Buffalo Bill Cody got famous celebrating the 4th of July

Time Before Now, July 1883Vermonter Chester Arthur was president, ascending to the office following the assassination of James A. Garfield in 1881.  The first telephone call from New York had been answered in Chicago and German-American clock maker, Ottar Mergenthaler, was perfecting the hot-metal linotype.  Called the “new Guttenburg,” it could cast an entire line of type rather than requiring each letter to be hand-set.  His invention changed publishing forever.

July 4, 1883

On this day, William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody hosted the “Fourth of July Old Glory Blowout,” in North Platte, Nebraska, and his fame shot up like a Roman candle.

It was just the warm-up act for what would become Cody’s “Wild West Exposition” that reigned supreme amid a plethora of imitators for more than three decades.  Touring throughout the U.S. and Europe, the outdoor extravaganza featured stars like sharpshooters Annie Oakley, her husband, Frank Butler, Calamity Jane, Chief Sitting Bull himself, along with 20 of his Lakota warriors.

A huge cast of performers re-enacted scenes from the Wild West; a Pony Express ride, Indian attacks and stage coach robberies.  Cowboys performed rope tricks and cowgirls took aim at the ace of diamonds with their six shooters.  The four-hour-long pageant ended with a finale depicting Custer’s Last Stand.  

Wild West show poster circa early 1900s

It thrilled crowds of thousands and much, but not all of the exhibition was authentic.  Sitting Bull and many of the Native Americans appearing in the Custer re-enactment had actually participated in the Battle of the Little Big Horn and Calamity Jane, her best days behind her, portrayed a former version of herself. 

Other segments, however, were simply “lets pretend.”  While her feats with a gun were real, trick-shot Annie Oakley (right) was only sort of a Westerner, raised in Ohio.  But other lady sharp- shooters appearing with Oakley, “Texas Girl” Lillian Ward was from Brooklyn.  Another, May Lillie, was from Philadelphia.  In addition, some of the content intentionally played to Eastern stereotypes of the frontier.

It was actually a reincarnation of Cody’s first stage appearance in “Scouts of the Prairie,” more than a decade earlier.   Written and produced by the man who had made Cody a household name in his dime novels, New Yorker Ned Buntline, (right) it starred Cody, Texas Jack Omohundro  and only briefly, Wild Bill Hickok. *See  post for June 28.

As for Buffalo Bill, his Wild West credentials were not manufactured.  Buntline’s portrayals, while amplified for dramatic effect, were simply spit-shined versions of the real deal.  Cody had, in fact, been a bullwhacker, Pony Express rider, stage coach driver, trapper and California 49er.  By age 19, he was already an Army scout and a seasoned veteran of the Plains wars before Buntline found him drunk under a wagon four years later.  (Right, Cody at 19)

Cody’s company made its first foray to Europe in 1887, taking part in Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, finally closing after a remarkable 300 performances.  Returning to Europe again in 1889, the troupe was part of the commemoration of the Storming of the Bastille, featuring the debut of the Eiffel Tower.  After closing in France, they made stops in Austria, Hungary and Germany.  

Four more trips to the Continent continued to wow Europeans.  The final tour in 1906 included France, Italy, the Balkans, Hungary, Romania, Poland, Germany and Belgium.  A number of historians believed Queen Victoria’s grandson, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm (left) perhaps benefited most from tour.   Reportedly, the Kaiser based his army’s World War I mobile mess halls on the Wild West show’s highly efficient traveling kitchens.  

Considered the show’s zenith, during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, it drew a crowd of 18,000 at a single performance.  Setting up shop next door to the fabled White City, Cody’s popularity angered the fair’s promoters.

Despite the show’s appeal, life with Cody was a roller coaster.  Disasters large and small were not infrequent, cast members squabbled and a tragic train wreck killed nearly 100 of the show’s horses and temporarily paralyzed Annie Oakley.

In addition, Cody’s drinking and numerous affairs produced a contentious relationship with wife, Louisa. (Right)  Their marital strife was made worse by the tragic death of two of the couple’s four children at an early age.  Only son, Kit Carson Cody, died of Scarlet Fever at 5 and daughter Orra Maude, died at 11.  An adult daughter, Arta, predeceased both her parents, as well, at just 35.  

From left, son Kit, Orra Maude and Arta.

Never a detail guy, like the frontier Cody’s vast fortune was gradually disappearing.  Henry Ford was manufacturing Model Ts, trains crisscrossed the Great Plains and Thomas Edison had perfected a moving picture camera, capturing Cody on film for the first time.  As a result the crowds had waned in America.  What had been the world’s most successful live production was broke and Cody was forced to declare it bankrupt in 1913.  He died in Denver, Colorado, just four years later at the age of 71, not exactly penniless but close.

Perhaps Cody’s best investment was the 160 acres near North Platte originally purchased in 1878 for $750, about $12 an acre.  Known as Scout’s Rest Ranch, the property grew to more than 4,000 acres and included an 18-room Second Empire Style mansion.  Now a Nebraska State Historical Park open to the public since 1984, it’s a repository of the Buffalo Bill legacy.

Early photo of Cody home at Scout’s Rest Ranch

In addition, the Cody legend has been buffed up numerous times by dozens of literary and dramatic portrayals.  Among Tinsel Town’s leading men to play the showman on screen are Clayton Moore, even better known as The Long Ranger, in the 1952 movie, “Buffalo Bill in Tomahawk Territory, Paul Newman in Robert Altman’s 1976 “Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson,” and Moses himself, Charlton Heston, in the 1953 film, “Pony Express.” 

From left, Clayton Moore, Paul Newman and Charlton Heston

Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park, 2921 Scouts Rest Ranch Road,  North Platte, Nebraska, encompasses the 1886 mansion, a large barn and a number of smaller buildings.  In addition memorabilia from Cody’s travels as an entertainer as well as artifacts of ranch life are on display in the barn and auxiliary buildings.   Self-guided tours of the 18-room mansion are offered from late spring until early fall. 

Park grounds are open 8 to sundown, year round.  The mansion and barn are open March 19 to Memorial Day from 9 to 5, Thursday through Sunday. Hours are 9 to 5 daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day. After Labor Day to September 30, hours are 9 to 5, Wednesday through Sunday.   Admission to the grounds is free.  House admission is $2 for adults 13 and older,$1 for children 3 to 13 and under 3 free. For more information on the park, go to outdoornebraska.gov/buffalobillranch or call (308) 535-8035

Adjacent to the park, the Buffalo Bill Ranch State Recreation Area provides guided trail rides, kayak, canoe and tube rentals.  In nearby North Platte, the Lincoln County Historical Museum, 2403 N. Buffalo Bill Avenue features a display on the  history of the North Platte Canteen, which hosted nearly seven million service men and women from 1941 to 1946, as well as Prairie Village with local landmarks including a Pony Express station and pioneer church. Open May 1 through September 30, 9 to 5, Monday through Saturday and Sunday, 1 to 5, Sunday.  For more information go to www.lincolncountymuseum.org  or call  (308) 534-5640.

Due to state and local guidelines regarding Covid-19, hour may change.  For current information go to the websites listed above.

© Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.