual Oneida County Fair is an event that many Northwoods residents look forward to as a highlight of the summer. While circumstances forced cancelation of its in-person events this season, in years past it has put on memorable shows and performances. The year that the yodeling cowgirl Patsy Montana came to the Northwoods represented one of those fondly remembered times.
Ruby Blevins was born in Arkansas in 1908. She was the only girl growing up in a family with ten brothers and learned to sing and yodel at an early age. In 1929 her musical talent took her to southern California to study violin at what is today UCLA, but her ability to yodel and play guitar earned her first prize in a talent contest and the opportunity to perform live on radio’s Hollywood Breakfast Program.
Ruby finished her studies and returned to her family in Arkansas. In 1933 the family sent Ruby and a few of her bothers to Chicago to enter a prize watermelon in the Chicago World’s Fair of that year. While there Ruby auditioned for some singing roles and earned a spot performing with the Prairie Ramblers for WLS’s National Barn Dance program. She took the stage name of Patsy Montana because she knew and admired the rodeo trick rider and roper Monte Montana. In 1935 Patsy Montana and the Prairie Ramblers recorded what became her signature song, “I Want to be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” which made her national star and the first female country singer to have a million seller.
Patsy Montana and the Prairie Ramblers were in high demand, and the Northwoods was one of the places they chose to perform. In 1936 Patsy Montana and other radio favorites from the WLS National Barn Dance came to play at the State Theater in downtown Rhinelander. The Northwoods press alleged that she had given her first radio performance from a horse’s back at a rodeo, even though it really had been in a Hollywood radio station.
Regardless, Patsy Montana was a big rodeo fan and it was a long-time dream of hers to perform as part of a real rodeo. In 1937 she finally got the opportunity in the Chicago Stadium World Championship Rodeo of that year. But a one-time appearance was not enough for her. She wanted more involvement with the rodeo circuit, and WLS radio accommodated their star performer. In 1939 the WLS National Barn Dance assembled a complete rodeo just for Patsy Montana and sent them touring county fairs across the Midwest.
In the late summer of 1939 Patsy Montana and the WLS Rodeo appeared as the final night’s event at the Oneida County Fair. The rodeo program included bucking bronco riding, calf roping, steer bulldogging, trick riding, roping, and rifle shooting. And of course, Western music provided by Patsy Montana, Bill Newcomb, the Prairie Ramblers, and the Vagabond Cowboys.
Attendance for Patsy Montana and the WLS Rodeo was nearly record-breaking that year. Patsy Montana returned to sing in Crandon with other WLS stars in 1947, which was the last Northwoods performance for one of the biggest country stars of the era.