Aloha, Cowgirl

Like the pattern a horse takes around the barrels at the Calgary Stampede rodeo, the Hawaiian island of Maui is shaped like a figure eight. At the bottom of the eight, high on the cool slopes of the extinct volcano Haleakala, with the blue Pacific beyond, is the area of Upcountry.

There, on my annual Maui vacation with my husband, Ian, we discovered a historic paniolo (cowboy) town named Makawao, a harmonious agriculture community of working cattle ranches, the Oskie Rice Arena (which is home to the annual Makawao Rodeo), a general store and a unique tack and western wear boutique called Aloha Cowboy. More importantly, I was lucky enough to meet 79-year-old Maui cowgirl, Rose Cambra Freitas, Hawaii’s only member of the Cowgirl Hall of Fame, which is headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas.

When I told Rose that I was from Calgary, home of the world-famous Calgary Stampede, and that Flores LaDue, the wife of its founder, Guy Weadick, was also a member of the Cowgirl Hall of Fame, she and I suddenly found out that we had lots to talk about.

“When I was inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame at Fort Worth in 2006,” she began,” it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, because all my memorabilia was displayed in the Hall’s grand rotunda, and I was able to bring another part of the real Hawaiian Islands to a large audience and show them that Maui is more than just a beach.”

Known affectionately in Makawao as ”Auntie Rose,” she  can’t remember when she began to ride horses: “I was so young when my Daddy put me in the saddle, but I bonded instantly with horses and have ridden them ever since,” she told me at her beautiful ranch house, surrounded by her equestrian treasures of days gone by.

Rose grew up on a plantation, the second child of a large family, and on weekends, her entire family, including her grandparents, would gather to watch the horse races at Makawao. Indeed, she became a pretty good horse racer, roper and an eight-time world qualifier in barrel racing, and she founded and competed at all-girl rodeos on the Hawaiian Islands and on the US mainland.

Rose Cambra Freitas rides her horse Glory in the annual Makawao Rodeo Parade, Maui, Hawaii - Photo: Mike Townsend

As a cowgirl, Rose was very familiar with the world-famous Calgary Stampede. She once hosted a movie night in Makawao and showed a film to her assembled guests that featured the history of the Calgary Stampede and its storied place in worldwide rodeo. “That was about 20 years ago,” recalls Freitas, who borrowed the film from the library at the University of Hawaii, “and I think every generation of any ranching community anywhere should demonstrate that it remains fiercely connected to western values and traditions.” Rose is proud to know the three Island paniolos (cowboys) who competed at the Calgary Stampede’s calf-roping event:  Hawaii’s Harold Rice, in 1965, and Maui’s Peter Baldwin and Freddy Rice, in 1966, and a fourth cowboy from Maui named Kimo Huddleston, who competed in men’s steer riding in 1980.

In 1952 Rose married Raymond P. Freitas, the son of a large Maui ranching family. “Raymond’s mother was very happy when Raymond and I told her that we were going to get married,” Rose remembers. “‘Good,’ said my future-mother-in-law to me, ‘now Raymond will have someone to help him run this ranch.’” And just to prove her happiness, she gave Rose a very special gift. “Raymond’s mother gave me her spurs and her saddle for my wedding gift—a ladies rancher—and I’m still riding that saddle, and it is still going strong like me.”

Rose turns 80 this June and still has horses of her own. “Two older ones and two younger,” she says, and she rides them on the incomparable beauty of the green grasslands of Upcountry with friends since Raymond’s death two  years ago.
Rose Cambra Freitas is now writing a book of her own featuring the engaging title Maui Cowgirl; it will tell the story of her life in ranching and as a rodeo cowgirl in what many would think an unlikely place to produce one.

WENDY BRYDEN is the author of bestseller The First Stampede of Flores LaDue: The True Love Story of Florence and Guy Weadick and the Beginning of the Calgary Stampede, published by Simon & Schuster

Cowgirl Hall of Fame member Rose Cambra Freitas and Wendy Bryden