Friday, May 15, 2015

Buffalo Bill

Buffalo Bill Cody

William F. Cody was born in Iowa in 1846 and grew up right here in Kansas.  A true child of the prairie, he started working at the age of eleven as a courier between wagon trains crossing the plains and then he rode briefly for the Pony Express.  During the Civil War he severed with the 7th Kansas Cavalry and after the war worked as a scout for the U.S. Army.  In 1867 and 1868 he was “loaned” to the Kansas Pacific Railroad to hunt buffalo to feed the work crews laying the tracks across the southern plains and from then on was known as “Buffalo Bill.”

There was a real air of excitement in Junction City during the last week of September in 1900 for the greatest exhibition of its kind was coming to our town.  This was the famed “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.”  For weeks the local newspapers had been filled with ads touting this popular entertainment and colorful broad-sides or posters depicting the “Great Scout” atop his white steed decorated nearly every fence, barn, or light post in town.

Among the collections at the GCHS Museum are several items which recall those shows including a set of souvenir photographs of the famed showman and an elegantly styled and elaborately trimmed “greatcoat.”  The garment was obtained by an ancestor of Bob Waters from the auction of equipment and gear that took place after the merger of the Buffalo Bill & Pawnee Bill show went bankrupt in 1913.  The coat was reportedly purchased during one of the show’s European tours and, as it appears to be a lady’s garment, perhaps was worn by one of the sharp-shooting cowgirls in the cast. The city was also playing host that on September 28th to a brief visit from Teddy Roosevelt, who was then governor of New York and was running for the U.S. Presidency.  He had been touring the West by train and stopped at Junction City’s depot to give a short speech from the platform of his train.

            Though rain and resultant mud diminished the crowds for both events by half and those who attended the 2 p.m. Wild West show saw the ring horses sink to their knees in muck, the Union of September 29th, reported that Col. Cody was part of the reception committee of 5,000 which met the Roosevelt train at 5 p.m.

            “Col. Cody’s entire mounted show was drawn up in three lines on the north of the platform facing east.  As the train pulled in, his command of horsemen, gattling gun, and battery of light artillery gave a salute that carried people off their feet.  Gov. Roosevelt was introduced and spoke for about 8 minutes, but few could hear him.  Col. Cody, who is a great admirer off Roosevelt, and who has in his congress of Rough Riders many men who served under Roosevelt in Cuba, made a stirring speech of two or three minutes.  He is a strong speaker.  The presence of Col. Cody was in itself no small treat.  He is himself a national figure.

            It was nine years later, again in September that the “Great Scout” once more brought his entourage to Junction City.  By this time he had merged his show with that of his rival, Col. Gordon “Pawnee Bill” Lillie, and the combined extravaganza boasted an “oriental spectacle, historic dramas, ethnological exhibits with typical casts, the Battle of Summit Springs and the Rough Riders of the World led in person by the last of the great scouts, Col. Wm. F. Cody, the original and only Buffalo Bill, who positively appears at every performance.”

            It was interesting to note that during its one-day stop in Junction City, this troupe required 10,000 pounds of bran, 7 tons of hay, 9 tons of straw, and 250 bushels of oats, all procured locally.  The show, which was mounted at the grounds near the Union Pacific Roundhouse, required 30 acres of land and every bit of that space was filled and several adjoining fields were also occupied.  According to the newspaper account, not only the farmers and merchants were pleased when this troupe came to town, but others as well.  “The people in this country and Fort Riley are a little partial; perhaps, to the Cody attractions on account of the soldiers at the Post and the acquaintance formed years ago when Cody was on the plains with the famous 7th Cavalry.”

            As with many great showmen, Cody was not a wise manager, and when he died in 1917 at the age of 71 he was penniless, his touring companies having been sold to others.  However, he was a true trouper, performing right up to the end.  And even at the last, when he was broke and ill, “Buffalo Bill” Cody never ran out of dreams and ideas for a bigger and better show that would share the West he loved with the rest of the world.

Photo Caption:
This souvenir photo, a memento of one of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows in Junction City early in the century, shows the famed showman as he most liked to be painted—dressed in buckskins, his long hair flowing free, and atop a white horse.