Celebrating Trixi
Celebrating Trixi

Montana legend honored with memorial service in Drummond

DRUMMOND - Friends and relations of Trixi McCormick remembered her Saturday as much for her skills with a campfire skillet of potatoes with onions and bacon as for her amazing talents with an 80-foot lariat on the back of a galloping palomino Arabian horse.

Her generous spirit and hospitality at her Trixi's Antler Saloon in Ovando earned her a place in the hearts of hundreds who knew her. About 75 of them went to her memorial service in Drummond, and each brought a little piece of Trixi with them.

"She weighed no more than 120 pounds," remembered Howard Copenhaver of Ovando. "Ninety pounds was her heart."

That's not to say that anybody took advantage of her. She kept a sawed-off baseball bat - along with, some say, a wagon wheel spoke and an old single-action Colt - under the bar at Trixi's, and more than one person saw her use it on misbehaving customers and errant boyfriends.

"She shot at a guy through the wall of the bar once in the middle of the night," said Howie Fly, owner of the Ovando general store, the Blackfoot Commercial Company. "He just wanted to use the telephone. She felt bad about it later."

To the public, Trixi was known as "Trixi McCormick, the Cowgirl from Montana," performing around the country with her trick horse, Silver Dollar, and her trained dog, Cutie. She performed at rodeos, vaudeville shows, nightclubs and theaters and during World War II toured with a USO show to Japan, Australia, the Philippines and other countries with entertainment notables such as Slim Pickens and Bob Hope. She appeared in two movies. She performed amazing trick riding feats off the backs of a series of beloved trick riding horses, the last of which was Silver Dollar, and she could spin two ropes, play harmonica and tap dance all at once.

"When she was 80 years old, she could spin an 80-foot rope," said 83-year-old Hamilton resident Ed Drake, the last of McCormick's many gentleman friends. "A man can't do that. I used to like to watch her spin her ropes on a horse."

McCormick died April 6 in Coalinga, Calif., where she lived the last decade or so with or near her son, Jack McCormick. She had Alzheimer's disease something terrible, Jack said in a phone interview a few days before the service, but she had all her own teeth but one, and she wore glasses only to read.

"Her Alzheimer's got so bad, we had to put a lock on the door," he said. "She kept trying to sneak out, find a ride to Montana, see her boyfriend. She'd say, 'I've got to get dressed. I've got a show to do.' "

"She had a good life," he said. "Got around, knew so many people."

Three of her granddaughters, sisters Kay McGregor of Drummond, Kerry Standish of Rathdrum, Idaho, and Karla England of Coeur d'Alene, grew up in Drummond and were always close to "Grandma Trixi." They spent summers helping at Trixi's Antler Saloon - once they were teen-agers, said Standish, they were allowed to drink beer if they stocked the cooler - and they always went there for Christmas. Trixi would close the bar and feed her relatives a wonderfully cooked dinner, then open up the bar to the public. Back then, the bar was filled with antiques and with Trixi's rock collections and the indoor fountains she made with them.

She talked to her granddaughters about what she wanted after she died. On Saturday, they carried it out at the Drummond Community Hall. They cooked for two days - macaroni salad, potato salad with dill pickles and black olives, ham and roast beef, rolls, chili, soup, raw vegetables, chips and dip. They put a keg of beer next to the coffee pot. Visitors were instructed to wear blue jeans and to have fun.

"She wanted it to be fun," said McGregor. "She wanted people to remember her with smiles, not tears."

Of the 75 or so people who turned out, many drove to Drummond from Ovando, Helena, Butte and other towns. Most of the stories were swapped at long tables over food, most being shy of public speaking.

Trixi was born Eithel Stokes about 10 years after the turn of the century in Grinder, Mo. She never told her age, and McGregor doesn't know why her uncle Jack told The Associated Press that Trixi was 91.

"She never wanted anyone to know her age," McGregor said, "She'll haunt us."

She even made them call her Aunt Trixi in front of other people because she didn't want anyone to know she was old enough to have grandchildren.

"She just always said, 'Don't get old,' " Standish said. "That was her life motto: Don't get old. She wanted her life to be a happy party. That was what she loved so much."

Trixi's father, Jody Stokes, was Ravalli County sheriff, and she grew up in Hamilton. There she learned spinning ropes from rodeo old-timer Bob Rocker. She went on the circuit in her late teens, already talented and, people said, cute as a bug's ear.

Jody Stokes also ran the Elkhorn Bar in Missoula for a time. That's where Howard Copenhaver, now 87, met Trixi when he was about 15 and "bach-ing it" in town with his brother to attend high school.

Trixi saved the Calgary Stampede in about 1929 or '30, remembers Copenhaver, when producer Gary Wiedick was losing money. Trixi told him if he paid her way and bought her some show clothes, she and Silver Dollar would save the Stampede. The show clothes were tights and a skimpy halter top.

"Sure enough, people were screaming the Cowgirl from Montana was riding nude," Copenhaver said. "It made all the papers in the East. And it sure enough put Calgary on the map."

In 1940, Trixi was booked as a trick rider in the Royal Rodeo Show in Sydney, Australia, which brought her true fame.

Trixi retired in 1960 and bought the Brand Bar in downtown Ovando when Route 20 was the highway through town. Three years later, Highway 200 was bypassing Ovando, and Trixi established Trixi's Antler Saloon on the hill above town. There she was known for her great cooking and hospitality. She'd hold outdoor barbecues and use wagon wheels as giant platters, aluminum foil between the spokes.

"She was a marvelous cook," said Margaret Copenhaver. "Everybody would agree with that."

Silver Dollar, who retired at 23, lived for a time with Trixi at the back of the bar. He was known for going everywhere with her - in buildings, even in elevators, and always in the bar.

"He loved to go into the bar and eat popcorn and drink beer," said England. "There's not many horses can tip a beer can."

He spent his last days at Eloise and Wayne McNally's ranch, where he's buried; Eloise, the Ovando postmaster, remembers the day he went down and couldn't get up.

Trixi's ashes are spread above Ovando where she took her granddaughters camping and made them beer pancakes. They plan to put a modest marker in the Missoula cemetery where Trixi's parents, Oma and Jody Stokes, are buried. They want her to be remembered - as grandmother, friend, cook, hostess, saloon keeper, outdoorswoman, character, trick rider and rope spinner. And inspiration.

"She showed us all that we could follow our dreams," said McGregor, "and not forget what we're here for."

Reporter Ginny Merriam can be reached at 523-5251 or at gmerriam@missoulian.com

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