On the road to Cattlemen’s Days
It’s hard not to smile a mile in the presence of Margo Patton-Blair. Pretense-free, she chisels away at one of the thickest, longest-standing glass ceilings in the west.
“I was born right in the middle of Cattlemen’s Days,” she said. “I’ve always had a rodeo and a carnival for my birthday.” Last year, Patton-Blair was the first woman in the rodeo’s 113-year history ever elected second vice president, the first position on a path toward the presidency.
“You serve two years as second VP,” she explained. “Then two years as vice president, then two as president. It’s a six-year road.”
Brett Redden, Cattlemen’s Days’ current president, thinks Patton-Blair will do a fine job in the role. “If you can imagine a can of Red Bull, plus three cups of coffee, all in this beanpole of a person. That’s Margo,” he said. “She’s go, go, go. Honestly, it’s been a pleasure working with her these six years. She knows how to organize, and she knows rodeo. She’s the real deal.”
Prior to her election, Patton-Blair was the first woman ever elected as an officer, serving as both secretary and treasurer. By the time she’s president, she’ll have held every official position on the committee.
Her rodeo career started early, on a pony called Little Bit. Patton-Blair competed in her first barrel race at age five.
“I trotted out, and heard cheering,” she said, “so I started waving, a mini-queen wave, instead of going for the barrels, and people were shouting, ‘You gotta go around the barrels!,’ but I just kept waving and smiling.
“I had two dads growing up. A ranch dad and a rodeo dad. Pepper Patton was my rodeo dad. Stan Faulds was my ranch dad,” she says. Patton-Blair never knew her birth parents together. As a kid, she spent three seasons every year in Gunnison with her mother, Cara (Mergelman) Faulds, and “ranch dad” Stan. In the summer, she lived with her father, Pepper Patton, and stepmom LaRay in Limon, Colo., a small town on the eastern plains. “It’s flat,” she said. “We spent the whole season there every year, but we’d always come back to Gunnison for that one week in July for Cattlemen’s Days.
“It’s held that week in the middle of July, after calving season and before haying season,” said Patton-Blair. “It was to give the ranchers a break and a little bit of fun. You don’t vacation when you’re a rancher.”
Pepper Patton was a state brand inspector, and his kids traveled with him to ranches throughout the state. “When we weren’t with him, we were at the house, roping,” she said. Pepper built them a chute. “We even had lights so we could rope in the dark. We all became really good riders, with good riding ethics. We learned the importance of getting your horse in shape.”
Her mother, Cara, grew up in Iola, where the Mergelman family homesteaded, and eventually moved to the Phelps Ranch just west of Gunnison. That’s where Patton-Blair and her siblings were raised.
“After we sold the ranch in ‘97, Gary and Anne Hausler started the ranch at Lost Miner, and my dad [Stan] was foreman out there.”
Patton-Blair graduated from Gunnison High School in 2000, where she played basketball and volleyball. She was also an avid participant in 4-H and FFA (Future Farmers of America). “I showed pigs, sheep and beef from age 8 to 18,” she said.
Patton-Blair spent her earliest summers competing at the LaJunta Kid’s Rodeo, barrel racing, pole bending, break-away calf-roping, team roping and goat-tying. “Kids’ rodeo is less gender-specific than professional rodeo,” she said. Goat tying was the only event specifically relegated to girls, because goats and girls are smaller than boys and calves. “I’ve seen a girl tie a goat in eight seconds,” she said.
“My dad was also a horse trader,” said Patton-Blair, which is how she acquired Bay Dog at age 8. “He was four,” she said. “Bay Dog is the horse I spent my entire rodeo career on. He was my best friend.”
Patton-Blair competed in gymkhana events early on, a type of non-profit youth rodeo where winners earn small payouts. She excelled, and quickly moved on to Jackpots, rodeo competitions that require an entry fee, but where the payouts to win are bigger. “I cleared $3,000 at age 12,” she said.
“In ‘94 I entered my first Gunnison Watershed Barrel race, and won it. In ‘95, ‘96, ‘97, ‘99—won it.” What happened in ‘98? “I hit a barrel,” she shrugs and grins. She hit one again in 2000, but won it again in 2001. “I have seven buckles hanging on my wall.”
Patton-Blair’s oldest sister was Cattlemen’s Days queen in 1995, with another sister serving that year as Queen’s Attendant. In ‘97, that second sister became queen. “I was Jr. Miss in ‘97 when my older sister was queen,” she said. In 2000, Patton-Blair became the Queen’s Attendant, and in 2001, she was queen herself. “So I’ve held all three titles of Cattlemen’s royalty. To my knowledge, I’m the only one who’s done that.”
After high school, Patton-Blair attended Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, Colo., where she studied pre-law. As a freshman, she was determined to blow off her country roots. “I was going to transfer to a bigger school, move to the city, get a great job, wear fancy clothes, buy a nice car,” she said.
“I told my dad that first year of college that I wanted to focus on school and didn’t want to rodeo, but the rodeo coach [at Northeastern] found out who I was.” She’d earned scholarships to pay for her academics, and now had an offer to pay for competing on the college team. Break-away roping and barrels were her events.
“The first year, I missed qualifying for the regional finals by two spots,” she said. In year two, she missed graduation, on her way to the finals in Bozeman.
“I was seventh in barrel racing going in, out of 98 who qualified,” she said. How’d she do?
“I choked. But it was a great experience.”
Early 2002, Patton-Blair had what she called, “a horse wreck” at practice. “I was like, ‘Man! I’m a little sore,’ but growing up on a ranch, it was always, ‘Toughen up, buttercup.’ Two years later, I learned that I’d broken my back.”
After graduating with an associate of arts degree from Northeastern, Patton-Blair transferred to the University of Wyoming. “It was too big,” she said. She returned to Sterling for a while, then home to Gunnison in 2003. She worked as a legal assistant for Dick Bratton for three years, then did time in the mortgage department of Gunnison Bank and Trust.
“In 2005, I became a single mom,” she said. That same year, she landed on the Cattlemen’s Days Committee and in 2006, ran for secretary, to become the first woman to hold an elected committee position under then-president Dan Woodbury.
Patton-Blair was sidelined with back surgery in 2007.
“I met my husband, Mark, in December, that year,” she said. “I was a strong, independent, single woman. I bought my own house at 25 so my son and I could have our own space. I fell in love with Mark when I saw him there, this big, six-foot four-inch guy in my living room, on the floor playing with my three-year-old.
“He’s not a rodeo guy at all, but he is so awesome to put up with all the things I do and he is always right there supporting me. And my boys are my biggest cheerleaders. They know more about rodeo than most grownups.” When son Kaiden learned she was being interviewed, he said, “Mom, I’m so proud of you. You’re going to be famous!”
In 2011, Patton-Blair was accepted into the Gunnison Valley Leadership Program, a “transforming” experience. “I went from all work and no play to a life/work balance,” she said.
Today, with Mark, Kaiden, age 8, and Kyler, age 4, Patton-Blair describes herself as a stay-at-home-mom who’s never home. “My kids do everything with me,” she said. Margo volunteers in her son’s classrooms. She participates in Junior Achievement, where her mission is to “teach youth leadership through imagination and creation.” She leads a 4-H cake decorating group, too. “We went from six girls last year to 22 girls this year,” she said, and while she enjoys the opportunity to work with girls, boys are also welcome. “My boys love cake decorating.”
Patton-Blair runs her own, home-based business, Crafty Minds Design, creating unique patterns for stuffed creatures, all fashioned out of all-recycled materials. Most popular are the sock monkeys. “I call them Funky Monkeys,” she said, for their wild colors.
Her work has been featured at the Gunnison Arts Center Recycled Fashion Show, where she displayed a dress made out of old neckties, and she sells out of the Funky Monkeys and other sock animals each year at Gunnison’s Sugar Plum Festival. There’s also a nice collection of Margo’s cuddly creatures on display, and for sale, at Gallery 126 downtown. “My next big goal would be to have a shop,” she said.
Patton-Blair no longer competes, but her affection for rodeo is ever strong. “Rodeo people are one family,” she said. “It’s something thicker than blood. Tough Enough To Wear Pink got started when a rodeo competitor’s mom got breast cancer. It’s the only professional sport where we all pray before a competition.”
Patton-Blair is responsible for the opening act each year at Cattlemen’s Days, still enamored with the pomp and circumstance, the paint horses, the flags.
“I do it because it’s the only time I still get to ride in the rodeo. My sisters and I ride. I go fast and yell ‘Hoorah!’ for three days, and then I can’t walk for a week.”
Patton-Blair appreciates holding the colors during the National Anthem. “It means a lot to me. I have two brothers in the Navy.”
It would seem that every day is a perfect one for Margo Patton-Blair. “I know families that get up frantic every morning, all stressed, racing around to get ready,” she said. “We wake up singing in our house. Singing.”
Of course, even the indomitable Margo wears down on occasion. She credits husband Mark with the family mantra that keeps her positive, even on the most challenging days.
“The other night, I was up ‘til two writing thank you cards to our sponsors,” she said, “because without sponsors, we don’t have a rodeo. He let me sleep in the next morning, and then, before I left for another hectic day, he said it. ‘Smile a mile!’ So that’s what I do.”