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Nan J. Aspinwall, Western Entertainer

"Nan Jane Aspinwall has successfully completed a ride on horseback from San Francisco to New York," said the Commoner (Lincoln), on July 28, 1911, in a brief paragraph noting this unusual accomplishment. "She arrived in New York in good shape and with the horse in fine condition, on July 8. . . . Since her arrival she has been very busy reading hundreds of letters congratulating her on her feat, and she is followed by crowds in the street wherever she goes."

Aspinwall's ride across the continent in 1911 was perhaps the highlight of a long and colorful career as an oriental dancer, sharpshooter, trick roping expert, and vaudeville actress. Born in New York on February 2, 1880, she spent most of her early years in Nebraska, where her parents were storekeepers in Liberty, a small Gage County town. Later publicity during her career indicated that she was raised on a cattle ranch in Montana, though it seems probable that this story was concocted to enhance her stage image as a cowgirl and Western entertainer.

By 1899 Nan was performing as an oriental dancer, "Princess Omene." Sometime in 1905 or 1906, she began appearing as the "Montana Girl," an expert horsewoman, roper, and sharpshooter, and by 1906 she was billed (along with husband Frank Gable) as a "Lariat Expert." The couple performed with the combined Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Pawnee Bill's Far East Troupe. On a bet from Buffalo Bill, she rode on horseback from San Francisco to New York and back in 1911, supporting herself with exhibitions of roping and riding in small towns along the way. Later she and Frank had their own vaudeville show.

In June of 1927 Nan and Frank Gable were in Norfolk, Nebraska, to attend a much-publicized reunion of old frontiersmen. The gathering, highlighted by a parade, was largely instigated by Norfolk's Dr. Richard J. "Diamond Dick" Tanner and radio personality Karl Stefan. Stefan persuaded more than 300 delegates at the National Editorial Association convention in Omaha to stop in Norfolk while on a tour to the Black Hills, guaranteeing a crowd for a parade and other activities connected with the reunion. The Norfolk Daily News on June 15, 1927, announced the arrival in town of "Two-Gun Nan" and her husband, identified as "Two Famous Ropers," to participate in the celebration.

"Two-Gun Nan" was billed by the News as the "five times medal winner of world's champion contests for women in vigorous arts of roping, riding and shooting." She had reportedly performed "with a wild west show owned by Dr. Richard Tanner (Diamond Dick) when she was a youngster, and had not seen the Norfolk doctor since 1897."

Little is known of Nan's life after Frank Gable died in 1929 and their show ended. She married again at some point in the 1930s, to Al Lambell, who also predeceased her. She died on October 24, 1964, in San Bernardino, California, after decades of obscurity. Photographs and souvenirs of Nan Aspinwall's career as an oriental dancer, sharpshooter, and vaudeville actress fill six scrapbooks in the collections of the Nebraska State Historical Society.


Nan Aspinwall was famous as an expert roper. NSHS RG3513.PH6-54-f

 


Nan Aspinwall performed as an exotic dancer early in her career. NSHS RG3513.PH6-28-6

 

(March 2012)

 

 

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